Sunday, July 22, 2012

It’s a Family Affair: There’s a Riot Goin’ On

When I was growing up, in the pre-Internet/Wii/Netflix/iPhone/satellite radio era, the main source of entertainment for a small town kid, besides television (only one channel if you had “rabbit ears” like we did, three with a rooftop antenna), was Top 40 radio. It was an airplay format based on the popularity of songs recently released on 45 rpm records, the more popular ones being played more frequently per hour or two than those further down the list. Every major U.S. city had its own Top 40 station, usually on the AM dial, and each city had its own top forty most popular songs, though they weren’t necessarily limited to forty. WLS, the 50,000-watt powerhouse station located in Chicago, for instance, migrated from forty, to thirty, to sometimes twenty-five songs on its weekly survey over the years, and every New Year’s Eve would count down the top 89 hits of the year, to coincide with its number on the dial.

Billboard magazine, just as it does now, maintained a nationwide weekly ranking based on sales, airplay, and surveys. Unlike now, its charts were fewer and less fragmented, with Country and Western, Rhythm and Blues (R&B), and Popular (Pop) being the primary genres tabulated. The Pop charts were considered the barometer of the nation’s tastes, and the goal of most artists, regardless of their musical style, was to top that chart, “with a bullet” if possible. With the advent of FM radio and album oriented rock (AOR) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the previously unchallenged institution of Top 40 became a target of derision for everyone from musical elitists and audiophiles to various proponents of the ‘60s counterculture, and it was often held up as a symbol of everything that was wrong with mainstream society. My main beef was the maddening amount of repetition inherent in such a limited playlist, and when I was thirteen I started listening almost exclusively to what was then an oldies station, WDZ in Decatur, before discovering, and succumbing to, FM.

For all the grief leveled at the phenomenon that was Top 40 radio in its heyday, by the late ‘60s-early ‘70s it nevertheless reflected popular tastes that were capable of simultaneously embracing the likes of Al Green, Johnny Cash, The Temptations, Engelbert Humperdink, Bob Dylan, Glenn Campbell, Bobby Goldsboro, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, The Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ferrante and Teicher, Isaac Hayes, The Carpenters, Edwin Starr, Tammy Wynette, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra, Santana, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, The Partridge Family, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, Perry Como, The Doors, The Osmond Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Cat Stevens, Diana Ross, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. Ponder for a moment what all those names could possibly have in common, other than the fact that they all performed some type of music, and you get the point.

WLS music survey flyer listing the "Top 89" hits of 1970.

It’s safe now to admit that the musical pulse of the American public was being taken from a more culturally diverse sampling under that much-maligned system 40 years ago than any of the myriad current genre-based measuring sticks—bastions of isolationism that they are—manage to do today. In retrospect, the Top 40 of four decades ago could be described not as the whirlpool of homogeneity that AOR hipsters would have us believe at the time, but rather as a fountain of tolerance and heterogeneity. For all of our current penchant for self-congratulatory back patting based on the canard of “how far we’ve come,” what do we have today that compares to the original concept of Top 40 as a celebration of, and showcase for, diversityboth musical and cultural? If you think American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest fits the bill, then you may as well stop reading this right now.

No stranger to Top 40 radio in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s was Sly and the Family Stone, itself a model of diversity—not only in the music which that aggregation created, but also in the physical makeup of the group. It was one of the first racially integrated rock groups (only the Del-Vikings and Booker T. & the MG’s come to mind as precursors), as well as being multi-gender. This thanks to the band’s founder and front man, Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone, who cut his musical teeth with multi-racial groups as a gospel- and doo-wop-singing youth, later going against the grain by occasionally spinning discs by white artists as a disc jockey for the San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL. 

Everyday People. Left to Right: Greg Errico, Rose Stone, Sly Stone, Cynthia 
Robinson, Freddie Stone, Jerry Martini, and Larry Graham.

The name itself suggests brotherhood/sisterhood. In addition to the fact that the group was comprised of, in part, Sly’s actual siblings, the implication was that even non-relations, including the two white members, Greg Errico and Jerry Martini (despite Black Panther demands that they be replaced with black musicians) were brothers and sisters as well, part of a utopian family of man. And the music lived up to the name. Hits like Dance to the Music, Stand!, “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everyday People” (which popularized the phrase “different strokes for different folks”), “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and “Everybody Is a Star” perforated racial barriers at a time when race riots were a not infrequent fact of life.

By late 1971, though, after having taken up residence in the LP and singles charts for a solid couple of years, and after sealing their place in the pantheon of rock’s superstars with a knockout performance at Woodstock, Sly and company had not produced an album of new material in nearly two and a half years. This was pop music suicide at the time, hit singles notwithstanding—Sgt. Pepper and FM radio had recently made the LP the standard currency in the business—and their record label, Epic, resorted to the stopgap measures of repackaging their first album and releasing a greatest hits collection.