American Top 40 PastBlast, 3/26/77: Andrea True Connection, “N.Y., You Got Me Dancing”

So, life has been rather different these last couple of weeks as I, along with so many other college educators, have been forced to completely revamp the structure and delivery of our courses. I don’t mean to whine, but at times it’s been overwhelming and plenty stressful (and I know that holds for many of my students). I suspect this will remain the case for the duration of the semester. Efficiency has plummeted, and I still spend much too high a percentage of the day checking on the latest developments in the spread of and fight against COVID-19. My friend Warren, who teaches English at a small college in South Carolina, and I compared our respective situations messaging on FB over the weekend. He’s feeling relatively Zen about matters, seemingly recognizing what he can and can’t control. I am nowhere near there yet; while I’m not exactly waking with anxiety in the middle of the night, worries aren’t held at bay easily or often, either (it probably doesn’t help that I have a bit of a hypochondriacal streak). I’m sufficiently introverted that staying cooped up at home for days at a time hasn’t bothered me much. Yet.

My guess is that dealing with classes will make it harder to break away to write, at least for the next little bit. I’m hoping it will do me good to indulge occasionally, even if I’m not sure I can completely afford it.

Last weekend’s 1977 and 1984 AT40 rebroadcasts were both thorough delights; I even listened to the former twice, on two different upstate NY stations. The national commercials, particularly those for Purple Mattress, felt largely disconnected from current reality (ads for online degrees from Arizona State University were an exception of sorts). The local spots and news break-ins, though, reflected well what’s going on in the Empire State, including one from, coincidentally enough, a regional mattress firm. They were pitching a variety of deal sweeteners to entice folks to scurry in and make a purchase before the close of business on Sunday (after which stores would be shuttered for an indefinite period). Crafty–and nimble–salesmanship, I thought. I wonder if it convinced anyone to drop by.

Leading off the 1977 show was the second and final Top 40 appearance for porn actress-turned-singer Andrea True (Casey called her a solo female act on this show, ignoring her Connection). Like the recently-blogged “Dreamin’ Is Easy,” this was a 45 I picked up in the late 80s. It doesn’t groove me nearly the way that “More, More, More” did a year earlier, but that’s okay.

(Rambling stream-of-consciousness aside: “More, More, More” was one of the first three singles I ever bought, in June of 1976. Got it at Sears not long after they moved to Florence, one of four anchor stores for a mall that opened a few months later. There’s a water tower adjacent to the mall that was originally painted with the words “FLORENCE MALL.” It was soon determined that advertising a commercial enterprise in a such a manner was legally dubious, at best; my uncle, C. M. “Hop” Ewing, mayor of Florence at the time, devised a brilliant branding solution: transform the M to a Y’.

There’s a major interstate that runs right past the tower and mall. This is still a significant local landmark after almost 45 years. And by the way, his daughter, my cousin Diane, is now mayor of Florence.)

“N.Y., You Got Me Dancing” reached #27 a month after debuting. Not trying to be glib, but I’m so sorry it’s going to be a good while before N.Y. gets dancing again.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 3/12/83: Steel Breeze, “Dreamin’ Is Easy”

When I refer to my “charting years,” I’m talking about the 6/5/76 through 10/2/82 AT40 shows, the period during which I produced (with a few weeks’ exception in Sept/Oct of 1976 and Nov/Dec of 1977) a (relatively) carefully written piece of paper with each week’s countdown. It actually took a few more months after October of 1982 before I truly gave up listening and writing down the songs, though.

In my stack of unfiled 70s/80s pop music-related materials are several sheets of notebook paper with the skinny. They start with the 9/25 countdown–apparently I took the time to transfer two weeks’ worth of notes to make my final ‘official’ charts. Here are three of them:

The one on the left has the 10/30 list, with information about 11/6 and 11/13 alongside (I wonder now what I was taping–and I see there are some chemistry calculations, too). The middle one has all of December, including info about 12/25, which was preempted by the first half of the year-ender (I presume I went to Recordland at the Florence Mall for that–old habits died slowly). The right sheet is a tiny bit interesting in that it’s for 1/15/83, with info about the previous week encoded.

I’d forgotten that I’d kept this up for so long–I have complete records up through 1/22. After missing part of 1/29 and the next two weeks completely, there’s one final entry:

It’s 2/19/83, with the numbers from 2/26 too. My recollection is that the show was being broadcast on Sunday mornings at this point. You can see that’s someone else’s handwriting on #29-#25. A couple of days ago, I showed this picture to James, my roommate–he confirmed my suspicions that I’d enlisted his aid, perhaps while I went down the hall to take a shower. He told me he has vague memories of being asked to help and feeling slightly fearful of making an error. You did just fine, man!

The song at #39 on the above sheet, “Dreamin’ Is Easy,” by Sacramento’s very own Steel Breeze, was one I liked fairly well at the time. It was in the middle of a three-week run at its peak of #30 by the 3/12 show rolled around. Several years later, I remembered it enough to want to snag a used copy of the 45 as part of a decently large haul. I’ll easily take it over “You Don’t Want Me Anymore” these days.

One other note about this show: it was Neil Diamond’s last week ever in the Top 40.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 3/16/74: Stealers Wheel, “Star”

I guess it’s been more than a month now since I’ve done one of these…thinking that for the next little bit this series will mostly be brief posts about songs that didn’t reach the Top 20.

I’m certain I heard the #6 hit from Stealers Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You,” back in the 70s; it was a hit here in the U.S. the spring I was 9, but Gerry Rafferty’s massive “Baker Street” almost certainly ensured it got some recurrent play at the end of the decade. It’s only over the past few years I’ve discovered that Rafferty and fellow Wheel Joe Egan were two-, not one-, hit wonders. “Star” had only a don’t-blink-you’ll-miss-it three-week 33-31-29 run on AT40 (this show is the middle of those). It’s a fantastic pop delight, though, well worth seeking out today. Yes, it’s another song that muses on the potential perils of musical success–I presume it’s at least semi-autobiographical–yet it was also prescient regarding the upcoming fate of Stealers Wheel: “After all you’ve been through tell me what will you do/When you find yourself back on the shelf.”

I’d be interested in reading a biography of Rafferty, who clearly had battles with various devils over the years. Rafferty left Stealers Wheel for several months in between their first two albums. He and Egan had an acrimonious break-up not long after Ferguslie Park, the album containing “Star,” was released. That ultimately led to delays in the resumption of what became Rafferty’s shooting-star-like solo career.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/2/85: Midnight Star, “Operator”

My schedule during the spring term of my junior year at Transy included three math classes (one of which double-counted toward my CS major), an intro course in microeconomics, and U.S. National Government. The last of these was my second foray into the realm of political science; for a short while, I considered trying to squeeze in a poli-sci minor. Even though I have no talent or inclination in that direction, I still follow national politics all too closely, and local stuff to a lesser extent.

The Government course was a good one. The professor was often gruff, a curmudgeon-in-waiting, but honestly I liked him (he’s still at Transy, one of maybe three faculty remaining from my day). He had us purchase a couple of textbooks, but there were also readings on reserve in the library, including most of another book. I was actually faithful about going through the reserve materials. I have no idea now what book that was (I’ve retained syllabi from many of my college classes, though apparently not this one), but it must have included an analysis of the nation’s political landscape of the day. The author’s prediction for the coming decades: a decided shift to the right. I’ve thought about this with some frequency over the years; on the whole, he hasn’t been wrong.

There are other things I associate with that class. It’s where I first met my good friend Judy, then a first-year student. The second exam was postponed when classes got cancelled due to snow, the only time school was called off during my four years there–it also happened to be my 21st birthday. And after the term ended, the professor sent me a letter through campus mail. I don’t imagine I was unique in hearing from him in this manner, but it was definitely tailored to me.

I appreciate his kind words, but this pokes at me, bringing to the surface again a nagging feeling of inadequacy, of not contributing enough, of not realizing potential, that I don’t ever really shake.

The songs on this show became one of the collections I assembled for our iPod well over a decade ago. The one that comes next in chronological order is 5/18, fifteen weeks later. In between these two dates were the entire Top 40 runs of “One More Night” and “Material Girl,” songs that peaked at #1 and #2, respectively. It’s a reminder to me that by the mid 80s, the average stay on the show for the biggest hits was down from the tail end of the Bill Wardlaw years.

For a musical selection, let’s get a little funky. Midnight Star got its start just down the road from me, at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. They had several Top 10 hits on the R&B chart, but only one of their seven trips to the Hot 100 resulted in a song Casey played. I wouldn’t call “Operator” their most memorable cut, but it’s the one that broke through, sitting at its peak of #18.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/5/77: Al Stewart, “Year of the Cat”

It’s time to complete the trilogy I started almost a year ago in which I take a look back at three of the first LPs in my collection, attempting to order their tracks in some semblance of personal preference. First it was Silk Degrees, then A New World Record. Now, it’s Al Stewart’s first experience with big success, Year of the Cat.

Stewart had been kicking around for about ten years by this point, slowly gaining a following, perhaps more in the U.S. than the UK. Year of the Cat was his seventh album, and the second (of three) to be produced by Alan Parsons. Everything came together: an impeccable array of instrumentation ranging from Spanish guitar through violin, harmonica, and piano to saxophone, as well as a dazzling landscape of topics transformed into thoughtful, well-constructed poetry. The public was buying, as it climbed to #5 on the Billboard album chart. Still surprisingly fresh-sounding, coming on almost forty-five years later. Let’s take a look, why don’t we? I’ll include one of my favorite lyrics from each song.

9. “Midas Shadow”
The one song on the album that I might not miss if it weren’t there. It’s hardly bad–I’m generally a sucker for rhymes across verses–but it doesn’t stick with me afterward. Memorable line: “Conquistador in search of gold, for all the jackdaw reasons.”

8. “Sand in Your Shoes”
Perkier-sounding than the subject matter seems to dictate. I assume the title, which comes not from the lyrics, sums up how the rejected suitor feels about his former love. Memorable line: “And you lay there by the Do Not signs, and shamed them with your spark.”

7. “On the Border”
Basically impossible to separate the next four: ask another day, and I’d sort them some other way. The only of Stewart’s charting singles not to make the Top 40–it fell two spots shy in May of 1977–and also the only not to feature scorching sax work. Memorable line: “No one notices the customs slip away.”

6. “One Stage Before”
This one is much more about the music than the words for me, particularly the synthesizer rhythm underpinning it all. Simply mesmerizing, and a nice meditation on becoming one with performers of the past to boot. Memorable line: “Although we may not meet still you know me well.”

5. “Lord Grenville”
I wonder now what I thought about this album the first time I put it on the turntable of my father’s stereo. I can see being captivated by this sweeping opening number about sailors on the run, even while not understanding its references. History Lesson #1: Sir Richard Grenville was a 16th-century explorer/sailor who bravely/foolishly met his match going against the Spanish Armada. Memorable line: “I never thought that we would come to find ourselves upon these rocks again.”

4. “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It”
Stewart does an amazing job throughout, matching sounds and making it all feel so natural. Memorable line: “Well I’m up to my neck in the crumbling wreckage of all that I wanted from life.”

3. “Broadway Hotel”
The B-side to the 45 for “Year of the Cat.” I flipped over many of the early singles I bought when playing DJ on my little turntable, and “Broadway Hotel” was among the best I discovered that way (I dearly love the violin solo and the piano/guitar on the outro). It’s possible that it’s what pushed me to take a chance on the album. Memorable line: “And a door sign keeps the world away behind the shades of your silent day.”

2. “Flying Sorcery”
It took over a decade to really appreciate this one. Year of the Cat was in the first wave of albums I re-purchased on CD, in the spring of 1988; listening one time in our apartment on Elm St. I was suddenly and permanently charmed by the narrator’s affection for his female pilot friend. History Lesson #2: Amy Johnson’s story is amazing, if you don’t know it. Memorable line: “Just call me if you ever need repairs.” Gets me every time.

1. “Year of the Cat”
Hardly a surprise. It was #20 on this show, steaming toward a #8 peak. Its trip up and down the chart was relatively quick, so it wound up only at #98 on AT40‘s year-end rankings for 1977. Memorable line: So many, but we’ll go with “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain.”

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/30/88: Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”

If it’s a 1988 countdown, the pickings I might want to write up tend to be a mite slim. I will say the landscape here in late January looks better than it will in April: “Hazy Shade of Winter” is a pretty hot track, and I’m fine with “Need You Tonight,””Cherry Bomb,” and “Pump Up the Volume.” There’s also a surprisingly good run between #16 and #12; four of the five are well above average, including “Crazy,” “Don’t Shed a Tear,” and “Tunnel of Love” back-to-back-to-back. Capping this part of the show is one of my faves from this period, sitting at #12, the future #2 hit “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”

It was a big comeback out of almost nowhere for 60s British star Dusty Springfield. Her steady stream of success started with folk trio The Springfields, and blossomed further on both sides of the pond after she went solo at the end of 1963. Nine Top 10 songs in the UK, three here. Fabulous songs like “I Only Want to Be with You,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” But the hit machine abruptly turned off when the 70s arrived; her final solo U.S. Top 40 appearance, “A Brand New Me,” was off the chart by the end of January 1970.

I know popularity can slip away quickly, and possibly without good reason, but that almost eighteen-year gap until PSB came calling got me wondering: what had happened with Dusty in the interim? It wasn’t a pretty picture, based on the few articles I’ve read. She’d been boxed in for a long time by the cultural norms of the day regarding her sexual orientation. These were years of rampant alcohol and substance abuse, too. While I can’t know whether there was cause and effect in play, the combination of an unhappy childhood and not feeling free to be her true self makes me suspicious. It’d be nice if we could someday learn not to be so awful to people about some things.

Neil Tennant’s invitation to sing on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” turned to be a bit of a life preserver for Springfield. She wound back on the British charts with a few hits soon after, including a couple that went Top 20. Alas, breast cancer staked its claim in the mid 90s, and she died very shortly before her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

We don’t get to see all that much of Dusty in the video that put her back in mind, but toward the end we do catch a few frames where she gets to bust a move or two. I think I can even see some of the joy and playfulness she had performing “Stay Awhile” on American Bandstand in May 1964:

I’m thinking I may be taking a trip to hear Dusty in Memphis very soon…

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/27/73: Timmy Thomas, “Why Can’t We Live Together”

I don’t recall hearing “Why Can’t We Live Together” back at the beginning of 1973 (I can say the same for the other two very fine songs on this show that peaked at #3: “Oh Babe, What Would You Say” and “Last Song”)–I guess I was still just a little too young to be paying regular and active attention to the radio. In fact, it came to my attention only after I started tuning in to AT40 rebroadcasts, first on the 1/20/73 show played seven years ago. I confess I didn’t listen carefully enough at first to recognize the song is about the desire for peace and racial harmony. No, I just heard the title and my brain went elsewhere: as a child more of the late 70s, the last two words meant something entirely different to me.

I bought Barry Manilow Live sometime in the summer of 1977 (which means I’ve been forgetting to include it when recounting the first LPs in my collection). I’ll freely admit I liked a bunch of his 70s hits, and Live delivered many of them in one package. Of course, I got to hear other tunes, too, including “Jump Shout Boogie Medley” and eventual single “Daybreak.” Another one that was new (to me) had a prime location on the double album, song two on side one: “Why Don’t We Live Together.” Very much a song of the times, this one is an invitation to cohabitation. A rough summary: I don’t know exactly what we’ve got here, I think it could be good, but if I’m wrong, “at least we’ll know we tried.” I guess the narrator gets credit for not being starry-eyed?

One of the messages I picked up from watching TV in the 70s was that cohabitation was: a) becoming much more of a thing, yet b) still reasonably stigmatized. (I can imagine my mother tut-tutting it.) But I wanted to see how accurate these impressions were, particularly the first. An internet search on “history of living together 1970s” led me to an academic paper written in 2005 that I found pretty interesting: The Rise of Cohabitation in the United States: New Historical Estimates, by three researchers (at least two of whom are historians) from the Minnesota Population Center, located at the University of Minnesota. While I did get an affirmative answer to my baseline question of “Did cohabitation grow a lot in the 1970s?,” there was much more in the article’s twenty pages for folks with a quantitative bent. I learned that the U.S. Census Bureau began including “unmarried partner” as a status in the 1990 Census; this paper used multiple linear regression to take its best stabs at what self-identified unmarried partner numbers would have been in 1960, 1970, and 1980 had that been an option (bottom line: the authors think the estimates in use fifteen years ago were too high). I geeked out on all this plenty, but the highlight may have been seeing in print an acronym I heard back in college and perhaps not since: POSSLQ, for “persons of the opposite sex, sharing living quarters.” My then-girlfriend used it at least once in reference to the home status of one of the English professors.

But back to Timmy Thomas, who was at #5 on this show. The reason I remember hearing “Why Can’t We Live Together” back in January 2013 was the story Casey told of the song’s genesis. Thomas had a gig at a club in Miami at the time, and one night he was simply jamming on stage. Out popped a keyboard riff and a few lines about getting along better with everyone. Afterward, he was encouraged to put what he’d just performed to record. What we hear today is Thomas’s best approximation of the song he’d spontaneously generated.