Friday Five: May 1978

I turned six years old in 1978, which means I actually remember some of the music. I wasn’t old enough to control much of what I heard——most of what I listened to would have been the music that older folks around me listened to——but I was old enough to like things and start to exercise some choice.

5. “On Broadway” by George Benson
I love George Benson. I have a distinct memory of my uncle Frank playing George Benson and Chuck Mangione around this time and I liked what my uncle like. Benson is an underrated vocalist; he’s one of the greats of his era. Of course, he’s also a skilled jazz guitarist. The combination of the two took him to both critical and popular success in the mid-70s. This track (from his live album Weekend in L.A.) reached #2 on the R&B charts in May 1978.

4. “Use Ta Be My Girl” by the O’Jays
It has a guitar intro that has a Latin flavor and a whole bunch of disco leanings but it’s the vocal stylings of the O’Jays (who by this time were Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, and Sammy Strain, who replaced original member William Powell after his death in 1977) that makes this a classic R&B tune. It spent five weeks at #1 on the R&B charts, their last hit record ever.

3. “The Closer I Get to You” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway are good stuff when they’re on the own. They’re even better together. The two friends (they met at Howard University in the mid-60s) recorded together often. This would be their last duet, although each recorded their parts separately. Hathaway’s mental health struggles kept him from joining Flack in the studio. It would be his final hit record, topping the R&B charts in April and lingering at #5 in early May. It also peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 in May.

2. “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees
No group came to symbolize the era of disco more than the Bee Gees. As a result, no group suffered more when the anti-disco backlash took hold. I think history came back around to respecting and celebrating them a decade or two later, and I’m glad. Their R&B (and even funk) foundations produced a gaggle of hits——songs whose quality shows through even when you strip away the disco elements. Of course, this one is pure disco. The film Saturday Night Fever came out in December 1977 and by January it produced the first of three #1 hits for the Bee Gees. This was the biggest of the three, reaching #1 in March where it stayed for eight weeks, ending its run in early May. I was only 6——too young to see the movie——but I was old enough to know it was the movie everyone was seeing. I remember talking about it with my godparents’ granddaughter, who was a few years older and so saw the film, as we listened to her album of the soundtrack.

1. “You’re the One that I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
I was old enough to see John Travolta’s other hit movie that year, Grease. (Actually, I probably wasn’t old enough but most of the sex stuff went over my head, as it likely did for my Spanish-speaking grandma who took us to see it multiple times.) The Grease soundtrack was undoubtedly the most played album in the Sandoval house for 1978. This song hit the #3 spot on the Hot 100 in May before peaking at #1 in early June——right when the movie was released. That means the song was released before the film! It’s the climax of the movie, when good-girl Sandy finally goes bad.

Friday Five: May 1977

It’s an easy one this week…

5. “I’m Your Boogie Man” by KC and the Sunshine Band
It peaked at #3 on the R&B charts in May ’77 and reached the same mark on the Hot 100 before sliding into the #1 spot in June. There’s something about the KC and the Sunshine Band’s version of disco that’s different. I meet more people who still love them today seemingly more than any other disco group. Their songs also seemed to stick around a little more than most. I’ve never been a big fan, but I’ve never not been a fan either. Songs like this are the reason why.

4. “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac
The Laurel Canyon sound was everywhere in 1977 and this band had a lot to do with it. “Dreams” made it to the #4 spot in May but that was just a temporary stop on its way to #1 the following month, becoming the band’s only #1 single on the Hot 100. It’s an indelible track——a daily feature of rock (and probably adult contemporary) radio to the present day——and that says more than I could ever say.

3. “Hotel California” by the Eagles
It’s one of the most recognizable and popular rock songs in music history. I’ve gone through periods where I love the song and periods where I hate it, the latter usually dictated by the kind of people who were liking it at the time. The Eagles are skilled and deserve the recognition they have but they can also be a band that doesn’t make it very hard to like them. That can equally lead to hating them. That said, the older I get the more I love the song. It’s mysterious and can be corny, but it’s so rich musically and still stands as one of the greatest rock guitar songs ever. For a deeper appreciation of it, check out this dissection from Christian Hand from the old Mark in Morning Show. It’s got a reggae beat! Topped the Hot 100 at the start of May 1977.

2. “Got to Give it Up (Pt. 1)” by Marvin Gaye
Ain’t no kinda sexy like late 70’s Marvin Gaye sexy. And ain’t no disco like Marvin Gaye’s disco either. This was an intentional attempt to write a disco song for him. But he is also the reason this song can’t be confined by the word “disco.” It’s a party song, a dance song, a funk song, a soul song, a sexy song——and probably even more. It defies categorization, but also invited a bunch of imitators. One of the greatest from the man who has every right to be on the short list of “greatest” period. Cracked the top 5 on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts in May before reaching the top spot in both the following month.

1. “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder
It’s a tribute to the late Duke Ellington and a stellar testament to the brilliance of Stevie Wonder. It reached #1 on both the Hot 100 and the R&B charts in May ’77. One of my favorite Stevie song’s of all-time.

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!”