Stir It Up by Johnny Nash (Epic, 1973)

[Ed. Note – I try to keep this blog alive by paying tribute to those 70s stars who pass away. This week, we lost four. So it might take me a while to catch up. But there’s no guarantee I will.]

Houston, TX native Johnny Nash had been hitting the charts since the late 60s, and his first Top 40 hit, A Very Special Love, would reach #23 in early 1958. Fourteen years later, he would spend a month at the top with I Can See Clearly Now. It became his signature song and the one that 99.9% have referenced during his passing this week. That this song would be the most popular in the country when the Watergate scandal was erupting, and a temporary peace agreement with North Vietnam was being preferred was not a coincidence. However, Johnny’s musical legacy cannot and should not be boiled down to a sunny three-minute pop song because he was influential in a bigger way. He helped to bring reggae into the mainstream.

Now I know what you’re thinking, but before you finish saying Clapton, let me steer you towards Johnny’s 1968 Top 5 smash, Hold Me Tight. Go ahead and listen, then I’ll continue.

Actually, let me start three years before that when Johnny hit the R&B Top 5 with a single called Let’s Move & Groove (Together). It was released on his own record label, JoDa Records, which he started with his manager Danny Sims. The song only reached #88 on the Hot 100, and as the label struggled, he and Danny decided to move to Kingston, Jamaica. They figured that they could record singers down there and break them in America. What happened instead was that Johnny got deep into the rocksteady scene. He was introduced to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and the rest of the Wailers, immediately signing them to a publishing deal. Starting up a new record label, JAD, he recorded Hold Me Tight backed by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and it became a huge single. Let me reiterate – a Black entrepreneur exposed the Pop world to a new sound via an independent record label based in Jamaica.

For the next four years, JAD would release singles by Bob Marley to the world, but with limited distribution resources, many did not hear these songs. But Island Records did, and promptly signed him and the Wailers in 1972. It didn’t hurt that Johnny’s new album featured four of Bob’s compositions, including Stir It Up, which would peak at #12 in the Spring of 1973. The Wailers had recorded it six years previous to Johnny and would re-record it for their Island Records debut, Catch A Fire.

So the next time you listen to Legend or hear No Woman, No Cry playing in your local head shop, take time to thank Johnny Nash, the man who helped bring reggae to America.

Also, Clapton is a racist.

Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree by Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando (Bell, 1973)


Tony Orlando & Dawn. You say the name and it just reeks of avocado shag and Love’s Baby Soft. But what always struck me was the fact that this anonymous studio concoction, whose members weren’t even fully formed until after their first few hits, became such a visual presence and representation of the 70s. In fact, Tony Orlando & Dawn wasn’t even used until after seven Top 40 hits and two #1 song were racked up, including their biggest, Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree. They actually had as many hits with their iconic name than without. I don’t think Tony Orlando minds at all because without this weird run of luck, he would have just been a guy who had a Top 20 hit called Bless You, way back in 1961.

All of this was luck and timing, for the artists, writers, producers, anyone who made a living off of this record. The history before this song hit #1 for 4 weeks in 1973 is amazing, but its impact afterward is truly astonishing. It propelled the group in having 7 more Top 40 hits, 3 of them Top 10s, one of which hit #1 (He Don’t Love You). It gave America a visual to match the songs when they were given their own variety show, which ran from 1974-1976. Tony had his own theatre in Branson called the Yellow Ribbon Theatre and while some may roll their eyes at it, it nevertheless kept Tony performing through the 90s & 00s. You may even recognize Telma Hopkins, one half of Dawn, as Steve Urkel’s Aunt Rachel or from the other various TV roles she landed from the 80s’ Bosom Buddies & Gimme A Break to the current version of Are We There Yet.

The song itself may have brought on the 20’s/40’s revival of musical styles, which the group expanded on with their next album, Dawn’s New Ragtime Follies (see, still clinging to the Dawn name, even after a mega-smash). It’s the kinda song you’d imagine you’d hear in Shakey’s Pizza or during a carousel ride. The Great Gatsby movie was only a year away and platform shoes, a 40’s throwback, was becoming more mainstream fashion. When you hear that organ and banjo intro, you either want to dance the Lindy or jam metal rods in your ears. What are you gonna do? Irvin Levine & L. Russell Brown wrote a catchy tune. And they had already had some Dawn hits, Knock Three Times & Candida. Irvin also co-wrote This Diamond Ring with Al Kooper, a hit with Gary & the Playboys in 1965.

The meaning and origin of the lyrics have taken on a life of their own. Supposedly inspired by a true story from a New York Post article about a convict riding a bus home from prison awaiting a yellow handkerchief on his arrival, this was also been widely disputed. In fact, the songwriters were sued by the author of that newspaper story until they proved that they got the idea from additional sources in the military. The significance of a yellow ribbon has its origins date back to the Civil War. A woman would wear a yellow ribbon in her hair in honor of husband or ‘sweetheart’ who’d be off to war. In this song, a guy is getting released from a 3-year prison stint. He writes his lover ahead of time to let her know and ask if she still wants him. Rather than await an answer, he asks her to tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree. I’ll assume she knows which one. That’s pretty much the song. And during a time of military strife in Vietnam, I wonder how many soldiers coming home, facing the scorn of many for their duty served, heard the song and asked the same request. It’s a simple song of redemption and forgiveness, such by a guy who only 3 years before used an alias on a song which hit the Top 10, because he was afraid of what folks might think.

Hearing this song as a kid appealed to me because of its childlike musicality and it’s sing-song nature, even though the lyrics are better fully understood by adults. But the part near the end which slows down and the whole damn bus is cheering cause the guy can’t believe that not only did he get one yellow ribbon, he got 99 more….damn that still gets me. I have no idea why. But if it gets to a hardened soul like me, it makes sense why it got 2 million others that year. And why the yellow ribbon symbol was used during the Iran Hostage crisis, during the Gulf War and for suicide awareness as well as a symbol used around the world.

Oh, I forgot the best part. Tony was about to give up the music business after the hits starting drying up in 1972. But he decided to give it one final try with a song he wasn’t that thrilled about recording – a song which 40 years later continues to have a global impact.

Back When My Hair Was Short by Gunhill Road (Kama Sutra, 1973)


Every time I took the 5 train up to the Bronx, I would stare at a large map on the wall of the subway, following the green line to a stop that I would never travel up to: Gun Hill Road. It was a long stretch of road that went from Van Cortland Park to the Hutchinson Parkway. I wondered if the band of the same name had lived there, grew up there, formed the band and struggled there. But I found out many years later that the Westchester, NY band named themselves after the stop and had nothing else to do with that thoroughfare except passing it on the IRT trains they rode in the late 60s.

This version was from their 3rd and final LP which itself was a re-recording of a track from their 2nd LP, produced by the groovy cat from the First Edition, Kenny Rogers, back when his hair was long and his fingers weren’t greasy from roasted chickens. The original lyrics had lots of drug references, including selling weed to kids and tripping on acid. Talking about being a hippie freak whacked out on drugs, all the while doling out the love, but having short hair was just another way of saying that ‘it ain’t about what grows out of your head, but what grows out of your heart, man.’ A hippie? With short hair? How can that be…harumph, harumph….

They cleaned up the track and made it sound like a guy who has grown up and is reminiscing about life as a teenager and wouldn’t you know it, it hit #40 in June of 1973. Aw shucks, Richie.

But that would be it for the trio who disappeared with no new recordings or whereabouts. Maybe they’re riding the 5 train into work down to the financial district, writing a new tune called Back When I Had Some Hair…..

Also Sprach Zarathustra by Deodato (CTI, 1973)

If you’re gonna record a cover song, why bother with another Motown or Beatles retread? That was the thinking of Brazilian arranger, Eumir Deodato. He went all the back to the late 1890s with a reworking of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra. As groundbreaking as the record may seem, Deodato had the benefit of Tom Parker testing the audience for classical remakes, when Apollo 100 took a Joy into the Top 5 the year before. And Also had the benefit of being recently reintroduced into the mainstream via Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nevertheless, the public ate it up and the song rolled up to #2 in March 1973, held off only by Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song. [Wow, we sure were into drama back then…] It was the biggest hit for Creed Taylor CTI label, a jazz label that would delve further into fusion as the decade rolled on. Jazz crossover to the pop charts was getting very close to extinction in the 70s, unless you could get real funky, like the Crusaders or Chuck Mangione. Even George Benson, the ultimate 70s jazz crossover star and former CTI label mate, would have to smooth out his sound and lean heavily on the R&B side in order to get having hits.

Strauss, on the other hand, had passed away almost 30 years before this hit. Also was a tone poem written and first performed in 1896, immediately becoming a cultural favorite in Germany. Deodato’s version, as well as Kubrick, only reworks the first part called Sunrise. As the pop charts became increasingly rules by soul songs, the timing was right for this Rhodes-fueled piece of jazz-funk. Plus Grandma could be OK with young kids listening to it, believing that they were getting a piece of culture by listening to classical music, no matter the form. The 45 was 5 minutes long, an eternity for tightly programmed AM station playlists. I recommend the full 9-minute album version, which actually is only 20 minutes less than Strauss’ performance.

It also laid out a blueprint for future disco songs by Walter Murphy [A Fifth of Beethoven] as well as the jam-laden Saturday Night Fielder. [I always got him & Colonel Sanders mixed up as a kid.]

Deodato was a one-hit-wonder on the pop charts, but has hit the pop charts as arranger & producer, including current artists such as Bjork and k.d. Lang. His biggest success was when Kool & the Gang abandoned the funk, hired a permanent lead singer and asked Eumir to producer their LPs starting in 1979, making the band one of the biggest forces in the Top 40 in the early to mid-80s.

Half Breed by Cher (MCA, 1973)

I like Cher – as an actress. I think she adds her a very lonely and dark element to most of her characters aided by her thin nose and sometimes long gaunt face. There’s something about her presence on film that can be engaging. Her music on the other hand makes me laugh uncontrollably, esp her solo work in the 70s. I’d like to think that there was a deeper, Dadaist meaning behind some of those songs, but I highly doubt it.

Sonny & Cher kicked off a pretty good career in music, with Cher (and even Sonny) having a solo career at the same time. But by 1968 both acts couldn’t get a hit to save their lives. Seemed like they ran their depressing hippie image into the ground. Then the duo turned to TV after CBS exec Fred Silverman caught their act and thought it would be a great variety show. And it was. The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was awesome. And it reminded the world that this couple was happening and entertaining. It also gave steady jobs to Steve Martin & Terri Garr on their way to stardom (even the Unknown Comic, who was one of my faves as a kid and a recurring Halloween costume) Who could forget Sonny & Cher’s faces on those lamplights in the background? Far out, man.

This was the perfect vehicle to relaunch their music careers. But obviously this went to their (mostly Sonny’s) head to the point that their decision-making processes were all over the place. Who would have thought that Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves would be a hit? I have no words – but I will another time. This was also the time that Cher really started to over sing with that Banshee warble as if she was always on stage. Cher got away with it. For some reason we bought it. And Sonny began viewing Cher like a long dark dollar sign in a Bob Mackie dress.

So he began requesting ‘better’ material for Cher (should have done that in the first place). When producer Snuff Garrett gave them a demo of the Bobby Russell-penned, The Night The Lights When Out in Georgia, Sonny had a conniption. ‘What kind of crap is this?’ Sonny cried. ‘You’re gonna piss off everyone in the South? We want people to like Cher!’. ‘Screw you midget’ replied Snuff and he quit as their producer. Meanwhile The Night… went on to be a #1 hit for Bobby’s wife, Vicki Lawrence. (Between you & me, I think Cher’s voice would have overshadowed the song and taken away from its mystique. It needed a demo-like reading which it got from Vicki)

Unbeknownst to either party Al Capps & Mary Dean were finishing up a song they had specifically written for Cher and were getting to give it to Snuff Garrett. Snuff heard the song and loved it and said he would pass it on. But as he wasn’t working with Cher or Sonny anymore, he had a problem.

This is proof that God exists. He tried to keep Cher & Snuff from working together, knowing what the disastrous end result would be. But then God turned around, shifted his focus to OPEC…and this happened…

Who bought this record? Why? Please tell me.

My Maria by B.W. Stevenson (RCA, 1973)

Imagine ol’ B.W.’s luck. He records a song that he swears is a sure-fire hit, releases it and it makes the Hot 100. Then some hot shot L.A. band comes along with a slicker version and sashays up to #3 while stomping the life out of B.W.’s 45. The band was Three Dog Night and the song was Shambala. B.W. was so pissed he called up the write of Shambala and said, ‘Write me another Shambala and make it quick. Shee-it, I’ll even help you out to speed the process along.

The songwriter, Daniel Moore and B.W. sat down and wrote My Maria that while not exactly an entire rip-off, was similar enough to fool the public that A.) Three Dog Night had a new hit or B.) that they had misheard the chorus and they were singing Ma-ree-eeee–eeee–eee-ee-ya and not ah-wa-ooh-yee-ooh-yee-yee-ya. Either way, B.W. took his shambala’d Maria into the Top 10 only 3 months after Three Dog Night was there.

Ol B.W. never made it back to the Top 40, most likely because Three Dog Night didn’t have many more songs to ripoff. But his legend lives on in two ways. First after he died in 1988, a bar in Dallas, Texas names Poor David’s Pub has held a songwriting competition in his honor that exists to this day. And the #1 Country song of the year in 1996 was Brooks & Dunn’s version of that burst of spite.

By the way, there’s a lot of debate over what the B.W. stands for. Some say it’s Big Winner or Blooming Wonder or even Barry White. Actually no one says of that. It stood for Buck Wheat, ok? O-tay!

Hocus Pocus by Focus (Sire, 1973)

How can you not get amped listening to this song? How many Dusters exceeded the speed limit when this popped up on the radio? How did it take FIFA almost 40 years to include it on a soccer ad? [Probably wanted to avoid the eventual riot.] I mean, how can you go wrong with huge power chords followed by mini drum solos with in between breaks that include yodeling, whistling, a flute solo and an accordion solo? That’s about the only thing that gives it away that we’re dealing with a band from the Netherlands. They might as well have recorded the sound of a windmill shooshing or a leaky dike.

I would be very surprised if that flute solo from Thijs van Leer didn’t inspire Will Ferrell’s performance in Anchorman during the nightclub scene. It sounds crazy and menacing and ridiculous, almost demonic. Maybe it was too over the top for The Exorcist soundtrack, but it wasn’t too far off.

Trying to find the origin of this single is another matter, one of many contradicting tales and various record labels. In fact it’s hard to figure out which version we were even listening to. Was this Hocus Pocus I or II? I think it was II, but released in the US as simply Hocus Pocus. To say there was nothing like it on the radio was an understatement.

The most consistent version of the son’s origin comes from guitarist Jan Akkerman, who said they just created it as a joke, kinda making fun of a lot serious progressive rock bands. [A joke… where have we heard that before?] Laugh, laugh, laugh, it did, all the way up into the Top 10 in the Summer of 1973. Maybe it was so popular because DJs loved saying, “Here’s Hocus Pocus by Focus. It’s so loud, it woke us.”

Photograph by Ringo Starr (Apple, 1973)

John, Paul & George breathed a sigh of relief and voiced their praise when Ringo’s It Don’t Come Easy hit the Top 10 in early 1971. His success put the other 3 guys at ease about their solo careers. Not because they thought Ringo sucked, but because he was as seasoned a songwriter as the other 3. Plus they knew he would need help, since he only play the drums, where the other 3 played any number of instruments.

So when Ringo was recording his follow-up album to Beaucoup of Blues, he enlisted the help of all three Beatles who worked separately on a different tracks. (All 4 do not appear together on any track on the album) George’s influence seemed to shine through the most, especially on Ringo’s 1st #1 hit, Photograph. It’s almost as if George asked Ringo to sing lead on a cut from one of his albums. Ringo concentrated on singing and shared drum duty with Jim Keltner. And although, he shares co-writing credit on this tune, he acknowledges that George was just being nice and that maybe he suggested a few things, but this was pretty much a George Harrison track. Just as you can feel Paul’s’ goofiness via a kazoo solo on You’re Sixteen, George’s 12 string & vocals are stamped on Photograph.

That’s why it’s my favorite Ringo 45. Photograph was the closest we were ever gonna get to a Beatles collaboration. And if you disqualify All Those Years Ago, the John Lennon elegy written by George and featuring the 3 remaining members, it’s the only quality one we would hear.
It’s very different than any others in the Richard Starkey catalogue. He seemed to either favor covers or silly sounding songs and that can really only take you so far.

Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich (Epic, 1973)

People love it when I sing Charlie Rich at karaoke. And 4 whiskeys in I always oblige. My go to number: Behind Closed Doors, the song that took Charlie from a struggling rockabilly artist to the Countrypolitan life and the Billboard Top 20. And he did this in his 40s, garnering the nickname he’d have for the rest of his life: the Silver Fox. Of course, I can’t do this Kenny O’Dell-penned tune justice like Charlie. Mostly because it’s hard to play those jazzy country licks on the piano with a drink in my hand. And karaoke doesn’t require it. But if it did, I still never capture that easygoing vocal that won a couple of Grammys as well as the CMA single & song of the year back in 1973. Oh, Charlie was the man and all it took was one song, 13 years after his first Top 40 hit, Lonely Weekends.

Many Rich fans thought they’d be losing good ol’ Arkansas Charlie to the city life of Nashville. Yes, that was a concern. Could he keep his old fans and expand his base to get new ones. I think the fact that he sold 2 million copies of this single and it ranks as the #9 country single of all time, based on Country Music Television’s, 100 Greatest Country songs of All Time should settle that. But it’s the performance that truly matters.

When the record drops and those three chords are played high up on the piano, every couple in the honky-tonk, at a wedding or a prom rushed onto the dance floor, so that they could stare into each other eyes in time for when Charlie sings:

My baby makes me proud, Lord don’t she make me proud

And what makes Charlie proud is that his lady keeps it cool, plays her cards close to the chest, especially when she’s around other folks. She’s always a lady, but just one times a lady. [Lionel Richie gets the women that are three times.] Cause people like to talk trash, and she doesn’t give them anything to talk about. But when the lights go off and doors are closed, she’s a super freak. She lets her down and reminds Charlie of his manhood. And there’s where he stops, cause he’s a gentlemen. Many people have speculated, few have wondered, but no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. I know when Congress closes their doors, it feels like their having sex with me.

Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel (A&M, 1973)

Never has a joke made someone so rich. Stuck In the Middle With You was conceived as a Dylan parody of sorts, by Joe Egan & Gerry Rafferty. But the tune is so catchy and it’s sung so straightforward, no one got the joke. Instead it sold over million copies and hit the Top 10 in 1973. It also would have haunted Gerry for his entire life, had it been his only hit. (Instead Baker Street make him rich & depressed.)

Gerry does a great Dylan interpretation, especially when he sing lines like, fall off my chaaair. You can almost visualize Bob’s sneer as he would strain for those high notes. And how did anyone miss the clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right line as Dylanesque? Rafferty & Egan may have just ripped Dylan off and when the song became a big hit, covered their tracks by saying it was a joke.

Lyrically I can’t tell if it’s a song about a drunk that’s wondering how he’ll get down the stairs or if it’s a guy who’s hanging out with his newly successful but insufferable friend. Maybe he’s playing a raucous game of Mahjong. Either way I don’t think Dylan wrote anything this good in the 70s. Hey put down that knife…I’m entitled to my opinion.