Posts Tagged ‘Five Stairsteps’

Chart Digging: August 13, 1966

Friday, August 13th, 2010

For your faithful narrator on August 13, 1966, eighth grade stood only a few weeks away, an obstacle course of classes like basic geometry, the physical sciences, and shop, which this year would include sessions on electricity, metalwork and plastic resins. There would, thankfully, also be time spent in English class, in geography and in band and choir.

And in the spring would come the welcome diversion of the school play, Plenty of Money. He would in the end be disappointed, claiming only the role of Mr. Johnson, a senior citizen who has business at the bank at the time it is robbed. Mr. Johnson’s sole utterance during the play was to tell the robbers, “You can’t do that!” Well, they could and they did, potentially wiping out Mr. Johnson’s nest egg and possibly leaving him to a life of tuna-noodle casserole and Saltine crackers. Admittedly, your narrator never considered Mr. Johnson’s post-robbery life; he was only interested in divesting himself of Mr. Johnson’s sport coat, slacks and wrinkles after the two scheduled performances.

But in mid-August, the disappointment of being Mr. Johnson for two evenings is still nine months away. The summer dwindles, and as it does, your narrator hears around him the sounds of popular music, most of them tunes he recognizes even though he’s not yet at the point of being an active listener.

Here’s the Billboard Top Ten for the week ending August 13, 1966.

“Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful
“Lil’ Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs
“They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa” by Napoleon XIV
“Wild Thing” by the Troggs
“The Pied Piper” by Crispian St. Peters
“I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas & The Papas
“Sunny” by Bobby Hebb
“Mother’s Little Helper” by the Rolling Stones
“Somewhere, My Love” by Ray Conniff & The Singers
“Sweet Pea” by Tommy Roe

I liked most of those, with much of my affection reserved for Ray Conniff’s very middle-of-the-road performance of the theme from the film Dr. Zhivago, a piece of music that’s remained one of my favorites for more than forty years now. This record, Conniff’s only Top 40 hit, peaked this week at No. 9, though it spent four weeks at No. 1 on the chart now called Adult Contemporary.

My feelings for the silly record by Napoleon XIV couldn’t be called affection, but I thought the record – at its peak at No. 3 – was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. Of course, I was only 12 – just twenty-three days from being 13 – and my tastes were still forming. But oddness was already prime among them, and “They’re Coming To Take Me Away” had that quality to a degree difficult to measure:

 

Napoleon XIV, according to All-Music Guide, “was actually Jerry Samuels, a 28-year-old recording engineer who had previously written small hit singles for pop crooners Johnny Ray and Sammy Davis, Jr., as well as making a conventional single of his own.” The flip side of “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa,” as I’m sure many of you know, was the A-side played backwards, with, predictably, “!Aah-ah, Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Er’yeht” serving as the title. Samuels got enough notoriety out of the hit to be able to release an album. His hit was the title song, accompanied by what AMG calls “more atonal odes to madness varying the bedrock elements of minimal percussion and speeded-up chant/vocals.” Other titles on the album included “Marching off to Bedlam,” “Let’s Cuddle in My Security Blanket,” “I Live In A Split-Level Head” and – credited to Josephine IV – “I’m Happy They Took You Away, Ha-Haaa!”

(I should note here the passing on August 4 of Bobby Hebb, who not only recorded “Sunny” but wrote the song. Forty-four years ago, during the week we’re examining here, the song was on its way to No. 2. That means that Hebb was keeping some exclusive company around this time in 1966: The Los Angeles Times noted last week that, “At the height of the song’s popularity, Hebb toured with the Beatles in the United States.”)

A little bit lower in the Top 40 lay at least one gem that week. Bobby Moore was a saxophone player from Montgomery, Alabama, and he and his group, the Rhythm Aces, recorded for Checker, a subsidiary label to the famous Chess label. The second week of August found the group’s “Searching For My Love” peaking at No. 27.

From No. 27, we’re going to drop way down in that chart from August 13, 1966, not stopping until we’re at No. 80, where we find the Alan Price Set, a group headed by the one-time organist for the Animals. Price might be best known in his post-Animals career for composing the soundtrack to the 1973 film O Lucky Man! But in 1966, he and the Set got to No. 80 with a terrific performance of “I Put A Spell On You.”

In early 1965, Alvin Cash & The Crawlers had a No. 14 hit with “Twine Time,” which went to No. 4 on the R&B chart. Since then, Cash had seen one more record hit the Billboard Hot 100: “The Barracuda” went to No. 59 (No. 29 on the R&B chart). On August 13, 1966, “The Philly Freeze” – credited to Alvin Cash & The Registers – was at No. 89 in the Hot 100. The record peaked at No. 49 and at No. 12 on the R&B chart, and I think it deserved better.

Three slots further down the Hot 100, we find Chicago’s Five Stairsteps, still four years away from their only Top 40 hit, “O-o-h Child.” But “World of Fantasy,” currently sitting at No. 92, sounded pretty good as it headed to peaks of No. 49 in the Hot 100 and No. 12 on the R&B chart.

Then, dipping into the Bubbling Over section of the August 13, 1966, chart, there’s a nifty instrumental by a group called the Dynatones, about which I know nothing more than this: “The Fife Piper” peaked at No. 53, where it spent the first two weeks of October. It, like “The Philly Freeze,” likely deserved better.

That should do it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with a Saturday Single.

A Concert Dim In Memory

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Even during my student and young adult years – the years 1970 to 1983 – I never went to a large number of concerts. I saw acts as they came through St. Cloud – most of those at St. Cloud State – and on occasion went to the Twin Cities for a show.

In St. Cloud during that time, my concerts began with the Fifth Dimension in the autumn of 1970 and closed with Leon Russell in the autumn of 1977. My Twin Cities concert list during those years started with a Joe Cocker show in April 1972 and ended with a Jackson Browne performance during the summer of 1980.

I remember pretty well almost every concert I went to during those years. That’s why it sometimes surprises me when I realize that I once saw the San Francisco band It’s A Beautiful Day in concert and don’t recall much about the show. The concert took place in St. Cloud State’s Halenbeck Hall gym, and it was sometime in early 1973, I think, most likely in the spring. But not much of it stuck with me.

(As it turns out, as indicated in the note below from the St. Cloud State University archivist, the concert actually took place in the autumn of 1971 during St. Cloud State’s Homecoming celebration. So most of the following reasons as to why the concert is dim in my memory do not apply. It may simply be, as I note a couple paragraphs below, that I was unfamiliar with most of the band’s music so not much stuck with me. Note added September 29, 2015.)

I suppose it might have been 1972, but I don’t think so, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the major spring concert at St. Cloud State in 1972 was by Elton John, and I recall that show well. And it makes some sense that a concert by It’s A Beautiful Day in spring 1973 might be dim in memory:

First of all, that was the spring when I was preparing to spend my next school year in Denmark, and planning for that adventure took up a lot of time and a lot of my mental energy. Second, that spring followed the winter during which I discovered The Table at the student union, and the sudden influx of a large number of friends into my life took a lot of my attention, too. Not that I began to ignore the friends who’d gotten me that far; I think I saw It’s A Beautiful Day with Rick. But my social life was more full and diverse than it had ever been, and it’s possible that the concert – instead of being a major event – became just one tile in the mosaic that was my life at the time.

Finally, I think the concert has faded from my memory because I really didn’t know the band’s music all that well. I had none of the group’s five albums, and there was only one recording by the band that I was truly aware of. It’s the same recording that I think everyone thinks of at first when It’s A Beautiful Day is mentioned: ‘White Bird.”

And I do recall the murmur in the crowd followed by applause when David LaFlamme began to pick the song’s opening riff on his five-string violin. And he and singer Patti Santos and the rest of the band gave us about ten minutes of “White Bird.” (Linda LaFlamme, who shares the vocal with her husband of the time on the original 1969 recording, had long since left the group by the time of the St. Cloud concert.) I also have a vague visual memory of David LaFlamme going all gypsy on his violin during an extended solo. But that one song is all I remember.

There’s no doubt that “White Bird” is a haunting piece of music, one that got a tremendous amount of FM airplay during 1969 and the first years of the 1970s. There were other tracks on the band’s albums that likely deserved some attention, too, but as it’s turned out, “White Bird” somehow sums up at least one portion of the San Francisco musical ethos of the era. And that’s why it’s one of the tunes on the Ultimate Jukebox. 

White bird
Dreams of the aspen trees with their dying leaves turning gold.
But the white bird just sits in her cage growing old.

White bird must fly or she will die.
White bird must fly or she will die.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 6
“White Bird” by It’s A Beautiful Day from It’s A Beautiful Day [1969]
“O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps, Buddah 165 [1970]
“Out In The Country” by Three Dog Night, ABC/Dunhill 4250 [1970]
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, Tamla 54201 [1971]
“T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia),” by MFSB featuring the Three Degrees, Philadelphia International 3540 [1974]
“The Captain of Her Heart” by Double from Blue [1986]

As I wrote once before, hearing the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” always reminds me of the morning I pulled into a parking lot and jumped from my car to call a oldies station’s trivia line – this in the days before cell phones – and then watched my car begin to roll back into the street as I was hanging up. I was lucky twice that morning: First, there was no traffic heading my car’s direction as I ran to it and found the brake, and second, I won a free pizza for identifying the record just from its introduction. And you know what? I still like the record, which went to No. 8 during the summer of 1970. Key lines:

Some day, yeah, we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.
Some day, when the world is much brighter.

“Out In The Country” fits into a couple of categories as a pop song. It falls right into the clutch of songs and records that I call “get back to the land” tunes. It’s hard to tell whether the narrator – the song was written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols – is heading to the country forever or just for the afternoon, but it still holds the idea that things are better away from the city. And it is, I think, one of the earliest-charting pop songs to have a clear ecological bent; we’d call it a “green record” these days. The record was Three Dog Night’s seventh Top 40 hit, rising to No. 15 during the late summer and early autumn of 1970. Key lines:

Before the breathin’ air is gone,
Before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime.
Out where the rivers like to run,
I stand alone and take back somethin’ worth rememberin’.

In The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh wrote: “‘What’s Goin’ On’ is the matrix from which was created the spectrum of ambitious black pop of the seventies: everything from the blaxploitation sounds of Curtis Mayfield to Giorgio Moroder’s pop-disco. Not bad for a record whose backing vocalists include a pair of pro football players.” The football players were Mel Farr and Lem Barney of the Detroit Lions, and according to Songfacts.com, the pair and Gaye used the phrase “What’s goin’ on?” as a frequent greeting, providing Gaye with the title for not only his socially conscious song but for his equally aware album. The record – as beautiful as it is powerful – spent three weeks at No. 2 on the pop chart and five weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart. (The album went to No. 6, with two more songs hitting the Top 40: “Mercy Mercy Me” went to No. 4, and “Inner City Blues” went to No. 9.) Key lines (that sadly still resonate today):

Mother, mother,
There’s too many of you crying.
Brother, brother, brother,
There’s far too many of you dying.

Turning to Dave Marsh once again, he said that “T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” was what disco sounded like in the test tube. And he’s right. It would still be a couple of years before disco would take over the airways and the dance floors, but when you listen to MFSB and the Three Degrees, you can hear what was the future – or a good-sized slice of the future, anyway – in the grooves. Most disco music, as it turned out, eventually bored me (and I don’t think I was alone in that reaction), and only two true disco records will show up in this feature as we move along, but “T.S.O.P.” was something fresh and new and exciting when it hit the airwaves and went to No. 1 for two weeks in the spring of 1974. It may no longer be fresh and new, but on those rare occasions when it pops up, it’s still exciting. And the record’s only real lyrics were nevertheless right on message:

People all over the world: It’s time to get down!

Some records simply sound like a certain time of the day or night, no matter when one hears them, as I alluded to not long ago when I wrote about the Church’s “Under The Milky Way.” To me, Double’s moody “The Captain of Her Heart” is two in the morning. It’s a cold cup of coffee and a window and a city street with maybe one car passing by in an hour’s time. But it’s still a beautiful piece of work. The single edit of the record went to No. 16 in the late summer and autumn of 1986. The group produced two videos for the record: one evidently intended for the European market based on the single and the one embedded below that used the album track and was tagged as the “United States version.” And I guess the opening lines remain the key lines:

It was way past midnight,
And still she couldn’t fall asleep.
This night the dream was leaving
She tried so hard to keep.