Story & Meaning of these Top 40 Songs from the 1970s
by Ed Osborne
Welcome to Top 40 Weekly’s new, exclusive “Story Behind The Song” feature: a look at the history and meaning of key singles from the 1970s along with some vintage videos.
The Guess Who – American Woman Peak #1 for 3 weeks; 1970
What do you do when you’re called Chad Allan & The Expressions, you’re releasing singles in your native country, and not getting any radio air play ’cause it’s 1965 and you’re not British? Well, the label honchos for this Canadian band said, “Hey, we’ll just change your name and make like you’re British!” So the record company came up with the bright idea of a namethat-band contest and put “Guess Who?” on the label of Shakin’ All Over. Lo and behold, the disc jockeys thought that that was the group’s real name and that was that. With the addition of singer Burton Cummings and the departure of Allan, the classic Guess Who lineup was complete. The band’s anti-U.S. single, American Woman, became the GW’s third Top 10 single in 12 months. That year the Guess Who also played for President Nixon although First Lady Pat asked the group not to play its #1 hit.
The Jackson 5 – I’ll Be There Peak #1 R&B for 6 weeks and #1 Pop for 5 weeks; 1970
Legend – and Motown press releases – claimed that Diana Ross discovered the Gary,
Indiana family group known as The Jackson 5. In truth, Bobby Taylor, leader of Motown group The Vancouvers (Does Your Mama Know About Me – #5 R&B, 1969), first spotted the boys when they opened for him after winning a nightclub talent contest. With The Supremes accounting for half of Motown’s six pop #1’s from 1967 to 1969, owner Berry Gordy needed some new hitmakers, so he pulled out all the stops for his latest signing. The Motown writers, producers, and musicians delivered an astounding four #1 R&B and Pop Jackson 5 singles within nine months. Whereas the first three hits were infectious kid-pop confections, number four – I’ll Be There – showed the group could also produce a more adult sound. In 1992, diva Mariah Carey rode her version of the tune to #1.
Bread – Make It With You Peak #1 Pop and #4 Adult Contemporary; 1970
What a difference a few years made in the turbulent 1960’s. In 1967, the Rolling Stones came under critical fire for Let’s Spend The Night Together, as did Van Morrison for his lovemaking comments in Brown Eyed Girl. Just three years later, however, Bread would top the Hot 100 and even cross over to the more conservative Adult Contemporary stations with the seductive come-on, “I wanna make it with you.” Perhaps it was Bread’s soft romantic style, vs. the more in-your-face tack taken by the Stones and Van, which made their approach more palatable. Or perhaps the times, indeed, had a-changed. Whatever the reason, Make It With You went down as easy as summer wine in 1970. The members of Bread never doubted that the suggestive song would be a monster hit. They were right. Make It With You debuted in mid-June, and two months replaced their chief rock lite rivals, the Carpenters and (They Long To Be) Close To You, at #1
Blues Image – Ride Captain Ride Peak #4; 1970
The three founding members of Blues Image, all high school friends in Tampa, began playing together in the first half of the 60’s. After a bassist from Wales signed on, the quartet started touring and even ran a psychedelic hangout in Tampa called Dino’s. With the addition of a keyboardist from Alaska in 1968 the line-up was set. Next stop: a new nightclub in Tampa called Thee Experience where response to Blues Image was so strong the owner changed the venue’s name to Thee Image. An engagement at L.A.’s Whiskey-A-Go-Go resulted in a record deal, and Blues Image hit the streets in 1969, followed by Open. Although Ride Captain Ride, the hit single from Open, contained no hint of the band’s original Latin-blues sound it proved to be the winning ticket for BI. The captain in question was Navy Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher whose ship, the Pueblo, was captured by North Korea in 1968 while on an intelligence gathering mission. Ride Captain Ride sailed into the #4 position in July, 1970, two-and-a-half years after the real captain and his mystery ship entered the history books.
Free – All Right Now Peak #4; 1970
In early 1967 the Paul Rodgers-fronted Roadrunners arrived in London from Middlesbrough, ready to set the town on fire. Even after a name change to the Wild Flowers, they were greeted with a big “ho-hum” and dissolved. Rodgers next formed Brown Sugar. After a gig at the Fickle Pickle, guitarist Paul Kossoff and drummer Simon Kirke from Black Cat Bones made Rodgers an offer he couldn’t refuse. With the addition of bassist Andy Fraser, recently fired from John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, and a name change to Free, the band was ready to roll. Free’s first album – the non-charting Tons Of Sobs – streeted in late 1968, and a year later Free appeared. In the wake of a summer gig supporting Cream and an August 30th appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival, Free rose to #22 in the U.K. Free’s anthemic All Right Now lit up both sides of the Atlantic in the summer of 1970; capped by the band’s second appearance at the annual Isle of Wight extravaganza: this time as a headliner.
The 5 Stairsteps – O-o-h Child Peak #14 R&B & #8 Pop; 1970
The Burke brothers and sister began singing together while youngsters, coached by father Clarence and mother Betty. Betty named her vocalizing offspring after noticing the step-like quality of their heights. A talent contest – and a win – at the Regal Theater caused their proud Dad to brag about his kids to Fred Cash. Cash just happened to be a member of Chi-town’s fabulous Impressions, led by Curtis Mayfield. Curtis auditioned the Stairsteps, liked what he heard, and signed them to his new Windy C label. Windy C’s and the Five Stairsteps’ first release, You Waited Too Long, rose to #16 R&B, and the family was on its way. In 1967, youngest brother Cubie became Stairstep number six. Three years later Stan Vincent took over the production reins from Mayfield, and wrote the group’s biggest pop hit; O-o-h Child. At first the B-side cover of The Beatles‘ Dear Prudence grabbed airplay before radio DJ’s flipped the 45 over and spun Child into the Top 10.
Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine Peak #6 R&B and #3 Pop; 1971
Born in Slab Fork, West Virginia, Bill Withers joined the US Navy after high school, and spent nine years as an airplane mechanic. Upon his discharge in 1965, Bill moved to Los Angeles to pursue his passion; recording song demos at night and working on airline company assembly lines during the day. In 1971, the 32-year-old Withers entered the studio, with Booker T. Jones producing and playing electric guitar and keyboards, and bassist Duck Dunn and drummer Al Jackson of the MG’s handling rhythm. The first song they laid down was Ain’t No Sunshine, written by Bill after watching Blake Edwards’ 1962 movie study of alcoholism, Days Of Wine And Roses, on television. Since Bill stomped his foot while strumming, Jones miked a wooden box and recorded the impacts as part of the bass sound. Jones also kept Withers’ space-filling “I know’s” on the final master. Although Ain’t No Sunshine started out as the B-side on Withers’ debut single, Harlem, deejays quickly flipped over it, and spun it to #3.
Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose – Treat Her Like A Lady Peak #20 R&B and #3 Pop; 1971
The Cornelius family included 15 children, three of which – Edward, Carter, and Rose – formed a gospel group called the Split Tones. The trio toured extensively around their home base of Dania, Florida before making the move to secular music. The timing was good for family singing acts, as the 1970 charts were full of records by groups such as the Jackson 5, the Carpenters, and the 5 Stairsteps. Edward had written what sounded like a hit, yet, when Treat Her Like A Lady hit the street on Platinum Records, it vanished without a trace. The following spring United Artists gave Lady a second shot and this time it started to climb. Lady took six long weeks to move into the Top 40. In another four weeks the Cornelius siblings joined the Carpenter, Osmond, Gibb, and Partridge family members in the Top 10 with their unique brand of sweet funk-edged soul.
Don McLean – American Pie – Parts I & II Peak #1 Pop for 4 weeks and #1 Adult
Contemporary for 3 weeks; 1972
Buddy Holly was Don McLean’s idol; one whose death on February 3, 1959 left a deep impression on the teenaged boy. Soon, McLean was on his own musical path, and eventually found himself working with renowned folk artists. In 1968 the New York State Council on the Arts named him Hudson River Troubadour. Two years later his debut album Tapestry appeared. Now that he was a recording artist, Don returned to the day he found out about Holly’s fate while delivering papers one cold morning in New Rochelle, NY, and recast it as the opening image for American Pie. At over eight minutes the finished master was much longer than other Top 40 tracks, and the lyric content far more complex than the usual romantic fare. Still, radio and fans took to it immediately. Thirteen 13 years after Holly’s tragic death, American Pie sat at the top of the pop chart.
Al Green – Let’s Stay Together Peak #1 R&B for 9 weeks & #1 Pop; 1972
In early 1968, Al Greene and The Soul Mate’s were in the R&B Top 5 with Back Up
Train and fresh off an enthusiastic reception at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. Unfortunately, the Train ride was soon over and Al found himself on an endless road of one-nighters. At a gig in Midland, Texas, he met up with Willie Mitchell, who took Al into his Memphis studio. Their first few efforts together bombed before I Can’t Get Next To You and Tired Of Being Alone caught fire. Mitchell and drummer Al Jackson then sketched out the music for the next single and Al tossed off the Let’s Stay Together lyrics in five minutes, but refused to record it for a couple of days. Once he got Al behind the mic, Willie kept bugging him to sing the song softer until Al gave in out of frustration. The effort paid off. Let’s Stay Together quickly got a hammer lock on the top R&B slot, and held onto it for nine weeks, making it the top chart performer of 1972.
Looking Glass – Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) Peak #1; 1972
As a Rutgers University undergrad at New Brunswick, New Jersey in the late 1960’s, I was well aware of the Looking Glass: a flat-out rockin’ band booked for campus frat parties. After graduation, I went on to a career in radio while Looking Glass struggled to survive as a viable band. The four split up for a few months; then reformed with a renewed commitment to make it. They moved into a NJ farmhouse and threw themselves into writing and playing. Two years later, they had little to show for their efforts. Enter, manager Mike Gershman, who set up a showcase with Columbia Records at NYC’s Café a Go Go. Looking Glass wowed the label suits, who rushed them into the studio. Several producers and no satisfactory results later, the band and Gershman took over production of the recording. Guitarist/singer Elliot Lurie contributed a song he’d written at the farm about a high school sweetheart named Randy. For the record, Randy became Brandy and Looking Glass had a #1 record; one I was happy to spin anytime.
The Chi-Lites – Oh Girl Peak #1 R&B for 2 weeks and #1 Pop; 1972
As the 1960’s wound down, the Chi-Lites had spent ten years trying for a hit and coming up empty handed. Although Eugene Record, the group’s lead singer, was charting with songs for wife Barbara Acklin and Peaches & Herb, his hometown buddies remained hitless until 1969 when the Chi-Lites finally came up with some Top 20 R&B records. Still, the big score eluded them. Then came Have You Seen Her (#1 R&B/#3 Pop) in 1971, and a scheduled appearance on Flip Wilson’s highly-rated television show, where the group would sing Seen Her and another tune. The group played a partially finished recording of Oh Girl – rhythm and harmonica tracks in place but missing the strings – for Wilson’s team in the backstage dressing room. All wanted the Chi-Lites to perform Oh Girl as the second song, and so they did. The exposure on national TV helped propel Oh Girl to #1 on the R&B and Pop charts.
Mac Davis – Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me Peak #1 for 3 weeks; 1972
Mac sculpted his music from the raw material of his life, e.g. Watching Scotty Grow (recorded by Bobby Goldsboro), inspired by his own son, and Don’t Cry Daddy (Elvis Presley), after Scotty told his dad not to be upset by Vietnam war news. By 1970, Mac’s folio included hits such as Memories and In The Ghetto, also by Elvis, and Something’s Burning by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. So sales prospects looked good when Song Dancer – a phrase Glen Campbell once used to describe Mac – hit the bins. Unfortunately, it didn’t chart, and Mac waited two more years before Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me rode to #1 on a wave of protest from women’s groups offended by the song’s seeming arrogance. In response, Mac claimed the man in Hooked felt he didn’t deserve the woman’s love. In fact, the song was written after Mac’s producer asked for a “hook” song; one with an unforgettable phrase that sticks in the listener’s mind. In the end, Hooked was Mac’s only #1 record, as writer or singer.
Billy Paul – Me and Mrs. Jones Peak #1 R&B for 4 weeks and #1 Pop for three weeks; 1972
Billy Paul began his recording career with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff when they released Billy’s live Feelin’ Good At The Cadillac Club album on Gamble Records in 1968. Although Kenny and Leon performed magic for another Gamble act, The Intruders, Billy wasn’t so fortunate. Gamble and Huff’s next label was Neptune. Again they released a record on Billy (a cover of Mrs. Robinson) and again Billy’s died, while his label mates, The O’Jays, enjoyed success. A third Gamble/Huff label, Philadelphia International, also included Billy and The O’Jays on its roster. And once again Billy watched as the O’Jays left him in the dust when Back Stabbers raced to #1. Only this time the familiar story played out differently. Kenny and Leon offered Billy Me And Mrs. Jones. After some initial trepidation, Billy agreed to record it, and the soulful ballad closed out 1972’s R&B and pop charts at #1.
Argent – Hold Your Head Up Peak #5; 1972
One of the most haunting keyboard lines of the British Invasion was created by Rod Argent, as heard on the Zombies atmospheric hit, She’s Not There. The band formed in 1962, acquired a record deal in 1964 after winning a label audition as first prize in a newspapersponsored contest, notched up a couple of hits, and disbanded in 1967. In 1968, People kept the Zombies alive via a cover of the band’s 1965 single, I Love You. Then, in 1969, a surprise release of a 1967 track from Odessey & Oracle, Time Of The Season, gave the defunct Zombies one more for the record books. The original group refused to reunite, and Rod Argent resurfaced in 1970 with a new self-named band. Although Argent’s album debut went nowhere, the track Liar went to #7 in 1971 in a version by Three Dog Night. Argent’s sophomore slab of progressive rock also sank. 1972’s All Together Now finally brought Argent its day in the sun, when Hold Your Head Up rose to #5.
Jim Croce – Bad, Bad Leroy Brown Peak #1 for 2 weeks; 1973
Like “The Wanderer” – about whom Dion sang in 1962 – a real-life Leroy Brown also inspired a singer to capture his character on vinyl. Jim Croce met the original Leroy while in telephone lineman school at Fort Dix, New Jersey, just up the freeway from Croce’s hometown of Philadelphia. Student Brown got fed up one day and simply walked off the base, only to return on payday to pick up his check. AWOL Brown soon found himself cuffed, and Croce found himself a song waiting to be written. When composing time came around, Jim fleshed out his tale of Leroy with a junkyard dog image drawn from times spent scrounging around for parts to fix up Jim’s broken down car of the moment. Once Jim landed a recording deal, he began turning his life stories into gold. Bad, Bad Leroy Brown became Jim’s first #1, and was in the final week of its chart run when Jim was killed in a plane crash.
Carly Simon – You’re So Vain Peak #1 Pop for 3 weeks and #1 Adult Contemporary for 2 weeks; 1973
For a time in 1973 the question on every pop music fan’s mind was “who’s so vain?” From the moment Carly Simon’s single hit the airwaves, speculation abounded as to the target of her pointed lyrics. Was it Warren Beatty? How about Kris Kristofferson? Or perhaps ex-husband James Taylor? Another top candidate was Rolling Stone Mike Jagger, whose distinctive twang can be heard prominently on the record. Carly herself refused to solve the mystery; ruling out only her former mate. Most likely, as Carly herself has claimed at times, the vain male is actually an amalgam of several men the singer/songwriter knew well. As for the record itself, Vain marked a change from Carly’s previous ballads. Powered by a driving bass line courtesy of Klaus Voormann (famed for his association with the Beatles in their Hamburg days), Vain puts on a funky strut that grabbed enough attention to make it Simon’s biggest all-time hit.
Grand Funk – We’re An American band Peak #1; 1973
From its formation in 1968 until 1973 Grand Funk Railroad muddled around the Bottom
60 instead of the Top 40, while selling out arenas and notching up seven straight Top 20 albums. In March of 1972 the trio had fired originator/manager/producer Terry Knight, added a fourth member, and shortened their name to Grand Funk. The changes brought immediate results. In July, 1973 We’re An American Band – title of the Michigan group’s ninth album and lead-off single – appeared on their respective charts. The in-your-face declaration arose during an aftershow bar argument between GF and Humble Pie as to the relative merits of U.S. vs. British rockers. GF drummer Don Brewer summed up his group’s stance by shouting out, “We’re an American band!” The anthemic song and new producer Todd Rundgren’s commercial touch proved to be a winning combination. Band roared to #1, bringing the critically maligned group the singles success that had previously eluded them.
The Doobie Brothers – Long Train Runnin’ #8 June, 1973
Rock ‘n’ roll fans heatedly debate which incarnation of The Doobie Brothers was the better of the two: the earlier Tom Johnston Doobies of Long Train Runnin’ fame or the later Minute By Minute Michael McDonald-led band. In fact, both deserve recognition for their contribution to popular music. The original quartet was built around guitarist/lead singer Johnston and drummer John Hartman, who played together in Pud. An initial album released in the Spring of 1971 flopped. A second (Toulouse Street) the following year landed them on the charts with Listen To The Music (#11). Album number three, The Captain And Me, broke the Doobies nationally with its blazing lead-off single, Long Train Runnin’. Like Music, Long Train Runnin’ was written by Johnston and bore the trademark sound of guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll with a driving beat, which characterized the band until Johnston left in 1975 due to illness.
Elton John – Crocodile Rock Peak #1 for three weeks; 1973
Ironically, the song that gave Elton John his first #1 conjured up a nostalgic past of dancing and fun, one quite unlike Reginald’s real childhood. Dad Stanley kept a controlling hand on the young lad until his divorce. Out from under Dad’s influence, 10 year old Reginald was free to pursue his first love: pop music. Playing piano in The Corvettes and then Bluesology, plus session work, kept the teenage boy busy until he teamed up with lyricist Bernie Taupen in 1967. By now Reginald Dwight was Elton John, after Bluesology members Elton Dean and John
Baldry. Elton and Bernie wrote while Elton contributed piano to the Hollies‘ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. In 1970 Elton started his own string of hits. By 1972, with three Top 10 songs to his credit, the former Reginald Dwight was looking for his first #1. On that year’s American tour Elton introduced Crocodile Rock which rocketed to #1, giving Elton the happy times he’d never had as a boy.
Blue Swede – Hooked On A Feeling Peak #1; 1974
For those whose retinas have a burned-in image of David “Bay Watch“ Hasselhoff’s rather bizarre actions in his Hooked On A Feeling video, let’s return the song’s humble beginnings. It first entered the national consciousness in 1969 when B.J. Thomas took it to #5. Lovers who embraced the tune’s romantic sentiments were shocked five years later when a barely recognizable rendition by Swedish band Blue Swede appeared. The Swede’s version borrowed an “oogachacka” arrangement from a 1971 Jonathan King cover. Although it horrified many, that inyour-face (ear?) riff caught on. Whereas King’s record had only reached #23 in England, Blue Suede’s rocketed skyward around the world. It reached #1 in America on April 6th, 1974: the first time a Swedish act had hit the top. Television revived Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling as the soundtrack for the dancing baby animation on Ally McBeal and The Hoff unleashed his version in 1997: ensuring “oogachacka” a place in the pop culture hall of fame.
Harry Chapin – Cat’s In The Cradle Peak #1 Pop and #6 Adult Contemporary; 1974
Growing up, Harry Chapin sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys Choir, learned to play the trumpet, banjo, and guitar, and – at 15 – formed a band with his brothers. He later studied architecture and philosophy, and recorded an album with siblings Tom and Steve. Harry also directed and wrote The Legendary Champions, an Academy Award-nominated documentary. Another Chapin Brothers album appeared in 1970, and the next year Harry rented out New
York’s Village Gate for his band’s summer run. A rave review brought him a record deal and his
1972 debut solo album with its standout single, Taxi. His biggest commercial success came in 1974 with Cat’s In The Cradle, which originated as a poem written by Harry’s wife, Sandy. Harry added his own feelings to the song after he missed the birth of his youngest son because he was on tour. Cat’s topped the Top 40 on Christmas week 1974, and returned to the Top 10 in 1993 in a cover version by Ugly Kid Joe.
The Hues Corporation – Rock The Boat Peak #2 R&B and #1 Pop; 1974
In 1974, popular artists such as John Denver and Elton John suddenly found themselves joined on the charts by a new wave of dance records. TSOP by MFSB featuring The Three Degrees led the invasion, hitting #1 R&B and pop in April. The second salvo occurred on July 6th when the Hues Corporation sailed to the pop top spot with Rock The Boat. Wally Holmes had founded the group in 1969 with Bernard St. Clair Lee Calhoun Henderson, Hubert Ann Kelly, and Fleming Williams. For a name, Holmes punned on zillionaire Howard Hughes’ empire. The going was slow until Holmes booked Hues into the lounge at Circus Circus in Las Vegas. Hues was a hit and hit the airwaves in 1973 with Freedom For The Stallion, followed by Rock The Boat. With Williams on lead, instead of Kelly as originally intended, Boat was launched in February to underwhelming response. Then radio “discovered” disco and latched onto the hottest disc in the clubs: Rock The Boat.
Neil Sedaka – Laughter In The Rain Peak #1 Pop & #1 Adult Contemporary; 1975
From 1958 to 1963 Neil Sedaka was hotter-than-hot with a string of teen-oriented hits, such as Calendar Girl and Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen. Yet, unlike many other singing idols of the day, Neil was a multi-talented artist. His first appearance on vinyl came with The Willows’ seminal doo-wop record, Church Bells May Ring (#11 R&B, 1956), on which Neil played chimes. In the late summer of 1958, one of many songs penned by Neil with partner Howard Greenfield, Stupid Cupid, became Connie Francis’ second smash hit. In 1959 Neil’s own recording career took off and soared…until The Beatles and the British Invasion. When Laughter In The Rain became a surprise U.K. hit in mid-1974, Elton John signed Neil to his new U.S.
label, Rocket Records, which carried Laughter to #1 America – more than 12 years after Breaking Up Is Hard To Do had given Neil his first chart topper.
Minnie Riperton – Lovin’ You Peak #1; 1975
Recruited from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School A Cappella Choir to join the Gems, Minnie Riperton took the lead on the girl group’s final single, Happy New Love. She then sang backup on a number of hits, including Rescue Me (#4; 1965) by Fontella Bass, before waxing Lonely Girl – which showcased her extraordinary three octave range – under the name Andrea
Davis. Minnie finally achieved national fame as a member of the psychedelic soul sextet Rotary Connection, who received widespread airplay on progressive rock radio. After releasing six albums, RC disbanded and Minnie took some time off. She next appeared behind Stevie Wonder on Fullfillingness’ First Finale, and Stevie returned the favor by producing Minnie’s Perfect Angel album. Despite the Stevie Wonder name value, neither of the first two singles from Angel did well. However, single #3, Lovin’ You, written by Minnie and her husband, was a winner, taking Minnie all the way to #1.
Frankie Valli – My Eyes Adored You Peak #1; 1975
After Sherry got the ball rolling, holding on to the #1 spot for 5 weeks in 1962, there was no stopping the 4 Seasons hit juggernaut. Lead singer Frankie Valli even stepped out on his own and logged a #2 solo single – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You – in 1967. 1970 found the Jersey group at Detroit’s famous Motown records, however, no hits materialized. When the Seasons left Motown, they took just one track for which they paid four thousand dollars; a solo Frankie recording entitled My Eye Adored You. Writers Bob Crewe and Kenny “I Like Dreamin’ ” Nolan had originally called the song Blue Eyes In Georgia, then altered it when Frankie got involved. Believing in Eyes‘ hit potential, they shopped it to various labels until new-company-on-theblock, Private Stock, picked it up. Eyes slowly climbed to the top, where it stayed for one week, before being bumped by another Crewe/Nolan composition, Lady Marmalade.
Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony – The Hustle #1 July, 1975; #1 R&B
Without The Hustle, Van McCoy – a very talented song writer, arranger, and producer – might still be unknown outside of the music business. Yet, it’s a hit that almost wasn’t. While Van put the finishing touches on arrangements for a recording session the next day, his business partner, Charles Kipps Jr., checked out a new dance at New York City’s Adam’s Apple nightclub. Kipps saw The Latin Hustle which, unlike other contemporary dances, included hand-holding and touching akin to ballroom dancing. Kipps bugged Van to do something with it so Van quickly wrote down whatever came to mind and, with an hour of studio time left, recorded The Hustle. Unaware of dance life outside of New York City, Van was floored by Hustle‘s success, which introduced disco dancing to the world.
Pilot – Magic Peak #5; 1975
Bass and lead guitarist David Paton first met keyboardist Billy Lyall in 1969 in a preRollermania line-up of the Bay City Rollers. Paton always considered his Roller role as a parttime gig and left in late 1970. Billy followed David’s example in April of 1971. While David worked to boost his band Christyan into the big time, Billy signed on as a junior engineer at Edinburgh’s Craighall recording studios. The two teamed up again in 1972; writing songs and making demos. At night David played with Band Of Gold alongside guitarist Ian Bairnson and drummer Stuart Tosh. Among the original songs they worked into the group’s set of covers was one called Magic. In 1974 EMI signed the band. Paton, Lyall, and Tosh (Bairnson had not yet officially joined) chose a name derived from the first letters of their surnames. An Alan Parsonsproduced single – Magic – streeted in September and promptly moved to #11 in the UK. The States fell under Magic‘s spell the following summer when it peaked at #5.
LaBelle – Lady Marmalade Peak #1 R&B and Pop; 1975
Patti LaBelle and Her Blue Belles scored their first hit, I Sold My Heart To The Junkman, in 1962 without ever singing a note. The real Junkman recording group, The Starlets, disappeared while Patti’s quartet – whose name appeared on the label – continued to record. In 1970, British television producer Vicki Wickham, who remembered the girls’ gigs on the Bandstand-like Ready, Steady, Go!, agreed to manage them. Renamed LaBelle and re-costumed in silvery space outfits, the trio went into the studios under the guidance of legendary New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. Among the songs laid down was one by Kenny Nolan and
Bob Crewe about a notorious lady of the evening, originally recorded by the Nolan-led Eleventh
Hour. LaBelle introduced Lady Marmalade at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan and soon everyone was cooing the sexy French bedroom invitation. Patti later went on to fame as the diva’s diva while Lady Marmalade strutted her stuff again in 2001 courtesy of Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink.
Wild Cherry – Play That Funky Music Peak #1 R&B for 2 weeks and #1 Pop for 3 weeks; 1976
A box of cough drops and a dissatisfied disco fan played key roles in the story of this funk classic. In 1974, band founder/ lead singer Bob Parissi was recuperating in the hospital, and his group was in need of a name. Spying a box of cough drops next to his bed, Parissi jokingly suggested “Wild Cherry” to his fellow musicians. The name stuck even though the band struck out. After managing steakhouses for awhile, Bob reformed Wild Cherry with new members, only to find the clubs that had once welcomed WC’s brand of hard rock were now courting the disco crowd. The dance fans were none too happy with Wild Cherry’s song selection. One night someone in the crowd yelled out, “play that funky music.” Backstage, Parissi quickly jotted down the words to WC’s future hot hit on an order pad from the bar. Upon release, Play That Funky Music topped both the rhythm and pop lists, and became the third-ever platinum certified single.
Silver Convention – Get Up And Boogie (That’s Right) Peak #2 Pop & #5 R&B; 1976
When musician/arranger Silvester Levay and record producer Michael Kunze, caught the dance buzz after visiting several Munich, Germany discotheques, they set about creating a hit of their own. The end result was Save Me – credited to Silver Convention – an infectious tune that filled the floors of European clubs. In reality Silver Convention was a front name for anonymous studio singers who also lent their vocals to Fly, Robin, Fly. Robin flew up the U.S. pop chart and landed as the #2 single of 1975. However, when it came time for a follow-up single, the singers balked at continuing as unknowns. So Levay and Kunze hired Penny McLean, Linda Thompson, and Ramona Wolf to “be” Silver Convention, and it was this trio that toured behind the success of the next hit, Get Up And Boogie. Standing in the way of back-to-back #1’s for SC was one Paul McCartney, whose group Wings held Boogie at #2 behind his own Silly Love Songs.
England Dan & John Ford Coley – I’d Really Love To See You Tonight Peak #2 Pop & #1 Adult Contemporary; 1976
All over the South, the psychedelic pop sounds of Dallas-based Southwest F.O.B., featuring the voices of Dan Seals and John Colley, filled the 1968 airwaves with a Smell Of Incense. The tune was originally recorded by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, yet, Dan and John themselves penned many of Southwest’s material and even opened for the full band as an acoustic duo. They soon went out on their own – as Colley and Wayland – before Dan’s brother Jim (of Seals & Crofts) suggested a name change. Dan became “England Dan,” after his early obsession with The Beatles, and John added “Ford,” and dropped an “l” from his last name. They recorded two albums and scored a #1 hit in Japan. Then four years passed before opportunity knocked once again. This time ED&JFC scored with I’d Really Love To See You Tonight, the biggest hit of their career together.
Starbuck – Moonlight Feels Right Peak #3; 1976
In the world of pop music, each summer brings records that capture the seasonal vibes. In
1976 that honor went to Moonlight Feels Right by Starbuck. Starbuck’s singer and keyboardist, Bruce Blackman, got his professional feet wet in 1965 when he formed The Phantoms while attending Delta College in Mississippi. The band soon changed its name to Eternity’s Children and – in August, 1968 – reached #69 on the Hot 100 with Mrs. Bluebird. In 1972, Blackman resurfaced in Mississippi along with another ex-Children member, drummer Bo Wagner, who’d joined Blackman’s former band after he’d left the lineup. Fortune eluded Blackman again when Mississippi’s debut-to-be album was not released. 1974 found Blackman and Wagner together again in Starbuck. The band released Moonlight Feels Right in September of 1975 to thundering silence. Six months later Birmingham, Alabama disc jockey Mike St. John started spinning Starbuck’s sunshine pop single. It reached #3 on July 31st: smack dab in the middle of summer.
Vicki Sue Robinson – Turn The Beat Around Peak #73 R&B, #10 Pop, and #1 Dance; 1976
Vicki Sue Robinson’s professional singing debut took place at a benefit for folksinger
Pete Seeger when she was only six. While still in her teens, her powerful pipes landed Vicki on Broadway in the original production of Hair. After six weeks, she moved on to other shows, including a role in Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1972 Vicki debuted on U.S. vinyl as a backup singer on the Todd Rundgren classic, Something/ Anything. Her solo coming-out was in 1975 with Baby Now That I’ve Found You, followed by Never Gonna Let You Go. Although neither of them drew much notice, club deejays quickly slapped the 12″ promo single of Turn The Beat Around onto their turntables. It was a Vicki Sue tour de force: all the background parts were hers and she nailed the lead vocal in one take. Within three weeks Beat sat atop the Dance chart, and in August it peaked at #10 on the Hot 100. For her effort, Vicki Sue received a Grammy nomination in the Best Pop Female Vocalist category.
KC And The Sunshine Band – (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty #1 September, 1976; #1 R&B for 4 weeks
When KC And The Sunshine Band’s Shake Your Booty reached #1 on America’s Pop
record charts, they became the first artist since the Beatles to do so three times in less than a year. In addition, Booty – along with the two previous #1 singles – also topped the R&B chart. Not bad for an integrated “disco” band from Florida! With Booty, Harry Wayne “KC” Casey directed his lyrics at the one or two audience members at every concert who were reluctant to let go. KC disagrees with critics who dismissed Booty as frivolous. Still, Booty‘s deep “meaning” may be a bit hard to hear in between the 90+ “shake’s” he sings in just over three minutes. By the way, that “guitar” heard in Booty is really a clavinet played in a higher than normal octave.
The Emotions – Best Of My Love Peak #1 Pop, #1 R&B, and #11 Dance; 1977
Earth, Wind & Fire’s leader, Maurice White, first encountered the three Hutchinson sisters – Wanda, Sheila, and Jeanette – in the early 1960’s when they were singing gospel as the Heavenly Sunbeams. In the late 60’s, the girls switched to soul music, sister Pamela replaced
Jeanette, and the siblings – now called the Emotions – scored a dozen chart singles, including the R&B #3 So I Can Love You. When their label folded, White brought the Emotions into his production company. On their first outing together, the group landed a double-sided hit on the R&B list; the #13 I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love and the #16 Flowers. For the trio’s next single, White and EW&F guitarist wrote Best Of My Love. With White producing, various EW&F members playing, and Wanda singing an octave out of her range, Best Of My Love was a flat-out masterpiece. It became a platinum seller and won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Group.
KC And The Sunshine Band – I’m Your Boogie Man #1 June ,1977; #3 R&B
From July of 1975 when Get Down Tonight entered Billboard‘s Hot 100 until July, 1977 when Keep It Comin’ Love did likewise, KC and his band were on fire. In Billboard‘s Hot 100 for the week of June 11, 1977, I’m Your Boogie Man bumped Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke from the top spot, giving the Florida group their fourth #1 in under two years. Harry Wayne “KC” Casey’s original concept for the tune included the chorus, “I’ll be a son-of-a-gun, look what you’ve done.” Fortunately for his career, KC later changed the lyric to the boogie man refrain, and the song’s theme from a failed relationship to one about a disc jockey. On the Part 3 album, Boogie Man is followed by Keep It Comin’ Love, the follow-up single to Boogie. Fittingly, Comin’ also fell in behind Boogie on the charts; peaking at #2.
Leo Sayer – You Make Me Feel Like Dancing Peak #1 Pop & #43 R&B; 1977
In early 1974, English-born Leo Sayer notched up his first hit, The Show Must Go On, on both sides of the Atlantic. Except…the U.S. hit was recorded by Three Dog Night. In October of 1976, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, Leo’s fifth U.K. hit, entered the pop chart in both countries. Sayer co-wrote Dancing with Vinnie Poncia, a jack-of-all-trades music veteran who sang on chart records (with the Videls, Innocence, and Trade Winds), composed hits (The Ronettes‘ Do I Love You?, Ringo Starr’s Oh My My), and produced albums (Kiss, Melissa
Manchester). While rehearsing the tune in the studio, Leo began fooling around with the “You’ve got a cute way of talking” line. When producer Richard Perry played Dancing for Sayer a couple of months later, the singer didn’t even remember it. Fortunately, music lovers did. Dancing reached #2 in England, one step behind its chart topping performance in the States.
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Blinded By The Light Peak #1; 1977
In 1972 New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen released his first single, Blinded By The Light, however, it was a British band, not Bruce, that took it all the way to number one. Manfred Mann first burst onto the British scene in 1964 with 5-4-3-2-1 (#5 UK), then scored an international smash with Do Wah Diddy Diddy. Mid-1969 marked the group’s final British hit, and by 1971 they had evolved into the more jazz-oriented Earth Band. The new incarnation’s first Bruce shot at a hit was Spirit In Night which peaked at an underwhelming #97 in the spring of 1976. Blinded By The Light became the next Manfred Mann 7″ Boss release, a seven minute seven second opus of swirling organ and driving rhythm, that – edited down to under four minutes – topped the chart here and hit #6 in the UK. Collectors note: an original copy of Bruce’s non-charting Blinded 45 with picture sleeve goes for over a cool grand.
The Marshall Tucker Band – Heard It In A Love Song Peak #14; 1977
Yes, there was a real-life Marshall Tucker, however, the only part he played in the “Band” involved his name. Tucker – a blind piano tuner – merely rented the same space that the South Carolina boys used for rehearsal. The actual membership of the MTB centered on brothers Toy and Tommy Caldwell. Both bounced around the Spartanburg music scene for years before finally pooling their talents in Toy Factory. The band’s first big gig was opening for the Allman Brothers Band on a swing through the Southeast. Later, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie became a big Toy
Factory booster and helped the now-named Marshall Tucker Band score a label deal. The MTB’s first four releases went gold, three reached the album Top 40, and the fourth spun off the #38 single Fire On The Mountain. Toy Caldwell’s most successful composition, Heard It In A Love Song, hit #14 in 1977. The Tuckers were still going strong in 1980, when Tommy was killed in a car accident; effectively ending the group’s career.
Commodores – Three Times A Lady Peak #1 R&B & Pop for 2 weeks, & #1 Adult
Contemporary for 3 weeks; 1978
A father’s wedding anniversary speech gave birth to the Commodores first #1 pop hit when he shared how, after 37 years of marriage, he’d never told his wife how much he appreciated her. Right then and there, his son – Lionel Richie – decided not to follow in Dad’s footsteps, and composed a musical love letter to his wife, Brenda. Unlike the intra-group controversies that surrounded other songs, when Lionel played his fellow Commodores Three Times A Lady, everyone agreed: this one was a keeper. Although ballads were an ever-increasing part of their repertoire, the most recent pre-Lady singles had been the funky Brick House and Too Hot Ta Trot. Brick House was a Top 5 crossover smash, whereas Too Hot topped the R&B list, yet, stalled at #24 on the pop side. With Three Times A Lady, the Commodores corrected that momentary lapse, scoring a music biz trifecta by hitting #1 on the three main Billboard charts.
Foreigner – Hot Blooded Peak #3; 1978
Foreigner, named for its mix of American and British members, was formed by Mick Jones (ex-Spooky Tooth and Leslie West Band) and Ian McDonald (ex-King Crimson), after they met at a recording session for Ian Lloyd, formerly of Stories (Brother Louie). Lead singer Lou Gramm was brought in from Black Sheep, a cover band specializing in Free/Bad Company material. With the addition of three more musicians, Foreigner was ready to rock. Foreigner, the debut album, entered the LP chart within a month of its release, reached #4 – as did the initial single, Feels Like The First Time – and ultimately sold over five million copies. The follow-up, Double Vision, did Foreigner one better by rising to #3 and moving over six million units. Once again the first single, Hot Blooded, matched the album’s peak performance. Penned by Jones and Gramm, Hot Blooded became the band’s third single to reach the Top 10 and earned them their first gold record.
Player – Baby Come Back Peak #1 Pop & #20 Adult Contemporary; 1978
Sandwiched between chart-toppers How Deep Is Your Love and Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees, the first new #1 of 1978 was Baby Come Back by Player. Group members Peter Beckett and John Charles Crowley knocked off Baby in just a few hours over two nights of songwriting: a process aided, no doubt, by recent breakups with their respective girlfriends. Rehearsals proceeded in John’s uncooled garage during a steamy Los Angeles heat wave. Then, just as the group finished recording an album’s worth of tunes, their record label went under. Label owners Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter – who believed in the song – negotiated its release with RSO Records. Baby Come Back rewarded their faith, topping the chart during its 32 week run, the longest of any single in 1978. Incidentally, Baby Come Back was the second of six consecutive #1’s from RSO for a total 17 weeks at the top.
Kansas – Dust In The Wind Peak #6; 1978
Despite being critically overshadowed by the likes of Yes and Genesis, Topeka’s Kansas held its own in the crowded progressive rock field of the 1970’s. Their first three albums came at nine month intervals with moderate success. 1976’s Leftoverture broke the previous chart pattern with a surprise #5 peak fueled by Carry On Wayward Son(#11; 1977), penned by the group’s chief songwriter, Kerry Livgren. The title tune off 1977’s Point Of Know Return charted acceptably by grazing the Top 30, followed by Dust In The Wind – another Livgren composition – which broke the act into the Top 10. Robby Steinhardt’s violin playing coupled with Livgren’s mix of prog rock stylings and heartland America themes, helped distinguish Kansas from its more critically respected competitors. By the start of the 1980’s, Kansas had outperformed many of them, releasing a total of eight gold or platinum-selling albums, and recording several classic rock classics in the process.
Chic – Le Freak Peak #1 R&B for 5 weeks, #1 Pop for 6 weeks, and #1 Dance for 7 weeks; 1978
The #1 record on the 1978 dance floors was part of a 12″ three tune medley released by
Chic. Taken from C’est Chic, Le Freak/I Want Your Love/Chic Cheer hit the top spot on November 25th, and stayed there for seven weeks. By that time, Le Freak – in a single 45rpm version – had also conquered the R&B and pop charts. The genesis of Le Freak occurred one night after Chic masterminds Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were refused entry into Studio 54 on New Year’s Eve, 1977. Over a bottle of champagne, the two began jamming and singing an x-rated hook, directed toward Studio 54’s doorman and clientele. That morphed into “Ahhh, freak off,” then “freak out.” At first, Rodgers and Edwards thought they had come up with a pretty good musical intro for their stage entrance, before realizing it was a real song. Their “real” song sold a mean six million copies before they elected to discontinue the single in order to shift sales to the album.
The Trammps – Disco Inferno #53 April, 1977 and #11 May, 1978; #9 R&B
Beginning in 1965 with Storm Warning, as The Volcanos, The Trammps were intimately intertwined with the Philadelphia music scene. As the house band at The City of Brotherly Love’s Uptown Theater, the group members honed their skills behind all the leading soul stars of the day. In particular, Earl Young, The Trammps’ bass singer and highly talented drummer, arranged, played and sang on hundreds of national hits by everyone from The Spinners to The Jacksons. Their mid-70’s dance records, such as Hold Back The Night, made The Trammps favorites at
Brooklyn’s disco 2001 Odyssey. Thus, they were a shoo-in for the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever when the club served as the location for the movie’s dance sequences. The Trammps got a Grammy when SNF won 1978’s Best Album of the Year award.
Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive Peak #1 Pop, #4 R&B, and #1 Dance; 1979
One of disco’s most enduring anthems could also stand in as the theme song to its singer’s life story. Starting with a three week gig fronting a band when she was 18, Gloria Gaynor eventually formed her own group, City Life, in 1971. Her recording debut, Honey Bee, sputtered to #55 on the R&B chart in 1974, followed quickly by the dance classic, Never Can Say Goodbye. Then Gloria’s recording career stalled. A fall during a European concert put a monthslong halt to performing, she spent most of 1978 recovering from spinal surgery, and her mother passed away. So when Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris offered her I Will Survive, Gloria knew this was her song. I Will Survive‘s inspirational lyrics immediately struck a chord with record buyers. Thirteen weeks into its chart run, Survive gave Gloria her a long-awaited #1 hit and (later on) a Best Disco Recording Grammy to boot. Gloria and her hit were revived in 1993 when a remixed version hit #5 in England.
Village People – Y.M.C.A. #2 Pop for 3 weeks February, 1979; #32 R&B
With their campy costumes and catchy songs and tongue-in-cheek persona, the Village (as in Greenwich)People became one of the most enduring images of the disco era. Their story began when producer Jacques Morali purposefully set out to create a group designed to attract gay fans. Roles were carefully chosen and songs with gay undercurrents composed. The single San Francisco (You’ve Got Me) sold respectably in England, then Macho Man charted in the U.S. Y.M.C.A. followed, hitting #1 in Britain and #2 in America. Three of their albums sold over a million copies. Then the Village People stepped on a career landmine by starring in Can’t Stop The Music, a movie so breathtakingly awful that it drove the final nails into disco’s coffin. Only Y.M.C.A., with its trademark arm moves courtesy of American Bandstand‘s audience, saved the Village People from cultural oblivion.
Blondie – Heart Of Glass Peak #1 Pop and #58 Dance; 1979
In 1975 Blondie was just another struggling group in New York City although, unbeknownst to them, they already had the blueprint for their breakthrough in hand. In the meantime, they got a label deal and released X Offender and In The Flesh to underwhelming response. Another deal and another disc – Denis – brought a #2 British hit and a bit of American FM airplay. Three more UK Top 10’s followed, but still no Stateside action. In 1978 Blondie resuscitated a song Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein had written three years earlier in their down-and-out apartment. Under the guidance of producer Mike Chapman, Once I Had A Love (aka The Disco Song) was transformed from a so-so dance number to a pulsating rock-meetsdisco standout. Done as a one-off novelty to add diversity to the Parallel Lines LP, Heart Of Glass exploded to #1 in April of 1979; throwing Blondie into the national spotlight. A remixed version reached #7 on the dance list in 1995.
Cheap Trick – I Want You To Want Me Peak #7; 1979
Cheap Trick’s success in America almost didn’t happen. Guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson first failed together in a band called Fuse. They released one album in 1969 that sank without a trace. Several years later Rick and Tom were playing in Cheap Trick, a name they kept because it was the one they were using – after a string of others – when they weren’t fired from a club gig. In 1977, Cheap Trick released a self-titled first album, and it, too, rocketed to the bottom…except in Japan, where it went gold. In Color did somewhat better stateside, while over in Japan fan hysteria bordered on Cheap Trickmania. The band’s live show was captured over there in all its glory on April 28, 1978 at Budokan which finally gave the Illinois group a smash album in its native country. The standout track, I Want You To Want Me, originally appeared in studio form on In Color.
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown Peak #2 R&B and Peak #1 Pop for 4 weeks; 1980
Lipps, Inc. was the proverbial “one man band.” The man in this case was Steven Greenberg who played most of the instruments, wrote the tunes, and produced the recordings for the Lipps, Inc. albums and singles. The lyrics to Funkytown were born out of Steven’s boredom with his native Minneapolis, and his desire to move to a fantasy funky town. One listen to the final recording and it’s clear that vocals are one part for which Steven was not responsible. That department belonged to a 24-year-old police department secretary named Cynthia Johnson, who was also moonlighting with a band called Flyte Tyme. Cynthia’s audition wowed Steven, and she became the voice of Lipps, Inc. Funkytown, propelled by Cynthia’s urgent vocals, was irresistible; generating platinum sales for the man behind the band, Steven Greenberg. PostFunkytown, Lipps, Inc placed only one more track on the Hot 100 while Johnson’s former gang evolved into Prince‘s red-hot funk band, The Time.
Rupert Holmes – Escape (The Pina Colada Song) Peak #1 Pop & #8 Adult Contemporary; 1979
Prior to this #1 hit in 1979, Rupert Holmes had already made two appearances in the Top 40. In 1970, as a member of Street People, Holmes wrote and performed Jennifer Tomkins (#36). Then, a year later he wrote Timothy – a rather gruesome tale of three men trapped in a mine cavein, from which only two survive – for The Buoys (#17). Through the mid-1970’s Rupert recorded several solo albums and produced Top 10 hits for Sailor and John Miles in his native England. Back in the States, Rupert’s own career was looking up as his recording of Let’s Get Crazy
Tonight began climbing the chart in the fall of 1978. Unfortunately, his label folded, taking Tonight down with it. A year later, Rupert returned on a new label and with a new song, Escape, which took him all the way to the top slot.
Styx – Babe Peak #1 Pop & #9 Adult Contemporary; 1979
Unlike today, when even Aerosmith can be heard on Adult Contemporary radio stations without the fear of audience backlash, in the 1970’s you either rocked or you didn’t, and Styx fans knew where their boys stood. Over the years Styx had worked tirelessly to build a solid – and profitable – career based on their brand of commercialized progressive rock. So what to do with a new soft ballad written by member Dennis DeYoung? Dennis had composed Babe for his wife’s ears only to express just how much he missed her. Singing all the vocal parts over a quiet backing from fellow Styx-ters, Chuck and John Panozzo, Dennis gave Babe to Suzanne as a birthday present. And there it might have ended, except Dennis and Suzanne knew Babe was something special. Dennis convinced the rest of Styx to take the risk, and Babe – in its original version plus an added Tommy Shaw guitar solo – raced to #1.
This content was created and written by Ed Osborne. © 2023 Ed Osborne. All Rights Reserved.