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…