Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Butler’

First Wednesday: May 1968

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll update our examination of charts from fifty years ago and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month.

When one looks back at the major events of 1968 – or of any year, for that matter – there is generally a kind of storybook quality about them: They happened, they got attention, but they didn’t really affect us or the people around us.

What I mean is: No matter how awful – or in rare cases, beneficial – an event might be that is large enough to attract the attention of the world, simply because of sheer numbers, it rarely affects us or someone we know. To put it in the perspective of an event I mentioned in my look at March 1968, very few of us in the U.S. knew someone involved with the massacre at My Lai. As horrible as it was, when the tale of the massacre became public, very few of us had our revulsion augmented by the fact that we knew someone who had pulled a trigger or knew someone who was murdered or had a loved one murdered. And as powerful and terrible as the events of 1968 had so far been as we entered May, most of us were still spectators, gaping at the display.

But in May, as obliquely as it might have been, a major news story touched down at our home in St. Cloud. It wasn’t tragic, it could have had a far greater impact than it did, but it was there.

What became known as mai 68 in France began, says Wikipedia, as a series of student strikes that broke out in May at universities and schools in Paris, “following confrontations with university administrators and the police.” The French government, led by President Charles de Gaulle, attempted to end the strikes with more police action, but that only made matters worse.

There were street battles with the police in the Latin Quarter of Paris, followed by “a general strike by students and strikes throughout France by ten million French workers, roughly two-thirds of the French workforce. The protests reached such a point that de Gaulle created a military operations headquarters to deal with the unrest, dissolved the National Assembly and called for new parliamentary elections for June 23.”

Wikipedia further notes: “May ’68 was a political failure for the protesters, but it had an enormous social impact. In France, it is considered to be the watershed moment that saw the replacement of conservative morality (religion, patriotism, respect for authority) with the liberal morality (equality, sexual liberation, human rights) that dominates French society today. Although this replacement did not take place solely in this one month, the term mai 68 is used to refer to the shift in values, especially when referring to its most idealistic aspects.”

In St. Cloud, at my home, we watched the events of about four thousand miles away with great interest. I remember seeing students at the barricades in the streets of Paris, both on television and in photos in newspapers and magazines. Why did it matter? Because my sister, three years older than I and about to graduate from high school, was scheduled to spend six weeks in France that summer – near Paris, I believe – studying French language and culture.

Her six weeks would begin in July, but as the events of May wore on, I seem to remember my sister and my parents being kept informed by the sponsoring agency. There was some concern that the program might have to be canceled. Now, a Midwestern girl not getting her chance to go to France pales, I know, when compared with many of the wounds that the year of 1968 was inflicting. But it would have saddened her greatly, and grief is grief. As it happened, the furor in France died down as the summer came, and the sponsoring agency found a place to host the program in the city of Narbonne, just off the Mediterranean Sea. My sister got her time in France.

The uncertainty, though, had a point, as I look back at it. It was a lesson, as if the universe were pointing out that large events are more than tales on a storyboard: They touch people’s lives.

Beyond the upheaval in France, May of 1968 was a relatively tranquil month, according to the list of events at Wikipedia, almost as if the world were catching its breath for what was to come. Still, relatively tranquil is not tranquil.

There were increasing protests in the United States against the war in Vietnam. In Catonsville, Maryland, a group that came to be called the Catonsville Nine went to the local draft board on May 17. Two brothers who were Catholic priests, Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Fr. Philip Berrigan, headed the group. At the draft board office, Wikipedia says, the nine protestors “took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured homemade napalm over them, and set them on fire.” They were tried in federal court in October and found guilty of “destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967.”

The breakaway Nigerian province of Biafra was surrounded by the Nigerian army. This contributed, Wikipedia notes, “to a humanitarian disaster as the surrounded population was already suffering with hunger and starvation.” Efforts to relive the privation were launched around the developed word. Wikipedia once more: “It has been argued that by prolonging the war the Biafran relief effort (characterized by Canadian development consultant Ian Smillie as ‘an act of unfortunate and profound folly’), contributed to the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians.”

The images we saw from Biafra in the news were truly horrible. If the name of the province/nation is unfamiliar to you, Google it and click on the image search.

There’s no way to write a paragraph of transition from starving Biafrans to the Top 40 without seeming utterly callous. So let’s just acknowledge, I guess, that some folks could play while some starved. It’s always been so, and – unhappily – it will likely always be so.

Here’s the Billboard Top Fifteen for the week of May 4, 1968:

“Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro
“Cry Like A Baby” by the Box Tops
“Young Girl” by the Union Gap Featuring Gary Puckett
“Lady Madonna” by the Beatles
“Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells
“I Got The Feelin’” by James Brown & The Famous Flames
“Cowboys to Girls” by the Intruders
“The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro, His Orchestra and Chorus
“A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals
“The Unicorn” by the Irish Rovers
“If You Can Wait” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
“Dance to the Music” by Sly & the Family Stone
“Take Time To Know Her” by Percy Sledge
“Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer
“The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde” by Georgie Fame

Not a bad batch, with the exception of Bobby Goldsboro and the Irish Rovers. “Young Girl” might be a little creepy, given today’s point of view, but I’m not sure we thought about it like that back then. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Intruders’ record. I might recognize it, but I’m not sure.

Here are the Top 10 albums in Billboard from that first week of May 1968:

The Graduate by Simon & Garfunkel/soundtrack
Blooming Hits by Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra
Aretha: Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly soundtrack
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme by Simon & Garfunkel
To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With by Bill Cosby
The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

A couple things jump out. First, it was a very good spring for Simon & Garfunkel. In its second week on the charts, Bookends had jumped from No. 71 to No. 4, and it would stay on the album chart for another thirty-eight weeks. The soundtrack to The Graduate was in its fifth week at No. 1 with four weeks to go during a forty-seven week stay on the chart. And Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme ,which came out in 1966, had re-entered the Top Ten in early April and would stay until late June, eventually cataloging sixty weeks in the Top 40.

The other thing I noticed is that Are You Experienced had popped back into the Top Ten after falling out. The last week in April, the first album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience had been at No. 13. The first week in May, it was at No. 10, in its thirty-eighth week in the Top 40. The record had done the same thing in February, popped into the Top Ten and then out again, as well as twice in 1967, in October and December. (Its peak position had been No. 5, according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums and it would be in the Top 40 for a total of seventy-seven weeks.)

And from the vantage point of fifty years later, I wince as I see one of Bill Cosby’s comedy albums on the chart. I had one of them, Wonderfulness, which I bought in 1967. Does that also make me wince? Only a little. I was fourteen. My copy of Wonderfulness, which I would guess hadn’t been played since the late 1960s, went out the door during the Great Vinyl Selloff a little more than a year ago. Did I sell it because of the allegations of criminal sexual behavior (now, in one case, found to be true) or because I no longer wanted it? A little of both, I’d guess.

The album I’m sharing today would enter the Top 40 during the second week of May. It would be a short stay – just six weeks – and the album would peak at No. 29, but in terms of quality and in terms of influence, Jerry Butler’s The Ice Man Cometh would shine as brightly as anything released in 1968.

Butler came out of Chicago and joined the Impressions in the late 1950s, hitting with, among others, “For Your Precious Love,” which, in 1958, went to No. 11 on two of the Billboard pop charts of the day and to No. 3 on the magazine’s rhythm and blues chart. He then left the group and moved to the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label in 1960. Six Top 40 hits followed through 1963, the biggest of them being “He Will Break Your Heart,” which went to No. 7 on the pop chart and spent seven weeks on top of the R&B chart in 1960.

In 1967, Butler signed with Mercury, and after one Top 40 hit – “Mr. Dream Merchant” went to No. 38 (No. 23, R&B) – went into the studio with two producers being allowed to helm an album on their own for the first time: Leon Gamble and Kenneth Huff. The resulting record threw off four Top 40 hits and started Gamble and Huff along the way to their near-domination of the charts in the 1970s with their Philadelphia International label, which had a roster that included Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul, the O’Jays, the Three Degrees, MFSB and more.

That’s not to say The Ice Man Cometh serves only as an appetizer, as a preview of coming attractions. It’s a great album on its own, as Butler’s combination of smooth and gritty is echoed by Gamble and Huff’s setting the blues-based rhythm section to work against pop-based strings and background vocals. The four singles that came from the record were “Never Give You Up” (which went to No. 20 pop, No. 4 R&B), “Hey, Western Union Man,” (No. 16 pop, No. 1, R&B), “Are You Happy” (No. 39 pop, No. 9 R&B) and the record’s single best track, “Only the Strong Survive,” which topped out at No. 4 on the pop chart and at No. 1 for two weeks on the R&B chart.

(Lovers of Elvis Presley will recall that the King covered “Only the Strong Survive” during his sessions in Memphis in early 1969. When they listen to Butler’s version, they’ll see where Elvis got his ideas. Don’t get me wrong: Elvis’ version of “Only the Strong Survive” is a great record. It’s just not as good as the original.)

Track list:
Hey Western Union Man
Can’t Forget About You, Baby
Only The Strong Survive
How Can I Get In Touch With You
Just Because I Really Love You
Never Give You Up
Are You Happy?
(Strange) I Still Love You
Go Away – Find Yourself
I Stop By Heaven

Video unavailable.

Chart Digging: January 27, 1968

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

So what was your faithful narrator doing as January rolled toward its ending in 1968? Well, besides playing my very first tabletop hockey season with Rick and Rob – I’d gotten my game for Christmas the month before – I was heading into the second semester of ninth grade. And one of the classes I recall best from that time is Dick Wilger’s social studies class.

On a regular basis, the students in Mr. Wilger’s class were required to give brief reports on current events, basically reviews of newspaper or magazine pieces. It seems, thinking back, that I gave about four such reports during the school year, all of them based on stories pulled from Sports Illustrated. (I’d begun subscribing to the magazine earlier in the school year, my passion for spectator sports having just started to flower.) I recall that one of the reports I presented was about the early days of the American Basketball Association, then in the first year of its brief life (1967-76). Another was likely about the death in January 1968 of hockey player Bill Masterson of the Minnesota North Stars, which remains the only fatality from a game injury in the history of the National Hockey League.

But I recall Dick Wilger’s ninth-grade social studies class even more because of the career aptitude test we took one day. The results said the communications field would likely suit me; among the careers listed there were disk jockey and sports play-by-play announcer. I imagine newspaper reporter was also listed there, but I didn’t notice anything once I saw those first two jobs listed. I pretty much decided right then that I was going to get a degree in radio, and I was going to earn my living as a sports reporter and play-by-play announcer, probably covering hockey.

That’s not quite how it worked out, of course. I got my degree in radio-TV, yes, but I ended up in newspapering for a number of reasons, the largest one being my ability to imitate a wooden statue when confronted with camera or microphone. But being a newspaper reporter instead of broadcasting Minnesota North Stars games was really only a shift inside the larger world of mass communications; the path to the Monticello Times and all the other newspapers where I left my byline over the years began with the results of that aptitude test in Mr. Wilger’s classroom sometime in early 1968.

The idea of following the other path mentioned – being a disk jockey – did have some appeal. But I didn’t know Top 40 music well enough yet for that idea to grab hold of me and shake me all over. That music was all around me, of course, but I had yet to embrace it the way most of my peers had. Here’s what they – and I, by default – were listening to that week in the Billboard Top Ten for January 27, 1968:

“Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band
“Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin
“Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers
“Woman, Woman” by the Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett
“Bend Me, Shape Me” by the American Breed
“Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles
“Spooky” by the Classics IV
“Daydream Believer” by the Monkees
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight & the Pips
“If I Could Build My Whole Word Around You”
                      by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

That’s a great Top Ten. Puckett could be a little overblown, I guess, but other than that, there’s not a thing wrong with that bunch. And, as usual, there were some interesting things further down in the Billboard Hot 100.

Henson Cargill’s “Skip A Rope,” a laconic cataloging of social ills, was sitting at No. 35 on its way to No. 25. If that description – an accurate one – makes the record sound unappealing, think again. Cargill’s only Hot 100 hit is a compelling listen, and it was No. 1 on the country chart for five weeks. Cargill – who died in 2007 at the age of sixty-six – later had two other singles reach the country chart, one in 1973 and one in 1974, but neither went higher than No. 28.

One of the joys of digging into various weeks’ worth of the Billboard Hot 100 is finding records I’ve never heard before. And when one of those records comes from someone with a hit catalog as deep as Neil Diamond’s, the joy is increased. (And along with the joy comes the thought of “Why the hell haven’t I ever heard this before?”) In the January 27, 1968, Hot 100, my newly discovered Diamond is “New Orleans,” which was sitting at No. 52. A week later, it would peak at No. 51. It was Diamond’s tenth record in the Hot 100; he’d add forty-six more before the string ran out in 1986.

I shared a Jerry Butler album – The Ice Man Cometh – in this space about three years ago, and I think I’ve written briefly about him a couple of other times. I really don’t know the man’s career well, except that I can say that I like everything of his I’ve ever heard. And that includes “Lost,” which was on that album and which I’d probably not thought about during the last three years. The record was sitting at No. 62 in the Hot 100 forty-three year ago today, and it would go no higher there, though it went to No. 15 on the R&B chart. It was Butler’s twenty-fourth record in the Hot 100; he’d end with up with forty-six, the last coming in 1977. (According to the list at All-Music Guide, which may or may not be complete, he had a few more records than that reach the R&B chart.) As the video poster’s introduction notes, “Lost” was produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who – in the 1970s – were among the chief architects of what was called the Philadelphia Sound.

From Chicago/Philadelphia soul, we shift to deep Southern Soul, as we find James Carr and “A Man Needs A Woman” at No. 80. Despite critical accolades, Carr’s imprint on the charts was relatively slight: six singles in the Hot 100 and nine on the R&B chart. Steve Huey of All-Music Guide notes: “Carr never achieved the pop crossover success that could have made him a household name, and his material wasn’t always as distinctive as that of Stax artists like [Otis] Redding or Sam & Dave. Ultimately, though, Carr’s greatest obstacle was himself: he was plagued for much of his life by severe depression that made pursuit of a career – or, for that matter, even single recording sessions – extraordinarily difficult, and derailed his occasional comeback attempts.” “A Man Needs A Woman” peaked at No. 63, where it spent the last week of February and the first two weeks of March. That equaled Carr’s best performance in the Hot 100; “You’ve Got My Mind Messed Up” had reached No. 63 in 1966. On the R&B chart, “A Man Needs A Woman” peaked at No. 16.

From soul and soul to sunshine pop: At No. 87 during the week of January 27, 1968, sat the Epic Splendor and its one Hot 100 hit, “A Little Rain Must Fall.” The Epic Splendor – what a great name for a band! – was made up of five guys from Long Island who recorded this and at least one other single – based on a brief online search – for the also wonderfully named Hot Biscuit Disc Company. The record spent seven weeks in the Hot 100 and got no higher than No. 87.

The Mills Brothers’ career doesn’t look very impressive from the first glance at the group’s entry in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles: Nine records in the Hot 100 between 1955 and 1968. But a look at the fine print at the top of the entry shows another story: Between 1931 and 1954, the legendary vocal group had sixty-one hits, including five that went to No. 1. The record that caught my eye today was “Cab Driver,” the seventh of the Mills Brothers’ modern-era hits, sitting at No. 92 forty-three years ago today, en route to No. 23. The record also went to No. 3 on the chart that is now called Adult Contemporary, and that explains why I know the record as well as I do: I’m absolutely certain I heard it more than once from Dad’s bedside transistor radio – tuned as always to St. Cloud’s middle of the road station, KFAM – as we all prepared to retire.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings, but I’ll certainly be back in two days with a Saturday Single.