Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wolfman Jack on the Charts

Wolfman Jack (born Bob Smith) created such a perfect radio persona that it's hard to imagine him not being around before he started howling from XERF, a 250,000 watt "border blaster" in Ciudad Acuña (near Del Rio, Texas) in 1963. Later in the sixties, the Wolfman's moon-bark and growling jive talk filled American midnight skies thanks to two additional airwave monsters, the Tijuana stations XERB and XEG. He was the hallucinating night driver's companion, the insomniac's blessing and curse, and the juvie's secret accomplice. (He remembers the '50s DJs he cut his fangs on as being "a lot cooler than even the toughest hood in the toughest street gang around.") It all sounds a bit mythical, but George Lucas was one listener who experienced the Wolfman's radio hoodoo and made it quasi mythical by featuring it as a crucial aspect of American Graffiti (1973), the ultimate manifestation of the early seventies nostalgia boom.

For me, what makes Wolfman Jack special among radio legends is that he was a true "personality DJ" fueled by music. Usually the personality jocks are inconvenienced by music while the music wonks tend not to sweat the manner of delivery. It was Wolfman Jack's passion for R&B 45's he discovered in the '50s, most of them oldies by the time he became a household name, that fueled his character and made him so addictive to listeners. This passion is all over his 1995 memoir Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal (written with Byron Laursen), and it's one reason why the book, published only a single month before his death, is such a pleasurable showbiz memoir. Other reasons are its voice, which anyone familiar with him would recognize as his (hats off to Laursen, who transcribed personal interviews), along with remarkable stories like the one where he explains how he joined forces with XERF. That's a tale of shadowy border intrigue, greenbacks in burlap sacks, and gun slinging bandidos worthy of a rock 'n' roll corrido or two.

The post-American Graffiti Wolfman Jack, of course, was a multimedia experience. In addition to ongoing radio work, he was the Midnight Special host from 1973 to 1981, a regular presence on TV commercials ("Clearasil's the triple threat!"), and the guest star/host of many a sitcom, drama, and variety show. All of this activity makes me think about the stuff the Wolfman didn't do. How would his involvement in Happy Days have reshaped the show had his staff not turned down the show's invitation? Or how might his ambitious road show I Saw Radio - featuring tributes to vintage rock 'n' roll, archived clips from classic DJs, and an elaborate set including a massive radio dial - have flourished had it not literally gone up in flames, thanks to some Union thugs? (His recounting of a confrontation between said thugs, the show's road crew, and some Detroit theater security who turned out to be "three of the wimpiest rent-a-cops this side of a Don Knotts film festival" is another story that sticks in my head.)  To his credit, whatever the media situation Wolfman Jack did find himself prowling through, his rock 'n' roll pedigree was always the clear reason why.

Here are a handful of Wolfman Jack-oriented singles that got airplay in the early to mid-'70s and charted in Billboard:

Wolfman Jack - "I Ain't Never Seen a White Man" (1972, #106): This racial equality offering appeared on Wolfman Jack's self-titled solo album, which was his first proper one (pictured above). It featured compositions by Richard Monda, who had already been writing songs for another wolfman and his monster friends on the Groovie Goolies cartoon. As Daddy Dewdrop, Monda took his song "Chick-A-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)", with its Wolfman Jack-influenced lead vocal, to #6 in 1971.

The Guess Who - "Clap for the Wolfman" (1974, #6): Canada got a real case of Wolfman fever in the mid-'70s and this might have had to do with his 1973 stints on WNEW and WNBC in New York City.  He credits this hit single and the Guess Who (who took him out on the road) for getting him out of what he describes as a self-destructive situation in the Big Apple.

Ray Stevens - "Moonlight Special" (1974, #73): A pretty funny parody featuring "The Sheepdog" introducing acts like "Mildred Queen and the Dips" (Gladys Knight and the Pips), "Agnes Stupor" (Alice Cooper), and "J. Joe Harry Lee Jimmy Bimmy" (Jerry Lee Lewis). This was Stevens' followup single for his chart-topping "The Streak."

Todd Rundgren - "Wolfman Jack (featuring Wolfman Jack)" (1974, #105): On Rundgren's 1972 Something/Anything? album, this song (which doubles up as a terrific Motown tribute), appears without the Wolfman's voice anywhere. The 1974 single release of "Wolfman Jack," though, rectified the situation.

Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta - "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" (1974, #9): This Denver group was simply called "Sugarloaf" when they hit #3 with "Green Eyed Lady" in 1970. With this single, they were officially "Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta," since Corbetta had been working as a solo artist for another label before getting back together with the old gang. "Don't Call Us" razzes on CBS Records, who had recently rejected the band, and includes the dialtones to the label's private number. Also featured: winks to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder along with an imitation of the Wolfman.

The Stampeders - "Hit the Road Jack" (1975, #40): More Canadian love for the Wolfman, this time from the Calgary trio who scored a #8 hit in 1971 with "Sweet City Woman." Lacking in Ray Charles buoyancy, the single's still fun with contributions from Wolfman Jack himself. In 1976 and 1977 he would host a TV variety series called The Wolfman Jack Show, which was filmed in Vancouver and syndicated to the US.

Wings - "Listen to What the Man Said" (1975, #1): Although the radio version of this Paul McCartney smash often didn't include it, the Venus and Mars album version starts out with a spoken Wolfman Jack intro: "Heh, heh, very good to see you down in New Orleans, heh, heh, yeah, yeah..."

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)" (1976, #29): This Sha Na Na-style '50s tribute band (also from Colorado, like Sugarloaf) appeared in American Graffiti as the prom combo and contributed the only freshly-recorded material to the movie's soundtrack album. An eventual team up with Wolfman Jack, then, seemed natural, even if it ended up sounding more like something from Happy Days' shark-jumping era. (Certain pressings of this single, for some reason, omitted his spoken interludes.)

Late '70s Bonus:
Tammy Wynette - "(I'd Like to See Jesus) On the Midnight Special" (1978, country #26): Wolfman Jack's response: "...To my knowledge, the Son of God never made a personal appearance for us [on the Midnight Special]. But practically everybody else in show business eventually did" (Have Mercy, p. 263).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Radio Memoirs: Superjock

Published in 1975, Larry Lujack's Superjock captures him freshly arrived at the top of Chicago's Top 40 airwaves. He was working the afternoon drive shift at WCFL ("The Voice of Labor") when this came out, a few years after the station, programmed by the brilliant John Rook, had managed to outpace the ratings of powerful WLS (where Lujack had previously worked until 1972). This would all come undone by 1976, though, when CFL switched formats to "The World's Most Beautiful Music," prompting Lujack, a few months later, to move back to WLS, where he'd stay until 1987.  (You can hear Lujack handling the 1976 format transition on YouTube, playing Reunion's "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" and following it up with ocean sounds.)

Although music programming philosophy is the side of radio history that interests me most, I still gobble up books like these and wish that every notable radio jock would write one. Superjock alternates between memoir and zinger-filled on-air/off-mic dialogues between Lujack and his producer/engineer "Spacey Dave," who's got a thing for records by Rare Earth. Like Don Imus, Lujack was one of the best of the new breed of early '70s Top 40 DJs who came across as the over-caffeinated grouch, seemingly hungover from the exuberance of the "boss radio" years. He'd pepper the playlists with two-to-three minute "Animal Stories," "The Klunk Letter of the Day," "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" and other features, projecting a resigned sense of "can you believe this?" This crucial attitude accompanies the irreverent material in Superjock and makes it funny. The loudmouth approach to today's morning drive time radio, which mostly comes across as spiteful and is done at the expense of music airtime, is both an unfortunate legacy for Lujack (who passed away in December 2013) and a testament of his influence.

Some tidbits from the book:

"Any kid of mine who wanted to be a disk jockey, I'd kick his head in" (p. 22).

"A DJ's life is ... accurately portrayed by Harry Chapin in the song about radio staton 'WOLD,' a very depressing story about the rise and fall of a Top 40 jock: the drinkin', divorce, and driftin'. You mothers who don't want your infant son to waste his life by becoming a rock jock the kid a copy of that record and make him listen to it over and over" (p. 29).

"In the late sixties and early seventies, when objections were raised to songs on the radio with drug-oriented lyrics, the popular radio cop-out was 'Well, we're not endorsing the stuff, nor are we encouraging its use. We're simply playing the music that reflects what's happening in today's society, the music the public wants to hear.' What crap! By playing those songs we endorsed it; we made drugs seem 'in,' hip, sophisticated. We helped make martyrs of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They weren't heroes, just ignorant people" (p. 33).

"A few years back there was a girl singer who reportedly made the rounds of all the big radio stations in the large markets offering her sexual favors to music directors and DJs in return for airplay of her first record. I say reportedly because I didn't happen to be there the day she dropped by the station I was working at then. But the story came from all over the country; so it must have been true. It worked. The record sold several million and established her as a major nightclub performer" (p. 61; I have my theories).

Lujack describes Janis Joplin as the "absolute snottiest person" he ever met (p. 79), Nancy Sinatra's behavior as being similar to a "pizza waitress," and the Monkees as juvenile, "silly little f*cks" (pp. 79-84). Tiny Tim, on the other hand, is described as a "very intelligent guy, one of the nicest people I've ever met in this business and really fun to talk to" (p. 84).

And this, from his real-life American Grafitti teenage years in Idaho:

"The biggest hood at Caldwell High School [Lujack's alma mater] was two years ahead of me. His first name was Revere. He was in a gang called the 'Nemows' (pronounced with a long 'e' and a long 'o': rhymes with Creamo). The derivation of the name? I'll give you a hint. It concerns something the gang was always in search of. You might as well give up; you'll never get it. Leave off the 's' and spell it backward.

"The Nemows were incredible idiots. At basketball games they would gather outside and wait till everyone was seated and the game had begun. Midway through the first quarter they would make their grand entrance. Twenty guys all wearing Levis and identical leather jackets would march single file all the way around the gym and then back out the door. They didn't give a sh*t about the game. They just wanted to make sure everybody saw them and noticed how cool they were.

"You'd look at Revere and think, 'No way is that sonofab*tch ever going to amount to anything. He'll end up doing either 20 years for armed robbery or life for murder.' So guess who the blond guy was who played piano for Paul  Revere and the Raiders, one of the biggest rock bands in the early and middle sixties?" (p. 98).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

God Rock Sunday: Amazing Grace


Judy Collins - "Amazing Grace" (1970, Billboard #15)

Often pointed to as evidence of early '70s radio listeners' quirky tastes, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards' 1972 version of "Amazing Grace" caught fire in the UK on late night BBC radio after which it marched into the American Top 40. Less of a reflection on any public hankering for bagpipe music, the record had everything to do with the Jesus Movement, which would send an unprecedented number of religion-theme songs to the top of the charts during this era. (Efforts by these Scottish drummers drumming and pipers piping to advance on the Harry Simeon Chorale's traditional Christmas pop chart turf with their own 1972 version of "Little Drummer Boy" fell short.)

The words for "Amazing Grace" were written by English poet and Christian clergyman John Newton and first published in 1779. In 1829, an American Baptist song leader named William Walker merged Newton's words with the familiar melody "New Britain," and it was under this title that certain 19th century versions of "Amazing Grace" were published.  It's tempting to connect the "New Britain" title with the song's stirring suitability for bagpipe music and assume British origins, but no evidence seems to take it farther than the USA.  

In late 1970, folk singer Judy Collins paved the way for the Royal Scots' invasion by releasing an a cappella version of the song backed by a choir which she took to #15. ("Amazing Grace" had become a staple among sixties folk revivalists.) It appeared on her Whales and Nightingales album, which also included her a cappella version of the British folk song "Farewell to Tarwathie," backed by humpback whales. The unique relationship of the Judy Collins and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recordings of "Amazing Grace," one being voice-only and the other being music-only, begs for a mashup. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chart Song Cinema: Lost Horizon

I don't know if "cursed" is the right word, but Lost Horizon, the 1973 musical remake of the classic '30s film, was a critical and financial failure that represented the end of the road for a number of things. It was arguably the last gasp of the epic and earnest Sound of Music-style movie musical. It was the final film production the once-prolific Ross Hunter would ever undertake.  It was the last consecutive project Burt Bacharach and Hal David would work on together as the indomitable songwriting duo that generated some 70+ charting classics throughout the sixties and early seventies. And the movie's three charting songs would be "lasts" for the artists who recorded them: Shawn Phillips's "Lost Horizon" was his last song to reach Billboard's Hot 100; the 5th Dimension's "Living Together, Growing Together" was their last Top 40 hit; and Tony Bennett's version of the same song was his very last charting single. (It was the second-to-last for the Mike Curb Congregation, who shared the single's billing.)

At one of my readings someone from the audience asked me what had happened to the old conception of the "Great American Songbook," the body of songs written by well-loved tunesmiths that recording artists would all rush to record.  I did happen to address this in my book, in which I talk about the advent of Elvis, and how singular personalities and recordings put to test the dated notion of "the song not the singer" by the late fifties (as did the Beatles in the sixties, whose oft-covered oeuvre reflected their magnetic personae as much as their songcraft). This made choral performances of hits like "Hound Dog" and "Tutti Frutti" on Your Hit Parade sound ridiculous.  The answer that leapt off my tongue for this question, though, was "Lost Horizon."

It was a good answer - in late '72 and early '73, before the film debuted, artists like Ed Ames, Ronnie Aldrich, 101 Strings, Hugo Montenegro and Guy Chandler, along with the previously mentioned Tony Bennett and 5th Dimension, made noise on Billboard with Lost Horizon renditions and high hopes, only to cower in embarrassment after the film spontaneously combusted in public. Never again would a "songbook" be ransacked in such a way. Such a bomb was Lost Horizon that it scorched both the Bacharach-David hit-making dynasty and damaged the songwriters' relationship. "The movie was so personally embarrassing that it almost destroyed me," says Bacharach in his Anyone Who Had a Heart memoir. "The day after it opened, I got in the car and drove down to Del Mar to escape because I thought nobody down there would know me" (p. 159).

Did Lost Horizon singlehandedly kill all these careers and entertainment industry templates? No, it just made a production, so to speak, out of their illnesses. It also misjudged the early '70s zeitgeist, asking it to accept a sunny, youth-preserving shangri-la nestled among frigid mountains with none of the science or theory that was turning books like Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth into bestsellers.  It asked civil rights-conscious viewers to buy into a paradise in which Caucasian colonizers enjoyed the servitude of Sherpas. And it asked moviegoers to savor its sophisticated songs but to forgive its low grade vocals and choreography.

My own view of Lost Horizon - and I'm not being coy here - is that it should be understood as a horror film. It's the perfect twin bill for The Wicker Man, a British film that also came out in 1973 and similarly dealt with an isolated society that brings in a chosen outsider. If one embraces the unsettling aspects of Lost Horizon as intentional, the movie begins to make sense, taking on an air of offbeat darkness. Here Sally Kellerman's strained vocals and awkward dance moves become edgy and appropriately unhinged. Liv Ullman's "The World Is a Circle" number, and also "Living Together, Growing Together," with all of the flailing arms and reproductive language, make them compelling companion pieces to the Wicker Man's pagan maypole and "leap fire" numbers.  Yes - I believe that if Lost Horizon was, in fact, cursed, it's because it had a horror flick genetic code that wasn't treated properly by Columbia Pictures marketing. Had the salesmanship been thusly attended to, beguiling Bacharach-David melodies and words like "Share the Joy" might have been as readily remembered today as the Exorcist theme or the lullaby from Rosemary's Baby.

Tony Bennett with the Mike Curb Congregation - "Living Together, Growing Together" (1972, Billboard #111): It must have stung Bacharach and David to have written a racial equality song for a film that ended up being roundly criticized for racial inequality.

The 5th Dimension - "Living Together, Growing Together" (1973, Billboard #32)

Shawn Phillips - "Lost Horizon" (1973, Billboard #69)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

WPOP - The Music Revolution

The lifespan of WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, paralleled the golden years of AM Top 40. At only 5,000 watts, it managed to generate enough energy and excitement to keep it running from the late fifties all the way to the the mid-seventies with on air alumni like Joey Reynolds, Lee "Baby" Simms, Jack Armstrong, and Greaseman. You can hear Greaseman's 1975 goodbye show on the station's last day (he was the morning man during its final two years) via his website. One of the many Top 40 stations that used "The Good Guys" as its slogan, it adopted "The Music Revolution!" in later years, as seen in this 1974 logo I found at the Airheads Radio Survey Archive. A WPOP tribute site contains more info and memorabilia, including a forlorn photo of the abandoned transmitter station in Newington.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Memories of Elephant's Memory

Elephant's Memory - "Crossroads of the Stepping Stones" (1969, Billboard #120)
Elephant's Memory - "Mongoose" (1970, Billboard #50)
John Lennon/Yoko Ono - "Woman Is the N***er of the World" (1972, Billboard #57)

Elephant's Memory is best known as the New York City band that backed up John Lennon and Yoko Ono between 1971 and 1973, including their 1972 Sometime in New York City album.  The 45 for that album's ham-handed "Woman Is the N***er of the World" is credited to "John Lennon/Yoko Ono with Elephant's Memory and Invisible Strings." (I talk about the single's soft rock aspects in my "Pillow Talk" chapter, along with its role as a manifestation of the feminized left.)

Before its alliance with Lennon, the group had roused the faith of Buddah Records chief Neil Bogart, much to the chagrin of future mega-manager and recent memoirist Ron Weisner:

"Like every A&R person in history, Neil's ears and heart sometimes led him astray, the most notable instance being a sloppy rock band called Elephant's Memory... How and why they managed to make a name for themselves was beyond me, because they were terrible, a true train wreck of a group...I knew that Elephant's Memory had no chance of succeeding beyond their core fan base of Lower East Side drug heads, because they themselves were Lower East Side drug heads..." (Listen Out Loud, pp. 20-21).

Aside from the Lennon single, the group had two other Billboard chart appearances. A rather catchy Harper's Bizarre-like 1969 single called "Crossroads of the Stepping Stones" bubbled under at #120 (with a B-side, "Jungle Gym at the Zoo," that appeared on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack). After that, a single called "Mongoose," as I've pointed out earlier, charted alongside a mongoose single by Donovan in 1970. (Bonus Wikipedia factoid: Carly Simon briefly sang with the group in '68.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

God Rock Sunday: Pacific Gas & Electric


Pacific Gas & Electric - "Are You Ready?" (1970, Billboard #14)
Pacific Gas & Electric - "Father, Come on Home" (1970, Billboard #93)
PG&E - "Thank God for You, Baby" (1972, Billboard #97, soul #50)

The Los Angeles soul rock outfit Pacific Gas & Electric made their mark with the 1970 Jesus hit "Are You Ready?" This Top 20 hit begins by acknowledging the Vietnam War and ecological concerns ("There's rumors of war/Men dying and women crying/If you breathe air you'll die") before stirring up a fuzz guitar/gospel choir frenzy. The group had two lesser-known charting hits: "Father Come on Home," a 45-only release that also uses a gospel choir to addictive effect, and "Thank God for You, Baby," which evokes the Almighty in title only (and charted at #50 on the Billboard soul chart). This third one is billed to "PG&E" as a result of helpful feedback from a certain utility company.

Featuring lead vocalist (and Arthur Lee-lookalike) Charlie Allen along with former James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz, Pacific Gas & Electric likely had Schwartz to thank for its God rock tendency. He had been converted to Christianity by street preacher Arthur Blessitt, the "Minister of Sunset Strip" who is now best known for carrying a cross through every nation of the world. As for the wince-inducing album cover for the group's Are You Ready?, I'm curious if there's any more to the story than Columbia Records simply wanting to shake up perceptions.