Rummaging around on Facebook over the weekend, I came across a link to a piece at the Rolling Stone website offering seventeen reasons to adulate Stevie Nicks. Now, I don’t adulate Nicks, nor do I need reasons to do so, but I do admire her and like a lot of her music, both with and without Fleetwood Mac.
So I didn’t need to click through for those seventeen reasons, but the video that was embedded in the piece tempted me. And I found myself watching the Mac’s performance of “Rhiannon” on the June 11, 1976, episode of The Midnight Special.
I loved pretty much everything about that clip and wished for maybe the thousandth time that I’d paid more attention to The Midnight Special. The late-night Friday show* ran from February 1973 into May 1981, and I’m not at all sure why I didn’t watch it even occasionally, much less regularly.
During most of the early years – up to the middle of the summer of ’76, not long after above Fleetwood Mac performance – I could easily have watched the show on the old black-and-white in my room (with the sound turned down some so as not to wake my folks in the adjacent bedroom). After that, at least in a couple of places, I might have had to persuade a couple of roommates (or for a few years, the Other Half) to watch with me. But I never even tried.
So I never got on board, and I wish I had. There are selected performances from the show’s nine seasons available commercially, but I’m not about to spring the cash that Time/Life is asking for discs of those assorted performances. Instead, I wander on occasion through the valley at YouTube, finding bits and pieces of things I missed half a lifetime (or more) ago, things like Linda Ronstadt (introduced by José Feliciano as a country performer) making her way through a December 1973 performance of “You’re No Good” and a May 1977 performance of “Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band.
It’s a seemingly bottomless trove of long-ago treasure, and I can easily get lost clicking from video to video (something that happens occasionally anyway, though with less of a focus). Well, there are worse things to get hooked on, I suppose. And for this morning, we’ll close with a performance by Redbone from February 1974, when they opened “Come And Get Your Love” with a Native American dance quite possibly pulled – though I’m not certain – from the Shoshone heritage of Pat and Lolly Vegas, the group’s founders.
*The show followed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which meant that for most of its run, The Midnight Special actually started at midnight here in the Central Time Zone. When Carson trimmed his show to an hour in late 1980, The Midnight Special aired at 11:30 our time.
We left off our series of posts about summer-defining songs a couple of weeks ago with 1975’s “Wildfire” and “I’m Not Lisa.” (The first two posts are here and here.) After that year, I spent two more summers at St. Cloud State before heading off to the world of work.
I wrote earlier this summer about how it felt to move away from Kilian Boulevard during the summer of 1976, and I noted in that post that Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” was one of the defining sounds of that season. And it was, as its strains take me back to the creaky house on St. Cloud’s North Side where I spent the next nine months. But there are a few other songs – heard on radio and jukebox – that also pull me back to the summer of 1976.
Some of them are “Silly Love Songs” by Wings, “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band, “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” by England Dan & John Ford Coley and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John & Kiki Dee. But the record that surprised me the most this morning with its visceral tug as I browsed the Billboard Hot 100 from July 10, 1976, was “This Masquerade” by George Benson.
Benson’s single doesn’t take to me any specific place or moment, but it feels like the summer of 1976: Moving away from home, taking graduate courses, taking an inventory of library equipment with my long-gone pal Murl, being delighted and confused by having a long-term relationship for the first time. It’s all there under the sound of Benson’s jazzy guitar and subdued vocal.
A year later, I was still spending my days on campus, now having changed my aim from graduate work to a minor in print journalism. My summer course load was all about writing: Writing stories for two editions in a newspaper workshop, writing a three-times a week newscast for a television workshop, writing a script by adapting a short story for a film workshop,* and writing and editing pieces for the arts section of the college paper, the University Chronicle.
By the time that season came around, I was living in a small mobile home that I rented from Murl. My social life was varied, as my girlfriend and I took a break from each other that year that began sometime around the beginning of May and ended in August, when we reunited. It was a busy summer, my last for some time as a student. So what songs take me back there?
Consulting once again the Billboard Hot 100 from mid-summer – this one from July 9, 1977 – I see some resonant titles: “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti (which I heard only at the theater and on the stereo in my home but not on the radio), “Easy” by the Commodores, another record by England Dan & John Ford Coley, “It’s Sad To Belong” and “Ariel” by Dean Friedman. (That last is an odd companion to the others, yes, but I heard it the other day on the Seventies channel offered by our cable company, and I was startled by how quickly it tugged me back to the summer of ’77. Maybe it was the “peasant blouse with nothing underneath.”)
The record that yanks me back hardest, however, to that summer of writing and dating and living by myself for the first time is one that’s been featured here in this space at least once and probably more than that: “Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band:
I was going to rummage around in the memory chest and see if any of the thirty-five summers since 1977 had such an elemental connection with records, radio and song. But for most of my life after 1977, I was working for a living (in more recent years, being a househusband) and spent little enough time listening to radio. And not even a summer in graduate school in 1984 provides memories linked vividly enough with music. So it’s best to end this exercise here after looking at the ten summers from 1968 through 1977. I’ll be back later this week, possibly with “Yellow,” the next segment of Floyd’s Prism.
*The story I adapted, “The Chaser” by John Collier, was first published in 1940 and continues to be one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. I’d found it in an anthology I’d rescued one summer from the discard pile at St. Cloud State’s library, and because of its elegant use of language, I’d always thought that with the right production it would make a hell of a short film. From what I see online, it was adapted for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone in 1960, which doesn’t surprise me. I do have two regrets about my adaptation and the rather good film that came out of it: First, miscommunication between me and the folks who did the credits resulted in Collier’s name being omitted from our film, and second, I have somehow managed to lose my copy of the film.
Last television season, one of my favorite shows, Mad Men, ended its season finale – as it does all its episodes – with a popular song framing the last moments. As ad man Don Draper’s wife, Betty, flew to Nevada with her lover to get a divorce, Draper found himself checking into a hotel, and the mournful music – though it had a positive final lyric – underlined the melancholy and uncertainty of the moment. As I watched, I recognized the voice: It was unmistakably Roy Orbison. But the song?
I had no clue. The melody and accompaniment were clearly based on Middle Eastern themes, as was the lyric:
Where the Nile flows
And the moon glows On the silent sand Of an ancient land
When a dream dies And the heart cries “Shahdaroba” Is the word they whisper low
Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba Means the future is much better than the past Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba In the future you will find a love that lasts
So when tears flow And you don’t know What on earth to do And your world is blue
When your dream dies And your heart cries Shahdaroba Fate knows what’s best for you
Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba Face the future and forget about the past Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba In the future you will find a love that lasts
As soon as the show was over, I wandered to the record stacks and pulled out The All-Time Greatest Hits Of Roy Orbison, and on Side Three I found a song titled “Shahdaroba” and put it on the turntable. That was the tune. And it was just as haunting without the visuals of the television show.
I’ve seen the title spelled numerous ways. The listing inside the jacket of the two-LP set I pulled from my shelves listed the song as “Shahadararoba,” which I knew wasn’t right. The listing at All-Music Guide for the album I have has the title as “Shahadaroba,” while the CD version of the two-LP album I have now – listed at Amazon – spells the title “Shadaroba.” And on-line listings for merchants selling the record include several spellings, with “Shahdaroba” being the most frequent (although frequency in those precincts is certainly no guarantee of accuracy). The generally accurate folks at the Both Sides Now discography site have it as “Shahdaroba,” as does the label on the LP I have, so I’m going with that.
Whatever the spelling, the haunting recording used to close last season’s Mad Men was from 1963 and was released as the B-side of Orbison’s No. 7 hit, “In Dreams.” And although I know I’d heard it before – no LP goes into my stacks without being played at least once – it evidently didn’t leave much of an impression when I got the album in February 1998. (I do remember being intrigued by “Leah” on the same album and immediately using it in several mixtapes for friends; I wish now I’d paid more attention to “Shahdaroba.”)
I’m not entirely certain when the practice began of closing television shows with an entire popular song in the soundtrack continuing over the credits. Sometime in the 1990s, when I watched very little television? Or earlier? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve listed in recent weeks two songs from the 1960s that were brought to my attention in that way: “Shahdaroba” today and Richie Havens’ “Follow,” which I wrote about two weeks ago.
The virtues of “Shahdaroba” – written by one Cindy Walker – are clear and include a great vocal from Orbison, an eerie melody with what I think is an oboe providing the sinuous counter-melody, and an enigmatic yet hopeful set of lyrics. There’s clearly room for it in the Ultimate Jukebox.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 34
“Shahdaroba” by Roy Orbison, Monument 806 
“Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)” by the 5th Dimension, Soul City 772 
“Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band from The Band 
“Minnesota” by Northern Light, Glacier 4501 
“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band, Warner Bros. 8370 
“Mandolin Rain” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range from The Way It Is 
I’ve written before about the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)” and its place as the first musical 45 I ever bought with my own cash. (Long-time readers will remember my discovery of Dickie Goodman’s “Batman and His Grandmother” in a box and my memory of that being my first 45 purchase of any kind.) Why does “Aquarius” belong here? First, having been pulled from the musical Hair, the two songs that were merged to form a medley reflect a good portion – some of the most positive portions – of the spirit of the late 1960s. Second, the 5th Dimension’s pop-soul sounded good then and still sounds good today, with production by Bones Howe and backing provided by a large cast of session stars that included Larry Knechtel and Hal Blaine. Third, and most importantly, I guess, I just like it.
I was out on an errand with my mother sometime in January 1970, and I had the radio tuned to KDWB, one of the Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations. I remember exactly where we were – I drive past the spot on St. Cloud’s North Side on occasion – when the strains of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” came out of the radio. I’d been listening to Top 40 for a few months, and I’d heard the song before, but for some reason, this was the first time I’d really listened. I took in the drum and guitar riff introduction, Levon Helm’s countryish vocal with its sly “hee-hee” along the way, the ensemble choruses and Garth Hudson’s twangy fills that sounded like a jew’s harp (I had one of those at home and twanged it on occasion), and I wondered why I hadn’t paid the song any attention before. Every evening from then on, I listened for “Up On Cripple Creek” as I tuned into WJON, just down the street and across the tracks. Why I just didn’t go out to Musicland and buy the single or the album, I have no idea. I wouldn’t buy any LPs until May of that year, when I would get stuff by the Beatles and Chicago. By that time, I’d likely forgotten about The Band. “Up On Cripple Creek” peaked at No. 25 in early January 1970, and by the middle of the month, the record had dropped out of the Top 40 and consequently faded from the airwaves and, evidently, my memory. That Christmas, in 1970, Rick brought The Band back into my life when he gave me The Band, the group’s second album. I loved most of it, and made a vow to look into the group’s other work. I did so eventually, and The Band is still my all-time favorite group. And “Up On Cripple Creek” is about as good a track as that talented group ever recorded.
Every state should have its own popular song. Sorting through songs whose titles refer to states – just off the top of my head – maybe the best would be “Georgia On My Mind.” In the spring of 1975, Minnesota got its own popular song when the group Northern Light released “Minnesota.” With its harp glissandos, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, a great blues harp solo and its iconic opening of a loon calling across the water, “Minnesota” reeled me in right away. I don’t have access to any Twin Cities charts from that spring, but the record, as you might expect, got a lot of airplay here. It did get a little bit of national attention, peaking at No. 88 in the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-May and reaching No. 77 on the Cashbox chart a few weeks later. I was lucky enough to find a near-mint copy of the 45 at a garage sale here in St. Cloud a few years ago, so I can hear the tune whenever I want, but I feel even luckier when I’m in the car and I hear the call of the loon and the rest of the single on the oldies station.
(For more on “Minnesota” and Northern Light, check out the post my friend jb put up at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ in May.)
A true one-hit wonder, “Smoke From A Distant Fire” came from the first, self-titled album by the Sanford/Townsend Band. And nothing else on the group’s first album or on its two follow-up albums was ever quite as good as that single. Bursting from the speakers with a drum intro followed by a bluesy guitar solo, the record grabbed one’s attention from the start. Add the solid vocal and great guitar and saxophone solos, and you have a hit single. The record went to No. 9 in the late summer of 1977 and was a vital part of the soundtrack to my life as I was finally finished with school and tentatively began to find my place in the working world.
Sanford/Townsend Band – “Smoke From A Distant Fire 
The gorgeous piano introduction to “Mandolin Rain” pulls me back to a place of refuge. During the winter of 1986-87, I made a number of poor life decisions, and for several months, the only place I felt I could relax was in my teaching office at St. Cloud State, a tiny space in the offices of the Performing Arts Center. I had a cassette player there, and I’d retreat there for lunch, eating the same thing every day for most of those months: egg salad on wheat bread and black coffee. A friend in the public relations office frequently loaned me music from his large tape collection, and one day he handed me The Way It Is, the first release from Bruce Hornsby & The Range. I liked most of it but loved “Mandolin Rain.” The record went to No. 4 early in 1987, but it was No. 1 on my list, and I listened to that side of the cassette two or three times a week that winter and early spring. Late in the spring of 1987, I emerged from my cocoon, thirty pounds lighter, a little bit wiser, and ready to live again. I’ve never been certain what the lyrics of the song are really about, but to me they sound like a tale of necessary and welcome transformation.
Bruce Hornsby & The Range – “Mandolin Rain”