Monday, July 1, 2013

Miss Abrams: The Early '70s Charting Singles

Although the enchanting 1970 single "Mill Valley," credited to Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point School Third Grade Class, only peaked at #90, it seemed to awaken an ear for the voices of children in pop radio. In a 2010 San Francisco Chronicle retrospective, Joel Selvin describes it as a "turntable hit" that got more airplay than record sales, but it nonetheless ushered in an early '70s hit parade of songs featuring kid vocals, childhood images, or topics related to family living. Songs like these were all over Top 40 and MOR formats, functioning like a mass media dialogue between adults and children. A few more singles after "Mill Valley" also found their way to the easy listening singles chart, with a full album finally appearing in late 1972. A CD reissue on the Varese Sarabande label gathered everything up and tossed in an (uncharacteristically) unsettling child-vocal outtake called "Sad Night."

"Mill Valley" (1970)
Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point School Third Grade Class

Written by Rita Abrams * Produced by Erik Jacobsen and Rita Abrams * 45: "Mill Valley" / "The Happiest Day of My Life" * LP: Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class (1972) * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Easy listening (#13), Hot 100 (#90) * Entered: 1970-07-25 (easy listening) * 1970-08-01 (Hot 100)

Richie Unterberger's liner notes for the CD reissue of Rita Abrams' only album, billed to "Miss Abrams and Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class," report that Abrams, a Mill Valley transplant from Ohio, had written the song for the kindergarteners she taught. Producer Erik Jacobsen, an acquaintance of hers, then hatched the idea of making a studio recording with a musically tighter 3rd grade class (they were 4th graders by the time the album came out—hence the disparity between the billing on the 45 and LP), resulting in a track that drew out a standing ovation from the suits at a Warner Bros. sales meeting when they heard it.

Radio airplay and appearances by Abrams on the Steve Allen Show and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour helped turn the single into a national hit. (It was Terry McGovern at KSFO in San Francisco who gave it its first spin.) The song lilted on a cloud of warm electric piano and the sound of a wooden recorder, which had a way of signifying "school" in listeners' minds, possibly because of its standard use in early-grade music classes; it also tootled in the theme music for the popular public school-themed TV show Room 222, which began a five-season run in 1969. Abrams' double tracked lead vocal found a doppelganger the following year on the self-titled debut album by fellow Northern Californian Judee Sill. The track and its promo clip (filmed by Francis Ford Coppola) still have the power to transport listeners to an idyllic Mill Valley of the mind. Side B contains another recorder-flavored charmer (which borrows a minor key musical figure from the Turtles' "You Baby") written by Abrams, but it would not appear on the 1972 album.

Side A: "Mill Valley"

Side B: "The Happiest Day of My Life"

"Buildin' a Heaven on Earth" (1970)
Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point
Fourth Grade

Written by Norman Greenbaum * Produced by Erik Jacobsen and Rita Abrams * 45: "Buildin' a Heaven on Earth" / "This Time of Life" * LP: Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class (1972) * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Easy listening (#39) * Entered: 1971-01-09

Miss Abrams' co-producer Erik Jacobsen was a studio veteran who had worked with the Lovin' Spoonful, Tim Hardin, and Sopwith Camel, and he was fresh off of doing "Spirit in the Sky," a massive #3 hit for Norman Greenbaum when he teamed up with the Mill Valley grade school teacher. This explains their access to an exclusive song written by Greenbaum called "Buildin' a Heaven on Earth," featuring slide guitar and a contemporary rock attitude. The flipside's "This Time of Life," with its bouncy feel similar to "Mill Valley," was a sung dialogue between Abrams and her kids about the contradictory human needs for dependence and independence.

Side A: "Buildin' a Heaven on Earth"

Side B: "This Time of Life"

"Wonder" (1970)
Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point
4th Grade Class

Written by Rita Abrams * Produced by Erik Jacobsen and Rita Abrams * 45: "Wonder" / "I Never Asked" * LP: Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class (1972) * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Easy listening (#37) * Entered: 1971-07-03

"Wonder," with its strings-and-flute arrangement, made for an easy transition to MOR playlists in the summer of '71. Side B featured no children, only Miss Abrams singing a major-seventh chord composition called "I Never Asked." Despite its title, it uses musical "question" techniques, such as the inclusion of a wavering Vox organ. After all three singles had run their course on radio, the Miss Abrams and the Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class album, collecting all the singles (except for the "Mill Valley" B side "The Happiest Day of My Life") plus five more songs, would finally appear in September 1972. 

Side A: "Wonder"

Side B: "I Never Asked"

"America (Let's Get Started Again)" (1975)
Miss Abrams and the  Strawberry Point 
Fourth Grade Class

Written by Rita Abrams * Produced by Erik Jacobsen, Rita Abrams, and Ken Melville * 45: "America (Let's Get Started Again) (Mono)" / "America (Let's Get Started Again) (Stereo)" * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: —

The post-Nixon pre-Bicentennial year of 1975 called for one more offering—"America (Let's Get Started Again)"—by Abrams and her 4th graders. (The original group would have been 7th or 8th graders at this point.) A banjo points to the past while a synthesizer points to the "beautiful dream of all that our country could be" on this promo-only release.

"America (Let's Get Started Again)"

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