Posts Tagged ‘O’Jays’

‘And Sitting At No. 87 . . .’

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

It’s another edition of “Games With Numbers,” this time turning today’s date, August 7 into No. 87 and seeing what records occupied that spot in the Billboard Hot 100 on this date during six years in the 1960s and 1970s.

We’ll head back to August 1960 and start there, landing on “You Mean Everything To Me” by Neil Sedaka. A mostly minor key outing, the tune would – I think – rapidly become wearisome. Enough listeners liked it, however, for the record to make it to No. 17 (while the flipside, “Run Samson Run,” got to No. 28). The two sides are sandwiched in the Sedaka listing in Top Pop Singles between two of Sedaka’s bigger hits: “Stairway to Heaven,” which went to No. 9, and “Calendar Girl,” which went to No. 4. The final tally shows Sedaka with thirty-seven records in or near the Hot 100 between 1958 and 1980.

Three years later, we find an early Tamla single sitting at No. 87, with the Marvelettes admitting in the tumbling “Daddy Knows Best” that all the advice a young girl gets from her father may make some sense. The record was the sixth by the girls from Inkster, Michigan, to hit the Hot 100, and it went to No. 67. The Marvelettes would continue to put records into and near the Hot 100 into 1969, but none of the other twenty-four records ever equaled the performance of their first hit, 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman,” which went to No. 1 (No 7 on the R&B chart).

Traditional pop shows its head as we look at early August 1966, with Al Martino’s “Just Yesterday” sitting at No. 87. I’ve never heard the record before, but as I listen this morning, I hear what are to me unmistakable echoes – melodically, harmonically and thematically – of Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night,” which had gone to No. 1 just a month earlier. Martino’s single peaked at No, 77, one of forty singles he placed in or near the Hot 100 between 1959 and 1977. The best-performing of those was 1963’s “I Love You Because,” which went to No. 3 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the adult contemporary chart (although I have a fondness for some reason for 1967’s “Mary In The Morning,” which went to No. 27).

Sitting in the No. 87 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 8, 1969 was a single that featured names that in a few years would be among the best-known in R&B. “One Night Affair” was the ninth single by the O’Jays to show up in or near the Hot 100. The previous eight had been on the Imperial and Bell labels; this one was on the Neptune label (a division of GRT Records), which called itself “The Sound of Philadelphia.” The label’s founders – who also wrote the song and produced the record – were Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who in a few years would spread the Sound of Philadelphia all around the world on their Philadelphia International label. And the record’s arrangement came from Bobby Martin and Thom Bell; I don’t know what happened to Martin, but in the 1970s, Bell – who’d already struck gold working with the Delfonics – would arrange and produce numerous hits for the Spinners, the Stylistics and more. “One Night Affair” peaked at No. 68 (No. 15 R&B), but in three years, the O’Jays – by then recording for Philadelphia International – would see “Back Stabbers” go to No. 3, and six months later, in early 1973, “Love Train” would go to No. 1.  The O’Jays would end up with thirty-three records in or near the Hot 100 between 1963 and 1997.

In the early days August of 1972, the No. 87 single was one of the slightest hit singles Neil Diamond had to that point placed into the Hot 100. “Play Me” would eventually rise to No. 11, the thirty-first of an eventual fifty-six singles Diamond would place in or near the Hot 100. At the time, I thought “Play Me” was an insubstantial piece of fluff as it trailed in the wake of Diamond’s earlier work like “Sweet Caroline,” “Solitary Man,” “Kentucky Woman” and more (including the album track “Done Too Soon,” which remains my favorite Diamond track). But listening to “Play Me” this morning, and looking at the hits that came later – records like “Love On The Rocks,” “Heartlight” and “America” – I find myself liking “Play Me” a lot more than I did forty years ago. It’s still not a great record; but it’s better than I remembered.

Larry Graham was the bass player for Sly & The Family Stone until 1972. A year later, says All Music Guide, he joined an Ohio R&B/funk band he’d been producing and renamed it from Hot Chocolate to Graham Central Station. In early August of 1975, a single from the group’s third album was sitting at No. 87, on its way to No. 38 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart. “Your Love” is a sleek and only occasionally funky piece of work that turned out to be the best-charting of the four singles Graham Central Station got into the pop chart; as a solo artist, Graham placed five records in or near the Hot 100 and had a No. 9 hit (No. 1 R&B) in 1980 with “One In A Million You.”

Chart Digging: June 14, 1975

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

I was pretty busy during the summer of 1975.

I was clearing up the last of my general education courses at St. Cloud State. I was taking two required seminars for seniors and knocking off the four phy ed courses I was required to take. (Nothing too strenuous: I took archery, tennis, bowling and ballroom dancing.) And I was repeating a physics course I’d failed during my first quarter in the fall of 1971.

I didn’t have to repeat the physics course. I’d taken another science course somewhere along the way that satisfied the general education requirement. But I had the time, and I wanted to get the F off my academic record or at least out of my grade-point average. And I got lucky: Instead of being an introduction to pure physics with lots of lab work, I was able to take an introduction to astronomy. I’d taken a rigorous astronomy course during my last semester of high school and had done well, so I eased through the college intro with no worries.

So I might have been busy academically through the two five-week summer sessions, but I wasn’t really working hard. Nor was my half-time summer job very arduous: That was the summer that a crew of about ten of us, headed up by Murl – who would be one of my best friends by the end of the summer – made our way across the SCS campus doing an inventory of every piece of audio-visual equipment. We got a lot of work done, had a lot of laughs and got to move around a lot.

On a personal level, I was busy, too. I dated about eight women that summer, and a couple of those pairings lasted the summer though nothing serious came out of either. I also spent some time with a group of folks from the astronomy class, and hung around after working hours with folks from the inventory crew. Still, as the season went on, I was unattached. I heard Paul Williams’ “Waking Up Alone” for the first time one evening in July. And it was during that summer that I began taking seriously the idea of writing a startling letter to a young woman in knew in Finland.

It turned out to be a great summer, and I think I realized by the middle of June that it was headed that way. And the Billboard Top Ten for the week ending June 14, 1975, was pretty good:

“Sister Golden Hair” by America
“Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain & Tennille
“When Will I Be Loved/It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” by Linda Ronstadt
“Bad Time” by Grand Funk
“Old Days” by Chicago
“I’m Not Lisa” by Jessi Colter
“Love Won’t Let Me Wait” by Major Harris
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy” by John Denver
“Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John
“Get Down, Get Down (Get On The Floor)” by Joe Simon

I can do without the John Denver tune for the rest of my life, and I’d like to limit my exposure to the first two on that list, but other than that, that’s a good Top Ten. There are some I’d play on a jukebox – I recall actually dropping in a quarter to hear “I’m Not Lisa” during a coffee date at the local Country Kitchen – and some I wouldn’t, but beyond the three I singled out, that list would make a good slice of radio.

As always, though, I’m interested in records that were sitting below the Top 40 of the time, some of which I might have never heard or even heard of.

The O’Jays’ “Give The People What They Want” was sitting at No. 45, and it would move no further. I vaguely remember this populist and funky piece of R&B that calls for “freedom, justice and equality.” The record was the eighteenth by the Canton, Ohio, group to hit the Hot 100, with eleven more to come through 1997. Though it didn’t do all that well on the pop chart, the record did make it to the top of the R&B chart for a week.

“Shoeshine Boy” by Eddie Kendricks is one of those records that I have no memory of at all. And that’s odd, considering that it peaked at No. 18, and I was still spending some time listening to radio. You’d think I’d have run across it often enough to recall it. Or maybe it didn’t do as well in Minnesota as it did across the board. In any case, the record by the one-time member of the Temptations peaked in late May – topping the R&B chart for a week – and by the middle of June, it was heading down the chart and was sitting at No. 51. Kendricks would have four more Hot 100 hits to bring his total to fifteen, with the last coming in 1985.

By the end of 1975, I’d be hearing a little bit of country music, as the family of the young lady I was seeing at the time – all nine of her siblings and her folks – were country fans. But that was some months ahead, so I entirely missed the sweet “Blanket on the Ground” by Billie Jo Spears of Beaumont, Texas. The record was sitting at No. 78 by the middle of June and would go no higher, though that was a little better than Spears’ only other Hot 100 record, “Mr. Walker, It’s All Over,” which went to No. 80 in 1969. But “Blanket on the Ground” did very well on the country chart, spending a week at No. 1.

The entry for Blood, Sweat & Tears in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles shows an interesting arc. The group’s first three singles, in 1969, all went to No. 2. (They were “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die.”) The next three listed singles were hits but didn’t fare as well, reaching the Top 40 at Nos. 14, 29 and 32, respectively. And from that point, BS&T had no more Top 40 hits (though they came close with “So Long Dixie,” which went to No. 44 in the autumn of 1972). In mid-June of 1975, the group was about to fall short again, as its cover of the Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life” was at No. 81 and would peak at No. 62. It’s actually a pretty good version of the Beatles tune, and it maybe should have done better, but BS&T’s trademark sound was no longer fresh by the middle of 1975. “Got To Get You Into My Life” was the last of ten BS&T records to reach the Hot 100 although “You’re The One” bubbled under at No. 106 in late 1976.

Bobby Womack never did as well as one might have expected on the pop chart: Four Top 40 hits between 1972 and 1974, with his highest placing coming from “Lookin’ For A Love,” which went to No. 10 in the spring of 1974. He had eleven other records reach the Hot 100, and four more bubbled under. (Unsurprisingly, he did much better on the R&B chart, where he had twenty-eight Top 40 hits including two No. 1 records and four that went to No. 2.) Now, fifteen records in the Hot 100 is a pretty good run, but when his stuff pops up in my player, it sounds like it should have done better. And that’s what I thought when I listened to “Check It Out” last evening. It was at No. 99 in the Hot 100 released June 14, 1975, and it peaked at No. 91. To my ears, it should have been a hit. (It did go to No. 6 on the R&B chart.)

Long-time readers know that one of my all-time radio horrors is Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun.” So they can imagine my reluctance to even go searching at YouTube when I saw that the No. 108 tune in the Hot 100 from mid-June 1974 was a record by Jacks titled “Christina.” I reminded myself that as part of the Poppy Family, Jacks had come up with some pretty good stuff, including the compelling and disquieting “That’s Where I Went Wrong” (with vocals by Susan Jacks, his wife at the time). So I checked out “Christina” and found an odd, unsettling record with some echoes of Helen Reddy’s 1974 hit ‘Angie Baby.” As strange as it is, it’s understandable that “Christina” peaked at No. 106, but I like it.

Chart Digging: Late April 1970

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

I suppose it was inevitable that I slept through most of the movie.

In the spring of 1970, St. Cloud Tech High School sent its Concert Choir on a two-day trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba. We performed three times: At a school, in a shopping mall and on the long steps inside the provincial capitol building.

We also took advantage of our free time during our one night in Winnipeg, heading in groups from the downtown hotel out into the Canadian evening. I really don’t recall with whom I hit the Winnipeg streets that night, except that I’m sure that my pal Mike and I were in the same bunch. We stopped for dinner and then headed into an area of the city that had a fair number of movie theaters.

We looked around at the marquees, the eight or so of us, assessing our options. Earlier that day, as we rode the bus through downtown to one of our performances, we’d seen the theater where the current feature was I Am Curious (Yellow). That had gotten our attention, as the Swedish film was quite notorious. Not only was the film revolutionary in its structure – Wikipedia notes that “the movie uses jump cuts and its story is not structured in a conventional Hollywood way” – but it was said to be one of the most sexually frank films ever. It had originally been banned in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, an action that was reversed by a U.S. federal court.

From where the eight of us stood after dinner that evening, we could see the theater where I Am Curious (Yellow) was playing. Were we tempted to head down the street and take in the steamy – and, based on my reading, politically turgid – Swedish movie? Perhaps, but we were certainly too timid. I’m not sure we could have gotten in; I imagine there were some age restrictions for steamy movies in Canada at the time, and the eight of us were all sixteen or seventeen.

But we didn’t even head that way. I’m not sure that any of us thought about it seriously. We considered seeing Midnight Cowboy, the Dustin Hoffman/John Voigt film that had recently won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (It remains the only X-rated film to have done so, although on a re-release without any changes, the film was re-rated R.) Some of the students in the choir saw Midnight Cowboy that evening. But not the group I was in.

For whatever reason – for many reasons, I imagine, including not wanting to tell our parents when we got home that we’d gone to a steamy Swedish movie or an X-rated film – the eight or so of us walked over to a third theater and bought tickets to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I’m not sure about the rest of the guys, but I really didn’t see the movie. We’d spent the previous night riding the bus from St. Cloud to Winnipeg, and I’d gotten little sleep during the four-hundred mile trip. So as I sat in the darkened theater and the story of Butch and the Sundance Kid played out on the screen, I fell asleep. I do remember seeing the sequence showing Paul Newman’s Butch and Katherine Ross’ Etta Place riding a bicycle as B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” plays on the soundtrack. But that’s about all I recall of those hours in the theater.

(And though I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie here and there over the past forty-one years, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the entire movie at one time. Maybe I should.)

One memory from that choir trip to Winnipeg that’s certainly more vivid than the movie is connected to that long nighttime ride the night before. About ten minutes after we headed northwest out of St. Cloud, someone pulled a radio out a traveling bag, and we cruised through the Minnesota night to the sound of the Top 40. Here’s the Billboard Top 10 from that week:

“ABC” by the Jackson 5
“Let It Be” by the Beatles
“Spirit In The Sky” by Norman Greenbaum
“Instant Karma (We All Shine On)” by John Lennon
“American Woman/No Sugar Tonight” by the Guess Who
“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” by Edison Lighthouse
“Come And Get It” by Badfinger
“Love Or Let Me Be Lonely” by the Friends of Distinction
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel
“Turn Back The Hands Of Time” by Tyrone Davis

Boy, that would be a great hour or so of radio! I imagine we heard all of those during the hours we had the radio playing during that drive. And I imagine we heard tunes from lower in the Top 40 as well, and maybe a few that were lower down in the Billboard Hot 100. There would have been some interesting tunes to choose from once you dropped below No. 40.

One of those tunes was sitting at No. 47. Mark Lindsay – one-time lead singer for Paul Revere & The Raiders – had reached No. 10 earlier in the year with “Arizona.” And in late April, his “Miss America” was moving up the chart, having jumped seventeen places to No. 47 in the past week. It’s a political plaint posing as a love song, and it peaked at No. 44.

From there, we’ll head down to No. 67, where “Deeper (In Love With You)” had gotten the O’Jays into the Hot 100 for the ninth time since 1963. But the Canton, Ohio, group still hadn’t cracked the Top 40. They wouldn’t this time, either, as “Deeper” would peak at No. 64. It would take another two years for the O’Jays to get into the Top 40; “Back Stabbers” would go to No. 3 in 1972.

The Gentrys had made the Top Ten in 1965, when “Keep On Dancing” had gone to No. 4. A few singles after that had gotten into the Hot 100 (or bubbled under it), but nothing had clicked. In early 1970, the band from Memphis signed with its hometown label. The band’s first Sun single, “Why Should I Cry,” went to No. 61 in the late winter, and in spring, Sun sent the Gentry’s cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” out to play. The record went only to No. 52. But that was still better that Young did. Backed by Crazy Horse, Young released the song as a single during the summer of 1970 and saw the record stall at No. 55.

As I was scanning the Hot 100 from April 25, 1970, this morning, for some reason the title “I Got A Problem” by Jesse Anderson popped out at me, and I’m glad it did. A tale of juggling a wife and at least two lovers, it’s a funky piece of R&B that was sitting at No. 95 that week. It would go no higher, though it went to No. 35 on the R&B chart. Neither the book Top Pop Singles nor All-Music Guide knows much about Anderson. A note left at YouTube not quite a year ago says, “Jesse Anderson is alive and well, living in Wichita, KS. He has recently released Funk N Blues, an album compilation of his songs from the 70’s. He’s working again with Gene Barge on some new material and possible record deal. Good luck to him!” (Anderson’s compilation is available at cd Universe.)

Dipping below No. 100 and into the Bubbling Under section of that April 25, 1970, chart, we find the Canadian group the Original Caste and what appears to be the group’s follow-up to “One Tin Soldier,” which went to No. 34 in February 1970. “Mr. Monday” was sitting at No. 119; a week later it was gone. The same thing happened to two more singles by the band: “Nothing Can Touch Me (Don’t Worry Baby, It’s Alright)” spent one week at No. 114, and “Ain’t That Tellin’ You People” spent a week at No. 117.

Finally, we find Rare Bird’s “Sympathy” sitting at No. 121 in the last of its three weeks Bubbling Under. Rare Bird is listed by AMG as a British prog band, and based on the sound of the single – which I’d describe as naïvely charming – that’s probably accurate. The group would have one more single bubble under – the oddly titled “Birdman – Part 1 (Title No. 1 Again)” would spend one week at No. 122 – and a couple of its albums reached the lower half of the Billboard 200. As the band kept recording and releasing albums into 1975, I’m assuming that Rare Bird was more successful in Britain than in the U.S.

‘. . . And The Red Light Was My Mind’

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

The first bit of a Robert Johnson song I ever heard, I once theorized, was the short excerpt of “Come On In My Kitchen” that started off “49 Bye-Byes” on the album Crosby, Stills & Nash. I can’t put a specific date on when I heard it, but I know I got the album in early May of 1971.

Nor, it turns out, can I put a precise date to the first time I heard one of Johnson’s song performed in its entirety. I do, however, remember the circumstances. It was a Friday in the spring of 1972, almost certainly April. I headed out for some record shopping that evening, no doubt beginning at Axis, the store on St. Germain – St. Cloud’s main street – that stocked a good selection of new and used LPs as well as leather coats, hats and other goods. I went pretty quickly to the used records.

It should be remembered that in the spring of 1972, I was still catching up on about eight years of pop and rock history. I’d listened pretty consistently to Top 40 music during my last two years of high school, and had caught up then on some things I’d missed. I’d spent a good deal of my first year of college hanging around the campus radio station, and now I was digging into albums, trying again to catch up at least a little, this time with my radio station colleagues and my buddies in the dorms.

And in the bins at Axis, I found a record with a strange cover: It showed a flat landscape, and in the foreground there was a leaping, grinning man dressed in white, a guitar in each hand and an absurd Uncle Sam hat topping things off. To his right was a donkey laden with a drum set and another guitar. The record was, of course, ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out’, subtitled The Rolling Stones in concert.

Well. I knew of the Rolling Stones, of course. Like the Beatles, the Supremes and a few other performers and groups, they’d been an inescapable portion of the musical landscape through the years when my peers listened to Top 40 and I had my ears still tuned elsewhere. I might not have known the names of all the Stones’ hits from the years before I began listening, but I knew the records. And I knew “Honky Tonk Women,” the single that had been No. 1 for the first four weeks of my tenure as a football manager during my junior year of high school.

Intrigued, I turned the record over and scanned the titles. There was “Honky Tonk Women” on the second side. Other than that, I sheepishly admit, I recognized only one title: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But I didn’t know the Stones’ version well. My best knowledge of the song came through Leon Russell’s performance of it during the Concert for Bangladesh; I’d gotten that box set for Christmas. Given those two bits of familiarity – and my knowledge that the Rolling Stones were important and thus it was important for me to know more about them – I took the record to the counter. The price tag is still on the front of the record, some thirty-eight years later. I paid $1.99 for it.

Anxious to show off my find to a buddy or two, I stopped at St. Cloud State’s Stearns Hall on my way home. I found my pal Dave and his girlfriend hanging around in his room, and they chuckled when they saw “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” listed on the back; I’d made no secret of my admiration for Leon Russell’s performance. Dave cued up the record, and we listened to that track, the first on the record. After that, as it was obvious I’d interrupted something that Dave and his girl wanted to resume, I took my record and headed home.

And in the basement rec room, I cued up the record once again and listened to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Chuck Berry’s “Carol” and “Stray Cat Blues.” I was pleased but puzzled. This wasn’t the Rolling Stones that I remembered from the radio. Keep in mind, first, that I only vaguely recalled the Stones’ studio version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and that I’d not heard the album tracks from Beggar’s Banquet. Secondly, since no singles from it had reached the Top 40, I’d likely never heard anything from Let It Bleed. And there was no way that “Honky Tonk Women” – the only Stones’ song I knew at all well – could have prepared me for this earthy and bluesy music.

Then came the introduction to “Love In Vain.” And I heard an entire Robert Johnson song for the first time. I stared at the floor as Mick Jagger bit off the desolate words and I stared at the stereo across the room as Mick Taylor took his slide solo, and then I heard Jagger sing about the blue light and the red light, all of it pulling me along into the blues.

I didn’t stay there long that time; I was eighteen. In later years, of course, I’d delve deeply into the blues and wander through all the genres, including blues rock. Much of that later exploration opened another world to me – especially the larger-than-life work of Howlin’ Wolf – but I’m not sure I’ve ever been pulled into a song as deeply as I was that evening when I heard “Love In Vain” for the first time.

(I should note that when I first heard the Stones’ live version of “Love In Vain,” it wasn’t listed as a Robert Johnson composition; the album credits said the song was “Traditional arr. Jagger/Richard.” I’m not sure when the songwriting credit was changed – I’d guess the early 1990s – but the 2002 reissue of the CD credits the song to Johnson.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 33
“Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White from Black and White [1969]
“Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones from ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out’ [1970]
“Love Train” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3524 [1972]
“December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the 4 Seasons, Warner/Curb 8168 [1976]
“Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978]
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House from Crowded House [1986]

Talk about another world! The swamp rock of Tony Joe White was unlike pretty much anything else in the Top 40 during the last weeks of August 1969, when “Polk Salad Annie” went to No. 8. (Creedence Clearwater Revival had two songs in the Top 40, but I think Tony Joe came from a little deeper in the swamp.) The bluesy tale of the gal whose mama was workin’ on a chain gang intrigued me whenever I heard it coming out of the radio speakers, especially White’s growled introduction and his spoken interjections. Of course, I didn’t do anything about it: I never bought the single, and I didn’t get the album that was home to the single – Black and White – until sometime in the 1990s. But I still love the record. “Polk Salad Annie” brought White his only hit, although he continues to perform and record; his most recent album, The Shine, came out earlier this year.

When the O’Jays called us out to the station in 1972, I’m not sure that anyone who heard the infectious “Love Train” didn’t want to get on board. As I detailed the other day when I wrote about “Back Stabbers,” the group had seen singles move into the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart for years before Top 40 success arrived. And arrive it did: “Love Train” went to No. 1, and was No. 1 for four weeks on the R&B chart as well. The group would hit the Top 40 seven more times before the string of hits ended in 1980. (The hits on the R&B and related charts continued, and as recently as 2004, the O’Jays had a track – “Make Up” – get to No. 74 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.)

I was sitting at The Table at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center in early 1976 when the 4 Season’s “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” came on the jukebox. My friend Stu shook his head. “Man,” he said, “what a great bass line. One of the best ever.” I took that judgment under advisement, and over the years, I’ve polished it to the point where I credit the 4 Seasons’ hit – it was No. 1 for three weeks – with having the best pop music bass line ever. And it is the bass line that moves the song along as it tells its tale of a one-night stand. The 4 Seasons had thirty Top 40 hits between 1962 and 1976 (with a dance remix of “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” going to No. 14 in 1994 for a thirty-first hit). But “December 1963” is the only one that does anything at all for me.

“Badlands” was the first Bruce Springsteen song I recall hearing. As I’ve noted before, I was aware of the hoopla surrounding Born To Run when it came out in 1975, but I don’t recall ever hearing the title track on the radio (which is odd, as it went to No. 23). I suppose I heard it but didn’t pay much attention. But I do remember hearing “Badlands” one day when I was working for the Monticello newspaper. My boss had a new Suburban, which we used to bring the 3,000 or so copies of each weekly edition back from the printer in a town ten miles away. One Wednesday during the summer of 1978, it was my job to drive to Buffalo, put the final touches on the newspaper and then bring back the finished product. One of the benefits of driving the Suburban was the FM radio, something my vehicle did not have. So after I started the Suburban, I tuned it to KQRS, an album-rock station in the Twin Cities, and the first thing I heard was Max Weinberg’s brief drum riff and then – I had the volume turned up high – the crash of “Badlands,” with its stinging, octave-jumping guitar riff and Clarence Clemons’ own defiant solo. Over the years, because of that moment and because of its musical and lyrical toughness, “Badlands” has remained one of my favorite Springsteen songs. It just missed the Top 40, peaking at No. 42 in the Billboard Hot 100, but it deserved better, if for no other reason than the line: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

We’d had a spat one day, the Texas Gal and I. It was the summer of 2000: She was still living and working in the Dallas area, and I was living in my apartment on Minneapolis’ Bossen Terrace, a half-block from the international airport. I don’t recall what the argument was about, but troubled, I tried to think of a way to apologize without interrupting her during a busy afternoon. I wasn’t quite certain she wanted to talk to me at the moment, anyway. As I sat at my computer, my RealPlayer settled on a Crowded House tune, one that I liked a fair amount. It had been a No. 2 hit in early 1987, but I recalled it from my second year in Minot; one of the young women who edited the Minot State yearbook brought mixtapes in for the yearbook production sessions, and the sounds of those mixtapes came unavoidably through my door into my office. Happily, I’d liked most of the tunes I’d thus heard, including the Crowded House record that was now playing. As the song went on and I worried about how the Texas Gal felt after our argument, I opened my Yahoo! messenger and changed my status to: “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I knew that the program – which she also had on her computer at work – would alert her to my change of status. A few moments later, I got an alert that her status had also changed. I don’t recall the exact wording – and neither does she – but her message was reassuring. And since that day, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – a beautifully written, performed and produced piece of pop music – has been one of our favorite songs.

‘With A Blue Moon In Your Eyes . . .’

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

I wonder how huge the eureka moment was when the producers of the television series The Sopranos came across the song “Woke Up This Morning” by the English group Alabama 3.

I can only imagine that the producers, trying to find a theme song that summed up mob boss Tony Soprano and his messy, conflicted, ordinary and brutal life, just stared at the speakers the first time they heard the track, with its odd and compelling mix of hip-hop, electronica and Americana. I’m sure those producers felt that the Alabama 3 song had just been waiting for them to discover it and provide it with a home.

And that’s what happened. For six seasons, stretching between January 1999 and June of 2007, an edit of the song led off each of the eighty-six episodes of one of television’s greatest dramas. Viewers would have been forgiven for thinking that that song was written for The Sopranos when it was actually released in 1997 on Alabama 3’s first album, Exile On Coldharbour Lane.

And viewers would also have been forgiven for thinking that Alabama 3 was an American group, when it was actually a product of England. To be honest, the band’s history is strange enough that I’m just going to turn to the account by Garth Cartwright at All-Music Guide:

“Alabama 3 was one of the oddest musical outfits to arise from late-’90s London, but also one of the most original. The band’s origins are shrouded in urban myth — the band likes to claim that the three core members met in rehab, while their Southern accents have many believing they are from the U.S. state of Alabama, although it appears vocalists Rob Spragg and Jake Black met at a London rave when Spragg heard Black singing Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway.’ Bonding, they set out about creating an agenda of Americana, electronica, leftist politics, and laughter. Joined by DJ Piers Marsh, the trio issued two 12” dance singles that combined their interest in gospel and country music, yet these went over the heads of the London dance scene. In Italy, where Spragg and Black began singing Howlin’ Wolf songs over Marsh mixes, the idea of the band began to take shape and back in Brixton, South London, they recruited a crew of musicians to shape their vision. This, combined with brilliantly theatrical live shows, meant the band attracted a huge South London following long before they had a record deal.”

Cartwright calls Exile On Coldharbour Lane “a groundbreaking work that effortlessly fused gospel, country, blues, and house music,” a style dubbed “chemical country.” While the British press – then caught up in what Cartwright calls its “infatuation with Britpop” – tended to ignore the group, the use of “Woke Up This Morning” in The Sopranos brought some popularity in the U.S. Unfortunately, that popularity brought legal action as well, says Cartwright, as the country group Alabama sued over the group’s name, which means that in the U.S., Alabama 3 is now known as A3.

Since its odd beginnings, Alabama 3 has continued to record and release albums, the most recent being Revolver Soul, which came out last May. I’ve not listened to much of their catalog, but the group’s approach is still novel, based on both the quotes from followers cited at the group’s website and on the tag line on the ad there for Revolver Soul: “Soul Music With A Gun Against Your Head.”

Sounds like something Tony Soprano would listen to.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 32
“Follow” by Richie Havens from Mixed Bag [1967]
“Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3517 [1972]
“Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, Warner Bros. 7710 [1973]
“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum 11034 [1974]
“Bittersweet” by Big Head Todd & the Monsters from Sister Sweetly [1993]
“Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, Geffen International 22302 [1997]

Television brought me another great recording a few years before I first heard “Woke Up This Morning.” One Sunday evening in May 1998, the law drama The Practice closed its season-ending episode with Richie Havens’ sublime “Follow” as the backing track. I recognized the voice but not the song, and as the last scenes played out, I went to the record stacks – the total number of records was then about 1,600 – and was stunned to find no Richie Havens. I grabbed a pen and piece of paper and jotted down “Follow” – that had to be the title of the song, I assumed – and over the next few weeks, I sought out and bought several of Havens’ albums, finally finding “Follow” on Mixed Bag at the end of July. Since then, I’ve continued to buy Havens’ albums on LP and on CD, but nothing I’ve ever heard from him – and he’s one of my favorites – is as good as “Follow.”

“They smile in your face; all the time they wanna take your place: The back-stabbers!” That warning couplet, following a lush and haunting string introduction laid on a bed of spooky percussion, brought the O’Jays to the attention of the world, or at least the portion of the world that listened to Top 40 radio in 1972.  Those who listened to R&B, however, had known the group since at least 1967, when “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)” went to No. 8 on the R&B Singles chart, the first of eight O’Jays records to reach that chart before “Back Stabbers” was released. Seven of those early R&B charting singles – and one that did not make the R&B chart – had also reached the Billboard Hot 100, but until “Back Stabbers” came along, none had pushed into the Top 40. From 1972 through 1980, however, the O’Jays saw nine singles reach the Top 40, while even more reached the R&B, Disco, Dance and related charts from 1972 into 2004. There’s a lot of good work in that catalog – I particularly like the gospel version of the Bob Dylan title song on 1991’s Emotionally Yours – but not many of the O’Jays records sound better than that first major hit: “What can I do to get on the right track? I wish they’d take some of these knives off my back!”

I’ve never been much of a Deep Purple fan, but there was no escaping “Smoke On The Water” during the summer of 1973, when it went to No. 4. And the record, with its iconic opening riff, is here in my Ultimate Jukebox for a time and place moment: Sometime during late July or early August of that summer, many of us who would spend the next school year in Denmark through St. Cloud State got together for a picnic at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. At one point during that evening, I was standing at the base of Minnehaha Falls – the waterfall that gives the large park its name – talking for the first time with a young woman who would turn out to be a very important part of my next nine months. Some distance away, another group of picnickers had a music source of some kind, and in that moment, those distant picnickers were listening to “Smoke On The Water.” Ever since, that opening riff puts me back at the base of Minnehaha Falls during the first tentative moments of a friendship that for a while became something else.

I wrote a while back that I thought that “Help Me” was Joni Mitchell’s best work, noting that I found much of her post-Seventies records difficult to listen to. Some readers encouraged me to try those works again, suggesting specific albums. I’ve done some of that listening, and although much of that later work is still challenging, it’s not as entirely drear as I had thought. But I still think “Help Me,” which went to No. 7 in June of 1974 (No. 1 for a week on the Adult Contemporary chart), is the best thing she ever did.

I imagine I first heard the long strummed groove of “Bittersweet” on the radio, likely Cities 97, but wherever I heard it, I liked the song by Big Head Todd & the Monsters enough that – in a time when vinyl releases were rare and I had no CD player – I went out and bought the album on cassette, a format I tended to avoid. I think it was the long slow groove of the song that pulled me in, but it’s the story in the lyrics that keeps the track – which went to No. 14 on the Mainstream Rock chart – near the top of my list of favorites. Every generation finds its own versions of universal truths and tales, and “Bittersweet” is one generation’s version of the thought that even if you get what you dreamed of, you might find that it wasn’t what you really wanted.