1972 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
The Red/Blue political divide arrives and the tension manifests in Glam Rock, nostalgia and escapism. Black artists rule the top ten in the lead-up to Wattstax.
Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we do a deep dive into a year in Pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our recap of the weekly Pop charts published at the time in the music industry’s top trade publication, Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush, we’re turning the clock back to 1972, by all appearances, the year the ’60s counterculture took over. Fashion, advertising: loud, aggressive modernism in everything from clothing to interior design, men with longish hair, sideburns, wide ties, striped pants and shirt collars out to here, women in crazy sunglasses and day-glo prints. Even the baseball cards in 1972 had a colorful, mod design. Glam, the headline-grabbing trend in music: T-Rex, Gary Glitter, Elton John and David Bowie as his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust with their outrageous costumes.
And ’72 was a banner year for the Feminist Movement. Title IX; Ms. Magazine; tennis star Billie Jean King; Norman Lear’s All in the Family spinoff Maude premiering on CBS; Loretta Lynn, Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards (the first woman). And the Supreme Court was hearing the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case in the Fall, right as Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman, Hear me Roar” was all over radio.
According to Forbes, there were as many as three-thousand communes in America in the early ’70s: Hippies “going up the country,” starting their own communities. But radical self-discovery, not just for Hippies. Heinz Kohut’s groundbreaking revision of Freud, The Analysis of the Self, was on nightstands across the country, and for the spiritually-oriented, yoga, transcendental meditation, and the Jesus Movement. “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison’s ode to Krishna: #1 for four weeks in 1971 and Jesus Christ Superstar, a #1 album and then a Tony-nominated hit on Broadway.
Drug use, of course, part of the self-discovery trend, tripling between ’69 and ’73. In 1966, Stewart Brand had had an LSD vision of a photo of Earth from space sparking a mass Ecology Movement, and once those photos existed (culminating with Apollo 17’s “Blue Marble” photo taken in 1972), Brand used them on the cover of his Whole Earth Catalog, which won a National Book Award in ’72, and no commune was without a copy.
So with all that, there was every reason to believe in ’72 that a cultural revolution had taken place in America, but on Election Night, President Nixon, feared and loathed by the counterculture (to borrow gonzo Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson’s phrase) coasted to a 49-state landslide with 60% of the popular vote against the first candidate with the full-throated support of the counterculture, antiwar Democrat Senator George McGovern. And New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously wondered how?!, since there was only one Nixon voter in her entire social circle.
No one was talking blue states and red states yet in 1972 of course, but the tension and distance between a so-called “silent majority” of ordinary Americans who didn’t work at (or read) The New Yorker, and an urban, insular, self-styled countercultural vanguard who did defined American society and politics for decades. But the Hot100 is all about charting popularity across all demographics and styles, so it takes a consensus to propel a song into the top ten on the year, and that’s especially interesting in years when dramatic divisions were forming and playing out, like they were in 1972.
#10 America – Horse with No Name
Now with that, at #10 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1972 is a Folk-Rock trio’s first hit, which Hippies thought was by another Folk-Rock Singer-Songwriter whose record it replaced at #1. But most folks just liked it for its catchy, pleasant, peaceful vibe and escapist lyrics: same song, popular for different reasons, and escapism, a telltale symptom of tense, troubled times. What could be more escapist than wandering through the desert on “A Horse with No Name.” Here’s America.
So Canadian Singer-Songwriter Neil Young’s fourth solo album Harvest had just hit the album chart in March, and its lead single “Heart of Gold” topped the Hot100 the following week. And then the week after that, America’s “Horse with No Name” replaced “Heart of Gold” at #1 and kept it at #2 for all three of the weeks it was on top. But everyone thought on first listen that “Horse with No Name” was Neil Young, even Neil’s dad! Well, America, who were a trio of sons of Air Force guys stationed in England, never quite lived that down despite scoring many more top tens over the next decade.
“Horse with No Name,” #10 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1972, but only #26 on Billboard’s official published year-end Hot100, because someone forgot to add the 300 bonus points it should’ve gotten for its three weeks at #1—maybe a disgruntled Neil Young fan! Despite hitting #1 for a week, “Heart of Gold” misses our Chartcrush Top Ten we’re counting down this hour at #18, but Harvest was the #1 album of the year.
#9 Billy Paul – Me and Mrs. Jones
So Soul music was in the midst of a renaissance in 1972. There was Motown, of course, but for the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, rival Stax Records organized a one-day benefit called Wattstax that drew 100,000 to see Stax artists like Isaac Hays and The Staple Singers, both of whom had just scored #1 hits.
Stax seemed well-positioned for the ’70s, but a distribution deal with Columbia in ’72 was a disaster, and our #9 song was the first #1 for a different Columbia-backed Black label that got all the attention: Philadelphia International, who were just about to unleash Disco. Written by the label’s founders and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff along with lyricist Cary Gilbert, it’s about an extramarital affair from the point of view of one of the participants, months before Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” topped the charts and announced the Sexual Revolution. It’s Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.”
The average age of artists scoring #1 hits spiked from 26 to 31 in 1972, and Billy Paul had a lot to do with that. He’d been at it since his first singles for an indie R&B label in 1952, but our #7 song, “Me and Mrs. Jones” was his first entry on any Billboard chart. He was 38.
#8 Joe Tex – I Gotcha
Now timing, of course, is everything in Pop music, and in the months leading up to Wattstax, records by Black artists dominated with five or more of the top ten for 14 straight weeks, mid-April straight through to the end of July. The last time anything like that had happened was the Summer of 1961, for nine weeks. “Me and Mrs. Jones” hit in December, so, not a part of that mid-’72 surge, but our #8 song was, by the first Southern Soul singer to score a top ten hit, “Hold What You’ve Got,” January ’65, before Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett or James Brown. But this was his biggest smash, and it was originally a B-side. A station in Detroit started playing it and it broke nationally. #8 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1972, it’s Joe Tex, “I Gotcha.”
Joe Tex, “I Gotcha,” #8 in our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1972: quite a showcase for what critic Dave Marsh described as Tex’s “raspy-voiced, jackleg preacher style,” easy to confuse with James Brown. But Joe Tex and James Brown: bitter rivals since the mid-’50s. When Tex got divorced, Brown hooked up with his ex and they even did a mawkish duet record together to rub it in! Then, when that relationship soured, Brown wrote to Tex saying he could have her back, and Tex replied with a diss track called “You Keep Her.” But even that wasn’t the end of it. Tex got himself on the bill as an opening act at one of Brown’s homecoming concerts in Georgia, and used his set to mock Brown’s whole cape-wearing schtick and ego-fueled antics. Not amused, Brown showed up later at a club where Tex was and shot up the place with a shotgun, injuring seven (Tex not among them) before fleeing in his tour bus. To keep things quiet, Brown’s people handed out $100 bills to the injured, and Brown was never even questioned about it.
#7 Sammy Davis, Jr. – The Candy Man
Well after that I feel like I should be segueing to a song by a mid-’90s rapper. Our act at #7, though, best known for his work in Vegas, and it’s a song from a 1971 movie that was an instant classic when it hit theaters. But the version in the movie sung by the actor wasn’t deemed to be hit single material, so that opened the door for someone to ride the movie’s coattails onto the Pop charts. Enter “Mr. Entertainment,” Sammy Davis, Jr. doing the song from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: “The Candy Man.”
“The Candy Man,” Sammy Davis, Jr.’ s only career #1 (for three weeks in June) and the #7 song of the year here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show for 1972. Now the guy who wrote the lyrics to that song (and the whole rest of the Willy Wonka movie soundtrack): British actor and Pop star Anthony Newley, who thought it could be a hit and begged producers to let him overdub his own vocal for the scene, but the version by actor Aubrey Woods as Bill the Candy Store Owner stayed. Newley did his own version anyway, but it was Sammy Davis, Jr. who scored the hit.
#6 Melanie – Brand New Key
Now earlier I mentioned escapism in Pop as a symptom of troubled times, and Willy Wonka certainly qualifies. But there was also a nostalgia boom underway in ’72. Grease debuted on Broadway. George Lucas’s pre-Star Wars ’50s pastiche American Graffiti was in production (it’s double LP oldies soundtrack went triple platinum). And the pilot of the hit sitcom Happy Days was an episode of ABC’s anthology series, Love, American Style. All that reflecting a widespread feeling in America that something had gone really wrong in the late ’60s, and wouldn’t it be nice to just hit the reset button?
Our singer at #6, not a throwback herself, but she described her song as “a kind of old ’30 tune.” She was a dreamy, introverted, aspiring-actress daughter of ethnic parents in New York who wandered into the wrong office looking for a stage audition. And the cigar-chomping label head inside signed her on the spot, which eventually led to an invitation to play Woodstock. Then the song she wrote about her performance at Woodstock was her first top ten in 1970, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” But over the holidays ’71 into ’72 she scored her biggest hit. It’s Melanie, “Brand New Key.”
Melanie’s “Brand New Key,” #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1972. The song came to her after she broke a month-long water fast (that’s a very Hippie thing to do) with an epic McDonalds pigout (a very Middle America thing to do), that for some reason reminded her of her childhood and her dad teaching her to roller skate.
A “Brand New Key” was what you needed to tighten the over-the-shoe metal skates that kids had in those days, but the title was kind of buried in the lyrics, so people just called it “The Rollerskate Song.” Melanie Safka remained a critics’ darling, but she disappeared from the charts after 1974. Speaking of nostalgia, her last charting record? A cover of The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
#5 Johnny Nash – I Can See Clearly Now
And also speaking of nostalgia, lots of ’50s and early ’60s stars made chart comebacks in the early ’70s and our singer at #5 is technically one of them, having scored his first hits in the ’50s as a Johnny Mathis-style crooner. But when he re-emerged he wasn’t crooning anymore. After hanging out with Reggae legends Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in Jamaica in the mid-60s, his Rocksteady-influenced “Hold Me Tight” became the first proper Reggae hit on the Hot100 in 1968. And then this was #1 for all of November 1972: not an explicitly religious song, but resonated with the aforementioned Jesus movement, and spawned dozens of covers before becoming a window cleaner jingle in the ’80s. It’s Johnny Nash “I Can See Clearly Now.”
“I Can See Clearly Now,” #5 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1972, a Johnny Nash original. For his follow-up he released his cover of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up,” which became the first hit version of a Bob Marley song outside of Jamaica.
#4 Nilsson – Without You
At #4, the first-ever power ballad on the charts, originally by the Welsh rock band Badfinger, who didn’t think it was anything special and never released it as a single. But American singer Harry Nilsson thought it was pretty special when he heard it at a party, and his version topped the Hot100 for four weeks, February into March: Nilsson’s first and only career #1 hit: “Without You.”
“Without You,” #4 as we count down the top ten hits of 1972 here on this week’s Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. Before ’72, Harry Nilsson: best known for writing Three Dog Night’s 1969 hit, “One,” for his version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” from the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy and for never ever ever performing live, which continued, at least for “Without You,” all the way ’til 1992: when his longtime buddy Ringo Starr was at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas with His All-Starr Band, and brought him out to sing it for the first time in front of an audience. Harry Nilsson died of a heart attack just a few months after that. Mariah Carey released her version of “Without You” in tribute, and that was a #3 hit for Mariah in 1994.
#3 Don McLean – American Pie
And speaking of Ringo Starr, in 1968, his band The Beatles—wise guys that they were—made their non-album single “Hey Jude” the maximum possible length that a song could be to fit on one side of a seven-inch vinyl single, which turned out to be seven minutes, 11 seconds. Well, clocking in at over eight and a half minutes, our song at #3 broke that record and remained the longest song to hit #1 in Hot100 history for 50 years, until Taylor Swift’s ten-plus minute version of her song “All Too Well” in 2021. But in the vinyl era, you had to split songs longer that 7:11 into two parts for single releases if you didn’t want to do a single edit. And there were lots of those in the early ’70s, including our song at #3, but listeners complained when Pop radio played just the A-side: Part One, so they played the whole thing and Billboard never specified “Part One” like it did for most songs released like that. So there it was: an eight-and-a-half minute #1 hit: #1 for four weeks, replacing Melanie’s “Brand New Key” in January, and our #3 song. It’s Don McLean’s, “American Pie.”
“American Pie,” the #3 song on our Chartcrush countdown of the top ten hits of 1972. “The day the music died,” of course: February 3, 1959: the plane crash in Iowa that killed rockers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Beyond that though, as the Washington Post’s Justin Moyer put it, the meaning of the song proved elusive even for a generation used to parsing inscrutable Bob Dylan and Beatles lyrics. And for 50 years, McLean swatted away questions about the song’s images and symbols with “It means I don’t ever have to work again.” Indeed! His manuscript and notes fetched $1.2 million at auction in 2015.
#2 Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again (Naturally)
At #2, another artist new to the charts. An Irish singer-songwriter who changed his first name from Ray to Gilbert, but kept his last name to form a clever play on the famous operetta duo Gilbert & Sullivan. And he donned a pudding basin haircut, cloth cap and shorts inspired by 1920s Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin silent films and rode the early ’70s nostalgia bandwagon to chart glory. Here is Gilbert O’Sullivan: “Alone Again (Naturally).”
There is, of course, a long tradition of depressing tragedy songs in Pop, but at first listen, you’d never include 1972’s #2 song we just heard, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s, “Alone Again (Naturally),” on that list, because it sounds more like a shampoo jingle than the suicidal ruminations of a jilted groom. It resurfaced in 1991, sampled on an album cut by Rapper Biz Markie, and a landmark court judgement that year against Markie put an end to the “anything goes” era of Hip-Hop sampling.
#1 Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
And we’re down to #1 in our Chartcrush Top Ten countdown for 1972, by a singer discovered in 1968 playing piano and singing in Mr. Henry’s, a pub-slash-restaurant on Capitol Hill in DC. Well, Atlantic Records stuck with her through four albums even though sales were tepid and there were no hit singles. And it paid off in 1971 when Clint Eastwood used a cut from her first album to score a love scene in his directorial debut, the psychological thriller Play Misty for Me. Atlantic put out a single edit and it shot to #1 for 6 weeks in April and May. It’s Roberta Flack’s big breakthrough: the #1 song of 1972, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
Roberta Flack, 1972’s #1 song and Grammy winner for Record and Song of the Year, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written by Scottish folkie Ewan MacColl in the ’50s for his lover and future wife Peggy Seeger (half-sister of Pete Seeger), when challenged to write a song that wasn’t about his communist politics. But Flack knew it from a version by the Black Gospel duo Joe & Eddie. She slowed it down, switched up the melody and phrasing a little and made it her own. In ’73, she returned to the top of the charts with “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and was a fixture on Pop and R&B radio all the way into the ’80s.
And that’s our Chartcrush Top Ten countdown for 1972. Now over at Billboard, they do their year-end rankings based on a discrete chart year, and for ’72, that was December 4, 1971 to November 18, 1972. Chart activity outside that window? Ignored for their ’72 year-end rankings. Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (which we heard at #9) was so late in ’72 that it got pushed into Billboard’s 1973 chart year (Billboard’s #15 year-end song of 1973); and our #5 song, Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” was #1 the week Billboard’s 1972 chart year ended, so with its chart run split between ’72 and ’73, it only placed #47 on Billboard’s 1972 year-end chart. America’s “Horse with No Name,” I mentioned when we heard it at #10: down at #26 on Billboard‘s year-end chart because they forgot to give it the 100 bonus ranking points it should’ve gotten for each of its three weeks at #1 in the Spring. So that’s three songs that made our Chartcrush Top Ten for 1972 that didn’t make Billboard’s. Which means that three songs made Billboard’s 1972 year-end ranking, but not ours. Well, let’s review.
At #10, Billboard had another star besides Sammy Davis Jr. whose name was gracing marquees in America’s oasis for the over-30 set in the early ’70s, Las Vegas.
That’s Wayne Newton with Billboard’s #10 hit of 1972, “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast.” It’s #25 on our Chartcrush ranking.
At #8, Billboard had the guy who wrote Elvis Presley’s 1969 comeback hit “In the Ghetto,” trying his hand at being a Singer-Songwriter.
Mac Davis’s “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” just misses our Chartcrush top ten for 1972 at #12.
And finally, at #7 Billboard had the first and only career #1 by a Singer-Songwriter who won a Grammy for this song, but in 1987!
Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” was #14 on our Chartcrush ranking for 1972; the second of his three top ten hits in his career. Club Nouveau, nominated for a Best R&B Performance Grammy for their drum machine and synth era update of “Lean on Me” in 1987, for which Bill Withers was also nominated as the songwriter, and won!
And that’s going to have to wrap things up for our 1972 edition of The Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. Thanks for listening! If you like what you heard, check out our website, chartcrush.com, where you’ll find written transcripts links to stream all our Chartcrush countdown shows on Spotify, plus full top 100 charts, chart run line graphs and other funky extras. Every week, we count down a different year from the beginning ofthe charts in the 1940s all the way up to the present, so tune again, same station, same time, for another edition of Chartcrush.