Friday Five: June 1979

1979 is the high point of disco. There were 26 #1 songs on the Hot 100 that year and only about 10 of those (maybe) were not disco related. The crop of songs that made the year-end charts were heavily disco, too, although rock groups like The Knack (whose “My Sharona” ranked #1 for the year) were also represented.

While I like a lot of disco, especially the funk/soul stuff, it’s not my favorite work for the time.  I’m much more partial to the classic rock of the era—Van Halen, AC/DC,  Foreigner—or the non-disco pop stuff (like the B-52’s, whose debut album dropped in 1979).

That said, the tunes that made the top five in June of that year were some solid examples of the genre.

5. “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer
Her album Bad Girls was her biggest selling work, made so by hit singles like the title track (a #1 song in July) and this #1 hit of June 1979. The album——like the song——is filled with things a seven year-old kid and his sister shouldn’t have been singing and dancing to, but what ‘cha gonna do? It was one of our most often played albums of the year, due in no small part to this song, a dance classic with a strong guitar lick that kicks off the entire album. It hit the top spot on the Hot 100 for three non-consecutive weeks in June.

4. “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge
It’s an iconic song, one whose message of female solidarity and love allows it to transcend the limits of the genre and the era. Written by Niles Rogers, it’s a party song with an uplifting melody and lyrics with malleable meanings, a combo that carried it to #1 on the R&B charts. Rogers wrote it to describe the group itself (as they describe themselves to him) but it had powerful meanings for gay liberation movements and others as well. One of my favorite songs to hear anytime.

3. “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead
Gene McFadden and John Whitehead were song writers who wrote hits for the O’Jays, The Jacksons, and others. When they finally released their own album in 1979, this was their biggest hit, topping the R&B charts for the first week of June. A song of optimism and celebration meant to communicate the status of Black America in the post-Civil Rights era, it’s an indelible anthem and a likable dance tune. Here’s the duo lip syncing the hit on Soul Train.

2. “Chuck E.’s in Love” by Ricki Lee Jones
Ricki Lee Jones released her debut album in 1979 and this song——about fellow songwriter and musician Chuck E. Weiss——was her biggest single, topping out at #4 on the Hot 100. Jones’s talent had gained her a set of allies and advocates in the industry. Dr. John, Michael McDonald, and Randy Newman all made guest appearances on her first album. She was also part of a unique, late-70s music scene in LA. She was dating Tom Waits at the time, and they lived in now legendary dump of a place called the Tropicana Motel, along with fellow residents Weiss, as well as members of Black Flag, The Stray Cats, and The Runaways. It’s a unique sounding song, with a catchy riff, and an example of the non-disco stuff that had success at the time.

1. “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind, & Fire
Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” was the biggest disco hit of the month. It spent two weeks atop the Hot 100 and five weeks at #1 on the R&B charts. Her success on the R&B charts kept Earth, Wind & Fire out of the top spot with this song. From the album I Am, “Boogie Wonderland” is a disco classic but also a less of a “timeless” song than their bigger hits of the era (or even “After the Love Has Gone,” from the same album). Still, it holds a special place in my upbringing. I have memories of my folks getting ready to go out on a date night (maybe even to a local disco) and me and my sister would be playing this album (and this song) making our own fun for the night by jumping around the house of pretending to be professional dancers. As impactful as the music to me was the Afro-centric art that graced the cover and inner fold of the album.

Friday Five: 1979

The last year of the decade of the seventies has a lot of warm memories for me. I ended first grade and started second grade. We saw “Rocky II” in the drive-in and “The Muppet Movie” as a field trip during YWCA camp. The “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Fact of Life” both premiered. Both were favorites of mind for a long, long time.

I have a kid’s memory of lots of grown-up stuff, too. The so-called “Iran hostage crisis” began in November of that year. Aside from the images of blind-folded people on the news, the beginning of yellow ribbons on trees also stands out in my mind. I can remember thinking Tony Orlando wrote his song for this event, but also thinking how weird it was to write such a happy sounding song for something so sad. I also remember the release of “Apocalypse Now.” Growing up in a family and community that had a close connection to the Vietnam War, whenever the topic came up in film it was a thing.

Here are 5 songs from that year that are stuck in my memory and, I think, worth your time:

5. “Crusin'” (Smokey Robinson)
Motown legend Smokey Robinson is responsible for so much of the music that I love. As a performer, writer, and producer, he’s one of the forces behind what we call the “Motown sound.” I can’t say how musical culture viewed him by the late 70s. He was probably not quite yet solidified as a legend (I think that distinction, for music, sort of relied on baby boomers being a bit older) but he might have also seemed a bit like a “has been” to some. This song, released in summer of 1979, is really just about as fine as it gets. It’s his last masterpiece and makes a challenging cover song for lots of folks today, testament to what he did so well.

4. “We Are Family” (Sister Sledge)
Sister Sledge–a group of four sisters from Philadelphia who turned into a trio by the late 70s (there actual last name was Sledge)–might seem like a “one-hit wonder” for this 1979 hit. But the group has pretty much made a living from music for the better part of four decades, so that’s probably not a fair shake. This story of this song, however, is bigger than them. It’s really the product of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers, the masterminds behind Chic. It’s a classic sound of that era and one of those songs that has a staying power than not many can claim. I remember it kind of being everywhere, just one of those songs that yu link with a time and place. At some point I also remember the tune serving as the theme song for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

3. “Chuck E.’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones)
Here’s what I knew about this song when I was a kid–I kept hearing it again and again, and I liked it a lot. I can remember being in the car and hearing the intro. The play between the drum beat and the bass is really distinctive, almost like their playing with and against each other at the same time. I remember watching Rickie Lee Jones on TV, too, wearing the same beret she wore in this video. Later in life I would discover Tom Waits and learn that the two were an item at the time of this song. The song is such a collection of late 70s/early 80s sounds.

2. “Rock Lobster” (The B-52’s)
I wasn’t old enough in 1979 to know where to put this song. In my young adulthood, I learned that the song was first released in 1978 and became an underground hit before being re-recorded for the band’s 1979 album. I have a very specific memory of the song but don’t really know which version it relates to. As a six-year-old in 1978, though, I figure there’s no conceivable way to think it would have been the version described as “an underground hit.” I lived a very “above the ground” cultural existence. And so here it is, one of my 1979 musical keepsakes.

My memory of the song is of a summer day at a local water park when this song started playing over the loud speaker. I went to the bathroom and had to walk through an army of teenagers surrounding the space right in front of the facilities. They were dancing and smoking. There was something scary about the song to me, accentuated by the fact that they seemed to be in a trance. In my mind, the images of the memory of that moment are so 70s. I can still see their movements, their haircuts, the swimsuits. I can still feel a little bit of the fear when I hear this song, too.

1. “Bad Girls” (Donna Summer)
We had this album in 1979. I know it well, mostly in order and nearly in its entirety. Of course, if you own a vinyl record of Donna Summer’s chances are it’s this double album, her biggest seller. My sister was a bigger fan of this than me, but that was enough to make me a pretty big fan of it. This song remains one of my favorites of all of Summer’s work, probably second only to her hit from later this year, “On the Radio.” But I ave memories of being forced to dance with my sister to “Bad Girls.” Actually, more often than not, she would just do her own dance routines and need me as her audience. I was happy to oblige. The sound and theme are pure 70s disco, but it’s not as relentless as most disco of this year. Part of Summer’s musical appeal, really, is the way R&B standard sounds, rhythms, and vocals really serve as the foundation. That comes through here.