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Throwback Thursday – 1985

Ringo + Madonna

In 1984, Madonna peaked at #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 with her first charting single, “Holiday.” By the following year, she had established herself as the Queen of the Pop Charts. She followed “Holiday” with three singles that hit the top ten in 1984: “Borderline,” “Lucky Star” and “Like a Virgin,” the latter hitting #1 and remaining there for six weeks. She opened 1985 with the #2 hit “Material Girl,” followed closely by the #1 “Crazy for You.” “Crazy” is from the film Vision Quest, in which Madonna had a small part as a nightclub singer.

Madonna had a much larger role in the film Desperately Seeking Susan. Released in April 1985, the smash film featured a new track from Madonna, “Into the Groove.” As one might expect when a new superstar has a new song, and a great song at that, the track received lots of radio airplay. “Groove” hit #1 on the Dance Club chart, and the only record on which it appeared, a 12-inch single where it was the b-side of “Angel,” went gold, selling over a million units in the US.

Though it was a big seller with a ton of airplay and club play, “Into the Groove” never hit Billboard’s Hot 100. Though that chart is supposed to accurately reflect a song’s popularity in the US, Billboard imposes rules that hang around longer than they should, throwing off historians looking into a song’s popularity. One of the arcane rules in 1985 was that a song had to be available on a commercial 7-inch vinyl single to be eligible to chart. Commercial availability solely on a 12-inch vinyl single, even one that sold over a million copies, is not enough. Widespread radio play on a variety of formats (the song hit the top twenty on the r&b chart, which for reasons that made sense to Billboard’s chart editors, allowed 12-inch singles to chart) is not enough.

Eventually, Billboard got around to revising these rules. The advent of cassingles (cassette tape singles) and CD singles expanded the formats eligible. The music industry’s decision to hold back the release of singles in any format to force consumers to shell out big bucks for a full-length album to get the one song they liked forced Billboard to make radio airplay without a commercial single good enough for a Hot 100 chart placement, but that change didn’t come into being until December of 1998, thirteen years too late for Madonna and historians.

This week’s Throwback Thursday kicks off with one of the best-known songs to have never charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, Madonna’s “Into the Groove.” It is followed by other music highlights of 1985.


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Throwback Thursday – 1983

Winston + MJ
MTV debuted on August 1, 1981. Back then it was a music video network. It positioned itself as a rock station. Most of the videos shown were of songs made by Caucasian performers, though rock-leaning black acts such as Joan Armatrading and the Bus Boys got some play.

Then came “Billie Jean.” The second single from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, “Billie Jean” was accompanied by a stylish video featuring a mesmerizing performance from Jackson. However, it wasn’t a rock song. It didn’t fit the format of rock radio stations, and it didn’t fit the format of MTV either.

But there is a big difference between radio and music television. There were plenty of radio stations and many different formats. You may not hear “Billie Jean” on the rock stations, but you could hear it on r&b stations and pop stations and dance-leaning stations. However, there was only one music television – MTV.

In his autobiography, Howling at the Moon, Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS Records, for whom Jackson recorded (and where I worked in my first music business job), wrote “I screamed bloody murder when MTV refused to air [Jackson’s] videos. They argued that their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued they were racist assholes – and I’d trumpet it to the world if they didn’t relent. I’ve never been more forceful or obnoxious. I’ve also never been as effective, threatening to pull all our videos. With added pressure from [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones, they caved in, and in doing so the MTV color line came crashing down.”

Jackson’s video for “Billie Jean” aired on MTV, followed just weeks later by his video for “Beat It,” a song whose guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen helped make it a hit on rock radio. These two videos made Jackson, already a superstar, a worldwide phenomenon with a humongous fan base that transcended race, age and location in a way never seen before. These two videos made MTV, a year and a half old and fairly popular in white suburban areas, a cultural institution. These two videos made the music video, then not something done for many singles, particularly those performed by artists of color, an art form and a necessary marketing tool.

Some people tuned in to MTV to see the Michael Jackson videos, and while watching the channel, discovered other acts. Some people tuned in to MTV to watch “white rock” videos, and while watching the channel, discovered Michael Jackson.

MTV went to showcase more “non-rock” videos. In 1988, they launched their hugely popular program Yo! MTV Raps, something that would have been completely unexpected just five years earlier, pre-“Billie Jean.”

While MTV deserves credit for making “Billie Jean” and Thriller successful, the person most responsible is Jackson himself. He wrote the song. He sang the song. He danced the song. Quincy Jones did not want “Billie Jean” to appear on Thriller. He didn’t like the title. He didn’t like the bassline. He felt the song’s introduction was too long. Jackson argued “But that’s the jelly!…That’s what makes me want to dance.” Jones wasn’t ready for this jelly, but Jackson stood his ground.

In May of 1983, NBC aired a tribute to Motown Records. Motown: Yesterday, Today, Forever featuring many legends who recorded for the storied label performing their classics. We saw Diana Ross, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Mary Wells, Junior Walker and then some. It was a terrific show, but the talk of the town following its airing was the performance of a song not from the Motown catalogue – Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The iconic performance, during which Jackson brought the famous moonwalk to the world at large, pushed him that much more ahead of any other performer working in music back then.

Following “Beat It,” CBS Records released four more singles from Thriller. All seven of the singles released (the album had only nine songs!) went top ten, breaking the record of most top ten hits from a single-artist album that was set a few years earlier by…Michael Jackson, whose Off the Wall gave us four. Before Thriller, four singles for one album was considered a lot. Thriller raised the bar for blockbuster albums, and subsequent releases such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Prince’s Purple Rain, Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Janet Jackson’s Control each produced more than four hits.

“Billie Jean” changed everything.

On this week’s Throwback Thursday playlist, Tunes du Jour spotlights 1983, kicking off with Michael Jackson’s classic “Billie Jean.”


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It’s Rudy Isley’s Birthday And I Need To Dance!

Ringo + Isleys
The Isley Brothers first hit the pop chart in 1959 with the classic “Shout,” later popularized in the 1978 movie National Lampoon’s Animal House. The brothers first hit the r&b chart in 1962 with “Twist & Shout,” a cover of the Top Notes single that later was a hit for The Beatles. The Isleys’ version went to #2 r&b and #17 pop, becoming the group’s first top twenty hit on both charts.

In 1975, the Isley Brothers scored their first single to go top twenty on the pop, r&b and dance charts. “Fight the Power” reached #4 pop, #1 r&b, and #13 dance. It kicks off Tunes du Jour’s weekly dance party, as we celebrate Rudy Isley’s 77th birthday.


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Throwback Thursday – 1979

Blondie + Ringo
Blondie’s hit single “Heart of Glass” was written by band members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and had the working title of “The Disco Song.” Drummer Clem Burke said his part was inspired by the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”

Said Harry “When we did ‘Heart of Glass’ it wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco. But we did it because we wanted to be uncool,” with the band’s keyboardist Jimmy Destri adding “We used to do ‘Heart of Glass’ to upset people.”

The song was included on Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP “as a novelty item to put more diversity into the album,” per Stein. The novelty song became the group’s first charted single and first #1, in 1979. Its success prompted John Lennon to send Ringo Starr a postcard advising to write songs like “Heart of Glass.”

Today’s Throwback Thursday playlist spotlights twenty of the best tracks from 1979, kicking off with Blondie’s upsetting disco novelty.


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Throwback Thursday – 1978

Just how popular were the Bee Gees in 1978? So big that they accounted for two percent of the record industry’s profits that year.

On January 1, 1978, the trio, made up of brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb, were at #1 with “How Deep is Your Love,” which the three performed, wrote and co-produced. It stayed on top for three weeks. In February they returned to the #1 position with “Stayin’ Alive.” That stayed at #1 for four weeks. It was knocked from the top spot by “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,” performed by Andy Gibb, younger brother of the Bee Gees. “Thicker Than Water” was co-written and co-produced by Bee Gee Barry Gibb. “Thicker Than Water” was knocked from the top spot after two weeks by “Night Fever,” performed, written and co-produced by the Bee Gees. That song remained at #1 for eight weeks, only to be knocked from the top by “If I Can’t Have You,” performed by Yvonne Elliman and written and co-produced by the Bee Gees. Starting in mid-June, “Shadow Dancing,” written by the Bee Gees and Andy Gibb, co-produced by Barry Gibb, and performed by Andy Gibb went to #1 and stayed there for seven weeks. In late August Frankie Valli had his first #1 single in three years with “Grease,” written and co-produced by Barry Gibb.

Not everything they touched hit #1 that year. “Emotion,” written by Barry and Robin Gibb, co-produced by Barry Gibb and performed by Samantha Sang, peaked at #3 in March 1978. It was kept from #1 by “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive.”

The album from which “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep is Your Love” and “If I Can’t Have You” were taken is the soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever, which spent 24 weeks at #1 and became the largest-selling album in history at that time. It remains the only soundtrack to have spawned four #1 singles. It could have been five if the Bee Gees’ version of their composition “More Than a Woman” had been released as a commercial single. Instead, the Tavares version of the song, which also appears on the soundtrack, was the single and became a top forty hit. Saturday Night Fever became the first soundtrack album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The Bee Gees also won Grammy Awards for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (both “How Deep is Your Love” and “Stayin’ Alive”) and Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices (for “Stayin’ Alive”), and Barry Gibb, along with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson, won Producer of the Year.

In 1978 the Bee Gees were connected with another high-profile movie project: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in which they starred and performed on the soundtrack. Though Robin Gibb hit #15 with the film’s “Oh! Darling”, the album and film were considered flops.

The relative failure of Sgt. Pepper’s notwithstanding, the Bee Gees remained huge throughout 1978. Their blend of pop, soul, and dance music gave them mass appeal. Besides hitting #1 on the pop charts, “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” were top ten hits on the r&b and disco charts.

Tunes du Jour celebrates Throwback Thursday this week with the music of 1978. The Bee Gees may have dominated the mainstream, but as you’ll hear, rumblings of new and exciting permutations of rock & roll were rumbling under the surface.

We’ll kick off today’s playlist with the song that went to #1 in the UK, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.


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The Song Retains The Name

Winston + Bobby Brown
Today is Bobby Brown’s 46th birthday. A former member of New Edition, Brown had his first solo hit in 1988 with “Don’t Be Cruel,” which reached #8 on the Hot 100. Though it shares its title with an Elvis Presley #1 hit from 1956, Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” is not a remake.

That brings us to today’s playlist, which I call The Song Retains the Name. It consists of different songs with the same title. I initially planned to include twenty such songs, but more kept springing to mind. Before I knew it, I passed 100 entries. There are plenty more, so I decided to open this up to my reader(s). If you have songs that share titles you’d like to add, feel free to do so.

(NOTES: I included The Jacksons’ “This Place Hotel” because when it was released in 1980 its title was “Heartbreak Hotel.” Thought he didn’t have to, Michael Jackson, the song’s writer, later changed its name to “This Place Hotel” to avoid confusion with the Elvis Presley song “Heartbreak Hotel.” Whitney Houston didn’t feel the need to make the same Hotel accommodation.

Also, though it is listed on Spotify as “The Best of My Love,” the Eagles track does not have a “The” on the 45 or the band’s On the Border album.)

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A Soulful Christmas Playlist

TRIVIA QUESTION: Who was the first woman to hit the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 with a song she wrote herself?

ANSWER: Carla Thomas. She was 16 years old when she wrote “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” which hit #10 in 1961. Today she turns 72.

In 1963, Thomas incorporated the title of her first hit into a seasonal offering, “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas.”

“Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas” inspires today’s playlist – fifty great soul and r&b Christmas jams, with some fun extra treats thrown in.

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It’s Berry Gordy’s Birthday And I Need To Dance!

It’s interesting that Berry Gordy, the head of Motown Records who in 1970 told his top male vocalist Marvin Gaye that the new song Gaye had written, “What’s Going On,” was “the worst thing I ever heard in my life” and that he shouldn’t do protest songs, would five years later have Motown be the first major label to release a pro-gay anthem.

Bunny Jones, a heterosexual Christian woman, owned several beauty salons in Harlem. Most of her employees were gay. Seeing how they needed to suppress their natural selves and being aware of the issues they faced, she wrote song lyrics about a man who says he’s “happy, carefree and gay,” the way God made him.

Set to music written by Chris Spierer, also straight, Jones looked for a male vocalist to record her song. After catching a performance of Hair at the Westbury Music Fair, she approached one of the show’s actors, Charles “Valentino” Harris, and told him of the song.

In 1975, at age 22, Valentino recorded his only record, a single entitled “I Was Born This Way.” Jones released it on a label she started, named Gaiee. On her own she sold 15,000 copies of the song. This got the attention of Berry Gordy, whose Motown Records picked up the single for distribution.

Valentino’s record got some club play, particularly in the UK where it was a #1 disco hit.

Two years later Motown approached a gospel singer named Carl Bean and asked him if he would record a new version of “I Was Born This Way.” Unbeknownst to Motown, Bean was gay. In early 1978, Bean’s version of the tune reached #15 on the Billboard Disco chart.

The song has since become something of a classic. Two years after Bean’s success with “I Was Born This Way,” Motown released Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” It would hold the #1 position on the Disco chart for five weeks and have much crossover success at pop and r&b radio as well.

Today Berry Gordy celebrates his 85th birthday. Friday is dance day at Tunes du Jour. Here are twenty of Motown’s best disco/dance tracks from the 1970s thru 1990.

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It’s Friday And I Need To Dance!

As a songwriter, Jimmy Webb scored his first hit in 1967 at age twenty when The 5th Dimension took “Up, Up and Away” to the top ten. Later that year Glen Campbell had a hit with Webb’s composition “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

Webb then wrote a 22-minute cantata. His friend Bones Howe, with whom Webb worked on The 5th Dimension’s Up, Up and Away album, invited Webb to play the new piece for The Association, who Howe was then producing. Their reaction was less than enthusiastic. Per Howe, one group member said “Any two guys in this group could write a better piece of music than that.”

Sometime after, Webb received a telegram from actor Richard Harris, who he met at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. Harris was nominated for an Academy Award in 1963 for This Sporting Life and again in 1990 for The Field. He later went on to play Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. The telegram read “Jimmy Webb, come to London and make a record. Love, Richard.”

Webb flew to London, bringing a satchel of songs he’d written. He played each for Harris, but nothing struck the actor. Webb recalled “I looked down with some dread because there was only one thing left.” That one thing was the last movement of the cantata he presented to The Association. He called it “MacArthur Park.”

Here are the lyrics to “MacArthur Park.” Raise your hand when they get confusing.

The opening lines are “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / it ran one step ahead, as we followed in the dance.”

I see some hands raised. The next line should help you understand: “Between the parted pages and were pressed in love’s hot fevered iron, like a striped pair of pants.” Now you got it! Harris, who is from the UK, where “pants” means underwear, uses an iron, a hot fevered iron, on his striped underwear. You may be asking: Does he iron his solid-colored underwear? Does he have solid-colored underwear? Boxers or briefs? Relax – there are still six and a half minutes left in the song, so maybe you’ll find out.

Moving on, we learn that MacArthur Park, which Harris calls MacArthur’s Park for the duration of the song, is melting. In the dark. Its icing is flowing down. Who hasn’t been there?

We now arrive at the classic lines about a cake left out in the rain, which appears to be causing Harris to have a breakdown. “I don’t think that I can take it ‘cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again. Oh no!” Calm down. It’s just a cake. Bake another one. I know – this song was recorded in the pre-Internet age when finding a cake recipe required one to open a cook book, but come on! This cake can’t be that special if you chose to leave it out during inclement weather.

By the end of verse one we have learned several things: 1) Harris is singing to a girl; 2) Harris irons his striped underwear; 3) a park is melting; 4) if you bake a cake and wish to leave it outside, check The Weather Channel first; and 5) never write a song while you are on an acid trip.

As the song continues it gets more bizarre. The melody changes and Harris threatens us by singing “There will be another song for me, for I will sing it.” Luckily, this other song never became a hit. (And may I add, he is being rather presumptuous by calling his performance on this record “singing.”)

The song clocks in at nearly seven and a half minutes, and though it reached #2 on the US pop charts, most listeners had no idea why Harris was singing about a melting park, ironed underwear and a waterlogged dessert.

Songwriter Webb didn’t understand the confusion. He told Q Magazine that the song is “clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that.” Clearly. Clear as mudcake.

The love affair was one from Webb’s own life. He and his girlfriend would meet for lunch at MacArthur Park, where there would sometimes be birthday parties, with cake. Their breakup devastated Webb, who wrote “Mac Arthur Park” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” based on their relationship. (Bonus trivia – the woman went on to marry Linda Ronstadt’s cousin.)

In 1993, humorist Dave Barry surveyed his readers to find the worst song. The clear winner for Worst Overall Song and Worst Lyrics was “Mac Arthur Park.” Culture critic Joe Queenan disagreed with the results “because ‘Ebony and Ivory’ exists, as do ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,’ ‘Baby, I’m-a Want You,’ ‘Feelings,’ ‘Benny and the Jets,’ ‘Witchy Woman’ and ‘Sussudio,’” adding “On a planet where somebody thought it would be a good idea to write ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,’ the best ‘MacArthur Park’ is ever going to earn in the sucky-song sweepstakes is a tie.”

Good or bad, the song is a classic. A 1968 Grammy winner for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist, the song has been recorded by top artists in diverse genres, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, the Four Tops, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Waylon Jennings’ 1969 version won a Grammy. In 1978, Donna Summer’s rendition became her first #1 pop record and stands as the only US #1 pop song for Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Worst That Could Happen” and “All I Know.”

It has been rumored that Webb and Harris had a falling out due to the song’s success. Harris promised Webb his Rolls Royce if the song went top ten. When the record did, Harris offered Webb a different Rolls Royce. It is because of this that people named Richard are often called Dick. Allegedly, the pair stopped speaking.

Ringo + Harris 2014-08-15 12.17
Today Jimmy Webb turns 68 years old. Hopefully he’s somewhere celebrating with a nice piece of wet cake. We kick off our weekly dance party with Donna Summer’s version of “MacArthur Park,” which she, like Harris, insists on calling “MacArthur’s Park” for the duration of the song.

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Dionne Warwick And The Extra E – A Cautionary Tale

In 1971 an astrologer told Dionne Warwick to append an “e” to her last name. “It will bring you luck,” she was told. At that point in her career Warwick was a multi-Grammy Award winner with more than twenty US top forty pop hits, collaborations with the songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, to her name. But who can’t use more luck?

Following the astrologer’s advice, Warwick became Warwicke, and besides a guest co-lead vocal on a Spinners record (the sublime “Then Came You”), Warwicke didn’t have any hits. Warwicke didn’t win any Grammys. The songwriting partnership of Bacharach and David split apart. Warwicke separated from and divorced her husband.

Dionne dropped the “e” and became Warwick again. Warwick returned to the top ten with “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” which won her the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, with its follow-up single, “Déjà Vu,” winning her the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female.

The lesson? Stay away from “e.” It’ll ruin your life.

Here is a playlist inspired by Warwick, who turns 73 today.

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