Posts Tagged ‘Ballin’ Jack’

What’s At No. 100? (February 1971)

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

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.

Chart Digging: Early February 1971

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Moments lead to memories that lead to tales. A trip to the dumpster in a February wind reminded me of the time during my senior year when I was suspended from school for a day.

Our house is adjacent to an apartment complex owned by our landlord, and when we moved in, he said that instead of hauling garbage cans down to the end of the driveway once a week, we could drop our trash in the dumpster at the end of the complex’s parking lot. We generally do so as part of an errand elsewhere, carting trash bags over in one of the two cars. The other day, getting the car out of the garage seemed to be a lot of work, so I walked a bag of trash over.

I did so in the face of a harsh northwestern wind. Head down, I made my way across the parking lot, and I recalled how, on bitterly cold and windy days, my childhood schoolmates and I would sometimes walk backwards down Fifth Avenue toward Lincoln Elementary School, protecting our faces from the harsh wind. We knew the route well, and the sidewalks were almost always shoveled, so walking in reverse, especially in a group, carried no hazards. It was just a little slower.

And my memory train chugged from walking backwards along Fifth Avenue to the occasional times during the early 1960s when a grey Forties-vintage auto would pull up alongside me, and the college guy I’ll call EJ – already transporting two of his brothers and a sister – would give me a ride to school. The family lived four houses north of us on Kilian Boulevard and several of the kids were frequent participants in our neighborhood’s semi-organized games. So EJ was a Kilian kid, but even more important to me was what he did at St. Cloud State.

He was the quarterback for the Huskies, and – with my folks – I spent as many Saturday evenings at Selke Field as I could back then, watching EJ lead the Huskies against teams that included the Bemidji State Beavers, the Winona State Warriors and the other Huskies from Michigan Tech, based in that state’s Upper Peninsula. EJ played for the Huskies from 1959 through 1962 and in 1960, he was named All-Conference quarterback for the Northern Intercollegiate Conference. I suppose he was my first football hero, the neighborhood kid who made good in a way that mattered very much to me – and to many others on the East Side and elsewhere.

After his football days were over and he earned his degree from St. Cloud State, EJ stayed in town. He got a job in the administration at St. Cloud Tech High and – with a master’s degree, I’m assuming – worked his way up the administrative ladder. By the time I was a senior, EJ was the assistant principal, in charge of discipline. I saw him in Tech’s hallways on occasion, as I had for the first two years of high school when his title was different, and he always had a smile and wave for me.

Then came the morning – during the early part of 1971 – when I was summoned to meet with EJ. That never meant anything good, but I had no clue what I might have done wrong.

I sat on a chair outside EJ’s office, going over the past few days for transgressions. Nothing came to mind. I’d been absent two days earlier, but Mom had called me in sick, so that wasn’t it. And as I sat there, I watched the high school’s version of hard cases – habitual fighters, teacher-cursers and class-skippers – come and go from EJ’s office. I felt like Arlo Guthrie on the Group W bench.

Finally, it was my turn. I took a chair across from EJ, smiled wanly and shrugged. I still had no idea what I might have done. He looked at a piece of paper and then asked me, “Did you skip class during ninth hour yesterday?”

No, I told him. In that class – a social studies offering called Problems of Democracy – we were divided into study groups, and we didn’t meet every day. I didn’t mention it to EJ, but I was glad of that, as Mr. S, the teacher, was officious and overbearing, and I didn’t enjoy his class at all. I did tell EJ that sometime during the previous morning, I’d crossed paths with another member of my study group and – having been out sick the day before – verified that our study group was not scheduled to meet. I didn’t have to go to class ninth hour, so I didn’t.

EJ nodded. “So where were you?”

In the library, I told him. I’d been at a table with the current object of my affection, the one in whose locker I would leave song lyrics in purple ink. She had a study period that hour and always spent it in the library. When I was free, I was there, too.

EJ nodded again, chewed his cheek as he looked at the paper in his hand. Then he looked at me. “Because you were absent the day before, you really should have gone to class during ninth hour and checked in with Mr. S. He reported you absent without permission, and technically, he’s right.” He looked at me, chewed his cheek again and sighed.

“Look, I know Mr. S,” he said. And EJ looked in my eyes and I got the message that whatever I might have thought about Mr. S, he agreed with me. “But,” he went on, “you did technically skip class. And I have to suspend you for the day.”

Great, I thought. Students suspended for the day were installed in a small room in the office area, where they sat all day in supervised silence, doing class assignments. I was going to spend the day with Group W doing homework.

EJ sighed again and tossed the report of my unauthorized absence on his desk. “Okay,” he said, “go spend the day in the library. Go to lunch at your usual time, hang around the band room for an hour like you do, and then end the day in the library.”

I started to thank him, and he waved me on with a half-smile. “Go to the library!” he said. So I did.

Word spread, of course, that I – an unlikely candidate if ever there were one – had been suspended for the day. My name was on the list of suspensions passed out by the attendance office, and students had easy access to those lists, which teachers often left in the open. Friends of mine who came and went in the library that day – including my Dulcinea – wanted to know what heck had happened. I did get tired of telling the tale, but we all agreed on our thoughts about Mr. S.

Being suspended also meant not being allowed to take part in school activities, so after school, I went to tell Kiff, the wrestling coach, that I’d resume my duties as manager the next day. As I entered the wrestling room, the wrestlers cheered and applauded. When the noise faded, Kiff asked me if the rumor he’d heard was true: “Were you really smoking a pipe?” (He meant a traditional pipe intended for tobacco, not one for illicit substances.) I laughed a little and told him no. He was relieved; if I had been smoking anything, I’d have lost my post as manager. But, he added, “If there were any student who might have smoked a pipe instead of a cigarette, it would be you.”

Not sure what to say to that, I just said I’d be back the next day, and glumly headed out of the gym toward the school’s back door. A fellow choir member saw me: “Now you get to go home and tell the folks, right?” I nodded and went on my way.

My folks weren’t horribly upset although they weren’t pleased either. I do think they were happy I didn’t have to spend the day with Group W, thanks to a favor passed from one Kilian Kid to another.

I’m sure that as I sat in my room that evening and pondered that favor, I had the radio on. And I’m just as sure that during my pondering I heard some of these songs, the Billboard Top Ten from forty years ago this week:

“One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds
“Knock Three Times” by Dawn
“Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson
“I Hear You Knocking” by Dave Edmunds
“Lonely Days” by the Bee Gees
“My Sweet Lord/Isn’t It A Pity” by George Harrison
“Groove Me” by King Floyd
“Your Song” by Elton John
“If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight and the Pips
“Mama’s Pearl” by the Jackson 5

That’s a good set. I wasn’t all that crazy about the Osmonds’ record forty years ago, but now, it’s a nice slice of time. The same holds true for the Dawn record. But the rest don’t need to be memories; the bottom nine from that list (counting Harrison’s B-Side) is a great batch of records.

As usual, we’re going to look a little bit deeper into the Billboard Hot 100 from that week, but we’re not going to go too deep to start with. At No. 15, we find one of my favorite one-hit wonders of all time. Wadsworth Mansion was a band from Los Angeles, and during this week forty years ago, the group’s “Sweet Mary” was at No. 15, having leapt from No. 44 the previous week. The record would eventually peak at No. 7. I love the “Wap, wa-dooba do wop wop” introduction!

From there, however, we’ll tumble out of the Top 40, just across the border to No. 44. There we find the Four Tops with “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life),” an almost mournful tune about trying to get back things that have been lost. The record – with its classic Motown sound – would peak at No. 40 and go to No. 9 on the R&B chart.

I knew nothing about T. Rex until “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” during early 1972, and I didn’t rush out and buy any records then. I entirely missed the group’s first charting single, “Ride A White Swan,” which was at No. 76 forty years ago, when the group was still called Tyrannosaurus Rex. But then, a lot of folks missed the record, as it went no higher. It strikes me as a very odd single, but I never really got the glam thing, anyway. From forty years away, it’s far more interesting to me than it would have been then.

From being a murderer on the run in “Indiana Wants Me,” R. Dean Taylor went all green. His lament for the environment, “Ain’t It A Sad Thing,” was at No. 87 forty years ago. Taylor would have two more singles hit the Hot 100 and another reach the Bubbling Under section of the list, but he’d never hit the Top 40 again. “Ain’t It A Sad Thing” did the best of Taylor’s post-Indiana singles, getting to No. 66.

Ballin’ Jack was an “inter-racial jazz-rock group from San Francisco,” according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, and the group’s only single to reach the Billboard charts was “Super Highway.” Forty years ago this week, the record was at No. 98 in its first week in the Hot 100. I’ve listened to bits of the group’s two albums, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard. (I suppose that being a horn rock fan helps.) But the best the group could do was get “Super Highway” to No. 93.

The Detroit Emeralds were a long-active band that, despite their name, evidently started out in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Whitburn seems to indicate that the original core of the group formed in Arkansas before heading to Detroit.) “Do Me Right,” which was Bubbling Under at No. 118 forty years ago this week, became the second Hot 100 hit for the group, peaking at No. 43. (On the R&B chart, it was the third Top 40 hit for the Emeralds, going as high as No. 7.) The group would eventually have six records reach the Hot 100 and eight records in the R&B Top 40. The Emerald’s best-charting record came in 1972 with “Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms),” which went to No. 24 on the pop chart and to No. 4 on the R&B chart.