Sunday, January 15, 2017

Superhits 1977, Part 1

It was 40 years ago this week.  Feel old, kids?

Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show),” #1, 1/8/77
This one kind of came out of nowhere.  McCoo and Davis had been members of The Fifth Dimension from the beginning, but by 1975 they’d seen the handwriting on the wall (the group’s last top 30 hit was 1972’s “If I Could Reach You”), and the couple (they’d married in 1969 – their hit “Wedding Bell Blues” from that year, which featured pleas from a woman to her lover “Bill” to marry her was merely serendipitous) split to form a duo.  Their first single, “I Hope We Get to Love in Time,” from the album of the same name, was a flop, but this one hit #1 – and it would be their only top 10 hit.  It also won a Grammy for Best R&B Duo or Group performance.  The video is from Soul Train – although I’m wondering why the director decided to show more of the dancers than the singers.

Burton Cummings, “Stand Tall,” #10, 1/8/77
Another example of a breakaway from a group for temporary greener pastures.  Cummings had been the lead singer for The Guess Who since 1968, and the primary songwriter since 1970, when Randy Bachman left the band.  (I should say that, while it wasn’t the happiest breakup at the time, Bachman and Cummings have long since mended their fences and have worked together frequently since then.)  By 1976, Cummings decided his musical vision didn’t mesh with that of then-guitarist Dominic Troiano and broke up the band.  (Bass player Jim Kale discovered the following year no one had ever registered the band’s name and promptly did so – he’s toured with various configurations since then, but Cummings and Bachman have only infrequently participated.)  Anyway, Cummings promptly knocked out this self-consoling solo hit, hitting the top 10 in the United States and his native Canada.  Cummings’ eponymous first solo album is best known for both this and a lounge-lizard version of Bachman’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” – fortunately, Bachman had a good sense of humor (and probably appreciated the royalties).  Cummings apparently went to the Steve Perry Academy of Overemotional Lipsyncing for this one.

Alice Cooper, “I Never Cry,” #12, 1/8/77
From Cooper’s liner notes of his 2001 hits set Mascara and Monsters:  “An alcoholic confession.  I had managed to drink away most of my emotions.  Sitting there, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time that I had cried.”  Alice Cooper’s (Vince Furnier is his real name; he took the name of his band as his own stage name after they broke up in 1975) alcohol issues were pretty fierce and it took him a long time to get rid of them (he has been sober for over three decades); this was the first of a trilogy of sorts that involved getting sober and his wife, Sheryl.  It was also the second of four top 15 hits that went the ballad route, which alienated some of his hardcore fans, but got him a lot more radio airplay.

Electric Light Orchestra, “Livin’ Thing,” #13, 1/8/77
First single from their sixth studio album, A New World Record.  This was the first of their platinum albums, and it established a pattern for the next few – 16 of their next 17 singles in the United States would hit the top 40, even though their previous five albums contained only three top 40 hits.  A bright, chipper pop song with time changes throughout, this was named the #1 “Guilty Pleasure” single by the pop music magazine Q in 2006. 

The Bar-Kays, “Shake Your Rump to the Funk,” #23, 1/8/77
This band got off to as poor a start as possible after their beginnings as Memphis session musicians – most of them were in the same plan as Otis Redding that crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, WI in late 1967.  Four of the six band members died, while one survived the crash and another was not in the plane – bass player James Alexander.  By 1977, he was the only original member left, when they notched this hit, their second and last top 40 entry (the first was 1967’s “Soul Finger”).  It was also heard in the films Superbad and Head of State.  The band still performs occasionally (with Alexander still on bass); they’ll be in Bethesda, MD in February.

George Harrison, “This Song,” #25, 1/8/77
This was a chipper response to Harrison’s legal issues after his 1970 smash “My Sweet Lord” was ruled to have been a unconscious plagiarism of the 1960s Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine.”  (Long story short, Harrison didn’t pay nearly as much as he was originally ordered to – it didn’t help that ex-Harrison manager Allen Klein tried to switch sides in the middle and buy the rights to “He’s So Fine” for himself.  Harrison eventually wound up with the rights to the song.)  Anyway, Harrison notes here “This Song” is his own composition, with no help from anyone else (“This song has nothing bright about it” references “He’s So Fine”’s publisher, Bright Tunes).  Billy Preston plays piano and organ, and Monty Python’s Eric Idle is the one who says in the middle “Could be ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’”/”No, sounds more like ‘Rescue Me’.”  In this music video, look for Rolling Stone Ron Wood doing some of Idle’s lines, heavily made up.

Al Green, “Keep Me Cryin’,” #37, 1/8/77
Thirteenth top 40 hit from Green – although it would be his last for 11 years (until he and Annie Lennox remade “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” for the Scrooged soundtrack).  The music world had changed a bit since Green placed four songs in the top five between 1971 and 1972 – and so had Green.  Following the 1974 incident where his married girlfriend, Mary Woodson White, assaulted him by pouring boiling grits on him and then killed herself, Green focused more on the ministry, becoming an ordained pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis (where he still preaches today).  He was still performing secular music at that time, as shown here (although there were certainly spiritual overtones), but his sales and airplay slipped (in fairness, Hi Records, based in Memphis, was a pretty small company, and couldn’t match the distribution and promotion of the major labels).  He eventually moved for the most part into primarily religious music starting in 1980.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird” [live], #38, 1/8/77
Considering this song had been a top 20 hit for Skynyrd just a little over two years before, and the live version runs over 13 minutes in its entirety (it was cut to 4:55 for the single), this seems as likely a chart candidate as any.  But it’s such a powerful live version – arguably an improvement from the studio version, with the addition of wunderkind guitarist Steve Gaines – that its release seemed almost inevitable.  The full-length version still remains a staple of classic rock stations today (and not just because it gives the disc jockey a chance for a bathroom break).  Play it pretty for Atlanta.

Dickey Lee, “9,999,999 Tears,” #52, 1/8/77
This was Lee’s last song to hit the pop charts (he’d notched a top 10 hit in 1962 with the death ballad “Patches,” and followed up with “I Saw Linda Yesterday,” which still gets airplay on oldies stations), and it’s at least got a catchy chorus, even though it’s a breakup song.  Lee was mostly a cover artist during his years on the country charts – his only country #1 was a remake of Austin Roberts’ death ballad “Rocky” – but he did write “She Thinks I Still Care” for George Jones in the 1960s.  He continued hitting the country charts until 1982.  It appears he’s now retired, at age 80.

Bay City Rollers, “Yesterday’s Hero,” #54, 1/8/77
Ah, fame is fleeting.  And despite the Bay City Rollers’ awareness of this fact – or perhaps because of it – this rocker only hit the middle of the charts.  From their album “Dedication” (again ironic, as founding member Alan Longmuir bailed on the band just before the recording of this album, and his replacement Ian Mitchell was bounced not long after its release), which was produced by Jimmy Ienner (who also produced all four Raspberries albums and two Three Dog Night albums), this song was written by Harry Vanda and George Young (who started out in Australia as part of The Easybeats and wound up managing Young’s brothers as part of AC/DC).

Funky Kings, “Slow Dancing,” #61, 1/8/77
Odd band name; there’s very little funky about this song.  The band was an odd amalgam – Jack Tempchin had cowritten a couple of Eagles songs with Glenn Frey (“Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone”), and Jules Shear would later write “All Through the Night” and “If She Knew What She Wants,” which became hits for Cyndi Lauper and The Bangles, respectively.  Add Richard Stekol (who had been in the rock band Honk), and guitarist Greg Leisz (who’s played with every band from John Stewart to Jackson Browne), along with funk rhythm section Bill Bodine and Frank Cotinola, and you have – well, a one-album act (they broke up after Arista rejected their second album).  Tempchin was fortunate enough to have this song repurposed – Johnny Rivers would turn it into a top 10 hit (under the title “Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’)” later in the year.

Robert Palmer, “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,“ #63, 1/8/77
Robert Palmer didn’t have much luck with writing his own hits early in his career (that would change later on), but he was good at finding songs ripe for interpretation.  “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” had been around for awhile; Harry Belafonte made his version back in 1956, and it’s been recorded by The Carpenters, Chubby Checker, and Roseanne Cash.  This would be the first of 18 Hot 100 hits for Palmer (including two with The Power Station).  From the album Some People Can Do What They Like – that’s the one with Palmer playing strip poker with Playboy Playmate Denise Michele.  (It’s probably no coincidence that Palmer’s sales jumped when he stopped using sexist album covers.

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