(Above: Pepper-Uppers, unite.)
If there’s one thing we can count on in 2017, it’s a lot of 50th anniversary retrospectives looking back at 1967. “Anniversary fatigue” is real, and while I don’t want to do a lot of it this year, the problem is that some aspects of popular culture are just too damned good not to pay attention to.
50 years ago last week WERX, a little AM station fighting against the behemoth WLAV, put together one heck of a playlist. The station launched in 1965 in a swamp in Wyoming, Michigan, a Grand Rapids suburb. It was an also-ran in terms of ratings, but I suspect that had I been a kid in GR at the time, this is what I would have listened to. The station also had some remarkable future talent on its roster in the form of John Alfenito, who went on to become John Leader, host of “Countdown America” and LA voiceover talent. Oh, and there was another kid named John Landecker. He turned out to be a pretty good jock, too.
Both of them were kind enough to talk to me for my dissertation on 60s pop music, and gave some insight into how the songs were selected for the station. Both Johns explained that they had tremendous freedom in selecting the music that they played. That seems apparent from the list. Among the highlights:
-#1 this week is “I’m A Believer.” No surprise, as it was at the top all over the country.
-The Buckinghams move up to #2 with “Kind of a Drag.” The Chicago group eventually topped the charts with this record. This trades places with “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” at #3.
-At #4 is “Think Twice” by the Pedestrians. This was a local GR group who recorded on the Fenton records label. I’ll have plenty more to write about Fenton another time. Essentially, these were kids who came up with a record that all the local stations played the tar out of.
-#5 is “The Little Black Egg” by the Nightcrawlers. This only got to #85 nationally, but a few local stations played it with some frequency.
-WERX wasn’t afraid, unlike WLAV was, to go a little soulful. We find “I’ve Passed This Way Before” by Jimmy Ruffin at #18, “(I Know) I’m Losin’ You” by the Temptations at #23, and “Another Night” by Dionne Warwick at #40. Leader later picked the music for WGRD, and a look at their 1968 charts shows a good helping of R&B for a pretty white city.
-There’s spoken word and comedy here – things you just don’t see on modern charts. Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen holds down #32 with his recitation of “Gallant Men,” while comedian Bill Minkin’s impression of Senator Robert Kennedy performing “Wild Thing” is at #21.
-The chart goes to 45 instead of the usual 40. In the bottom 5 we find “Stand by Me” by Spyder Turner at 41, “The Beat Goes On” by Sonny and Cher at 42, “That’s the Tune” by the Vogues at 43, “Cheryl’s Going Home” by the Hondells at 44, and “Green Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones in the last slot.
The highlights, for me, are the “WERXtras Picked to Hit” at the bottom of the chart:
- “I Wanna Meet You” – The Cryan Shames. Another local Chicago group, and a record I love. I added this my first week back in GR in 2007 and the phones exploded.
- “Pretty Ballerina” – The Left Banke. This should have been a bigger hit.
- “Green Plant” – The Tokens. This is just fantastic. It’s about a dead plant.
- “Ride Ride Ride” – Brenda Lee. What happens if we put a funky beat behind a country singer? You get this.
- “I Wish You Could Be Here” – The Cyrkle. This also should have been a hit.
- “Just Let It Happen” – The Arbors. A group formed at the U of Michigan in Ann Arbor with members from Grand Rapids. You know them for “The Letter,” but they had other songs, too.
- “Stormy Weather” – The Magnificent Men. A fantastic rendition of a standard from a white soul group from Pennsylvania.
- “Dead End Street” – The Kinks. Because you should play this song, that’s why.
- “It May Be Winter Outside” – Felice Taylor. I had to dig a bit for this one, but I was glad I did. It’s a Motown clone. Felice has the Diana Ross delivery down.
- “Promise Her Anything” – Johnny Thompson Quintet. I am now on a search, since I couldn’t find this record. Based on what I did find, “Color Me Columbus,” this may be some early punk.
The very bottom of the survey encourages me to “Hear the Top 45 Countdown Show, Saturday 12 to 3pm with John Landecker.” Were time travel possible, I would for sure.