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5:51 p.m. - June 25, 2006
AM Radio Days!
As I was getting ready for the American Legion Baseball doubleheader that I was covering for The Paper of Montgomery County this Saturday, I received a phone call from Lap.

Her package, filled with CD goodness, had arrived safely and soundly and she wanted to thank me for it. Of course, she was amazed by the sheer volume of the tunes, but this was a different mix for her. I concentrated on some of my choices for several bands, plus I made three mixes drawn mainly from my Super Hits of the 70’s collections and called them my AM radio mix.

Because I had to leave, our conversation was relatively brief, but we swapped reminisces about AM radio. When we were kids, FM radio was still relatively underground, and it was only starting to gain prominence on the radio dial. For the most part, AM radio ruled music, and especially the music that people of our certain ages would listen to back in the 1970s.

My sister was the first one to really introduce me to the concept of rock and roll radio. For a few years, we used to listen to WLS out of Chicago together, and she would make it a point for us to hear their top 89 countdown at the year end. (Yes, WLS was AM 890, so they were the Big 89, amongst other slogans. As you looked at your transistor radio, it usually just listed two numbers of the frequency, and 89 was always listed it seems. That meant WLS was easy to find for the most part.)

WLS played the hits, the big songs of the era. They were Chicago based, and yes they did play some Chicago bands that were breaking out (like the Ides of March, or Styx) and helped their career along. But if it was a song in the top 20 in the nation, it was all over WLS without question.

It also had a strong signal. During the day, you could get WLS all the way down in BFE land without much struggle at all, unless it was raining and thunderstormy. At night, since it was a clear channel station, there was NO problem in hearing WLS. When my sister lived in Washington, DC, she had no problems picking up WLS there at night.

You could probably get WLS in over 30 states during the night time, and at that time if you were a teenager cruising around, you probably only had an AM radio in the car, along with your 8-tracks. So stations like WLS were quite important in developing a national musical taste.

AM radio stations like that played EVERYTHING that was popular. One of the worst things about modern day commercial radio is that they segment themselves so heavily, so there is no mixture of styles and genres on a station. This trend may be changing with some of the stations like “Jack FM”, but those to me are more novelty than anything. Satellite radio is also quite genrefied, where they really get specific on what they’re playing, even in their “70’s” and “80’s” stations.

You take a look at what was on the charts during a random week in 1972 or 1974, and it was all over the place. There was rock, soul, country, pop, adult contemporary and some downright oddball songs. How else do you explain “Hot Butter” by Popcorn on the charts?

At the same time, K-Tel records became marketed heavily. Oh, yes, they’re quite funny now, but in the early to mid 70’s, many kids like me got their rock and roll through these K-Tel albums. I always made sure Mom bought me the new one at the drug store (yep, they sold them at drug stores and grocery stores, more often than not) and I played it to death.

On these albums, the big ‘name’ artists rarely licensed their songs, so they were filled with hits by one-hit wonder bands, or bands that needed a break in the worst way. K-Tel also added some songs that were hits in Canada or in other places, which is how I got to hear Nazareth’s dismantling of Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight” and Slade’s balls to the wall anthem of rock and roll excess “Mama Weer All Crazee Now” for the first time. It’s also how I heard of Blue Mink, which had two big hits in “Randy” and “By The Devil I Was Tempted” that I thought were mirages until I found a collection by them on CD a few years ago.

(To be honest, I had no flippin’ clue what that Slade song was about when I was nine. All I knew that it was dangerous and loud and I loved it).

So Lap’s AM radio collection was quite a look back. It was a simpler music. It was meant for fun. It was meant for summer, for the most part. It was meant for the radio.

What kind of songs are AM radio songs. Well, consider seven songs on this collection I made for Lap:

“Gypsy Woman” by Brian Hyland – A moody piece of adult pop, a cover of an Impressions song, by the former teen idol, who you may remember from “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. This one ain’t like that one.

“Draggin’ The Line” by Tommy James – Without the Shondells, and definitely moving forward from the hippy-dippiness of “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, James lyrics don’t make much sense, really, with his dog eating purple flowers and Tommy huggin’ trees all over the place, but it’s a perfect tune for a lazy summer day when you don’t need to think!

“Sweet City Woman” by the Stampeders – This features a prominent banjo, a line about macaroons, and an interesting guitar solo. The band was much more prominent in Canada, and I guess had a lot of hits up there, none really in this mode.

“My Maria” – B. W. Stevenson – This is a hell of a tune that showcases his great voice and his knack for a good melody. You know the funny thing? In the 70’s this did NOT get on the country chart. Didn’t even get a whiff, but it was a huge pop chart hit. Now, go listen to those hacks that covered it in the 90’s with almost the SAME arrangement, and it was a country smash. Hmmm…

“I Can Help” – Billy Swan – “If your child needs a daddy / I can help…” Oh, Billy, that’s just LOOKING for trouble. This is such a pleasant piece of country pop puffery that you can’t help but sing along and tap your toe, even if you are old and jaded and just spend your time dressed in black listening to Bauhaus and the Sisters of Mercy. No, I’m serious. This is like the banjo of pop songs!

“Chevy Van” – Sammy Johns – You must hear this to believe it, and believe me we all heard it in the 70s. “Get some sleep and dream of rock and roll”. Mr. Johns had no qualms about pregnancy, VD, AIDS, or any other thing when he had this little tryst with this hitchhiking princess (or is it angel). I guess it was OK with him. Very 70’s synth work as well. Did he even kiss her goodbye?

“Hold Your Head Up” – Argent – This was pretty darn heavy. The bass and drum lines were menacing, and the guitar riff was incessantly demanding your attention. They were supposed to be a ‘serious’ band, but yet, they hit it big with this one and no one really cared about them except for this track. This was a perfect single, and it says something that I prefer the single to the album track, as the album track gets to a-noodling.

You may groan, or cringe at songs like them, but for someone in elementary school during our era, this was our soundtrack. You didn’t have much money for LPs, and if your siblings moved away and your parents were squares and didn’t listen to anything edgy outside of Ray Conniff or Lawrence Welk (though Dad later got an ear for Ray Stevens, for goodness sakes!) you didn’t get to buy that Black Sabbath album. You got a few 45s, and what you bought were the songs on the radio that caught your ear.

That’s how “Have You Never Been Mellow” by Olivia Newton-John lingered in my 45 collection for years. I had an extra dollar in my pocket one day when I was a Penney’s. Sigh.

I tell you what, when I was playing this collection in the house this week, Liz grooved to “Beautiful Sunday” by Daniel Boone and “Montego Bay” by Bobby Bloom, and she looked right at me and said, “Make me some CDs like this!” So yesterday I burned her one, and I will burn her three more. (Since she’s very local, and doesn’t have much time to listen, I can dole hers out one at a time, and so I will!)

Of course, when I got to junior high, a few local FM stations began to cater to the youth market, by playing hit radio and album oriented rock and roll. So our allegiance turned from AM radio to the FM radio as we got better receivers and our cars got FM radios.

But my little transistor still had AM only, and my first car, our family’s 1976 Dodge Aspen station wagon, only had AM radio in it as well. So until my senior year in high school, I was still grooving to Music Radio WLS, Chicago and followed the immortal words of their mid-day DJ, Fred Winston.

“It’s lunchtime – put something in your mouth!”

With that, “Eye In The Sky” by Alan Parsons blasted out of the one speaker in the car, and I knew that all was right with the world.


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