Friday Five: May 1976

I turned fours years old in May 1976. That’s not much, but I have memories that are from those times. Small stuff. Our home. Family. My birthday party. Nothing of consequence to anybody but me.

I wonder what I would have thought about the trends in popular culture had I been old enough to have an opinion? I’d like to think if I were a teenager then that I would have been listening to albums like Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak or High Voltage by AC/DC. I loved both almost two decades later.

It’s far more likely that I would have been listening to the odd mix of sounds coming from top 40 radio. Here’s five from the top 5 from back then.

5. “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale
It peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 in early May. It’s a catchy tune that’s both disco and R&B retro at the same time. Sung by Maxine Nightingale——a mixed-race Brit who was a professional stage performer in the European productions of shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar——it was a massive international hit. Look at this cutting edge “video” of it.

4. “Young Hearts Run Free” by Candi Staton
What can I say? It’s disco in all it’s mid-70s magic but it’s also a solid R&B dance song by a really talented singer. It peaked at #2 on the R&B charts in May 1976 but didn’t make it beyond #20 on the Hot 100. It was her only real hit in the US but her voice carried her to greater success in the UK. (A memorable remake updated with a 90’s techno sound played a part in Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 hit movie Romeo + Juliet.)

3. “Boogie Fever” by The Sylvers
From Watts, The Sylvers were a musical group of brothers and sisters who had a collection of hits in the late seventies. This was probably their biggest hit; it was the #1 song in the country on my birthday. If you listen, it’s easy to hear how they’re kind of lifting some of the mojo of The Jacksons. Even today, it’s still a catchy song.

2. “Welcome Back” by John Sebastian
Former Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian wrote this as the theme song to the ABC sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Starring comedian Gabe Kaplan (he started each episode with a corny joke, which I loved when I finally became a fan of the show in syndication in the 80s), the show premiered in fall 1975 and became a ratings sensation, catapulting the young John Travolta to fame. It also did good by Sebastian’s theme song. When somebody realized they could make some money off the tune, Sebastian wrote it out from a theme to a single, adding a second verse that didn’t exist at first. The single went to #1 the week before “Boogie Fever.”

1. “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” by Elvin Bishop
I’m not sure this song has ever left classic rock radio play. I knew it by the 80s but it wasn’t until the 90s that I came to admire it for the vocal performance. It doesn’t avoid vocal challenges and it hits every one of them that it takes. It makes for a memorable song. I came to own the single when I bought both volumes of the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). Since then, I’ve known it well and often sing along to it when it comes on the radio. (I don’t ever succeed at those vocal challenges, but I still try.) Well, it wasn’t until right now that I discovered Elvin Bishop was a blues guitarist who didn’t even sing on this, his biggest hit (it peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 in May 1976). The vocal brilliance I’ve always loved was none other than a young Mickey Thomas, who would go on to more fame as the lead singer of Starship in the 1980s. I did not like Starship in the 1980s. But I still like this. And so do a lot of younger people. It was rediscovered after its use in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Friday Five: May 1975

Here’s five song from the top five of May 1975:

5. “How Long” by Ace
This “super sounds of the 70s” kind of song remains a standard on rock radio today. If you offered me a hundred bucks I couldn’t have told you the name of the group who made it. And until this moment I didn’t know the lead singer of said band (the British called Ace) was Paul Carrack, who had some hits in the 80s as part of Squeeze and Mike + The Mechanics. It peaked at #3 in May 1975.

4. “Sister Golden Hair” by America
Talk about songs of the 70s! Few songs have more of that iconic 70s soft rock sound than this hit by America. The trio were more following the trend than setting it, but they knew how to work within it as good as any pop group. It reached the #5 spot in late May, before topping the charts the following month.

3. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” by Freddy Fender
I love this song! I don’t remember it being that big a thing in my childhood. I suspect it would have been different if I grew up in Texas because Freddy Fender is a bigger part of Chicano culture in Texas. Still, it’s a song I knew and when I got into Freddy Fender in the late 90s it was something I could play on repeat. Wistful, romantic, pained, and lovely, it reached the top spot on the country charts in March 1975 and then climbed its way up the Hot 100 in May until it reached #1 at the end of the month. Freddy recorded it in a few minutes on a lark. It became his first and only #1 on the pop charts.

2. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” by John Denver
Freddy Fender might have been the only Chicano to top the Country and Pop charts with the same song in 1975, but he was not the only person to do so. John Denver released this song on his 1974 album Back Home (which included his mega-hit “Annie’s Song”). A live version of the song (recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles) made it onto his 1975 album An Evening with John Denver and that version climbed the charts. It entered the top 5 on the Hot 100 in May, the same month it topped the country charts. It did the same on the pop charts in June.

1. “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire
When Earth, Wind & Fire are at their best they’re nothing short of musical magic. This song hit #1 on the R&B charts in March 1975 and topped the Hot 100 in May. The first string of bass notes draws you in and the hot horns keep you grooving.

Friday Five: May 1974

5. “The Entertainer” by Marvin Hamlisch
Marvin Hamlisch was an accomplished composer and conductor; one of fifteen people to have won an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar (EGOT); and one of two people to have done that and won a Pulitzer Prize. He was accomplished. And in May 1974 he had hit on the adult contemporary charts (#1) and the Hot 100 (#3). A cover of a famous ragtime song, “The Entertainer” was the theme song to the movie The Sting. It sold two million copies in the US alone and was part of what people now call a “ragtime revival” that marked the later 70s.

4. “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John
It went to #1 in April and stayed in the top 5 for most of May. It’s one of Elton John’s signature songs, due in no small part to the feeling that you’re part of a live event. The whole thing was a fake, however. Just a group of folks making noise in the studio and then spliced in to make them sound like a big concert. But it worked. It doesn’t hurt that the song is catchy and filled with odd lyrics that when sung can sound like a bunch of crazy things. (Did he say electric boobs?) I got nothing but love for this song. It brings back memories of the 70s, although mine were probably from much later than when it first hit the charts.

3. “Dancing Machine” by the Jackson 5
As Michael aged so too did the Jackson 5, although they became less a guaranteed chart topper than before. This was a big hit for them, #2 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts in May 1974, their first top 10 hit in two years. Michael brought the robot dance to the world as part of his performance and it also signaled the brother’s ability to find success with a disco sound. (Ray Stevens’ “The Streak”——which is not on the list this week——kept it out of the top spot on the Hot 100.)

2. “TSOP” (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB featuring the Three Degrees
It was a #1 hit on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts in April 1974, and remained a top 5 hit on both in May. It was written as the theme song for Soul Train with Don Cornelius, and was used as such for most of the 70s. There’s a long history of TV theme songs making the pop charts but this was the first to ever hit the top spot. It’s arguably the first disco song to hit #1 as well, although this might be before people were thinking of it as disco.

1. “The Payback (Part 1)” by James Brown
This is what I know: it’s one of my favorite James Brown songs from one of his best albums (and that’s saying something). Here’s what I learned: it was the Godfather of Soul’s last #1 record (it sat atop the R&B charts for two weeks, from April to May 1974). Broken up into two singles for release, the extended version of both parts together is my choice. “I don’t know karate but I know karazay!”

Friday Five: April 1973

5. “The Cisco Kid” by War
They are one of the signature Chicano-sound bands of the 70s though they weren’t Chicano. These southern Californians absorbed the sounds of the southland and made their mark with songs like this one, their biggest hit (it peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B charts in April). It’s a unique musical number, playful with its nostalgic reference to an old western show and suggestive of the themes and sounds that made them such Chicano favorites. It’s worthy first track on The World is a Ghetto, the album from which it came.

4. “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)” by the Four Tops
How in the world did Berry Gordy ever let the Four Tops leave Motown? While Motown moved West to LA, focus most of their attention on Diana Ross and the Jackson 5, some of the greats of the label got left behind and found other deals with other companies. Such was the case with the Four Tops. This was their biggest post-Motown single, peaking at #2 on the R&B charts and #4 on the Hot 100. It shows the group still had their signature vocal chops as well as the ability to go more soulful than they ever did with Motown.

3. Neither One of Us (Wants to be the First to Say Goodbye) by Gladys Knight & the Pips
I think Gladys Knight is one of the greatest singers in popular music history. Treated like a second-class act by the Motown label, Knight and her Pips recorded this song on what would be their last Motown album, Neither One of Us. By the time this single started to climb the charts (it spent four weeks atop the R&B charts from March into the first week of April and peaked at #2 on the Hot 100) they were already recording for their new label. Later that summer they’d release “Midnight Train to Georgia,” their greatest song ever.

2. “Funky Worm” by the Ohio Players
It peaked at #4 on the R&B charts in April 1973, a few weeks before hitting #1 the following month. It never cracked the top 10 on the Hot 100. This early 70s piece of synthetic soul/funk made a bigger splash than the charts suggest. It’s one of the prominent sample sources for some amazing West Coast hip-hop, bestowing upon it a legendary status forevermore.

1. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn
A New York Post story about a former convict returning home (reprinted in the Reader’s Digest) led some to think this song was about the same sort of character. The writers (Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown) took their cue from the military tradition stretching back to the Civil War. No matter the source, the optimism of the January 1973 peace accords (which seemed to signal the end to the US war in Vietnam) likely had something to do with the massive success of the song as recorded by Tony Orlando and his background singers “Dawn” (Thelma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson). It ruled the top spot on the Hot 100 for four weeks beginning in late April 1973. I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the song (I do love “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” and I grew up watching Tony Orlando and Dawn on TV) but the song is the undeniable hit for the period. I will say this: it’s kind of funny that two of their biggest hits are about a guy who requires his girl give some sort of symbolic communication to let him know how she feels. Just ask her already!

Friday Five: April 1972

Did anything good come from 1972?

We got The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, and Cabaret in films. Kung Fu, Sanford and Son, M*A*S*H, and Emergency! all premiered on TV. As for albums, Exile on Main Street by the Stones dropped in ’72. So did Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together and Still In Love With You. Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers, Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and The World is a Ghetto by War all came out that year.

And in May, I was born.

Quite a year indeed! Here’s five top five hits from April 1972, just before I entered this world.

“Betcha By Golly, Wow by the Stylistics”
Ah! Pure 70s soul. It climbed up the charts in April, hitting the #4 spot on the R&B charts that month before peaking at #2 the following month. It also topped out at #3 on the Hot 100.

“A Horse With No Name” by America
It was the debut single for the band America, which also became their biggest hit. It was the top song in the country for three weeks, including the first two of April ’72. Detractors thought it derivative of Neil Young (singer Dewey Bunnell sounds like him, too, as well as Young’s buddy Steven Stills) but it’s an enduring song, to say the least. While I wasn’t old enough to know it in its heydey, it was a frequently played song in my memories of the 70s. I remember being in our old Ford Pinto hearing the song and being taken by it’s mystery.

“Look What You Done For Me” by Al Green
The first release from Green’s I’m Still In Love With You album——my favorite of all his albums——this is the master doing what he does best. It peaked at #2 on the R&B charts in April (and #4 on the Hot 100).

“I’ll Take You There” by the Staples Singers
This song hit #3 on the R&B charts in month of April. It would eventually hit the top spot in May and, in June, hit #1 on the Hot 100. Some say it’s a song about the utopian world of racial equality, a song about when the movement is done. All I know is that it’s perfection, plain and simple.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack was already making amazingly good music but she wasn’t topping the charts before this song. Clint Eastwood chose it for the soundtrack to his 1971 movie Play Misty for Me and it took off from there. It was the #1 song in the country for six weeks from April to May 1972 (which means it was the #1 song on the day I was born). Billboard ranked it #1 for the year. It won the Grammy for best song (for the writer) and best record (for the performance of the single). In short, it was a massive hit. What I didn’t know until right now was that it was written by a British folk singer (Ewan MacColl) in 1957 for his future wife Peggy Seeger, who is the half sister of Pete Seeger.

Friday Five: April 1971

We’re one year away from the year I was born and yet we’re squarely in the music that I love to this very day. 1971 had a bunch of amazing music——”Brown Sugar” by the Stones, “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, and “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. And then there’s songs by Neil Diamond (“I Am I Said”), The Bee Gees (“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”), John Denver (“Take Me Home, Country Roads”), and even the Five Man Electrical Band (“Signs”). And we’re still not even scratching the surface.

Here’s 5 of the top 5 of April 1971, a worthy peak in the year.

“Never Can Say Goodbye” by The Jackson 5
It’s a masterpiece of an early 70s love song. Written by Clifton Davis——who I first met as the star of the 80’s television show Amen (which also starred Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons)——it was only a moderate hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for the Jackson brothers, peaking at #4 in April. The same month it hit the #2 spot behind Marvin Gaye on the R&B charts before spending three weeks at #1 in May. It was one of their enduring hits, a standard for Michael in his later years, and a source for beautiful cover versions by Isaac Hayes and another by Gloria Gaynor.

“Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night
Songs like this are proof that everybody in music is smoking pot in 1971. That said, it’s a solid piece of rock history and it ruled the Hot 100 for six weeks beginning in mid-April. The lyrics are odd and weird and often non-sensical, but the eclectic and fun melodic rhythms all know what they’re doing.  Of course, it was famously used in the 1983 hit movie The Big Chill.

“Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” by The Temptations
This hit the #1 spot for the first two weeks of April 1971 (after having been #1 on the R&B charts in March). At their best, the Temptations are untouchable, and this is among their best. This is a “story” song that makes stellar use of the orchestral sounds that helped make so many of their songs into the masterpieces they were. This was the last single to feature founding member and lead vocalist Eddie Kendricks. (Here’s a little Chicano-style video version of it…)

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
Three Dog Night kept Marvin Gaye out of the top spot on the Hot 100. While the song only peaked at #2 there, it held #1 spot on the R&B chart for five weeks, from the end of March through all of April. But what do the charts matter when you write a song that captures the moment like few others? It’s one of the greatest songs of all time from an album that was a change of pace for the Motown stalwart.

“Proud Mary” by Ike & Tina Turner
Here’s a song that’s bigger, better, and more historic than its place on the charts. It peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 in March and then dropped quick, but it was at #5 on the R&B charts in April, so it squeaks into this list. Ike and Tina took the two-year-old song by John Fogerty (performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival) and made it into deep, Southern, electric, and sexy soul music. It’s one of my favorites of all-time, and one of the best things Tina Turner ever did (which is saying a lot). Here it is live and psychedelic…

Friday Five: April 1970

We’re in the seventies now! Here’s five songs that cracked the top 5 on the billboard charts in April 1970.

Let It Be” by The Beatles
This is the next to last single released by the Beatles, and their next to last number 1 song. It topped the charts for two weeks in April 1970. It was followed by “The Long and Winding Road” which hit #1 the following month when Let It Be (the album) was released (after having been remixed by Phil Spector).

ABC” by The Jackson 5
It was the second single ever released by the group and their second number 1. By the end of 1970 the Jackson brothers released five singles, all of which hit #1. This song sat atop the Hot 100 for two weeks, knocking the Beatles’ “Let It Be” out of the top spot in the last week of April. It also hit #1 on the R&B charts, a position it held for all four weeks of the month.

The Fightin’ Side of Me” by Merle Haggard and The Strangers
It’s an anti-antiwar song that topped the country charts for the whole month of March 1970 and remained in the top 5 for the entire month of April. This is the apex of the Vietnam antiwar movement, following the three year period stretching from 1967-1969 when 40,000 US troops perished (out of what would become a total of just over 58,000). Haggard ignores most of that, as he emboldens a crowd that wanted to make American great again.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters” by Simon & Garfunkel
While Merle Haggard was sitting on top of the country charts this song was #1 on the Hot 100, a position it held from late February through the first week of April. Viewed as making use of Phil Spector techniques, it’s a snapshot of its moment in time.

“Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)” by John Ono Lennon
Billed as Lennon/Ono and the Plastic Ono Band everywhere but the US, this song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono peaked at #3 on the hot 100 in April 1970. The Beatles were done, officially, but their last album was just about to drop. At the same time, The Beatles themselves were moving on with their individual projects. This single, produced by Phil Spector, is one of the best things done by Lennon.