Thursday, August 14, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Songs from Casey Kasem's "American Top 40," May 6, 1972

Why do I do it? Why do I insist on organizing everything to death? Not just my living space, but my thoughts and, as it turns out, charts and lists, particularly the ones the late Casey Kasem used to count down weekly on "American Top 40." When I began downloading and listening to them several months ago, Casey's hit lists were pretty manageable mentally. Even if the ones between 1973 and 1984 hadn't already been organized in ascending order by sales and airplay, I probably could have listened to the charting songs from any given week and easily arranged them by pinpointing the timely musical movements around which most of them revolved.

And then I arrived at "American Top 40" for the week ending May 6, 1972. At first, my hopes weren't so high: I wasn't expecting to be fully entertained by a chart for a week that ended the day before I turned 3. Unlike the Billboard Top 40s I'd previously listened to, there would be fewer songs to bring back vivid memories from my youth since I don't recall a thing that I heard before 1973.

In the end, even if I didn't know all of the hits, I was familiar enough with most of the artists who recorded them that from Nos. 40 to 11, once or twice every 10 songs or so, there'd be a moment of true discovery about an act I thought I'd known: Oh, so Buffy Sainte-Marie actually had a hit single then? But whoa! What's this? Sonny & Cher going country at the big top? Color me entertained in full!



Sonny & Cher's "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" wasn't the only head-scratcher, though. Of all the retro AT 40 countdowns I've now listened to, I haven't sat through one with as much perplexing diversity as this. (In the early '80s, which is when I started listening to Casey's countdowns live during their initial run, it wasn't unusual to have up to a half dozen acts with two simultaneously charting songs.) Listening up while Casey counted down, I could hear the ascendance of post-Motown soul and the emergence of classic rock, but for all the rhymes, there was very little reason.

Take the Top 10 from a week in a year in which the music industry was still adjusting to Civil Rights. It was one of the most colorful ones in the history of Top 10s! Seven of the 10 biggest songs of the week were sung by black acts -- and that's without a disco or a rap hit in the bunch! Meanwhile, the lack of demographic diversity didn't stop it from being just as varied musically as any other week.

Would a 70 percent black Top 10 be the same today? (Lil Wayne probably would be the guest rapper on 50 percent of the hits, and the other half would be produced and co-written by Dr. Luke.) How far we haven't come since 1972. Those were the days.

39. "Ev'ry Day of My Life" Bobby Vinton An anachronistic No. 24 hit in the age of Philly and Southern soul and at the dawn of classic and progressive rock (see Yes, at No. 32, up 2 with "Roundabout"). It's like 1955's Best Picture Oscar nominee Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing sneaking into the 1972 Best Picture competition against The Godfather, Deliverance and Cabaret. I guess Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Candy Man" (up four to No. 24, heading to No. 1) would be the slightly anachronistic 1972 Best Picture nominee Sounder.


37. "Sylvia's Mother" Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show Before becoming Dr. Hook, a purveyor of late-'70s middle-of-the-road pop singles that got stuck halfway up the Top 10 (like 1978's "Sharing the Night Together," No. 6, 1979's "When You're in Love with a Beautiful Woman," No. 6, and 1980's "Sexy Eyes," No. 5), Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show was a purveyor of early to mid-'70s quirky folk-rock that got stuck halfway up the Top 10 (1972's "The Cover of Rolling Stone," No. 6, 1976's "Only Sixteen," No. 6 and credited to "Dr. Hook," and this future No. 6 that was the third of the week's five debuts).


36. Walkin' in the Rain with the One I Love" Love Unlimited If only all '70s female vocal groups had been as unique as Barry White's protégé trio (featuring his future wife, Glodean James), male vocal groups probably would have dominated the charts even more than they did in the early '70s. This week, Love Unlimited was the only female vocal group in the Top 40, well below their male counterparts, who outnumbered them 4 to 1: The Jackson 5 with "Little Bitty Pretty One" at No. 26, The Dramatics with "In the Rain" at No. 15, The Chi-Lites with "Oh Girl" at No. 11 and The Stylistics with "Betcha By Golly, Wow" at No. 3. "Walkin' in the Rain" may have been Love Unlimited's biggest hit, but 1974's "Under the Influence of Love" was the one that was so ahead of its time, it could have been a hit decades later for Kylie Minogue, who had the good taste to cover it on her 2000 album, Light Years. Fun fact: Between Love Unlimited's and The Dramatics' then-latest hits, two songs in the Top 40 featured stormy sound effects.


31. "I Saw the Light" Todd Rundgren Though I can vividly recall Rundgren's two biggest hits -- this future No. 16, debuting, and the No. 5-to-be "Hello, It's Me" -- being radio staples in the '70s, I can't remember his ever really getting his due, especially considering that behind the scenes, he was one of the decade's MVPs. He produced Badfinger's 1971 Straight Up album (featuring "Baby Blue," which reached its No. 14 peak this week), two No. 1 hits for Grand Funk Railroad (1973's "We're an American Band" and 1974's "The Loco-motion"), and Meat Loaf's landmark 1977 Bat Out of Hell album.


30. "Jump Into the Fire" Nilsson How do you go from "Without You" (his signature song and a 1971 No. 1, written and originally recorded by the aforementioned Badfinger) to "Coconut" (a soon-to-be No. 8) to this (dropping 3 from its peak) on one album (1971's Nilsson Schmilsson)? It sounds like the dog-eared blueprint for the bridge that artists like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe would build between punk and new wave at the end of the decade. Fun fact: Though he was a well-respected songwriter, Nilsson's two biggest hits, "Without You" and 1969's "Everybody's Talkin'" (No. 6), both were written by someone else.


29. "Taxi" Harry Chapin Is this single so haunting because its singer-songwriter would die nine years later in an automobile accident? Casey sounds so reverent talking about it, even quoting some of its closing lyrics, it's obvious he's a huge fan. (I'd be surprised if The Stylistics weren't his favorite group at the time.)


28. "(Last Night) I Didn't Get to Sleep at All" The 5th Dimension I never realized that future Solid Gold host Marilyn McCoo's old group had a chart presence in the '70s, but this would make it all the way to No. 8, becoming the vocal group's penultimate Top 10 trip. Also, surprisingly, not totally flopping in the early '70s: Sonny & Cher, at No. 16, down 8 from their zenith, with the carnival-esque, not rodeo-esque, "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done." That reminds me: Why don't we have more unisex Top 40 acts now? In the '70s, they were everywhere: ABBA, Blondie, Boney M, Captain & Tennille, The Carpenters, Chic, Dawn, Fleetwood Mac, Jefferson Starship, Peaches & Herb, Rose Royce, Rufus, Starland Vocal Band, The Sylvers, Talking Heads... On this chart, in addition to the aforementioned two, we also had Gladys Knight and the Pips ("Help Me Make It Through the Night," No. 33) and The Staple Singers ("I'll Take You There," No. 7).


27. "Run Run Run" Jo Jo Gunne I guess you can say Jay Ferguson was to the '60s and '70s what John Waite was to the '70s and '80s, a guy who scored with two different bands and on his own. And like John Waite with The Babys, solo and with Bad English, I love Jay Ferguson whether he was going to No. 25 with Spirit (via 1968's "I Got a Line on You"), to No. 27 with Jo Jo Gunne, or to No. 9 seven years later, solo, with "Thunder Island," one of my favorite songs from 1978.


23. "Tumbling Dice" The Rolling Stones The highest debut of the week (en route to No. 7), as the band would again be the week ending May 8, 1976, when "Fool to Cry" entered at No. 20, en route to No. 10. I rarely think of this song when I think of the Stones, but it sounds a lot better than I remembered.


22. "Heart of Gold" Neil Young Ditto Young's only No. 1 (the oldest song in the Top 40, at 13 weeks), which I finally learned to appreciate 20 years later when the Harvest sequel, Harvest Moon, quietly became one of my favorite albums of 1992.


21. "Puppy Love" Donny Osmond Here's another difference between Osmond and his fellow early '70s teen idol Michael Jackson: When Jackson tackled a golden oldie ("Little Bitty Itty One," with The Jackson 5, at No. 25, or "Rockin' Robin," solo, at No. 4, down 2 from its runner-up peak), the result sounded completely of its time, like the song could have been written right before it was recorded. Today, though, Osmond's No. 3 take on Paul Anka's "Puppy Love" sounds haunted and hollow, like a relic from another place and time before Osmond was even born (in 1957).


20. "Slippin' Into Darkness" War Paving the way for The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang and Rufus later in the decade. War had just as many hits, but why doesn't anybody really talk about War today? A theory: Those early groups had a focal point (EWF, two), while War was a true ensemble with no breakout star after The Animal's Eric Burdon left the band. I guess that would make them the early to mid '70s psychedelic funk version of Foreigner.


12. "The Family of Man" Three Dog Night Chicago aside, my favorite group from the early '70s. I was going to say that if its members had written the band's hits, Three Dog Night would be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then, Chicago, whose hits were self-penned, has yet to make it in either.


10. "Back Off Bugaloo" Ringo Starr The least respected ex-Beatle may have been the second most successful one in the half decade following the group's split (this, his second Top 10, was inching to No. 9), but 1973 No. 1s "Photograph" and "You're Sixteen" (which was a cover of Johnny Burnette's '60s hit) aside, has anyone racked up more huge forgotten hits?


9. "Look What You Done For Me" Al Green Sprinting toward No. 4 in its fifth week (though up only one), this song has the distinction of being the Green hit that came between his biggest (1971 No. 1 "Let's Stay Together") and his best ("I'm Still in Love with You," a 1972 No. 3).


8. "Doctor My Eyes" Jackson Browne One of the many interesting things I recently learned from watching a documentary on The Eagles: Glenn Frey learned how to write songs in the early '70s by listening to his then-roommate Browne compose his debut hit. Fun fact: The Jackson 5 (no relation) went to No. 9 in the UK in 1972 with a cover of "Doctor My Eyes" from Lookin' Through the Windows, the album that contained the aforementioned (twice) "Little Bitty Pretty One."


7. "I'll Take You There" The Staple Singers I've never noticed it before, but the first of the father-daughters quartet's two No. 1s (Up 11 in its third chart week) sounds less like a song than an improvised vocal jam, like the last few minutes of the Sunday morning song service at a black church.


6. "A Horse with No Name" America Speaking of Michael Jackson and covers, his remake of America's three-weeks-at-No.-1 debut was reworked as "A Place with No Name," a track on his 2014 posthumous album Xscape.


5. "Day Dreaming" Aretha Franklin The Queen of Soul is generally thought of as a stellar voice, but here's more proof (along with "Call Me," "Spirit in the Dark" and "Rock Steady," among her early '70s hits) that she could be as formidable a songwriter as many of her peers who were better known for doing more than just singing.


4. "Rockin' Robin" Michael Jackson And this, Donny Osmond, is how you tackle a golden oldie.


3. "Betcha By Golly, Wow" The Stylistics So romantic, so unsexy, so so good.


2. "I Gotcha" Joe Tex Despite his long string of chart hits and his reputation as being second only to James Brown among funk/soul masters in the early '70s, Tex might be the least remembered of all of this week's Top 10 artists. And were it not for Quentin Tarantino resurrecting it for the 1992 Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, "I Gotcha" might be a more forgotten song today than "Back Off Boogaloo," which is criminal because it may have been the most amazing thing in the entire Top 40 that week.


1. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" Roberta Flack A Top 10 as strong as this one deserves to be capped by one of the most haunting and enduring love songs ever.

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