I listened to the American Top 40 countdown last weekend from May 12th, 1979, and although I’ve never written a recap from the 70s, this collection of songs hit my nostalgia bullseye. It was a month before Summer started, which was a rough one for me. So revisiting these tunes as a collective was oddly soothing. I assume that someone might feel that way listening to a countdown from February 2020 in the future, for example. I know others have trod on this ground, so I will strive to make it my own. I going to break this up into fourths cause I may have a lot to say.
A little background: AT40 expanded their show from three to four hours in October 1978, partly because their popularity and more time meant more ad dollars, partly because everything began their supersized transition in the late 70s. Casey spends the beginning of the show recapping last week’s Top 3: Music Box Dancer, of which the first twenty seconds he talks over, Heart Of Glass and Reunited. “Will it stay at #1?” [Yes, for three more weeks.]
Then he teases the first song with this tidbit: a hit single by a man who appeared in his high school yearbook photo dressed as a woman. Stupid and pathetic, but appropriate for its time.
And the singer they are referring to is on his third Top 40 hit. So his persona shouldn’t be unknown to the pop audience or worthy of a shock-value teaser. The intro gives a little more context to the life of this San Francisco who was known by the underground as the true Queen of Disco. What’s also missing about this bio was that Sylvester dropped out of high school but reattended and graduated at 21. At the same time, cross-dressing was still considered illegal in California until 1974. To AT40’s credit, they play almost six minutes of this 10-minute Ben E. King cover. It will be his last appearance in the Top 40.
Here’s the first of eight Top 40 debuts in the countdown. After a decade of trying, Babs crosses over with a Luther Ingram R&B smash, which he took up to #3 in 1972. Even though it counts as Country, it sounds like a record you’d hear on Solid Gold rather than Hee Haw. She’ll cheat her way up to #31 before saying goodbye to Mr. Jones.
This is what Disco sounds like if your only experience with it is a Saturday night hang out at a strip mall bar called Rhapsody’s two doors down from a Radio Shack. Sung by David “I’m A Pepper” Naughton, it’s the first of three songs written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. It’s also a beautiful preview of what the 80’s vibe is going to be. I can just imagine some post-grad Yale kid hearing this song, joining E.F. Hutton, and preparing to sell junk bonds to suckers.
This song will also be used as the theme to the upcoming Bill Murray flick, Meatballs, and the title of the Saturday Night Fever rip-off sitcom bomb, which was already off the air as this debuts. The 45 will still go Gold and reach #5 during the Summer.
Billy Joel proved The Stranger was no fluke when he released 52nd Street in late 1978. This is the third Top 40 hit from that album and the third countdown debut. It will reach #24 Pop and #9 on the AC charts. I like to imagine that Jimmy Carter heard this song, and it inspired him to deliver his “crisis of confidence” speech on July 15th.
Also, coming off the frenetic pace of Makin’ it, this ballad seems jarring but ultimately becomes a nice change of pace.
Four songs (technically, seven) into this countdown, and we’re up to a long-distance dedication, the first of two. Typical fare, man meets woman, gets married, but they can’t be together. I know AT 40 was big on Armed Forces radio, and I swear the bulk of the LDDs are from homesick officers. They play The Closer I Get To You, which peaked at #2 in the Spring of 1978, and the dude writing the letter refers to the duo as Roberta Flack with the late Donny Hathaway, who had committed suicide only four months previous.
Debut #4, Country song #2, and the follow-up to The Gambler. Kenny’s gonna take this ballad up to #5, matching his 1977 peak of the song Lucille. This ballad will also become the first of eight #1s on the AC chart. I hope songwriter Steve Gibb took his wife out for a nice lobster dinner once this became successful, especially after she had to endure many lonely nights listening to her husband writing songs in the kitchen. Also, I hope he invited David Gates to go with them.
The fifth Top 40 debut takes a twenty-notch leap on the charts—quite an achievement for a first-timer. But I sense some condescension in Casey’s voice as he refers to her as a “girl singer” and makes reference to two frustrated producers “waiting around” for her to finish her album, which she did “just in time.” Jesus, it was her debut record. Back off. The LP featured some of the top L.A. session musicians of the day, while critics called her the new Joni Mitchell. [She wasn’t. She was the new Rickie Lee.] It will be nominated for five Grammys winning one for Best New Artist. This eventual #4 single cut through Pop radio back then like the coolest kid that needs no cred, and it still sounds great today. And damn, I love when Rickie and the band take it down to silence, and Steve Gadd brings it back with that rollicking drum fill.
Fun Fact: Two of the five Best New “artists” Rickie was up against in that category were Robin Wiliams and The Blues Brothers.
Here’s a nice little slice of keyboard-driven pop with some West Coast flair from Roger’s second LP, Radio Dream, co-written and produced by Michael Omartian. This single is on its way up to a #21 zenith, and it also reached #4 in Australia. It will be his only appearance on the Hot 100.
Now from the AT40 archives! AT40 decided to look back at the former #1s of the 60s to help pad out the show, and when that was up, they’ve moved on to the 70s. They would play three songs per show, and this week they’re up to January 1974 with the Steve Miller Band’s The Joker up first. Can you guess the next two while we shuckatoom?
Three Byrds get together and take flight on their new venture as their first single together moves up four notches. I’m convinced that Roger and Chris only formed this to help Gene Clark out. The dude recorded some dynamite Country rock albums but let his alcoholism and drug abuse wreck his career. Clark hadn’t been in the Top 40 since Eight Miles High in 1965, but then again, Roger hadn’t seen this type of success since 1967’s My Back Pages. This breezy pop song is sitting at its zenith this week.
Casey makes a big deal about how this countdown features 15 Disco songs, but it’s no more of an assault than British New Wave was in late 1983. It also implies that rock was dead, and while it may have been threatened ( or so says, rock fans), it is still significantly represented in the countdown and on this song quite literally. It’s the fourth Top 40 hit from Bob’s Stranger In Town (or Seger’s Thriller), but it will only move up four more notches. And if that four-second piano intro, played by Randy McCormick, doesn’t remind you of Tom Cruise, then I’m sure it makes you think of your cousin’s wedding.
Fun Fact: George Jackson, who co-wrote this, also wrote the Osmonds’ One Bad Apple.
Casey teases a story about a producer who fires a singer in the middle of a recording only to grab someone off the street and make him a star. I think he told this tale more than once on AT40. [We’ll find out in the next post who it is.]
Here’s the seventh debut record on the countdown jumping up fourteen spots, only to eventually stall out at #22. Squeamish Casey, who refused to say the title of George Michael’s song I Want Your Sex, sounds incredibly awkward saying this one. He adds that “the title may read like a question, but it’s more of a statement. A strong statement.” I don’t agree with that, and I don’t think Rod would either, but it’s funny to hear Casey try to balance clarity with mumbling as he says the bitch. What a bizarre follow-up to Da Ya Think I’m Sexy. That’s a statement.
Coming up, a listener in Boise, Idaho, wants to know what the highest-debuting song is this week. The answer is in the next post.