So what was your faithful narrator doing as January rolled toward its ending in 1968? Well, besides playing my very first tabletop hockey season with Rick and Rob – I’d gotten my game for Christmas the month before – I was heading into the second semester of ninth grade. And one of the classes I recall best from that time is Dick Wilger’s social studies class.
On a regular basis, the students in Mr. Wilger’s class were required to give brief reports on current events, basically reviews of newspaper or magazine pieces. It seems, thinking back, that I gave about four such reports during the school year, all of them based on stories pulled from Sports Illustrated. (I’d begun subscribing to the magazine earlier in the school year, my passion for spectator sports having just started to flower.) I recall that one of the reports I presented was about the early days of the American Basketball Association, then in the first year of its brief life (1967-76). Another was likely about the death in January 1968 of hockey player Bill Masterson of the Minnesota North Stars, which remains the only fatality from a game injury in the history of the National Hockey League.
But I recall Dick Wilger’s ninth-grade social studies class even more because of the career aptitude test we took one day. The results said the communications field would likely suit me; among the careers listed there were disk jockey and sports play-by-play announcer. I imagine newspaper reporter was also listed there, but I didn’t notice anything once I saw those first two jobs listed. I pretty much decided right then that I was going to get a degree in radio, and I was going to earn my living as a sports reporter and play-by-play announcer, probably covering hockey.
That’s not quite how it worked out, of course. I got my degree in radio-TV, yes, but I ended up in newspapering for a number of reasons, the largest one being my ability to imitate a wooden statue when confronted with camera or microphone. But being a newspaper reporter instead of broadcasting Minnesota North Stars games was really only a shift inside the larger world of mass communications; the path to the Monticello Times and all the other newspapers where I left my byline over the years began with the results of that aptitude test in Mr. Wilger’s classroom sometime in early 1968.
The idea of following the other path mentioned – being a disk jockey – did have some appeal. But I didn’t know Top 40 music well enough yet for that idea to grab hold of me and shake me all over. That music was all around me, of course, but I had yet to embrace it the way most of my peers had. Here’s what they – and I, by default – were listening to that week in the Billboard Top Ten for January 27, 1968:
“Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band
“Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin
“Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers
“Woman, Woman” by the Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett
“Bend Me, Shape Me” by the American Breed
“Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles
“Spooky” by the Classics IV
“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & the Pips
“If I Could Build My Whole Word Around You”
by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
That’s a great Top Ten. Puckett could be a little overblown, I guess, but other than that, there’s not a thing wrong with that bunch. And, as usual, there were some interesting things further down in the Billboard Hot 100.
Henson Cargill’s “Skip A Rope,” a laconic cataloging of social ills, was sitting at No. 35 on its way to No. 25. If that description – an accurate one – makes the record sound unappealing, think again. Cargill’s only Hot 100 hit is a compelling listen, and it was No. 1 on the country chart for five weeks. Cargill – who died in 2007 at the age of sixty-six – later had two other singles reach the country chart, one in 1973 and one in 1974, but neither went higher than No. 28.
One of the joys of digging into various weeks’ worth of the Billboard Hot 100 is finding records I’ve never heard before. And when one of those records comes from someone with a hit catalog as deep as Neil Diamond’s, the joy is increased. (And along with the joy comes the thought of “Why the hell haven’t I ever heard this before?”) In the January 27, 1968, Hot 100, my newly discovered Diamond is “New Orleans,” which was sitting at No. 52. A week later, it would peak at No. 51. It was Diamond’s tenth record in the Hot 100; he’d add forty-six more before the string ran out in 1986.
I shared a Jerry Butler album – The Ice Man Cometh – in this space about three years ago, and I think I’ve written briefly about him a couple of other times. I really don’t know the man’s career well, except that I can say that I like everything of his I’ve ever heard. And that includes “Lost,” which was on that album and which I’d probably not thought about during the last three years. The record was sitting at No. 62 in the Hot 100 forty-three year ago today, and it would go no higher there, though it went to No. 15 on the R&B chart. It was Butler’s twenty-fourth record in the Hot 100; he’d end with up with forty-six, the last coming in 1977. (According to the list at All-Music Guide, which may or may not be complete, he had a few more records than that reach the R&B chart.) As the video poster’s introduction notes, “Lost” was produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who – in the 1970s – were among the chief architects of what was called the Philadelphia Sound.
From Chicago/Philadelphia soul, we shift to deep Southern Soul, as we find James Carr and “A Man Needs A Woman” at No. 80. Despite critical accolades, Carr’s imprint on the charts was relatively slight: six singles in the Hot 100 and nine on the R&B chart. Steve Huey of All-Music Guide notes: “Carr never achieved the pop crossover success that could have made him a household name, and his material wasn’t always as distinctive as that of Stax artists like [Otis] Redding or Sam & Dave. Ultimately, though, Carr’s greatest obstacle was himself: he was plagued for much of his life by severe depression that made pursuit of a career – or, for that matter, even single recording sessions – extraordinarily difficult, and derailed his occasional comeback attempts.” “A Man Needs A Woman” peaked at No. 63, where it spent the last week of February and the first two weeks of March. That equaled Carr’s best performance in the Hot 100; “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” had reached No. 63 in 1966. On the R&B chart, “A Man Needs A Woman” peaked at No. 16.
From soul and soul to sunshine pop: At No. 87 during the week of January 27, 1968, sat the Epic Splendor and its one Hot 100 hit, “A Little Rain Must Fall.” The Epic Splendor – what a great name for a band! – was made up of five guys from Long Island who recorded this and at least one other single – based on a brief online search – for the also wonderfully named Hot Biscuit Disc Company. The record spent seven weeks in the Hot 100 and got no higher than No. 87.
The Mills Brothers’ career doesn’t look very impressive from the first glance at the group’s entry in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles: Nine records in the Hot 100 between 1955 and 1968. But a look at the fine print at the top of the entry shows another story: Between 1931 and 1954, the legendary vocal group had sixty-one hits, including five that went to No. 1. The record that caught my eye today was “Cab Driver,” the seventh of the Mills Brothers’ modern-era hits, sitting at No. 92 forty-three years ago today, en route to No. 23. The record also went to No. 3 on the chart that is now called Adult Contemporary, and that explains why I know the record as well as I do: I’m absolutely certain I heard it more than once from Dad’s bedside transistor radio – tuned as always to St. Cloud’s middle of the road station, KFAM – as we all prepared to retire.
We’ll see what tomorrow brings, but I’ll certainly be back in two days with a Saturday Single.