What’s At No. 100? (February 1971)

Well, the Billboard Top Ten from the last week in February 1971 – fifty years ago – doesn’t hold many surprises:

“One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds
“Mama’s Pearl” by the Jackson 5
“Knock Three Times” by Dawn
“Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson
“If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot
“I Hear You Knocking” by Dave Edmunds
“Sweet Mary” by Wadsworth Mansion
“Amos Moses” by Jerry Reed
“Mr. Bojangles” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
“Me & Bobbie McGee” by Janis Joplin

Man, there are a bunch of short titles in there. That list might set a record for the Top Ten with the fewest words in its ten titles: Thirty, making for an average of three words per title.

That, of course, says nothing about the quality of the records, which is pretty good, as I sort it out. (As always, I’m confronted by the quandary: Do I assess these records as I would have when the chart was new, or do I look at them from today’s perch? I end up doing a little bit of both, I imagine.)

What did I like back then? I liked the records by Anderson and Lightfoot. I liked “Sweet Mary,” “Mr. Bojangles” and “Bobbie McGee.” And fifty years later, only “Rose Garden” isn’t as good as it used to be.

I liked “I Hear You Knocking,” but I didn’t understand why the vocal sounded as if it were pinched somehow, and I really didn’t get why Edmunds hollered out what seemed like random names during the instrumental. I recognized only one of the names – Chuck Berry – and that one only vaguely. I could have used the record as a road map to learn more about music if I’d only paid attention or had someone to ask, I guess. I like it a lot more today, knowing what Edmunds was up to, than I did then.

“One Bad Apple” and “Amos Moses” didn’t do it for me when I was seventeen. I’ve changed my mind about the Jerry Reed single but not about the Osmonds’. The Dawn record was a hoot in 1971; when it played on the jukebox in St. Cloud Tech High’s multi-purpose room, kids would use their fists on the lunch tables to knock three times themselves. It’s a nice memory today. I don’t recall hearing “Mama’s Pearl” back then at all. And from 2021, it’s just okay.

What, then, do we find when we drop to the bottom of that Hot 100, which came out on February 27, 1971?

We find “Super Highway” by Ballin’ Jack, a record that kind of fits into the “back to the land” ethos that permeated a lot of tunes at the time, or if not “back to the land” at least offered a critique of society’s tendency to trade land for asphalt.

The chorus, specifically, tugs at me:

Super highway tearing through my city
Super highway tearing through my town
Super highway tearing through my country
Super highway, got to tear it down

We seem in the United States these days to at least be starting to reckon with how our culture has treated the cultures of people of color. Whether that turns into a long-term effort is, of course, an open question. But among the topics I’ve seen raised lately in news coverage and in online gathering spots is how the routing of the Interstate Highway system literally tore apart inner-city communities of color.

Here in Minnesota, St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood – the center of Black culture in the city – was shredded when I-94 was routed through the city in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I think a similar thing happened, though not to the same degree, when the western segment of I-35 was routed through South Minneapolis. And Ballin’ Jack was singing about it – or something very much like it – fifty years ago.

Ballin’ Jack was, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, an interracial jazz-rock group from San Francisco. “Super Highway” was the group’s only single to hit the Hot 100, topping out during a four-week run at No. 93. The single was a very tight edit of a longer track on the group’s first album, a self-titled effort that hit No. 180 on the Billboard 200.

The album track starts with a slow introduction that kills the track before it begins to rock, while the single kicks from the start, sort of like what happened not quite a year earlier with the punchy radio single of Pacific Gas & Electric’s “Are You Ready” and the slowly starting album track.

Here’s the single of “Super Highway,” which would have been a fine piece of horn band rock if the writers had developed the lyric – which is way too repetitive – a lot more.

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