Old Memories Creep More: Our Favorite #1s of the 70s, Pt. 4


Having a number one record is hard. Like most success, you need a lot of good timing and luck. For Billboard’s purposes, you also need to be at or near the top of the Top 40 airplay spins as well as singles sales, with the combination of the two the highest of every other song that week.

It’s an imperfect system that gets worse when you consider payola deals, personal favoritism, and human error. You Light Up My Life is a nice song, but I have a difficult time believing that we, as a national collective, thought that was the best song alive for two and a half straight months. Better than Carly Simon? Barry White? Boogie Nights?

It’s all to say that Number one records shouldn’t always be considered better than the others. Mostly, they were just luckier and had better timing (Foreigner knows what I’m talking about.) Every pop artist aspires you have one though, the cache of saying they had a #1. [Personally, I’ll take a platinum single that peaked at #22.] But I digress.

Here are another six of our favorite singles awarded number one status in the 1970s.

Rhythm Heritage – Theme From S.W.A.T. [1 week, 1976]

EM: 1976 was such a great for hit TV theme songs. I almost had Welcome Back by John Sebastian here instead. But damn, this song is an out-of-control Mack truck barreling down the highway with little chance of stopping. So funky. I was forbidden to watch the Steve Forrest-led crime drama, but I never let an opportunity to let this Barry DeVorzon-penned single pass me by.

Did you know that LL Cool J sampled the intro for I’m Bad in 1987? Fast forward to 2003, and guess who scored a part in the film reboot?

WH: It’s absolutely a fun, great tune, and as Erik implies, its chart success led to the theme songs of four other ABC TV shows being released as singles later in 1976: Welcome Back, Kotter, of course, but also Happy Days, Baretta, and Laverne & Shirley. In fact, all four of those were on the Top 40 simultaneously for two weeks in mid-June.

Don’t think I ever watched an episode of S.W.A.T. My excuse for the first season, when it was on Monday evenings, is that it surely came on at or past bedtime. Maybe I had better things to do on Saturday nights during its 1975-76 second season?

Paul McCartney & Wings – Band On the Run [1 week, 1974]

EM: Paul seamlessly strings together four separate passages into one pop masterpiece. This is why the Beatles had to break up.

My fondest memories as a kid were movies I would play in my head while I listened to the radio. For this tune, I loved the concept of the group breaking out of prison, being on the lam chased by a jailer and a sailor, both of which probably didn’t have a clue where to search if they weren’t in jail or the high seas. Aren’t there jurisdiction rules too?

Also, I always thought he needed a “pie today.” Who doesn’t love pie? We know Paul loves his butter pie. That made a lot more sense to me than a pint.

WH: As I mention over on my side, “Band on the Run” was a legitimate contender for being included in my list. Until Erik brought it up, though, I’d never seen the connection between this piece and Paul’s Beatles work so clearly—it’s kind of a rock parallel to the poppier “You Never Give Me My Money.” (And after listening to the album the other day, isn’t “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)” stylistically a sort-of-descendant of “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”?)

Earth, Wind & Fire – Shining Star [1 week, 1975]

EM: It took six albums, but finally, Maurice White amalgamated his musical and spiritual vision, a perfect union of funk, jazz, and rock, with this monster track. The first 15 seconds are pure bliss as al McKay & Johnny Graham use their guitar licks to fuse this aural bomb, lighting up the band with a Phenix Horns explosion. All you needed to do for the next two-plus minutes was ride out the groove and bask in the after blast.

WH: Not every act explodes on the scene; sometimes, there’s groundwork to be laid, momentum to be built. EW&F had had a couple of minor Top 40 hits in 1974. A few months later, “Shining Star” grabbed everyone’s attention, starting a string of soul and pop hits through the end of the decade. I was a fan then—I appreciate them even more now.

Bill Withers – Lean On Me [3 weeks, 1972]

EM: My parents bought the Fantastic K-tel collection, and I would sit and wait patiently for this song to start. Bill’s voice was a comfort to me, a parent or an older sibling to assuage your fears.

When one realizes their purpose, can put that magic into action and then have the world embrace it, that’s a  joyous pleasure. There might not be many who could create simple songs that can hit someone directly in the heart better than Bill, and he does it with such effortless passion.

WH: “Lean on Me” is such a great song with a great message. I do wish my brain had an easier time keeping track of the first beat of the measure when I hear it, though—fifty years on, and I’m still have processing issues.

Coincidentally, we also had Fantastic at home. While I definitely remember Withers being on it, I appreciate the album more now for serving as my introduction to “Back When My Hair Was Short” from Gunhill Road and “Power to All Our Friends” by Cliff Richard.

LaBelle – Lady Marmalade [1 week, 1975]

EM: I can’t pull up any specific reference in time as a child that corresponds to that song, but it still retains the feeling of being a part of my childhood. Many years later, during a trip to France in the Summer of 1989, I found a disco compilation in the record department of the Gallerie Lafayette. I popped on the headphones, played this track, and felt a part of me open up, one I never knew was closed. I still own that double cassette.

My re-entry into 70’s music.

Also, I love that one measure of ride cymbal on the chorus just before the break; it gets me every time. And Alan Toussaint’s production saves this song from being a campy disaster. Don’t believe me?

WH: How old was I when I learned the translation of the line sung in French? I seriously doubt it happened while “Lady Marmalade” was popular. Something tells me my mother wasn’t too thrilled to have her kids listen to a song about a guy who can’t get over his business trip (or vacation—whatever) assignation with a prostitute.

I was surprised to learn years later that Kenny Nolan co-wrote (with Bob Crewe) both “Lady Marmalade” and “My Eyes Adored You.” It wasn’t the first nor the last time songwriters had two of their creations hit #1 one right after the other, but those might be the two most different-sounding songs involved in such an achievement.

The Bee Gees – How Deep Is Your Love [3 weeks, 1977]

EM: This is one of the best ballads ever written and proof that timeless songbook  “standards” were still created in the rock era long after the days of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. Like sinking into a spongy waterbed, this song envelopes your body as well as your soul. I can still smell my dad’s cherry tobacco puffing from his pipe while he drove us down to Philadelphia in our Tradesman van during the winter of 1977, Saturday Night Fever soundtrack clicking away in the 8-track player.

Side note: Had RSO Records not had Grease waiting in the wings, they would have released the Bee Gees’ More Than A Woman as a single. It probably would have reached the top, and I would have talked about it here.

WH: Sure, the Bee Gees were already enjoying a resurgence, having scored two #1s and four other Top 12 hits over the previous two years. But I wasn’t initially impressed in October 1977 when I first heard this ballad as the opening salvo from some movie soundtrack. Six months later, when it was still on the Top 40, I had to acknowledge the error of my ways.

Forget about “Stayin’ Alive”—looking back, I remain amazed at how even the release of “Night Fever” as a single didn’t initially erode the popularity of “How Deep Is Your Love.” The latter held on at #10 the first four weeks, “Night Fever” was in the Top 40.

Hop over to see the Doc’s list o’ six. Next week, we will share the only four songs we agreed on.


5 Replies to “Old Memories Creep More: Our Favorite #1s of the 70s, Pt. 4”

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