Tuesday, December 31, 2013

KSTP (Minneapolis): Top 40, 1973-1976

In 1973, Minneapolis MOR station KSTP gave itself a makeover, switching to a more rock-oriented Top 40 format and bringing in air talent like Jim "Captain Whammo" Channell and Machine Gun Kelly. Its heyday as the Twin Cities' "15 KSTP - The Music Station" lasted till around 1976 when it switched back to a more adult contemporary sound. You can hear a portion of Machine Gun Kelly's 1973 New Years Eve countdown of the 150 best pop songs of all time (at one point attempting to skip Henry Mancini's rendition of "Romeo and Juliet") at Rick Burnett's Twin Cities Radio Airchecks. The blue KSTP image comes courtesy of Radio Sticker of the Day.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ray Price's early '70s pop chart streak


Ray Price, who we lost today at age 87, was one of early '70s country radio's crossover kings. As the Billboard ads above illustrate, a country artist's ability to chart in multiple genres was something to brag about in an industry eager to bust out of an insular phase. Although there's much more to Price's extraordinary legacy than this, his streak of six pop chart appearances between 1970 and 1973 bear special notice here. The orchestrated countrypolitan sounds that led Price to the pop and easy listening charts during this era may still offend the ears of some hardcore country fans, but there's no denying the interpretive authority of a true master, whatever the genre, when you listen to these:

Ray Price - "For the Good Times" (Billboard #11, entered 8/29/70; country #1). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by Don Law. 45: "For the Good Times"/"Grazin' in Greener Pastures" (Columbia 1970). LP: For the Good Times (Columbia 1970).

These six records also stand as memorials to Don Law's final years of prominence.

Ray Price - "I Won't Mention It Again" (Billboard #42, entered 3/20/71; country #1). Written by Cam Mullins, produced by Don Law. 45: "I Won't Mention It Again"/"Kiss the World Goodbye" (Columbia 1971). LP: I Won't Mention It Again (Columbia 1971).

Cam Mullins gets label credit as the arranger/conductor for this, but he took care of those roles for all of these.

Ray Price - "I'd Rather Be Sorry" (Billboard #70, entered 8/14/71; country #2). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by Don Law. 45: "I'd Rather Be Sorry"/"When I Loved Her" (Columbia 1971). LP: I Won't Mention It Again (Columbia 1971).

Ray Price - "The Lonesomest Lonesome" (Billboard #109, entered 4/29/72; country #2). Written by Mac Davis. Produced by Don Law. 45: "The Lonesomest Lonesome"/"That's What Leaving's All About" (Columbia 1972). LP: The Lonesomest Lonesome (Columbia 1972).

Ray Price - "She's Got to Be a Saint" (Billboard #93, entered 1/6/73; country #1). Written by Joe Paulini and Mike DiNapoli. Produced by Don Law. 45: "She's Got to Be a Saint"/"Oh Lonesome Me" (Columbia 1973). LP: She's Got to Be a Saint (Columbia 1973).

Ray Price - "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" (Billboard #82, entered 8/25/73; country #1). Written by Jim Weatherly. Produced by Don Law. 45: "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me"/"Like a First Time Thing" (Columbia 1973).

More crossing over: Gladys Knight and the Pips took their version of this song to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1974 and #1 on the soul chart. No more Price singles reached the Hot 100 after this, although his country chart success continued until 1982.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

WIXY (Cleveland): Top 40, 1965-1976

One of the nation's liveliest Top 40 stations in the late sixties, Cleveland's legendary WIXY 1260 (say the call letters like a word) made it all the way to 1976 before sputtering into a late seventies AC format shift (and the new call letters WMGC). As reported at the WIXY tribute page, the new station's advertisements invited listeners to "Get Your Rock Soft."

The last of WIXY's promo albums was a 1973 muscular dystrophy benefit vehicle called WIXY's Top Bananas. The track list showcases the seemingly genre-blind Top 40 hodgepodge typical of the era: "Brother Louie" (Stories), "Precious and Few" (Climax), "Hocus Pocus" (Focus), "Pillow Talk" (Sylvia), "Nice to Be with You" (Gallery), "It's Your Thing" (Isley Brothers), "Mississippi Queen" (Mountain), "Super Fly" (Curtis Mayfield), "One Bad Apple" (Osmonds), "Slippin' Into Darkness" (War), "Brand New Key" (Melanie), "Rock and Roll" (Gary Glitter- not the B-side, "Rock and Roll Part 2," that we're more familiar with today), "Day By Day" (Godspell), "Uneasy Rider" (Charlie Daniels Band).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Sugar Bears' Cereal Box Hit

Released at the very tail end of the classic bubble gum era, the Sugar Bears' "You  Are the One" was one of five songs included on a cardboard EP you could cut out from certain 1972 boxes of Super Sugar Crisp. Amazingly enough, Sugar Bear (voiced by ex-First Edition member Mike Settle) and his band of animated mascot sidekicks (including Kim Carnes as "Honey Bear") sold enough of a corresponding 45 of "You Are the One" for it to climb up all the way to #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. No mean feat for a cereal box promotion in any era. As for the Partridge-esque song itself, producer Jimmy Bowen is the one who put it together, and it’s hardly the best this genre got, although it does benefit from a certain Phil Spector cognizance. (I’ll need to refresh my memory and see if Bowen mentions this particular project in his “unapologetic” Rough Mix.)

The Sugar Bears - "You Are the One" (Billboard #51, entered 3/11/72). Written by Baker Knight. Produced by Jimmy Bowen. 45: "You Are the One"/"Someone Like You" (Big Tree 1972). LP: Presenting the Sugar Bears (Big Tree 1971).

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)"

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Jerry Wallace Covering All the Bases

Jerry Wallace's two countrypolitan crossover hits of the early 70s are most interesting for the accompanying format-conscious ad campaigns that showed him "covering all the bases." The ad above, especially, is a useful image representing the era's transitional country music industry.

Wallace's hit version of "If You Leave Me Tonight I'll Cry," by the way, benefited from its being featured in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. The TV version, though, had a harder-edged honky tonk arrangement that's far more appealing. Is a full version of it hiding in a vault somewhere? (You can hear a comparison of the two over at my Boneyard Media blog.)

Also notable about Wallace's early '70s run and its accompaying images is his use of his Behee Lyric Harp Guitar, which he'd been appearing with in promo pics since the early '60s.

Jerry Wallace - "To Get to You" (1972, Billboard #48; country #12). Written by Jean Chapel. Produced by Joe Johnson. 45: "To Get to You"/"Time" (Decca 1972). LP: This Is Jerry Wallace (Decca 1971); To Get to You (Decca 1972).

The song first appeared on a Decca LP called This Is Jerry Wallace in 1971, the cover of which presented him with his hair greased back trucker-style. An image revamp for Wallace accompanied the song's reappearance on a new 1972 album bearing its name name.

Jerry Wallace - "If You Leave Me Tonight I'll Cry" (Billboard #38, entered 8/19/72; country #1). Written Gerald Sanford and Hal Mooney. Produced by Joe E. Johnson. 45: "If You Leave Me Tonight I'll Cry"/"What's He Doin' in My World" (Decca 1972). LP: To Get to You (Decca 1972).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

1970 Association Ad

Billboard ad (2/28/70) for the Association's "Just About the Same" featured one of early '70s pop's favorite subjects: children. The single was a cover of a song by the Millennium, a group led by Curt Boettcher, who had produced the Association's debut LP in 1966. "Just About the Same," which bubbled under at #106, also bore the imprint of the era's Caribbean music trend. The single's entire marketing angle saw a fuller realization in Three Dog Night's "Black and White" two years later.

The Association - "Just About the Same" (Billboard #106, entered 2/28/70). Written by Doug Rhoes, Michael Fennelly, and Joey Stec. Produced by Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen. 45: "Just About the Same"/"Look at Me, Look at You" (Warner Bros. 1970). LP: (No album appearance).

Although the studio version of this song appeared on no album, a live version made the lineup for the 1970 The Association Live LP. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Stylistics debut LP's "Sales Power" Ad

African American pop music in the early '70s was like the month of March, coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. The politically-charged, pulse-raising material that was mostly quarantined to soul radio playlists in 1970 gave way to ballads with broader appeal by 1975. This Stylistics ad from a 1971 Billboard really zeroes in on the metamorphosis, with enough marketing crisscross happening that I'm honestly not sure what the prevailing message of the ad is (if there even is one, other than "listen to the Stylistics").

But let's consider some possibilities: The most luscious sounding balladeers of the early '70s are relaxing in a meadow in a bubble - safe from society. They are inviting you into their blissful existence. But this doesn't mean they're out of touch. Black Power (see fist) ultimately drives them, and this association should appeal to their soul music base. Or is the "sales power" heading intended to soften or poke fun at Black Power, acknowledging that a new sound, embodied by the Stylistics, is on the horizon? Any of the above interpretations, actually, would fit the spirit of the times just fine.

All this aside, the Stylistics' eponymous first LP was a beauty, launching five singles into the Hot 100. It showcased the sweet lead vocals of Russell Thompkins Jr. and the formidable songwriting chops of Thom Bell and lyricist Linda Creed (except for "You're a Big Girl Now," which is consequently its weakest track). Bell's opulent song structures and string arrangements glimmer like city lights while Creed's lyrics are little humanistic wonders.

Here are the 5 charting singles released from their debut LP. When gathered together, all 9 tracks on the album are represented:

The Stylistics - "You're a Big Girl Now" (Billboard #73, entered 1/9/71; soul #7). Written by Marty Bryant and Robert Douglas. Produced by Marty Bryant and Bill Perry. 45: "You're a Big Girl Now"/"Let the Junkie Bust the Pusher" (AVCO Embassy 1970). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1971).

This first single, co-written and co-produced by the group's road manager Marty Bryant, got them signed to the AVCO label, after which Thom Bell took over their sound. Side B is a gritty non-album rarity that makes minimal use of Russell Thompkins, Jr.

The Stylistics - "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" (Billboard #39, entered 6/5/71; soul #6). Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)"/"If I Love You" (AVCO Embassy 1971). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1971).

The Stylistics - "You Are Everything" (Billboard #9, entered 11/6/71; soul #10). Written by Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "You Are Everything"/"Country Living" (AVCO Embassy 1971). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1971).

The intro to "You Are Everything" features one of the era's memorable electric sitar riffs.

The Stylistics featuring Russell Thompkins, Jr. - "Betcha By Golly Wow" (Billboard #3, entered 2/26/72; soul #2). Written by Kenny Gamble, Linda Creed, and Thom Bell. Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "Betcha By Golly Wow"/"Ebony Eyes" (AVCO Embassy 1972). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1972).

Prince, who knew songcraft when he heard it, covered "Betcha By Golly Wow" in 1996.

The Stylistics - "People Make the World Go Round" (Billboard #25, entered 6/3/72; soul #6). Written by Linda Creed and Thom Bell Produced by Thom Bell. 45: "People Make the World Go Round"/"Point of No Return" (AVCO Embassy 1972). LP: The Stylistics (AVCO Embassy 1972).

"People Make the World Go Round" is a particular masterpiece, expressing the "ups and downs" and contradictions of urban life against a backdrop of music that's at once sullen and seductive.