The possibilities of the LP format that were explored in the 1960s flowered more fully in the Seventies, with rock, R&B and countless emerging new styles reaching experimental new extremes. Nevertheless, the art of the hook still ruled the singles charts, with AM Gold balladeers and insurgent disco divas heating up the Hot 100 every summer. These are the decade’s biggest pop hits from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox, minus some of the ballands and wimpier fare from guys like Gilbert O’Sullivan and Donny Osmond. By Al Shipley
Jimmy Buffett’s career was adrift like a yacht without a compass, his only Top 40 hit years behind him, when he released his seventh album in the winter of 1977. That summer, “Margaritaville” rose along with the temperature, eventually birthing a cottage industry of restaurants and merchandise for the tropical troubadour.
A slow-burning breakthrough, “Tired of Being Alone” was one of the biggest chart hits of 1971 despite never cracking the Top 10. And while it was soon eclipsed by “Let’s Stay Together” and other crossover follow-ups, “Tired” remains the sweetly yearning soul of the future Reverend Al Green’s secular hits.
When Grease became the box office sensation of summer 1978, it made unlikely hitmakers out of Sha Na Na and John Travolta. The soundtrack’s first chart-topper, however, was part of Frankie Valli’s post-Four Seasons solo resurgence, breaking the film’s Fifties theme with a disco track provided by none other than Barry Gibb.
Before launching his solo career, Randy Newman was a successful songwriter-for-hire, with “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” initially recorded by Eric Burdon in 1966. In 1970, it became Three Dog Night’s biggest hit and the only Newman composition to date to top the Hot 100.
Because the full lyrics were trimmed to fit a three-minute single edit, “Band of Gold”‘s tale of a failing young marriage was heavy on emotion and light on detail. Years later, Ron Dunbar, who wrote the song with the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, was shocked to learn that the ambiguity of the story made it a hit with the gay community, which developed its own theories about why the groom couldn’t make love to his new bride.
If they had summer jams in 1809, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor was Beethoven’s baddest banger. 167 years later, it was refashioned into one of the disco era’s biggest novelty hits, itself later refashioned for Robin Thicke’s “When I Get You Alone.”
Context is everything: Originally to be sung by an 11-year-old, “Ring My Bell” was conceived as an innocent song about calling someone on the phone. When it was ultimately recorded as a disco track by an adult singer, Anita Ward, the title phrase took on the air of a flirtatious euphemism.
“Boogie Oogie Oogie” features one of the hottest guitar solos of the disco era, with A Taste of Honey’s Hazel Payne taking clear inspiration from Ernie Isley’s work on “That Lady.” Although the band would win the Grammy for Best New Artist the year after “Boogie Oogie Oogie” hit, their subsequent career downturn left them remembered mostly as evidence of the award’s famous curse.
From the “Keep America Beautiful” PSAs to Marlon Brando ceding his Oscars acceptance speech to Sacheen Littlefeather, the early Seventies were a time of increased mainstream awareness and sympathy toward Native Americans. The most significant pop artificact from this movement was “Indian Reservation,” a forgotten 1959 song that the Raiders (formerly Paul Revere and the Raiders) turned into an iconic hit in 1971.
In 1967, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was a two-and-a-half minute gem that went Top 20 for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and brought Ashford & Simpson into Motown’s songwriting stable. Just three years later, it was made-over into a six-minute epic full of spoken word sections and dramatic breakdowns, launching Diana Ross’ post-Supremes solo career.
Hot, a trio comprised of the white Detroit native Gwen Owens, the black Kansas City native Cathy Carson and the Mexican-born Juanita Curiel, was an unusual sight when they debuted in 1977. Even more unusual was the C&W-based “Angel in Your Arms,” an R&B radio hit recorded with Muscle Shoals session men Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford.
Originally written for the Temptations, “War”‘s anti-Vietnam War message was ultimately deemed too strong for the group, who wound up releasing the more ambivalent “Ball of Confusion” the same summer that Edwin Starr topped the charts. As if to prove that the song’s message transcended its era, Bruce Springsteen took “War” back to the Top 10 in 1986.
“Play That Funky Music” was an autobiographical song for Wild Cherry, who primarily played hard rock but began writing material to cater to audiences that increasingly wanted to hear disco and dance music. In 1990, the song was interpolated by Vanilla Ice for a top 10 hit of the same name, but like Queen and David Bowie, Wild Cherry initially received no songwriting credit from Robert Van Winkle.
Jim Croce’s biggest hit was inspired by a strong-willed lineman the folk singer met while in the Army. Unfortunately, the upbeat track’s success coincided with the singer’s own tragic end when Croce died in a Louisiana plane crash on September 20, 1973, just at the conclusion of the summer in which “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” had topped the charts.
A bubbly Motown pastiche, Elton John’s smash duet with Kiki Dee was one of his few Seventies hits without a John/Taupin writing credit. This, however, was something of a ruse: Elton and Bernie Taupin simply published the song under the playful pseudonyms Ann Orson and Carte Blanche.
Bacharach & David’s “(They Long To Be) Close To You” missed the Top 40 repeatedly in the 1960s, when it was recorded by actor Richard Chamberlain, Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach himself. In 1970, though, this young brother-and-sister duo launched the song into pop immortality.
Carole King’s solo debut, Tapestry, topped the album charts for literally the entire summer of 1971, holding down Number One from mid-June to October. For five of those weeks, the double A side single “It’s Too Late”/”I Feel the Earth Move” topped the singles charts, with the uptempo latter song becoming the classic LP’s summer jam of choice.
True to her name, Donna Summer was the warm-weather queen of 1979, with “Bad Girls” topping the charts for five weeks in July and August. Of course, she owned the rest of the year as well, with “Hot Stuff” hitting Number One in the spring and the Barbra Streisand duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” topping the Hot 100 in the fall.
Formed in the late Sixties, the Emotions released three albums on Stax/Volt produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter but didn’t peak until moving to Columbia Records, where Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire co-wrote and co-produced the exuberant chart-topper “Best of My Love.”
The Knack frontman Doug Feiger’s muse and girlfriend, Sharona Alperin, both inspired and posed for the cover of the fastest selling Capitol Records single since “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” In the era of disco and AM Gold, the media was ecstatic when its guitar pop topped the charts, but New Wave at Number One proved to be a rare occurrence in the ensuing years.