Sunday, March 27, 2011

The origins of Top 40 radio

(Ed. note: This is Richard's second cross-post here from his blog Music Across the 49th. You can find his first, on Ronnie Spector, here. As I mentioned in my intro to that post, we're hoping to diversify a bit, with more posts on "culture," without losing our political focus. So I hope you'll find even more to like here, including more from Richard. -- MJWS)

I picked up a book a couple of weeks ago called Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-2007. It's by celebrated music journalist James Miller. It's really a collection of essays on topics that Mr. Miller finds relevant to the history of the genre. Good read.

There was one essay in particular I found fascinating. It was about how in 1951 a couple of radio station promotion guys got the idea for the Top 40 format that I grew up with. Apparently up until then it was common for radio stations to play whatever the disc jockey of the moment felt like spinning. But in Omaha, Nebraska, two guys by the name of Todd Storz and Bill Stewart figured out that people mostly want to listen to their favourite songs over and over again.

They tell the story of going into a local bar, having the jukebox blast out the same songs repeatedly, and then watching as the waitress, who had been working all night and listening to these songs, walked over to the jukebox as she cleaned up and selected the exact same songs to hear once again.

On the strength of that research, they designed a format, based on things like record and sheet music sales, that launched the standard for radio airplay for the next 15 or 20 years. It's what I grew up listening to on stations such as WABC in New York City with DJs like Cousin Brucie.

Makes perfect sense, though. When I load up my iPod, do I put a lot of new music on it? No, mostly just tunes I'm familiar with and already like.

Anyway, I though that was interesting. I then thought I would do a little online research to see what the #1 song was on my birthday (June 17, 1958) and came up with "The Purple People Eater" by someone called Sheb Wooley. Well, my plan was to find a YouTube video of the song that was number one on that day, but I don't care about that song. I'm afraid I don't care to be that closely associated with what they call in the biz a "novelty song."

The song that was #1 just before it was "All I Have to Do is Dream" by the Everly Brothers, which I like very much. Beautiful tune.

If you insist on seeing a clip of the Sheb Wooley thing, it can be found here. I prefer to associate myself with the dulcet harmonies of Don and Phil Everly, which you can see and hear below. It's a classic version.

You can also click on the Billboard website here to see what gem was offered up on the day you entered the world.


(Cross-posted at Music Across the 49th.)


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