The Billboard Hot 100 chart has been around for about 60 years. In all that time, only seven songs which weren’t recorded in English have made it to the Number One position. And there are several other foreign-language songs which enjoyed plenty of popularity without making it to the top spot, but the fact is, in United States it’s tough to score a hit if your song isn’t in English.
So this week I tried to come up with a comprehensive list of non-English songs that made it to the Top 20. This definitely became a case of “the more you find, the more there is to find” so I’m not at all sure I caught everything, but it’s a pretty good list, and at over 18 minutes, it’s an overstuffed episode besides.
I think that some of the songs that didn’t make Number One are going to be a surprise to you, but a couple of the ones that did, may also be surprising. And there’s one artist who actually hit the Top Five twice, with songs that aren’t in English. And no, it’s not Dean Martin. I shan’t spoil it here, but I will say that this one really knocked me out.
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Alice Cooper (the band, not the guy) had released two albums without much success, so they turned their backs on Los Angeles and went to Detroit (as you do, I guess), where the people were already listening to stuff similar to their own. It was during that time that Alice Cooper (the guy, not the band) found himself watching an old Bowery Boys movie and he liked something that one of the characters had said.
From that he came up with the song that made Alice Cooper (the band, not the guy) the kings of summertime, and gave Alice Cooper (the guy, not the band) a good reason to declare himself “the Francis Scott Key of summer.
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First off: let me both thank, and apologize to, Jerry Bainbridge for his efforts this week. He voice-tracked the show for me this week in an effort to keep it from dropping too late, but a technical issue prevented me from using the material he’d given me. I do plan to ask him again in the near future, and I hope he’ll be kind enough to step up again then.
I’ve been spending time the past couple of weeks running up and down the coast between Baltimore and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, preparing a condo for rental, and believe it or not this show is the most relaxing thing I’ve done the whole time. And it was a nightmare to assemble. I’m going back to late-night recording!
This week, we’re looking at songs that did well on the charts, perhaps well enough that people have forgotten that there’s an earlier version. And I think at least one of them will come as a surprise to you. Maybe two of them. Hey, maybe all of them!
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My wife and I bought a condominium in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina this past week. The closing was supposed to be on Monday but there was a snafu, so we wound up wandering up and down a 30-mile stretch of coast from North Myrtle Beach down to Pawley’s Island, in a rented high-top cargo van full of stuff we’d intended to move into the condo after the closing. We still had a couple of pieces of furniture that we needed, so we popped into pretty much every consignment shop we could find, looking for a sleeper sofa that matched Wife’s design concept that wouldn’t break the bank. After a few minutes in any given store, I’d get restless and start looking through some of the other stuff, including the used records that were for sale.
The closing, and the recording of the documentation, didn’t take place until Thursday, which is the day that Aretha Franklin died. By sheer coincidence, we were in a consignment shop called Good Times, down in the Pawley’s Island area. And while we’d actually located the sleeper sofa we were looking for, I of course was looking at other stuff. This store, however, didn’t have any records to unload, except for a very small pile on a high shelf. I’m talking maybe fifteen albums, and that was the entire store’s inventory of vinyl.
As it happened, one of the records was a copy of Aretha’s first album for Atlantic Records, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You. What’s more, it was in good shape and it still had its original inner sleeve. It was worth nearly three times what they were asking for it, and I jumped at the opportunity. I hadn’t even heard the news yet.
Aretha Franklin, her music and her performance style left an impact on the music world that is immeasurable, and the reaction of her fellow music stars, in addition to performers of all stripes, bears witness to this.
This week, we take a crack at remembering the Queen of Soul, who coincidentally died on the same date as the King of Rock, Elvis Presley. (August 16 is also the anniversary of the death of blues pioneer Robert Johnson. This is not a good date if you’re a musical groundbreaker.)
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As promised, here’s her 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors show, during the segment honoring Carole King. Watch for the standing ovation mid-song.
Also, just for fun, here’s a clip from a 1991 episode of Murphy Brown. In the episode, Murphy gets an opportunity to interview Aretha Franklin, whom she has worshipped, live on television. She convinces the producer to give her the entire hour. Unfortunately, Aretha is delayed and the entire cast of the show has to vamp and otherwise fill time until her arrival, which unfortunately doesn’t happen at any point in the hour. As the clip starts, everyone has departed the studio except Murphy.
Donovan Leitch had already experienced some success in the UK, enough that Epic Records showed interest in distributing his music in the United States. When he signed the contract, however, it created a brief legal quagmire because his label in the UK had a distribution agreement with a different US label. As a result, there was a period where his albums and singles just couldn’t synchronize with one another. As a result, “Sunshine Superman” was released in the US months before it was in the UK, and in the meantime he’d moved on to his next project, which began with “Mellow Yellow”. Again the releases were asynchronous, but it was a Top 20 hit on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout Europe as well.
The song probably took on some extra popularity because it also became a song into which anyone could plug practically any meaning, at a time when theories about “what did the artist mean when he wrote this?” were really starting to thicken the air. And as it happens, he was largely being pretty straightforward.
As I mentioned during the show, the 1999 Gap ad has a few young future stars in it. Keep your eye peeled for Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation) at the very end, for Monet Mazur (lots of one-offs but starring in All American starting October 2018) as the blonde girl singing the second line, and Jason Thompson (General Hospital) somewhere in between.
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It was the late 1970s and Disco was finally making that transition out of the clubs, to be replaced by Hip-Hop or New Wave, depending on where you hung out. And the members of Blondie were at the forefront of the Hip-Hop movement, going to clubs and seeing performers freestyling in the streets.
When Fab Five Freddy suggested to Deborah Harry and Chris Klein that they should write a song about him, they thought it was a good idea and came up with a song that represented several “firsts” in the music industry:
First Rap record to reach #1 on the Billboard charts;
First Rap video on MTV;
First Rap video in MTV’s 90-song rotation.
Unfortunately for the band, it was also their last major chart success in the US, but it paved the way for a bunch of other artists to move forward with the genre.
Incidentally, I mentioned this during recording and it wound up being edited out, but the sax player on this record is none other than Tom Scott.
Around the same time this record came out, the Tom Tom Club was working on a rap track of their own, “Wordy Rappinghood”. However, neither group knew what the other was up to, because Blondie was working in New York City while the Tom Tom Club was in the Bahamas.
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It was December of 1971 and Deep Purple was in Deep Trouble. They were all set to record their newest album, when the location they’d chosen for recording was accidentally set ablaze and burned completely to the ground.
It took a little scrambling, but they managed to locate a hotel that had closed for the season and were able to use it for recording. The only problem was, the mobile recording studio couldn’t be placed close to the recording space, so they had to run cables along walls, through a window, under a door, down a corridor, across a balcony, and who-knows-wherever else. This also meant that the band members had to traverse this route every time they wanted to hear their work played back. Ultimately they got tired of climbing all over the hotel and decided on-the-fly whether a particular take was any good.
The last song they recorded was one that they wrote pretty quickly, combined with an abandoned riff that Ritchie Blackmore had recorded without any particular project attached to it. It told the story of the fire, and the band’s travails in locating another place to record.
Deep Purple didn’t think the song had a lot of potential, but when they finally released it, it became one of rock and roll’s great iconic tunes, and a touchstone for novice guitar players everywhere. And the town of Montreux, where everything took place, commemorated the event with a memorial marker.
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By nearly all accounts, the Supremes were starting to look like a failure. Between 1961 and 1963, they had recorded six singles, five of them for Motown, and none of them reached the Billboard Top 40 chart. There was a glimmer of light when the song “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” reached #23, but the act still wasn’t getting a lot of traction.
It wasn’t until the songwriting/producing team of Holland/Dozier/Holland (who also wrote “Lovelight”) wrote a song and produced a musical track for the Marvelettes, which the Marvelettes hated and refused to record. Desperate to get an artist to record a vocal (lest they be forced to pay for the musicians out of their own pockets), they managed to strong-arm the “No-Hit Supremes” into recording the song, even though the finished music track wasn’t in Diana Ross’ key. But the key change, and the bad attitude that the girls brought to the recording studio, was enough to turn the song into their first Number One hit, and that was the start of a string of chart toppers.
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As I mentioned on the show last week, there won’t be a show this week because of a planned break. We have a big party at my place every year at this time. If you know where I live, come on down! The more the merrier!
Next week I have something pretty cool planned, and I hope I can get all the elements in place for it in a timely manner. If not, it’ll be two weeks hence.
Gerry Rafferty was pretty much a known element to music fans as the voice behind Stealers Wheel and the song “Stuck In The Middle With You,” but by the time that song came out, Rafferty had quit the band, which had to shoot the promotional film (they weren’t quite called “videos” yet) without him. The guy lip-synching the vocals is Rafferty’s partner Joe Egan. Shortly afterward, Egan talked Rafferty into coming back into the band, and they managed to put together their contractually-required third album.
Rafferty and Egan split up again, and the legal battles prevented both of them from recording for three years. But that didn’t prevent Rafferty from writing songs in the interim. And it’s pretty clear that “Baker Street” was a reflection of his mood through all the legal craziness that went on.
But while the song was a huge hit internationally, there are two pockets of controversy surrounding it. One stems from that haunting saxophone solo, and the other comes from the fact that, at the time, no other song had spent as much time in the Number 2 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart without ever reaching Number 1. (The “Most weeks at #2” record has been surpassed many times since then, but the six weeks that “Baker Street” spent there was the record in 1978.)
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Let me give an extra shout-out to Co.Ag Music, a YouTube channel that provided some of the moody music near the end of this week’s show. They’ve got some cool stuff going on over there, especially if you like music with a science fiction bent to it.
No show next week! I’ll see you on July 21 with something really special (no hints)!