Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)

8:13 AM, Nov 18, 2010   |    comments
  • Rock and roll t-shirt
  • Sign of the times in Ohio. Photo by Jeff Phillips.
  • Leon Russell at Parade Stadium. Photo by Aethan Hart
  • Wollensack 1980T.
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I'd search through the static till I found a beat
The Beatles and Creedence, the Stones and the Byrds
You should have seen all the groups that I heard.

This Hartbeat was inspired by a t-shirt. My friend, Jeff Phillips, brought it to me from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. The graphic is pretty simple--an image of an AM car radio dial.

This graphic started the Hartbeat locomotive wheels grinding and also reminded me of a conversation I had earlier that day with two fellow journalists, one of whom was wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. We were discussing the impact on us of Jimi's music and music in general. After some time recalling musical landmarks in our own histories, the non-t-shirted journalist commented that we were too fixated on dinosaur music and should journey into this musical century. He pulled out his phone and said he gets music of his choice streamed to his personal device and played us parts of recent songs. Hearing that music didn't have the same magic as driving around as a youth listening to tunes on a car radio or clutching a transistor radio to your ear hearing British invasion songs when your parents thought you were asleep.

Let me free my dinosaur hands from the tar pits and take you down the road of AM radio, best heard riding along in my automobile.

You need coolin', baby I'm not fooling

There was no need for cooling in the Northland that evening. The snow banks were taller than I was as I left the house on a love, minus zero-no limit night in the winter of 1970. The wind off of Lake Superior had turned the seats of my family's 1967 Pontiac Catalina to hardened cement. I started the car (thankfully the engine turned over), turned on the AM radio and got out to unplug the car's head bolt heater. When I got back inside, the opening riff to Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love was churning out from the small speaker in the dash. I turned up it until it rattled. I knew then that this was an important song from a group that I had heard about but never had the chance to explore. In a surprise move, the AM station played the "long" version with all of the strange sounds made by the lads with electronic instruments. And I heard it all on my radio.

They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad

The second song that sparks my radio memory batteries emitted from that blue metal grill covering the speaker of that same radio. It was another cold Duluth winter night (are there any other types of Duluth nights?) a year later. As I drove past a church at the corner of St. Marie Street and Carver Ave., I heard a powerful roar of keyboard-based blues. A church was significant because the song, Lee Michael's; Stormy Monday Blues, involved the swells of a powerful Hammond B3 organ. That instrument was most often heard in a church or on recordings by Booker T and the MGs. I drove through the crisp night, the car heater spewing hot air and the speaker rattling with the low notes. I didn't realize that I was driving by the college where I would later graduate along with my wife, son and daughter-in-law (at different times!). The windows of the University of Minnesota Duluth were dark as I cruised by, hanging on to the steering wheel while the roar of a mighty B3 organ fueled by a spinning Leslie speaker reverberated inside the cocoon of my blue General Motors product.

Late at night, the young music lovers in the Big Baghdad by the Lake turned to clear channel KAAY radio direct from Little Rock, Arkansas. 50,000 watts of clear channel power heading to the cold air of the Northland made for cool listening to songs not heard on our local radio station, WEBC, The Big 56. The program, Beaker Street, featured all sorts of "underground" music by people you had never heard of before and sometimes never heard of after that one song. I still recall the dial position: 1090.

The sunshine came softly through my a window today

In the summer of 1966 I discovered that I could hook up our family Rheem Califphone AM/FM radio to our Wollensack T1980 reel to reel tape recorder. I spent hours recording the AM radio station in Duluth, WEBC and the miracle of Top 40 radio. I thought that it was really cool to have the songs I liked on reel to reel tape that I could listen to at any time. I even figured out how to pause the recorder and start when the song began and mostly eliminate the disc jockey and the commercials. I also discovered that I liked the recording process more than actually playing back the songs and listening to them. Sunny, Summer in the City, Red Rubber Ball, Paint it Black, Paperback Writer, Hanky Panky and I Am a Rock were all preserved on 3M magnetic tape. I listened to the radio and recorded the hits. I did not play back the tape too often, but it was fun, which was really what Top 40 radio was all about anyway. And, I watched it all on my radio.

The Hartbeat goes on...

The Musical Notes

Like many songs first heard on AM Top Forty I didn't really like the 1974 effort by a group of studio musicians named Reunion. However, Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me), as with many compositions of the genre, does grow on you after hearing it repeatedly. Life is a Rock reached #8 on the Billboard charts despite being somewhat longer in length than others on the playlists of the early 70's.

The lead singer, Joey Levine, is known for his producing work on the bubblegum hit Chewy Chewy and performing as the lead singer on Yummy Yummy Yummy. Levine founded Crushing Enterprises in 1969 (now Crushing Music) and his commercial jingle contributions to popular culture include: "Pepsi - The Joy Of Cola", "Gentlemen Prefer Hanes", "Just For the Taste of It - Diet Coke", "Come See the Softer Side of Sears", "Heartbeat of America - Chevy", "Dr Pepper - You Make the World Taste Better", "You Asked For It, You Got It, Toyota," and "This Bud's For You" for Anheuser-Busch. Most recently he wrote the current Budweiser anthem, "This Is Budweiser, This Is Beer." As with many songs from Top Forty radio, repetitive airplay does make the Hart grow fonder and I will admit that, 36 years later, I like Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me).

There are carloads of songs about the radio, but Lionel Cartwright's I Watched it All (On My Radio) hit the note for me. The first single from the 1990 album of the same name reached number eight on the Billboard Country charts. The song was written by Lionel Cartwright and Don Schlitz. Try a Google search on Don Schlitz and check out all of the great songs he penned.

Led Zeppelin owed bluesman Willie Dixon for Whole Lotta Love and they eventually settled out of court with the legend to give him his proper credit and some money. Leave it to the English lads to discover the blues and send it to my car radio. Recently, I listened to Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman) the B recently on my iPhone-the B side of the single that long ago winter night. That song still rocks.

When I first heard Lee Michaels, I assumed he was from England. In reality, he was born in Los Angeles, later moved to San Francisco and was signed to A&M Records based partly on playing in groups containing future members of Moby Grape, the Turtles and Canned Heat. His albums received play on "underground" radio stations and in 1971 had a surprise AM hit with Do You Know What I Mean. The 1969 album that contained Stormy Monday was recorded live in the studio with Michaels on organ/bass pedals and his drummer Frosty (fits in with a cold winter night).

Sunshine Superman was released in July of 1966 and reached the top of the American charts. Due to a contract dispute, the song was not released in England until December of that year. Sunshine Superman was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles enjoyed commercial recording success as well.

What's cooking on the Hartbeat Grill?

The rooms of Hartbeat World Headquarters are filled with the sounds of The Union, Elton John's and Leon Russell's collaboration album. It has good original songs, outstanding guest musicians and the piano playing by Leon is superb. Elton John has idolized Russell for decades and saw this album as a way to pay tribute to this outstanding musician. Leon Russell holds a special place in Hartbeat history because it was by attending his concerts that Hartbeat Co-Curator Vivian Hart and I met and formed a life-long partnership.

Switching to the popular Hartbeat topic of misheard song lyrics, while listening to Dwight Yoakam's A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, Vivian and I both thought we heard Dwight sing, "I've got pickles in my head." We have both heard this song a thousand times (well at least a hundred times) and never heard this lyric. Using a clever iPhone app, Music ID, we obtained the lyrics instantly and the real words are "I got echoes in my head."

The Photo Notes

The t-shirt from the shrine to rock in Cleveland was scanned on a flatbed scanner.

The photo of Leon Russell was taken at a concert at Parade Stadium in Minneapolis in the early 70's using a Canon FT with a 100-200mm lens on Tri-X film rated at ASA 1600.

The picture of the historic marker which relates to radios and rock was taken by KARE11 colleague Jeff Phillips with a digital camera.

The image of a Wollensack 1980T is from a posting on eBay.






(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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