(Above: The same groovy look that CKLW, KHJ, and many other stations used for their surveys.)
Every few weeks I’ve made it a point to dig out an old AM radio survey and look at what was popular on a local playlist. Inevitably, two things happen: a) I look at WLS from Chicago, since those surveys are easy to get, and b) I enjoy the sheer amount of variety that’s represented on the list. Today we’ll dispense with A and maintain B.
In 1970 the AM battle in Grand Rapids, Michigan came down to two main players: WGRD and WLAV. Both stations still exist today on their FM sisters, which they didn’t utilize in 1970. WGRD’s FM station was WXTO-FM, operated by the Catholic Church (and an early radio home of GR radio legend Ed Buchanan), while WLAV’s FM station carried mostly soft sounds to appease the friends and business associates of station owner John Shepard, who in 1963 was cited in the newsletter of the Peninsular Club – a spot for swells in GR to wine and dine – as “making sure only ‘good music’ will air.” None of these stations ruled the roost consistently: at one point in 1970, beautiful music WOOD-FM was the #1 station in town, and in doing so became the first FM station to win a ratings book in the United States.
As I often see on local AM playlists, there’s great variety and a few surprises as well. Let’s count up, shall we?
30. The Guess Who, “Hand Me Down World.” This is marked as being “hitbound” on last week’s chart, and it cracks into the Big 30 this week.
29. Mark Lindsay, “Silver Bird.” This is a guilty pleasure record for me. When I took oldies WFGR off the bird in 2007 I put this into rotation, and will still give it a little extra volume when I hear it. The production value screams 1970 to me, and it’s like time travel. Bonus points for name-checking Walter Mitty.
28. Chicago, “25 or 6 To 4.” I don’t need to say anything about this record. It’s just making the chart, which is the only reason it’s down here.
27. Savage Grace, “Come On Down.” We have our first legitimate “oh wow.” Here’s a band from Michigan that certainly got the home field advantage, but it’s still a great record that would have sounded great coming out of a single speaker in the dashboard of your car.
26. The Fifth Dimension, “Save the Country.” I remember this record more from my mother playing the greatest hits album on the Magnavox changer in our house more than from radio airplay, but it’s inching up the chart this week.
25. Tommy Roe, “Pearl.” Tommy Roe tended to do well on the surveys in Grand Rapids, and why not? Inoffensive white pop tended to do a little better here. (Might I point you to a whole book-length doctoral dissertation on this? No? Fair enough.) This one didn’t crack the national Top 40, but here we are.
24. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, “Tell It All Brother.” What I just said about benign pop? Strike that. This is a little more politically-minded. It’s debuting on the chart this week, and will go on to be a #17 hit nationally. I’d love to know the last time this got played on a classic hits/oldies/gold station anywhere (outside of GR’s Real Oldies, of course), because it’s been largely forgotten.
23. Neil Young, “Cinnamon Girl.” Much like #28, this doesn’t need any justification. It’s canon.
22. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio.” Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.
21. Melanie, “Lay Down (Candles In the Rain).” The survey doesn’t give props to the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who do backup on this one, so I will. In 1990 I started to accumulate the Rhino Records “Have a Nice Day” series of 70s pop hits CDs. It was right about that time that WCFL-FM went on in Morris, IL, and I worked there twice. We were very 70s heavy, and I seemed to get this song a lot. As a result, I’m kinda good with leaving it on the shelf now. At least it’s not “Brand New Key.”
20. Al DeLory, “Song From M.A.S.H.” “Taking us up to news time,” the DJ said. In 1970 the theme from M*A*S*H got plenty of airplay in Grand Rapids, as a vocal version of the song also charted along with this instrumental. (DJs tended to avoid the song’s actual title, “Suicide is Painless.”) This version sorta swings, and I want to know what that instrument playing the rhythm is about halfway through. Al DeLory produced a lot of great Country music as well for Glen Campbell and was a part of the Wrecking Crew. He may need his own post here in the future.
19. Ormandy, “Good Day.” And the oh-wow just keeps on coming. Ormandy comes from Lansing, MI, and this is a damned fun record that must have sounded fantastic coming out of a jingle. (Can we bring back jingles already?)
18. Three Dog Night, “Mama Told Me (Not To Come).” Do I bore you with the details that Randy Newman wrote this? The trick in playing this one on the radio is waiting for the last note to finish and not step all over it.
17. The Four Tops, “It’s All In the Game.” You won’t hear the Tommy Edwards version the same way again.
16. Ronnie Dyson, “Why Can’t I Touch You?“ The full title, which isn’t on the survey, is “(If You Let Me Make Love To You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?”, making it one of the longer titles of all time. Perhaps a bit too racy for the good people of West Michigan? This went on to be a #8 hit in 1970, and is another one of those great “why don’t they play this?” records. Dyson was a part of the original cast of Hair on Broadway, and this and “One Man Band (Plays All Alone)” make up his Top 40 offerings.
15. Tony Burrows, “My Melanie Makes Me Smile.” I will never not play this loudly. Tony Burrows is a name that you don’t necessarily know, but you’ve heard him sing a lot. He’s a British session singer who was actually the voice behind The Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, First Class, The Brotherhood of Man, and the Pipkins – all of which I have played on the radio a bunch. His only charting record under his own name stalled at #87. Had he released this as the Edison Lighthouse, I bet that it would have finished higher, and no one would have noticed the difference.
14. Pickettywitch, “That Same Old Feeling.” Have I mentioned how much I like this list? Pickettywitch is another British pop act. That’s Polly Brown on the lead vocal. Remember “Up In a Puff Of Smoke?” Now on the to-do list: find those Rhino CDs and put them all in my car. This one also missed the Top 40, which tells me that WGRD wasn’t afraid to blaze a bit of a trail at this point in its history.
13. Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St Rhythm Band, “Love Land.” If I were somehow forced to come up with a list of songs that I loved to play on the radio – listeners be damned – this one’s going to be near the top. It’s the sort of record that is so perfect that it brings a tear to the eye. The band was signed by Warner Brothers solely on the recommendation of Bill Cosby, who of course sold a ton of comedy albums for them. It peaked at #16, and – again! – doesn’t get nearly enough play on the retro shows. Now on the to-do list: also find the Rhino 70s Soul CDs and put them in the car as well.
12. The Five Stairsteps, “O-O-H Child.” A perfect segue from the last one. A family band from Chicago that, when they lined up for a photo, looked “just like stairsteps,” hence the name. It’s another piece of pop that is just so, so pure. The only drawback to hearing this on AM is you don’t get the fantastic separation and panning of the drumroll engineered in the studio. I see another post idea coming: songs that were statements in 1970 that could be statements in 2018, showing how relatively little we’ve traveled. This is one, and
11. The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion“ is another. Rap on, brother. This is one of the 45s that I used to play when I’d futz with the record player in my grandmother’s basement. I didn’t fully grasp what it was about then, as that took more than a few years of living to appreciate. This record could come out now and still make sense, perhaps if we change the reference to “the Beatles’ new record’s a gas.” Remind me to introduce my media history students to the Temps this fall. (DJ question: did you cue past the count-in or not?)
10. Bread, “Make It With You.” Now, here’s a different interpretation of pure pop. If you were born in April of 1971, I’ve got some news for you about what your parents were listening to when you became an idea.
9. Christie, “Yellow River.” Another one-hit British act that found its way onto this survey. Nationally, it’s a #23 hit, but it’s top 10 in Grand Rapids.
8. Alive and Kicking, “Tighter Tighter.” Tommy James wrote this one, and had he kept it for himself, I don’t think it would have been as big a hit nor as perfect. This song has about a 13-second intro, and there’s a surprising lot that you can get said in that time.
7. Elvis Presley, “The Wonder Of You.” I’m serious. Find me a radio station that plays all of this and I could be tempted for a hot second to come out of retirement. I’ve talked before about being only a low-level Elvis fan, but this is one of the ones I love.
6. The Moments, “Love On a Two-Way Street.” This was a huge hit, making it to #3. The group didn’t see this level of chart success again until 1980 when, rebranded as Ray, Goodman, and Brown, they released “Special Lady,” which I ran out and bought as a sixth-grader.
5. Eric Burdon and War, “Spill the Wine.” This is a song that I enjoyed until a particular all-70s station I worked for in the 90s ruined it for me by playing it like a current.
4. Freda Payne, “Band of Gold.” It’s a staple of Oldies radio, and it’s without question the worst honeymoon night ever sung about. I had a whole set of alternate lyrics about not being able to get it up, but that’s for another time. That’s what happens when you get a song on your shift every day – you start singing different words to it to make it fresh.
3. Stevie Wonder, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” I was one year old in the summer of 1970, and I am sorry that I wasn’t paying more attention.
2. Nick Lampe, “Flower Garden.” Here’s one of the biggest oh-wows in Grand Rapids chartdom. Nick Lampe was an Australian singer whose record charted nowhere, and this song went to #1 on both WGRD and WLAV. It’s a great record that I have written about before, but it’s worth hearing again.
And – at #1 – it’s… well, who else could it be? We can’t talk about 1970 and not work The Carpenters into the discussion. “(They Long To Be) Close To You“ is atop the survey this week. This is as good a time as any to say it: you won’t hear me diss on the Carpenters. The music was, really, pretty good, and the voice of Karen Carpenter? There’s not enough I can say about it before running out of space here. We’ll save that for another day.
There’s nothing on this chart – not a single record – that would have made me change the station. I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen a list like that. The Summer of 1970, at least in Grand Rapids, was a fun time to be listening to the radio, and I’d like to hear a lot of these songs more often.