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: 1978

I remember a few things really vividly from 1978. I remember going to the movies in East L.A. to see Grease for the second time. I remember going to what was then called Mann’s Chinese Theater to see Superman for the first time. I remember watching “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Incredible Hulk” on TV. I remember first grade, and I remember playing at the house of the family who took care of us after school.

There’s a lot of good music that came out in 1978 that I would grow to appreciate much later. I don’t have any memories of Elvis Costello and the Attractions album This Year’s Model, for example, but I’ve really grown to love it in my adulthood. The same is true for The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and Who Are You by The Who. Steve Miller’s second greatest hits album–an album that would be a big part of my college years–came out that year, too.

And then there’s all the music that came out in 1978 that I do remember from that time. “Macho Man” from the Village People, “Le Freak” by Chic, and nearly every song on the soundtrack to Grease are songs that can take me back to those times, or the fragmentary memories of those times that I’ve recycled in my minds millions of times since then.

Here’s 5 songs from 1978 that respect both my nostalgic tendencies while also being worthy of a listen.

5. “Summer Nights” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)
Grease was the big hit of 1978, so big that me and my sister saw it more than once. I remember buying the video in the early 90s and watching it for the first time as an adult. I was shocked at how much of the plot revolved around sex. Mostly, I was shocked that I had been allowed to see it when I was so young. I know most of the plot went right over my the head but I totally understood that Rizzo thought she was pregnant. This song–a favorite sing-a-long for me and my sister–is a great example of the innuendo as well as the quality of the songs that help make John Travolta into an even bigger star just one year after Saturday Night Fever.

4. “Copacabana” (Barry Manilow)
Barry Manilow was big stuff in 1978, too. His album–Even Now–was a small hit factory for him, going triple platinum and spawning four radio hits. I’m not going to make the argument that it’s a great album but I can say the album was one of the favorites of my sister and me. I have flashes of memories of some kind of dance routine she would make us do in dress up to this song. Hey, even small kids weren’t immune from the disco era. The song’s main appeal for me, I think, was the story that Manilow tells through it. I’m not sure it has survived the ages like other disco hits but the kitsch of it alone makes it worth a listen.

3. “September” (Earth, Wind & Fire)
Earth, Wind & Fire are one of the pillars of the disco era, an embodiment of the parts of the genre that were more than commercial pop. Maurice White was the real deal in his day, and the music he and his brother and the whole army of band members made survives the decades on its artistry, skill, and groove. The group was also one of the favorites of my parents. I have so many memories of listening to their albums during my youth. This song is without a doubt my favorite of theirs. It’s also one the best disco songs ever recorded. It’s such a remarkably simple song, but it sounds like happiness to me. There are only a few songs of this genre that I can listen to forever, without ever getting tired of them. This is at the top of that list.

2. “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner)
I find this song–the first single from Foreigner’s Double Vision–to be one of the funniest songs in rock history. It’s crass. It’s simple-minded and blunt. It’s also surprising how sexually problematic the song is. If you just read the lyrics you’d probably be offended, if not in 1978 then certainly now. I mean, it’s kind of aggressive in an almost borderline illegal, all the way inappropriate way. All that said, it’s not on this week’s list to highlight either of those qualities. No, I can honestly say that “Hot Blooded” is one of my favorite rock songs–ever. The driving guitar and Lou Gramm’s vocals are a mighty combo. His range is on display in full force here. Try singing this one during your next karaoke night and you’ll feel the skill involved in making this overly-produced piece of lyrical stupidity. Despite itself, the song rocks.

1. “Beast of Burden” (The Rolling Stones)
I don’t remember “Beast of Burden” as a late 70s song. I can’t remember when I first heard it at all. I think it says something about the quality of the song that it feels like it’s an earlier Stones song to me. In general, I find it difficult to make a top 5 list of my favorite Rolling Stones’ songs. It’s a rotating list of about a dozen songs because I like so much of their music and because they are the greatest rock and roll band of all time. This song makes it in there more often than not. Knowing what I know now about when it came out, I can also say its my favorite post-Sticky Fingers song.