11 Surprising 1970s Radio Hits (Part 5)

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The author’s transistor radio was always tuned to New York’s 77WABC

As we noted in the previous editions of 11 surprising radio hits of the 1970s, when rock music was still being embraced by Top 40 radio, it was commonplace to hear artists from multiple genres being played side-by-side on the AM dial.

But it wasn’t the broad range of music that inspired this series. It was the sheer collection of unusual topics that, somehow not only found their way onto radio station playlists, but actually thrived.

Part 5 of our series offers another 11 songs from the 1970s that surprisingly became radio hits. Many will, no doubt, leave you shaking your head, wondering, “What were the program directors thinking?” Note: all chart numbers are for the U.S.

11) “Basketball Jones featuring Tyrone Shoelaces” by Cheech y Chong

Before they became film stars, the comedy duo was known for its standup career and hit recordings. Their third release, 1973’s Los Cochinos, reached #2 on the sales chart and won them a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording. The song, with Cheech in falsetto, featured an astonishing collection of stars including George Harrison, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, Carole King, Ronnie Spector… the list goes on and on. This parody of another 1973 hit, “Love Jones,” reached #15.

10) “Spiders & Snakes” by Jim Stafford

The comedian, musician and songwriter earned an amazing four hits from his debut album, in which he talks and strums through a series of lowbrow tunes. Top 40 programmers took this one all the way to #3 in 1974.

9) “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone

The surprising thing about this vapid single from the then-20-year-old isn’t that it reached #1 in 1977. It’s that it stayed at the top of the Billboard chart for a record-setting 10 weeks, becoming the biggest hit of the decade. Enough was enough and after her two follow-ups performed only modestly well on Top 40, she was D-U-N done, on pop radio.

Related: Boone’s single is one of the worst #1 hits of all time

8) “No No Song” by Ringo Starr

It’s easy to forget but Ringo was as bankable a star on Top 40 radio in the early part of the decade as there was, with eight consecutive Top 10 singles. This one from 1975, co-written by Hoyt Axton, describes attempts to sell cocaine and marijuana. A far cry from his twin #1 hits from a few years earlier, “Photograph” and “It Don’t Come Easy.”

This ad for Como’s single appeared in the Nov. 28, 1970 issue of Record World

7) “It’s Impossible” by Perry Como and “(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story” by Andy Williams

These two legendary crooners had so many hits between them that we could devote full-length features to their accomplishments. Though we’re not going to do that, we’ll note the following. At #10, Como’s hit was his biggest since 1958.

As RCA Records’ trade ad noted, “An awful lot of people out there still want to buy beautiful love ballads done the way Perry’s been selling ’em for years.”

As it was peaking on the chart in January 1971, the single was alongside hits from George Harrison, Santana and Van Morrison.

Just three months’ later, Williams scored a #9 single, his highest-charting hit since 1963. His vocal of “Love Story” was side-by-side with classics from Three Dog Night, Marvin Gaye and Janis Joplin.

6) “Hot Pants” by James Brown

At some point, we’ll do a story on some of the Godfather of Soul’s highly imaginative song titles. The full name of this one from 1971 is “Hot Pants (She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants).” I remember that that same year my classmate Elaine got sent home from school for exposing a little too much leg thanks to the hot pants she was wearing. Good gawd! Brown earned a #1 R&B and #15 pop hit, which is best enjoyed by listening to the full-length version.

5) “Dead Skunk” by Loudon Wainwright III

The singer-songwriter and actor was not a singles artist but he did score a surprising #16 hit with this novelty song and audience favorite in 1973.

4) “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by Bette Midler

Many of us were introduced to the Divine Miss M from her 1972 debut studio album of that name. The then-26-year-old future diva and her team of producers, which included Barry Manilow, selected this lively Andrews Sisters favorite from World War II. In 1973, its unlikely #8 pop success helped make her a star.

3) “Love to Love You Baby” by Donna Summer

She had received only modest success in Europe while working with the production and songwriting team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Their demo of this song found its way to Casablanca Records, which signed her based on its club appeal. Even the significantly edited single, at 4:57, features the singer in the throes of sexual ecstasy. Word has it that when listened to at home, no one has ever finished the nearly 17-minute extended version.

2) “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones

No doubt this 1971 #1 smash is one of the Stones’ finest tracks. Yet even Mick Jagger has acknowledged that its lyrics may have gone too far. “All the nasty subjects in one go. I never would write that song now,” he’s quoted as saying. Still, Top 40 programmers embraced its infectious rhythm and took it to #1.

1) “The Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead

The biggest surprise of this survey is this 1974 rocking cover of “The Lord’s Prayer,” just the second Top 10 single in the history of the Hot 100 performed by an active nun. (The first was by the performer known as “the Singing Nun,” who had a #1 hit in 1963 with “Dominique.”)

Yes, miracles do come in unusual ways.

Part 1 of our series, with songs by the Kinks, Randy Newman and George Harrison, is here; Part 2, featuring “One Toke Over the Line” and “My Ding-a-Ling” is here; Part 3, which includes a song sung in Spanish, one by a real life porn star, and the unique “Mr. Jaws,” is here; and Part 4, including “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk and “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry, is here.

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Greg Brodsky
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