Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Cusp Song of the Day: Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady

Native Australian Helen Reddy was a fixture on the pop charts in the early to mid '70s, with more than a dozen top 40 hits. Best known for the iconic "I Am Woman," she had little respect from the teen audience represented by the main characters in Cusp. That song - and its over-30 performer - was for their mother's generation.

"Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady" hit the Billboard charts at the end of the summer of 1975 and rose as high as #8 (#1 adult contemporary). It continues Reddy's theme of speaking up as a woman, not accepting poor treatment from a man.

From Cusp:

"I enter the kitchen where Mom is on the phone but still moving around. Helen Reddy’s “Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady” plays quietly in the background as she opens cupboards, takes out dishes, checks the status of the formerly frozen vegetables in the saucepan on the stove and gossips about her love life. I duck under the long phone cord to get past her and go up the stairs to my room."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

RIP, Maxine Powers

The Supremes - and other top Motown groups - owe a great debt to Maxine Powell, who died yesterday at 98. Miss Powell ran a finishing school in detroit and was hired by Berry Gordy to help Motown artists with personal development, from etiquette to fashion and body movement. These performers were traveling the world, representing Black America, and they did it with style and grace in part because of this remarkable woman.

Yesterday's Detroit Free Press quotes Mary Wilson saying of Miss Powell, “She gave us more than just the tools for the movements and the gowns. These were tools for us as human beings.”

Thursday, July 4, 2013

July 4th, Cusp-Style

Happy Fourth! The Fourth of July plays a significant role in The Cusp of Everything - the book begins on July 4, 1975 and ends on the Bicentennial. The above shot shows the Tall Ships (and some not-so-tall) in the harbor in 1976. What an amazing celebration!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Love Child

"Love Child" marked a change of direction for the newly renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes. Motown stalwarts Holland-Dozier-Holland had left the company in a financial dispute, and a new collective, known as the Clan, was assembled to replace them. This song, their first release, started them off with a bang, going to number one at the end of 1968.

The Clan - the producers and songwriters of "Love Child" - also had a top 10 hit in 1969 with the Supremes' "I'm Livin' in Shame." The collective was comprised of Pamela Sawyer,  R. Dean Taylor, Frank Wilson and Deke Richards. Their song tells the story of a young woman resisting her boyfriend's advances because she doesn't want to end up pregnant and giving birth to a "hurt, scorned, rejected love child," as she herself was ("Take a look at me"). Quite a story is packed into about three minutes.

In Chapter 12 of Cusp, Karen and Mark open Christmas gifts while listening to the Love Child album. When side one ends, Karen makes a preemptive move to block the playing of side two. "Enough Supremes, already," she thinks. What does Mark put on instead? Donna Summer's then-current first hit "Love to Love You Baby," which had its own issues.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Bad Blood

Neil Sedaka wrote some great songs, but "Bad Blood" is not one at the top of my list. In Cusp I have it playing in the background during a conversation between Karen and Craig: "Sunday I call Craig to wish him a safe trip back to Syracuse. I can hear Neil Sedaka's annoying 'Bad Blood' in the background as he says hello, and it immediately puts me in a bad mood."

After a decade off the charts, by the mid-'70s Sedaka's career had moved from performing to songwriting. Thinking he was ripe for a comeback, Sedaka fan Elton John signed him to Rocket Records in 1973. The title of his next album, Sedaka's Back, proved prescient, as "Laughter in the Rain" hit number one in 1975. His second Rocket album, The Hungry Years, spawned the number-one hit "Bad Blood" in October that same year. A remake of his early '60s hit "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" followed shortly on its heels. That song appears in a later Cusp chapter.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: You Can’t Hurry Love

"You Can’t Hurry Love" by the Supremes was released in 1966 and became their seventh number one hit. Like "Forever Came Today," it bears the imprint of Motown's brilliant songwriting and production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland.

In Cusp, there is a lot of twisting of radio dials to find a song worth listening to. Mark always seeks Supremes music in particular. And one night, driving into Manhattan to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Karen and Craig, he locates the tail end of "You Can't Hurry Love."

A note on the video link: In 1983 I chaired Billboard's Video Music Conference and Awards Show, and invited Mary Wilson to be a presenter. She spoke about the Supremes' 16 Ed Sullivan Show performance, making the point that the Supremes were video stars in an era before MTV.  The link at the beginning of this post features the group's September 25, 1966 performance of "You Can't Hurry Love."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Colony Records: Stay, Just a Little Bit Longer

Will you still need me when I'm 64? In the case of Colony Records, the answer, sadly, seems to be no.

colony records

When I wrote the mid-'70s-based Cusp of Everything, it was, as a young agent recently dubbed it, "historical fiction." (Ouch.) Many of the places I describe in the book - restaurants, clubs, stores, even houses - are long gone. Some, like Rye Playland, are still around but perennially threatened. One of the few that seemed permanent was Colony Records.

Colony Records has been on Broadway since 1948 and in the Brill Building since the early 1970s, around the time I started buying records. Since those days, it's been the go-to place to find out-of-print records, sheet music and memorabilia like Beatles lunchboxes and old Sinatra tickets. The prices are high, but not surprisingly so for a high-rent tourist-area shop with a "your wish is my command" approach to stock and staff.

Since I've been blogging about Cusp, I've had to write about the loss of Donna Summer, Robin Gibb and Scott McKenzie. Now we're losing Colony too. I learned about its imminent demise today in a Maira Kalman New Yorker cartoon and it hit me like those other losses.

If you get a chance, stop in and pick up a little bit of nostalgia. Tell them they'll be missed, because they will.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Getting the Word Out

When you self-publish a book - as I did with Cusp - you take on all the responsibilities of publisher as well as author: from cover design to distribution to marketing. Since the book came out in May, I have been on the latter end of that demanding ride, getting the word out. I hired a publicist, who got the book great coverage including some reviews. I got it into some local bookstores (Chevaliers, Vroman's and Diesel Malibu) and encouraged readers to review it on Amazon. And I started churning out the copy for social media.

I do social media marketing for a living, so I know all about the importance of blogging, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, LinkedIn, YouTube, and on and on ad infinitum. I've written more than 100 posts on this site. I've uploaded pictures, linked to several radio interviews, tweeted and pinned. It's exhausting - not unlike writing a book!

And now, after three months, I need to move on. I need to focus on writing something new rather than flogging what's already done.

Writers - especially this writer - can be excellent procrastinators. "I'll get back to my manuscript as soon as I check my email...make dinner...write those tweets for my Phyllis Diller's obit...listen to Alec Baldwin interview Billy Joel...finish up this week's 'Song of the Day' features for"

I hereby vow to get back to my manuscript. You'll still hear from me from time to time, and not just when an artist mentioned in the book dies. I'll still blog and tweet and pin and post (and check my email, make dinner, work and procrastinate). But mostly I'll be concentrating on what's next, not what's done.



Cusp Song of the Day: San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)

When I had to pick a song for Cusp to personify the year 1967, I chose "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)." Written to promote the Monterey Pop Festival that year, the song was a top 10 hit during the summer of 1967. Its mellow tune and "Summer of Love" lyrics perfectly capture a time and place. "San Francisco" was written and produced by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, and performed by Scott McKenzie, who died this weekend at 73. 

McKenzie dropped out of the music business after the release of his second album in 1970, although he later co-wrote "Kokomo" for the Beach Boys.

In Cusp, Mark throws a 1967 theme party, and his neighbor Eric invites Karen and Gwen, his amusement park co-workers. They're unclear on the concept - 1967 was just eight years earlier and why would anyone want to relive fourth grade? Eric makes the case:

“'Hearken back to yesteryear! It was the Summer of Love!' Eric bellows, before breaking into a few notes of 'San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).' 'You’re not supposed to relive it like it really was for you, it’s like a chance for you to be eighteen and have it be 1967.'"

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Fly, Robin, Fly

God, how I hated "Fly, Robin, Fly." In Cusp I call it " the “Horse with No Name” of dance music," about the worst insult I could give. Yet somehow the song insinuated itself onto the pop charts for more than three months at the end of 1975/beginning of 1976, driving me progressively more frustrated by its success. It even spent three weeks at number 1 on both the pop and dance charts. Grrr.

Here are the lyrics in their entirety: "Fly Robin fly, up up to the sky." That's it. Repeat until insanity is achieved. The lyrics are so inconsequential that the song actually won a Grammy for best R&B Instrumental.

The song is by two-hit wonder Silver Convention, a German group ironically featuring three female vocalists. (The irony is due to Cusp's emphasis of a better-known group with three female vocalists, the Supremes.)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Doctor’s Orders

"Doctor’s Orders" by Carol Douglas was an early 1975 disco hit. Douglas, who was Sam Cooke's cousin and the daughter of Minnie the Moocher (her mother, Minnie Newsome, was a jazz singer who inspired Cab Calloway's song), hit number 11 on the pop charts and number 1 on the newly instituted disco chart with the song.

Despite Douglas' lack of significant later success, she does a great job with "Doctor's Orders," which was undeniably an influential track. Credit must go to producer Domenico Monardo, also known as Meco, the man to blame for 1977's rightfully despised (yet frighteningly successful) disco version of the "Star Wars Theme." I didn't want to provide a link to that atrocity, but in the "read it and weep" tradition, here it is, a painful and shameful '70s flashback. Click if you dare!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Our Day Will Come

In November 1975, Frankie Valli came within one chart position of the top 10 with "Our Day Will Come," a cover of the 1963 Ruby and the Romantics song also recorded over the years by Doris Day, the Carpenters, k.d. lang, Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse and Katherine McPhee on Smash earlier this year. Even the Supremes recorded it, in 1965, one of Mary Wilson's few Diana Ross-era leads. (It was not released until 40 years later, on the shelved album There's a Place for Us.) The song was composed by Bob Hilliard and Mort Garson, who surely made a fortune on it over the past 50 years.
Valli's version features Patti Austin and hits just the right balance - not too slow, not too disco-y. It's the title of Cusp's Chapter 11 and appears twice in the book: once in the diner where Karen, Mark and Craig are talking about being gay and whether, as Craig confidently puts it, "Anybody can be had.” Karen, annoyed, feels he's trying to "recruit" Mark. “You sound awfully sure of yourself,” she says, but he just shrugs and drops a dime to play "Our Day Will Come."

Later, after a New Year's Eve debacle, the song comes on the radio and reminds Karen of its earlier airing: "I can’t take the radio any more. 'Our Day Will Come' almost did me in. I prefer to program my own despair."

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Help Me

In Cusp, the Karen and Mark select “Help Me” from the tabletop jukebox at their diner hangout. Joni Mitchell’s eloquent lyrics describe the cusp of a new relationship or, perhaps, just a fling. After all, as she says in the last lines, “We love our lovin’/But not like we love our freedom.” For critical teenager Karen, the song’s lyrics outshine its performance:

Around noon on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, Mark and I sit at the Mamaroneck Inn, nursing coffees and waiting for Craig to arrive. We select Joni Mitchell’s ‘Help Me’ from the tableside jukebox even though I’ve always felt her voice seems a little screechy on some of the high notes.”

The song, from the magnificent Court and Spark, had risen to number 7 on the pop charts the previous year, and would end up being Mitchell’s highest-charting single. Melding pop, jazz and folk, the song features Tom Scott’s L.A. Express and was produced by Mitchell.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Forever Came Today

When it was released by Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1968, Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Forever Came Today" was the first Supremes single not to make the Top 25 on the pop charts. In fact, it rose only as high as number 28, the worst showing since "Nothing But Heartaches" had stalled at number 11 three years earlier. The difference is that "Heartaches," also by HDH, is a so-so song, rhyming arm/charm and keep/week to a repetitive theme. "Forever" offers a complex melody and triumphant "everlasting love that I've been forever dreaming of."
In 1975, the Jackson 5, then in their final days with Motown, released a disco version of "Forever Came Today" with lead vocals by Michael and Jermaine Jackson. While it rose only to 60 on the pop charts, it was a number 1 dance hit. 

In Cusp, Karen and Mark exit the Sting to the sounds of the then-current Jackson 5 version of “Forever Came Today.” Former rock aficionado Karen, who has been learning all about the Supremes from their most dedicated and knowledgeable fan, thinks, "It’s a remake of a Diana Ross and the Supremes song. The fact that I know this concerns me. What is happening to my life?"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Love Rollercoaster

Love can be a roller coaster, making the concept of a "Love Rollercoaster" a natural. The song, by '70s R&B/funk group Ohio Players, entered the chart Thanksgiving week in 1975, rising to number 1 in January 1976.
In Cusp, "Love Rollercoaster" plays as Karen and Mark decide to leave the Sting after being abandoned by Craig, their hot and in demand gay friend. Karen is still adjusting to being in a gay environment for the first time in her life:

"We finish our drinks and head for the door. The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster” is blasting. I hate that song. Pockets of guys are making out, drinking and talking, although I must admit it’s the making out that catches my eye. I feel like I’ve entered an alternate universe where everything is off. I’m used to not being noticed, but never at this level." 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were influenced by the Ohio Players and paid tribute to them in their cover version, which appeared in the movie Beavis and Butthead Do America.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Baby Face

"Baby Face" by the Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps hit the charts Christmas week 1975. In Cusp, Karen describes it as "an overly caffeinated disco version" of a classic. The song was written by Harry Akst and Benny Davis and was a number one hit in 1926 for Jan Garber. It has also been recorded by Al Jolson, Little Richard, Bobby Darin, Paul McCartney and many others.

This version rose to number 14 on the pop charts and number 1 on the Club Play chart that was the precursor to the Disco chart.

Wing and a Prayer was not a band so much as a group of studio musicians and vocalists fashioned by producer Harold Wheeler. Wheeler is now the musical director of "Dancing with the Stars." You've come a long way, baby (face)!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: Find My Way

"I must leave you, try to find my way...I think I'll be much better by myself." 

Cameo lead singer and co-producer Larry Blackmon wasn't even 20 yet when the band's version of "Find My Way" came out in 1975. The song didn't make the pop charts, but received extensive club play when it first came out and three years later when it was included on the Thank God It's Friday soundtrack.  

In Cusp, Craig has just introduced Karen and Mark to their first gay club, the Sting. Karen is having a hard time grasping the concept and Craig explains: 

"'This is what Westchester really is. It’s not just doctors and housewives and SATs and getting into Ivy League colleges. It’s closet cases and guys who are happy to finally be who they are.'

"'Guys who like other guys.' It feel like he’s lying, despite the supporting evidence dancing and laughing and brushing the hair out of each other’s eyes to the strains of Cameo’s 'Find My Way.'”

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: I Love Music

In Cusp, "I Love Music" is the third song in the Bus Stop dance sequence from Mark and Karen's first visit to the Sting on Thanksgiving 1975. The tune, by the O’Jays, entered the charts that month, peaking at number 5 pop but spending eight weeks atop the Hot Dance Club Play chart, from November 1975 into January 1976. Like the band's previous hit, "For the Love of Money," "I Love Music" still feels fresh today.
The song opens with a bongo solo, played by O'Jays fan Bill Cosby. The lyrics are about, well, loving music, "the healing force of the world."

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: I’ll Always Love My Mama

The Intruders' "I’ll Always Love My Mama" is from 1973, but the Philly Sound was so big two years later that this song was brought back. I remember it being played in clubs as part of medleys also featuring MFSB, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the O'Jays and more.

The song barely squeaked into the top 40, rising to number 36 in 1973, although that number doesn't accurately reflect the band's enormous influence on the Philly Sound. It came out on Philadelphia International Records, produced and co-written (with two others) by label heads Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.

In Cusp, the song follows the Fatback Band's "Do the Bus Stop" on the dance floor at the Sting, where Karen and Mark are struggling to learn the eponymous line dance:

"Everybody does it all in a row, like male Rockettes (plus one female). The steps are basic, even for a distracted klutz like me, and before long Craig is leading the entire dance floor—dozens of men in open-necked shirts and gold chains, plus a few like Mark in suit jackets. I feel like I’m in a movie, but not a good one."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cusp Song of the Day: (Are You Ready) Do The Bus Stop

Just as "The Twist" was both a song and a dance craze, multiple disco songs were tied to specific dances: the Hustle and its many iterations, and a series of line dances including the Bus Stop and the Electric Slide. The Fatback Band's "(Are You Ready) Do The Bus Stop" didn't make the Top 40 when it was released in 1975, but it's credited with updating line dancing for the disco era. In fact, the band's "Spanish Hustle" appears on the B side of a special disco release of the "Bus Stop."

In Cusp, Craig teaches the Bus Stop to Mark and Karen. "On the dance floor, it’s way too loud for real conversation, so I just give in and try to get my thoughts together while Craig teaches us the step. He yells over the music that the Hustle is passé and the Bus Stop is the hot new thing. I place my purse on the floor where I can keep an eye on it and try to focus."

Fun fact: Besides disco line dances, The Fatback Band is also credited with the first hip hop single release, "Kim Tim III," which came out about six months before "Rapper's Delight," the Sugarhill Gang song credited with launching the rap/hip hop genre.

Curious about the Bus Stop's steps? Well, they're pretty basic. You can get an idea here.