Long ago and far away: Fifty years ago. July 4th weekend 1970. The first words and opening sentences spoken by radio host Casey Kasem with the maiden voyage of American Top 40:
“Here we go with the top 40 hits of the nation this week on American Top 40, the best-selling and most played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we’ll count down the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week, hot off the record charts of Billboard magazine for the week ending July 11, 1970.
In this hour at number 32 in the countdown, a song that’s been a hit 4 different time in 19 years! And just about one tune away from the singer with the $10,000 gold hubcaps on his car! Now, on with the countdown!”
With those words by Casey Kasem, the first American Top 40 countdown was launched and underway on Independence Day weekend 1970. Since July 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the American Top 40 debut, I am going to be looking back on the first broadcast and reminiscing on the music that Kasem played during his commencing show.
American Top 40 (commonly abbreviated to AT40) was started in 1970 and is a syndicated music countdown radio program. According to Pete Battistini, author of the book, “American Top 40 with Casey Kasem (The 1970’s),” Don Bustany, Tom Rounds, Ron Jacobs and Casey Kasem were the individuals who helped create the AT40 show.
If you are a fan with the early years of AT40, I would highly recommend Pete Battistini’s book. His highlights, information and insights about Casey Kasem and American Top 40 during the 1970’s is excellent. As Battistini points out in his book, the original AT40 show aired on only 7 radio stations during the 4th of July weekend in 1970. WMEX Boston was among that first group of 7 stations that ran the debut broadcast. Upon the one year anniversary of AT40, 115 stations were carrying the weekly countdown.
One other radio station that aired the AT40 debut show was WPGC Washington. According to the tribute site WPGC amandfmmorningside.com, “WPGC and WMEX became the first two stations to agree to run the program. By the time of the show’s debut, both stations were among the original 7 affiliates to air it. On WPGC, this occurred on Sunday, July 5, 1970 from 9a-12 noon.”
Below is an audio clip of the original AT40 show that was provided to me by Lee Chambers of the WPGC Washington tribute site. Here is a quote from Chambers about this audio clip:
“WPGC’s ‘Captain Good Guy’ would like to direct your attention to the 50th anniversary of the first American Top 40 show as it would have sounded on WPGC, one of the original 7 stations to carry the program on Sunday, July 5th, 1970 from 9a-12p (EDT), re-created with vintage commercials, promos, jingles, Sound Offs and custom Casey WPGC elements which is available as of right now for your listening pleasure, completely intact and unscoped here.”
Before the advent of AT40, many “top 40 radio stations” published playlists of their biggest hits and had countdown shows featuring the top songs each week. Major market stations such as WABC New York, WLS Chicago and KHJ Los Angeles all published weekly playlists of their top hits. Surveys from all three of those radio stations can still be viewed on the Internet here in 2020.
On the WLS Chicago Hit Parade photo posted above, I am a huge fan of number 40, “Up Around the Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty’s song had peaked at number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 during June 1970 but had fallen off the national chart by the time the first AT40 broadcast happened.
The other Top 40 station in Chicago during the summer of 1970 was WCFL. Below is a photo of the WCFL Big 10 Countdown for July 6, 1970.
My interest listening to countdown shows started during the late 60’s, when I discovered rock music on Top 40 WROV 1240 AM Roanoke, Virginia. Every Sunday afternoon, I would hear legendary WROV DJ’s like Jack Fisher, Fred Frelantz and Bart Prater countdown the Top 40 hits on my transistor radio. My love for music countdowns flourished during this time period.
Also during my early teen years, I would walk to the local Sears record department every week to pick up a copy of the WROV Musicard survey. Once back home, I would compare my favorite records, verify their new chart positions and pretend I was a DJ “counting down the hits.”
First knowledge for me of AT40 came during June 1971 when Top 40 WBLU 1480 AM Salem, Virginia starting broadcasting the syndicated show that month. I fondly remember sitting in the backyard of my Grandmother’s house, listening to my transistor radio and hearing Casey Kasem proclaim that “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones was the number 1 song in America for that week.
A couple of years later in 1973, WBLU dropped AT40 and the program was picked up by WFIR 960 Roanoke. AT40 remained a fixture on WFIR throughout the 70’s. During the 80’s, AT40 was aired on WROV AM 1240. Below is an audio clip of Casey Kasem promoting AT40 on WROV. The file was provided to me courtesy of DJ Steve Nelson.
In 1970, Billboard Magazine had competition from two other national publications with weekly music charts: Cash Box and Record World. As a comparison to the 40 songs Billboard used on the first AT40 broadcast, below is a photo for the Record World “100 Top Pops” chart from July 11, 1970, which was provided to me by Pete Battistini.
As Battistini pointed out to me when he submitted his photo, Billboard and Record World both have the same records at positions 1 and 40: “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” by Three Dog Night is at the top of the charts while Marvin Gaye’s, “The End Of the Road” holds down number 40 on each survey.
Before I share the 40 songs that aired on the first AT40 show, here are some observations:
- Two different songs with the word “Mississippi.”
- Crosby Stills Nash & Young have two separate singles in the Top 40.
- The Beatles and Elvis Presley, the top two artists from the 50’s and 60’s both have songs in the Top 10.
- Marvin Gaye’s song, “The End of the Road” at number 40 is not at the “end” but is actually at the start of the show: The first song ever played on AT40.
What were the top 40 songs on the first AT40 show that aired on the July 4th weekend 1970?
Here are the songs the Kasem counted down, plus 4 additional oldies:
40 Marvin Gaye – The End Of Our Road
39 Mark Lindsay – Silver Bird
38 Eric Burdon and War – Spill The Wine
37 Crabby Appleton – Go Back
36 B.J. Thomas – I Just Can’t Help Believing
35 Aretha Franklin – Spirit In The Dark
34 John Phillips – Mississippi
33 The Flaming Ember – Westbound #9
32 The Four Tops – It’s All In The Game
31 The 5th Dimension – Save The Country
30 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – Ohio
29 Ray Stevens – Everything Is Beautiful
28 The Impressions – Check Out Your Mind!
27 The Moody Blues – Question
26 Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours
25 Wilson Pickett– Sugar, Sugar
24 Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – Teach Your Children
23 The Poppy Family – Which Way You Goin’ Billy?
Oldie: Bill Cosby – Little Ole Man
22 The Moments – Love On A Two-Way Street
21 Mountain – Mississippi Queen
20 Bread – Make It With You
19 Pacific Gas and Electric – Are You Ready?
18 Charles Wright and The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band – Love Land
17 Alive ‘N Kickin’ – Tighter, Tighter
16 White Plains – My Baby Loves Lovin’
15 Miguel Rios – A Song Of Joy
Oldie: Louis Armstrong – Hello, Dolly!
14 Brotherhood Of Man – United We Stand
13 Rare Earth – Get Ready
12 The Five Stairsteps – O-o-h Child
11 The Pipkins – Gimme Dat Ding
10 Vanity Fair – Hitchin’ A Ride
Oldie: Blood, Sweat, and Tears – Spinning Wheel
09 Elvis Presley – The Wonder Of You
08 The Beatles – The Long And Winding Road
07 The Carpenters – (They Long To Be) Close To You
06 Melanie- Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)
05 Freda Payne – Band Of Gold
04 Blues Image – Ride Captain Ride
03 The Temptations – Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)
02 The Jackson 5 – The Love You Save
Oldie: The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
01 Three Dog Night – Mama Told Me (Not To Come) ** 1 week @ no. 1 **
I have compiled my own listing of favorite songs from the first AT40 show. Just like Casey Kasem, I am going to countdown my favorite songs: From number 20 down to the number 1.
My go to reference for highest peaking chart positions with my Top 20 songs is, “The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits” by Joel Whitburn. I consider Whitburn’s book to be the “bible” of Top 40 music reference and still proudly own a hard copy of this excellent book.
Staring off my countdown are numbers 20 through 14. I consider all of these songs between good and great, just below excellent. On a scale of 10, these songs are somewhere around 8.
Now on with the countdown:
- Which Way You Going Billy—Poppy Family Featuring Susan Jacks
Peaked at #2: 26th biggest song of 1970
Poppy Family was a wife/husband Canadian duo of Susan and Terry Jacks. “Which Way You Going Billy” was their biggest American hit. The couple divorced in 1973, the same year that Terry Jacks recorded the insipid, bubble gum death pop tune, “Seasons in the Sun.”
- Are You Ready—Pacific Gas and Light
Peaked at #14: 93rd biggest song of 1970
Los Angeles California based Pacific Gas and Light band is a “one hit wonder” with their song “Are You Ready.” This was just one of many songs that became hits during 1970, which featured Christian based themes and painted a positive message to a troubled world.
- Hitchin’ a Ride—Vanity Fare
Peaked at #5: 14th biggest song of 1970
The English pop rock band Vanity Fare had their only two Top 40 hits chart during 1970: “Early in the Morning” and “Hitchin’ a Ride.” The song featuring an electric guitar, two recorders and a base guitar, is light and breezy, a pleasant up-tempo tune. One of the catchiest records of 50 years ago.
- Teach Your Children—Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Peaked at #16. 1st of two CSN&Y songs on countdown
The supergroup Crosby Stills Nash & Young had two songs on the first AT40 countdown. “Teach Your Children” was written by Graham Nash and featured Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel guitar. The summer of 1970 was good for CSN&Y.
- Get Ready—Rare Earth
Peaked at #4: 8th biggest song of 1970
Motown’s rock band Rare Earth covered the Temptations song “Get Ready” and the song quickly established this “blue eyed soul” group as a force within the music industry. The hard driving, up tempo groove was the debut single for the Rare Earth record label.
- Go Back—Crabby Appleton
Peaked at #36. A one hit wonder
Crabby Appleton were a rock band from Los Angeles, California, and was named after the cartoon character Tom Terrific. “Go Back” is a true “one hit wonder” and I consider this song to be the most underrated tune in my AT40 countdown.
- Question—The Moody Blues
Peaked at #21 Song reached #2 in the United Kingdom
English band the Moody Blues scored their third top 40 hit in America with the song, “Question.” This anti-war protest song seemed to resonate with listeners during the turbulent days of the Vietnam conflict and is still one of the most popular songs for the band 50 years later.
- Baker’s Dozen: My top 13 selections. I consider these songs as being the “cream of the crop” and all fit into the following categories: I deem the Baker’s Dozen to be culturally, historically, aesthetically significant, meaningful, relevant and absolute all time favorite songs for me.
- (They Long To Be) Close to You—The Carpenters
Peaked at #1 2nd biggest song of 1970
Siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter had their first breakthrough hit with “(They Long To Be) Close to You.” The Burt Bacharach and Hal David song spent 4 weeks at number 1 and won a Grammy Award in 1971. The duos’ mega hit is a signature song by the Carpenters.
- Band of Gold—Freda Payne
Peaked at #3. 10th biggest song of 1970
With backing from the legendary Motown band, the Funk Brothers, Freda Payne hit pay dirt with her catchy, hooked-laden song, “Band of Gold.” Payne’s smash record was popular on both Top 40 and Soul radio stations, and was the biggest hit during her career.
- O-o-h Child—The Five Stairsteps
Peaked at #8. 21st biggest song of 1970
A family group from Chicago, Illinois, the Five Stairsteps had their only Top 40 hit with “O-o-h Child.” The lyrics are positive suggesting the “things are going to get easier” during times of trouble. The smooth sound and the message of this “one hit wonder” is still relevant for us here in 2020.
- Lay Down (Candles In the Rain)—Melanie and the Edwin Hawkins Singers
Peaked at #6. 23rd biggest song of 1970
Having played at Woodstock during August 1969, Melanie Safka wrote the song, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” after performing at the “peace and love music festival” in New York state. Melanie is joined by the Edwin Hawkins Singers and their collaboration gives this song a wonderful, gospel type feeling.
- Make It With You—Bread
Peaked at #1. 13th biggest song of 1970
Lead singer David Gates of Bread wrote the song, “Make It With You” and the song was the first of many top 40 hits by the soft rock California band. The relaxing, smooth guitar and piano on this number 1 hit, paved the way for future bands to incorporate these sounds, into what is now known as “Yacht Rock.”
- Ohio—Crosby Stills Nash & Young
Peaked at #14. 2nd of two CSN&Y songs on the countdown
Just after Ohio National Guardsmen killed four Kent State University students on May 4th, 1970, Neil Young wrote the words to his legendary protest song. The hard driving rock sounds of “Ohio” gave CSN&Y simultaneous hits on the very first AT40 show 50 years ago.
- Mississippi Queen—Mountain
Peaked at #21. 78th biggest song of 1970
During the summer of ‘69, the hard rock band Mountain played at Woodstock. The following year, the band released “Mississippi Queen” and the song became their only hit. The song opens up with signature cowbell percussion, a powerful guitar riff and strong vocals by Leslie West. The song remains a staple on classic rock radio stations here in the 21st Century.
- Tighter Tighter—Alive N Kickin’
Peaked at #7 47th biggest song of 1970
Another excellent “one hit wonder” during the summer of 1970 was “Tighter Tighter” by Alive N Kickin’. One of the writers of the song was Tommy James and the leader of the Shondells actually produced the recording of the hit. Perfect harmonies and awesome saxophone playing kept the song on the Billboard Hot 100 for 16 weeks.
- The Long and Winding Road—The Beatles
Peaked at #1. 41st biggest song of 1970
It has always been ironic to me that the last number 1 song for the Beatles was “The Long and Winding Road.” After producer Phil Spector added orchestral and choral overdubs to this song, McCartney announced the official end of the Fab Four during April 1970. It was sad to realize that “the Beatles’ long and winding road” ended with their last chart-topping song.
- Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours—Stevie Wonder
Peaked at #3. 31st biggest song of 1970
Little Stevie Wonder had his first number 1 hit at age 13 in 1963. Seven years later, he was a co-writer, singer and producer for his own song, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Wonder received a Grammy nomination for this Soul music smash and arguably is among the best singles ever recorded by the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
- Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today)—The Temptations
Peaked at #3. 24th biggest song of 1970
Summer of 1970 was a troublesome time in America. The Temptations socially conscious song “Ball of Confusion” accurately captured the pulse of turmoil that prevailed in our country. The message was relevant 50 years ago. Unfortunately, the issues of this song still hold true: 50 years later. “Ball of confusion, that’s what the world is today.” “And the band played on.”
- Ride Captain Ride—Blues Image
Peaked at #4. 32nd biggest song of 1970
Blues Image is my favorite “one hit wonder” with the AT40 songs on the countdown. “Ride Captain Ride” has soaring guitar riffs, sharp piano playing and a smooth jazz sound. With lyrics like, “73 men sailed up from the San Francisco Bay” and a catchy, up tempo groove, this tune is now considered Yacht Rock, a term that was not contemporaneously used during 1970.
- Mama Told Me (Not To Come)—Three Dog Night
Peaked at #1. 11th biggest song of 1970
Randy Newman wrote the lyrics to “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” in 1966 and Three Dog Night’s cover of this tune is my top selection on this countdown. Ironically, it was also the number 1 song on the premiere AT40 broadcast, 50 years ago. Musically, the song features excellent instrumentation, vocal harmonies and distinct lead vocals by Cory Wells. “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” was the first number 1 song for Three Dog Night and is absolutely my favorite song from the first AT40 broadcast during the first weekend of July 1970.
Now that I have submitted my favorite song listing of the 40 songs Casey Kasey played on the first AT40 show, I am curious to find out your thoughts on the biggest hits in America from July 1970.
Obviously, I do not want to come across as authoritative with the critique of my favorite songs from 50 years ago. Your top songs maybe be completely different than my selections. There are no right or wrong answers, just various opinions with the 40 biggest songs listed by Billboard and counted down by Kasem on the debut AT40 program.
I am asking for your opinion: What songs do you feel are the best, greatest or most significant of the 40 songs from the first AT40 broadcast. I await your replies.
I leave you with the words that Casey Kasem spoke at the close of every AT40 show:
“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”
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