Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Food and "Whiteness" at MGM Records

"Milk and cookies," "milquetoast," "whipped cream" and "white bread" were terms one expected to hear in reference to MGM acts like the Cowsills, the Osmonds, and Pat Boone (an actual dairy spokesman) during the late '60s/early '70s. Helmed by the future Republican governor of California, Mike Curb, the label strove to project a clean, family-oriented image amid the unprecedented drug- and sex-friendliness of the music industry of the day. In response to the FCC's call for less narcotics on the airwaves, for example, Curb made Billboard headlines in 1970 by dropping 18 of his "progressive rock" and "hard drug groups" all at once. Curb also viewed the food-related descriptions mentioned above, evidently, as positive signifiers of cleanliness and whiteness or, maybe, whiteness-as-cleanliness. The Mike Curb Congregation's own "Sweet Gingerbread Man" (1970), though, demonstrated that no one was above the almighty double entendre.

The Cowsills surrounding a tower of white bread in the gatefold of The Cowsills (1967)

Whipped cream cake and dairy cows on the back of the Osmonds' Homemade (1971)

Milk as a central image for a 1972 Cashbox ad for Pat Boone and the Boone Girls' "Mr. Blue" single

The Mike Curb Congregation's "Sweet Gingerbread Man," in contrast, peddled cookies as "tasty and tan," naughty and nice.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Angst-Ridden Hits of R. Dean Taylor

Motown Records created its Rare Earth subsidiary specifically for white artists and named it in honor of the cowbell-clanking combo that had been sending Motown covers like "Get Ready" and "(I Know) I'm Losing You" up the charts. One of the label's other signings, R. Dean Taylor, was a Canadian who already had a Motown track record, having co-written the Supremes’ “Love Child” and the Temptations’ “All I Need,” among others. All of the singles Taylor charted with in the US under his own name - all of which happened in the early seventies - bristled with angst.

1. R. Dean Taylor - "Indiana Wants Me" (Billboard #5, entered 9/5/70). Written and produced by R. Dean Taylor. 45: "Indiana Wants Me"/"Love's Your Name" (Rare Earth 1970). LP: I Think, Therefore I Am (Rare Earth 1970).

Taylor's one all-out smash takes the point of view of a killer on the run. The first pressing's opening sirens - a radio no-no - disappeared on future pressings.

2. R. Dean Taylor - "Ain't It a Sad Thing" (Billboard #66, entered 2/13/71). Written and produced by R. Dean Taylor. 45: "Ain't It a Sad Thing"/"Back Street" (Rare Earth 1971). LP: I Think, Therefore I Am (Rare Earth 1970).

Here Taylor marches in step with the times and worries about the environment. Although the sentiment was downbeat, the whistle chorus was definitely upbeat.

3. R. Dean Taylor - "Gotta See Jane" (Billboard #67, entered 4/17/71). Written by R. Dean Taylor and Ron Miller. Produced by R. Dean Taylor. 45: "Gotta See Jane"/"Back Street" (Rare Earth 1971). LP: I Think, Therefore I Am.

Taylor's third charting single was nothing but romantic desperation, stomach-knots and remorse, and you sort of hope, for the good of both parties, that he doesn't find Jane. This was first released in 1967 on the V.I.P. label with "Don't Fool Around" on the flipside.

4. R. Dean Taylor - "Candy Apple Red" (Billboard #104, entered 7/31/71). Written and produced by R. Dean Taylor. 45: "Candy Apple Red"/"Woman Alive" (Rare Earth 1971).  LP: (no album appearance).

We know Taylor well enough by now to brace ourselves for trouble. "Candy apple red" is the color of his lost lover's lips, yes, but it's also the "color of his life" as he watches it "slip away." Here's the bridge: "I can't turn back...things are turning black...my hands are numb... here it comes... here it comes..." Are those sirens I hear?

5. R. Dean Taylor - "Taos New Mexico" (Billboard #83, entered 4/15/72). Written and produced by R. Dean Taylor. 45: "Taos New Mexico"/"Shadow" (Rare Earth 1972). LP: (no album appearance).

"I'm serving time in Taos, New Mexico," goes the chorus, after which "he'll never leave" his girlfriend Maria alone. He's in jail, but the cheerful flutes and Mexican brass suggest it might be best that way.

1974 Bonus:

R. Dean Taylor - "There's a Ghost in My House" (UK #3). Written by Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and R. Dean Taylor. Produced by Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier. 45: "There's a Ghost in My House"/"Let's Go Somewhere" (Tamla Motown 1967).

In the UK Taylor is best known for this frantic, fuzzed-out track from 1967 that reached #3 as a 1974 re-release thanks to its popularity in the "northern soul" clubs where forgotten American R&B records filled the floors. Co-written with Motown's Holland, Dozier and Holland, it compares the horror of infidelity with that of paranormal experience.

Monday, August 8, 2011

KVET (Austin): Country, 1969-present

KVET is one of Austin's oldest stations, launching in 1946 and disseminating much of the city's local music during its first two-and-a-half decades. In 1969 the station locked into formatted country, with deejays like Jerry Gee (also a program director), Sammy "Geezinslaw" Allred, and Pete Grady.

In 1970, Billboard reported station president John R. Kreiger as having had all he could take of "records containing profanity" and that he'd be banning certain popular disks from KVET. For country, this was the era of experimentation and fear: radio stations and the records they spun were going through unprecedented changes, while a definite "hell in a hand basket" feeling troubled the establishment and expressed itself in various ways, such as this action of Kreiger's. Artists mentioned in the article as having crossed KVET's decency line were future outlaw Waylon Jennings (no big surprise) and "Nashville sound" pioneer Eddy Arnold (very big surprise).

The Jennings song in question was "The Taker," a Shel Silverstein-Kris Kristofferson co-creation containing the lines "he'll do her the way that I'd never, damned if he won't do her wrong" and "he'll take her to places and make her fly higher than she's ever dared to." (This ended up being one of Waylon's earlier monsters, hitting #5 on the country chart and infiltrating the Hot 100). As for Eddy Arnold, the song in question was his "A Man's Kind of Woman," in which he sings, "I can cheat the world with a losing hand, walk away and not give a damn except for you."

Two other country singles listed as being in trouble at KVET were (1) "Hey Joe," a track credited to Dean Michaels (very little info anywhere about who this was) from the Joe soundtrack featuring bleeped-out expletives and no connection with the Leaves/Hendrix song, and (2) Roy Clark's "I Never Picked Cotton" (like "The Taker," a top five country hit), which depicts voluntary manslaughter and features the line "there ain't a hell of a lot that I can look back on with pride."

Any future record-banning practices never made the pages of Billboard, and KVET stands firm to this day as one of Austin's country radio heavyweights. Some recent profanity flareups, though, involved the aforementioned Sammy Allred, whose utterances cost him his longtime gig in 2007.

Eddy Arnold - "A Man's Kind of Woman" (Billboard country #28, entered 7/11/70). Written by George Rizzo Produced by Chet Atkins. 45: "A Man's Kind of Woman"/"Living Under Pressure" (Billboard flipside, entered 7/11/70). Written by Baker Knight. (RCA Victor 1970). LP. Love and Guitars (1970).

Not mentioned in any of the Billboard articles was "Living Under Pressure," a me-generation relationship song that charted as a country flipside and included the following line: "The trying test of time they could not weather, deciding straight to hell with yesterday." So the single was, in fact, a double-sided Eddy Arnold swear-fest.

Waylon Jennings - "The Taker" (Billboard #94, entered 10/17/70; country #5). Written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein. Produced by Danny Davis. 45: "The Taker"/"Shadow of the Gallows" (RCA Victor 1970). LP: The Taker (RCA Victor 1970).

The B-side appeared in a 1970 Australian film called Ned Kelly starring Mick Jagger with a beard. And you thought you knew your seventies.

Roy Clark - "I Never Picked Cotton" (Billboard #122, entered 6/13/70; country #5). Written by Charlie Williams and Bobby George. Produced by Joe Allison. 45: "I Never Picked Cotton"/"Lonesome Too Long" (Dot 1970). LP: I Never Picked Cotton (Dot 1970).

Johnny Cash revived this steel-eyed classic on his 1996 Unchained album.

Dean Michaels - "Hey Joe" (did not chart) Written by Bobby Scott and Danny Meehan. Produced by Bob Cullen. 45: "Hey Joe" (stereo)/"Hey Joe" (mono) (Mercury 1970). LP: Joe (original soundtrack) (Mercury 1970).

Although this non-charting song comes off as a country parody, evidence suggests it infiltrated more than a few legitimate playlists.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The WDAS-FM Black Rock LP


In early 1971, Philadelphia's WDAS-FM switched from a "progressive rock" format to "progressive soul." ("Progressive" in early '70s radio lingo meant "album-oriented.") This was apparently prompted by owner Max Leon's exasperation over the inability of his on-air staff (which included his son Steve) to stay on the right side of the FCC by not airing drug-friendly records. With LeBaron Taylor as station manager, WDAS become one of Philadelphia's legendary stations and still stands tall as an adult-oriented R&B outlet.

A late '72 promo album called WDAS-FM Black Rock gives us a good look at the format philosophy that gave the station its pioneering legacy. Benefiting from its album-rock background, the station's progressive soul offerings were picked "exactly in the same way progressive rock stations pick their music," as Taylor says in a late '71 Billboard. The term "black rock" never stuck - early WDAS was probably too experimental, even incorporating jazz into playlists, for such a narrow label. And by the latter part of the decade, soul had softened enough for it to seem unthinkable.

The playlist (links take you to YouTube):

Africa - "Here I Stand" (1968): Africa was an updated incarnation of the Valiants ("This Is the Night"). Their Music from "Lil Brown" LP, with album art mimicking the Band's Music from Big Pink owes as much to the Isley Brothers' "Your Old Lady" as it does to Haitian voodoo music. "Here I Stand," though, could have been nailed by the late '60s Dells.

Mandrill - "Symphonic Revolution" (1970): Nowadays we recognize the term "progressive" to signify "ambitious," "complicated," or "on the long side." Along those lines, this War-meets-King Crimson track, which is taken from Mandrill's debut LP, is one of this compilation's most "progressive soul" tracks.

Earth, Wind and Fire - "I Think About Lovin' You" (1971): This drowsy #44 R&B hit, having appeared on the group's sophomore LP The Need of Love by the time Black Rock came out, features the vocals of Sherry Scott and manages to offer few hints of the group's explosive glory days to come.

Jerry Butler - "I'm a Telling You" (1961): This is one of "Iceman" Jerry Butler's many early '60s Curtis Mayfield-penned tracks, and it's cut from the same cloth as "He Will Break Your Heart," which also featured background vocals by Mayfield. Standing in as this compilation's important "oldie" representative, "I'm a Telling You" hit #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #8 on the soul charts, and is only the second song I know of to mention "baseball shoes." (Claire Hamill's "Baseball Blues" is the other.)

The Impressions - "Choice of Colors" (1969): This sophisticated Impressions classic, a staple on many a Top 40 station promo comp for its ambassadorial qualities, is actually credited on this album to songwriter and head Impression Curtis Mayfield (see above). The song was a #1 soul hit and reached #21 on the Hot 100.

The Counts - "Why Not Start All Over Again" (1971): The Counts, from Detroit, were led by alto sax player Demo Cates and first made their mark as the Fabulous Counts ("Get Down People"). This funky track features Levi Stubbs-like vocal outbursts and an extended B3 organ solo.

Rotary Connection - "Peace at Last" (1968): Funkadelic meets the Delfonics on this Christmas track explaining how St. Nick works his magic by getting stoned on mistletoe. Lyrical refrain: "He's an institution/We like him like he is." (A controversial December 1968 Billboard ad for Rotary Connection's Peace album depicted Santa as a war casualty.)

Richie Havens - "Just Like a Woman" (1967): Havens' notoriety as a Woodstock vet made him a shoo-in for a compilation like this, but so did his habit of rephrasing Dylan and the Beatles in worthwhile ways.

Quincy Jones - "Money Runner" (1972): Although Quincy Jones qualified as a seasoned music biz pro long before this, "Money Runner" was only his second Hot 100 hit, peaking at #57. Taken from the soundtrack for the heist movie $ starring Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn, this cut, along with those by Earth, Wind and Fire and the Persuasions, served as one of the Black Rock compilation's other hot new offerings.

The Persuasions - "Buffalo Soldier" (1971): This stentorian recording by the still-active kings of a cappela, taken from their third album (Street Corner Symphony), still had that new record smell when this compilation came out.

Joe Cuba - "Bang Bang" (1966): Cuba-tinged dance tracks that found an easy fit with soul playlists in the '60s were called "boogaloo." Although the genre was no longer in its prime by '72, quintessential tracks like the Joe Cuba Sextet's "Bang Bang" (with its "cornbread, hog maw, and chitterlings" refrain) had all kinds of business joining this "black rock" party.

Demon Fuzz - "Hymn to Mother Earth" (1970): This is the other truly "progressive soul" song on the compilation according to our present-day understanding of that term. Although it shows up here in edited form, "Hymn to Mother Earth" clocks in at over 8 minutes on Afreaka, Demon Fuzz's only album.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When's the new Humble Pie album coming out?

Ads like this one in a 1971 issue of Cash Box launched records toward ever-specific audiences. Did A&M really need to worry about an age/gender issue with Humble Pie, though? (Neil Zlozower, the kid in the photo, went on to become a well-known rock photographer.)