1975 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast

Elton John can do no wrong but big chart acts move in bold directions and Disco dancing emerges as a preferred escape from economic hardship and ’70s “malaise.”

::start transcript::

Welcome to the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show, I’m your host, Christopher Verdesi. Every week on Chartcrush, we dive deep into a year in Pop music and count down the top ten songs according to our exclusive recap of the weekly Pop charts published at the time in the music industry’s top trade publication and chart authority, Billboard magazine. This week on Chartcrush it’s 1975.

Let’s just say it: a pretty crappy year. Nixon had just resigned over Watergate. Bad recession since ’73 due to the energy crisis, but in ’75, unemployment hit 9%. The dominoes fell in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and here at home, far-left terror groups were bombing government buildings and other targets in D.C., New York and elsewhere. In the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil until 9/11 (still unsolved, but probably Yugoslavians), the bombers took out a baggage area at New York’s LaGuardia airport, killing 11. Airplane hijackings were averaging 41 a year, ’68 to ’77.

And there were not one but two assassination attempts on President Gerald Ford, both in Northern California in September, and both by women, a year after newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst had helped her kidnappers rob a bank. Manson-cultist-turned-radical-environmentalist Squeaky Fromm and wannabe revolutionary Sarah Jane Moore both spent over 30 years in prison. Moore’s attempt, just four days after Hearst was found and arrested in San Francisco.

America’s largest city was a shambles. New York hit rock bottom in 1975 when the urban decline that Soft-Rock duo Cashman & West mourned in their “American City Suite” in 1972 put the city on the edge of a fiscal cliff. In June, Police and Firefighter unions facing layoffs printed up a million “Fear City Survival Guides” (with a hooded skull on the cover!) to hand out to arriving visitors. In the Fall, the famous New York Daily News’ headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” after officials asked for a federal bailout.

Now you’d think movies would’ve been a refuge from all of this, right? But it was just the opposite! Some of the biggest blockbusters of the early ’70s were disaster movies that made modern life seem even more terrifying! Andromeda Strain, Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, Earthquake!, Airport and its sequel Airport ’75. But if seeing how much worse things could be wasn’t your idea of sanctuary, well, you can always take a hike in the woods, right? Back to nature! Maybe a canoe trip? Eh, not if you saw Deliverance! And forget about the beach! ’75’s top-grossing movie: Jaws! Ads for the sequel in ’78 had the tagline “Just when you though it was safe to go back in the water.” Even things you couldn’t see were out to get you, as 109 million North Americans who went to see The Exorcist learned.

Now Sports delivered the goods in ’75: Steelers, Flyers, Golden State Warriors and an epic World Series between the Reds and Red Sox. All the hype over Ali-Frazier III, the “Thrilla in Manilla,” propelled the song “Black Superman” into the Top 40 over the Summer, and the fight itself helped launch HBO and cable TV. That was only way to watch the fight live in your home. Broadcast TV didn’t get it ’til January!

But what about music? Well, ’75, like ’74, was quite a grab bag. Since the start of the Hot100 in 1958, an average of about 18 songs hit #1 per year. In ’74 there were 36, the all-time record, but ’75 had 35. All Billboard writers could say at the time to sum up the year was that “the polished smooth-yet-complex production sound” they’d noticed in ’74 was still in force. Now some have called 1975 one of the worst years in Pop music, and the yardstick in such assessments seems to be how much “schlock” there was filling the airwaves. Schmaltzy, sappy, mawkish ballads anchored to the time they were on the radio like filled fish tanks in sixth-floor walkups.

#10 Morris Albert – Feelings

Well, ’75 had its share of those for sure, and our song at #10 as we kick off our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1975 was one of them: maybe the epitome of ’70s schlock. An entire episode of TV’s spoof talent competition The Gong Show was devoted to contestants singing just this one song. The whole show, just this one song! Comedian Carol Burnett even did a skit where her Mama’s Family character Eunice Harper Higgins goes on The Gong Show and sings the song. And it’s been the brunt of jokes in countless movies, commercials and TV shows since. But it was a million seller on the chart five more weeks than any other song in ’75, 32. Here we go: Brazilian Morris Albert: “Feelings.”

Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” #10 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1975’s biggest hits. In 1986, Albert was sued by French songwriter Louis Gasté for infringing his song “Pour Toi,” so on streaming services you’ll find the song as “Feelings (Pour Toi).”

#9 Neil Sedaka – Laughter in the Rain

Now the early ’70s were very good to several early ’60s Pop stars whose careers nosedived after the Beatles hit in ’64. Chuck Berry, Ray Stevens, Paul Anka, Brook Benton, Rick Nelson, Wayne Newton and Sammy Davis Jr. all scored major hits. And newer acts doing covers of early ’60s hits: lots of those. Even 1962’s “The Monster Mash” (not a remake) had another run on the charts in ’73 and got all the way to #10. Well one latecomer to that party was our Singer-Songwriter at #9, and it took the intervention of 1975’s hottest Pop star. Details after the song. At #9 it’s Neil Sedaka’s “Laughter in the Rain.”

Behind Neil Sedaka’s ’70s comeback? None other than Elton John. Sedaka needed a new label in the U.S., and as it happened, Elton, a big fan, was starting one. So after they hit it off at a party in London, Elton’s new Rocket label put out a compilation of Sedaka’s recent U.K. releases that’d never been released stateside, and on that album, our #9 song, “Laughter in the Rain.” It took three and a half months to get to #1, but year-end rankings do favor slow-burners like that, so it’s among the top ten on the year. Sedaka’s follow-up was also a hit: the upbeat, funky “Bad Blood,” which rocketed to #1 in just a few weeks with its prominent backing vocals by none other than Elton John. By the way, Sedaka also wrote… didn’t perform but wrote… the #1 song in our countdown, straight ahead on our 1975 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show.

#8 Elton John – Island Girl

How hot was Elton John in ’75? Well, Billboard wasn’t doing an Artist ranking that factored albums and singles yet, but Elton would’ve won it hands down. His first of two albums released in ’75, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, was the first album ever to debut at #1. And then his second of the year did it too: Rock of the Westies. Oh, and his Greatest Hits set released at the end of ’74? That was ’75’s #1 album. So given all that, hardly a surprise that he has two songs in our top ten. At #8 is the lead single from that second album, Rock of the Westies, it’s “Island Girl.”

Dodger Stadium in L.A. hadn’t hosted a concert in a decade, but at the end of the year, Elton John played to over 100,000 two nights in a row there wearing his blue and white sequined Dodger uniform with ELTON over the number “1” on the back. Elton’s sound had been called “unclassifiable” because it drew from so many currents. But his fashion, attitude and showmanship, pure British Glam, tied it all together and gave him the space to switch up musical styles like he changed wardrobe and crazy sunglasses. No one was confused. “Island Girl” hit #1 the week after Elton’s sold-out Dodger Stadium shows. Now since a good chunk of its chart run extended into Billboard’s 1976 “chart year,” don’t look for it on Billboard’s year-end Hot100 for ’75.

#7 Silver Convention – Fly, Robin, Fly

Ditto our next cut at #7. See, in order to get its year-end issue out before New Years, Billboard has to call an end to what it calls its “chart year,” usually in November. That doesn’t affect songs whose chart runs are all within the chart year, but for songs that are still on the charts, weeks after the cut-off get kicked into the following year. Well for our Chartcrush rankings, we factor every song’s entire chart run into whichever calendar year it earned most of its points. So “Island Girl” takes its proper place at #8, and what Billboard has as its #14 song of 1976 gets rescued from its year-staddling oblivion and lands at #7 on our 1975 ranking.

Which is awesome, because it’s a key puzzle piece in how Disco evolved. Producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff laid down the template for Disco with their “Philly Soul” sound on hits like MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” and The Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again,” both of those top five hits in 1974. But when Munich, Germany-based producers Sylvester (“Silver”) Levay and Michael Kunze decided to try their hand at the hot new Philly Soul sound, they filtered it through their minimalist German sensibilities, and what came out was something very different: a simplified version of Philly Soul with just a beat, a bass, a piano and some string flourishes. But instead of being regarded as an inferior imitation, it turned out to be closer to the mark of what clubgoers wanted: the blissful hypnosis and sweaty, euphoric escape that can only come from losing yourself on the dancefloor. And for that, as it turned out, when it comes to music, less is more. Around Thanksgiving, Kunz and Lamay’s record hit #1 for three weeks. Here it is: #7, The Silver Convention, “Fly, Robin, Fly.”

The Silver Convention’s “Fly, Robin, Fly” at #7 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1975’s top hits. The simple, mantra-like lyrics, only six words repeated ad nauseum, suited the non-English-speaking singers the producers lined up just fine, and it became a Disco trope. At the same time, another Munich-based producer, Italian-born synthpop and EDM pioneer Giorgio Moroder, was working with soon-to-be American Disco superstar Donna Summer on her debut. “Love to Love You Baby” hit the charts in December destined for #2 despite its scandalous 23 orgasms (the BBC counted). And Silver Convention were back in the top five in the Spring of ’76 with “Get Up and Boogie.”

#6 KC and The Sunshine Band – That’s the Way (I Like It)

Now a week before “Fly, Robin, Fly” hit #1, another early Disco record beat them to the top, despite having debuted two weeks later. Its chart run also spanned ’75 into ’76, so again, don’t look for it in Billboard’s year-end top ten, but factoring its full chart run in the year it earned the majority of its ranking points, as we do with all songs here on Chartcrush, it comes out the #6 song of 1975. From Miami, not Germany, they’d already scored with their debut “Get Down Tonight,” in August but were back late in the year with an even bigger hit. It’s KC & The Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It).”

KC & The Sunshine Band’s “That’s The Way (I Like It)” beat “Fly, Robin, Fly” to #1, but then it rose to #1 for another week immediately after Silver Convention dropped out of the top spot. And with Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” scaling up the charts at the same time, the media didn’t quite know what to make of what Time called in print, “sex rock.” The word “disco,” not yet widely used to describe a style of music; still just a shortened form of “discotheque,” a public place where records are played.

By the way, the Bee Gees’ first Disco hit, “Jive Talkin’,” also one of 1975’s 35 #1 hits, for two weeks in August. That just misses our countdown at #12.

#5 Eagles – One of These Nights

But they were in the studio recording “Jive Talkin'” in early ’75 when our next act was making our #5 record right there in the same studio, North Miami’s Criteria Studios. On “Jive Talkin'” The Bee Gees followed the advice of their producer Arif Mardin and took things in the more funky, R&B-based direction that made them Disco superstars. But it rubbed off a little on our act at #5, who were also in transition, looking to shake off Country and embrace Rock. That despite their very Countryish song “Best of My Love” having just become their first top five on its way to becoming their first #1 in March. Well mission accomplished shaking off Country, but there’s a little bit of Soul in our #5 hit too. And it was even bigger than “Best of My Love:” top ten from July to September and #1 for a week in August. It’s The Eagles’ “One of These Nights.”

“One of These Nights,” #5 on our 1975 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show: the title track and lead single from The Eagles fourth album, and the stepping stone between the Country of “Best of My Love” in ’74 and “Hotel California” in ’77.  Their new guitarist Don Felder with that solo. And they were about to add yet another Rock guitarist to the lineup, Joe Walsh from The James Gang, after the Country purist in the band, co-founder, banjo and pedal steel player Bernie Leadon, reportedly poured a beer on bandmate Glen Frey before quitting over the group’s new direction.

#4 Freddy Fender – Before the Next Teardrop Falls

Our singer at #4 was trying to avoid doing Country too, toiling away on a Tejano Rock/Swamp Pop album and playing clubs in Corpus Christi, Texas in ’74 after cutting records for 13 years without a hit, when New Orleans producer Huey Meaux approached him about singing over a backing track he’d produced of a song written in 1967 and already recorded and released (with little success) by over 30 artists including Charley Pride and Jerry Lee Lewis. Meaux was an important guy in the music biz in the South, so he did it, but with a twist, and the record came out on Meaux’s Crazy Cajun Records and was a hit in Houston, so ABC-Dot picked it up nationally, and it topped first the Country chart in March, and then the Hot100 at the end of May. The twist? A verse in Spanish. The singer is Tejano. Born Baldemar Huerta, he changed his name circa 1959 to the hot new brand of guitars and amps all the cool cats in Rock ‘n Roll were playing at the time, it’s Freddy Fender at #4: “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

Freddy Fender at #4 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1975’s top Pop hits, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” He followed it up with an update of a song he’d written and first released when he was in his early twenties doing Rockabilly, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” That got to #8 in September. He faded from the Hot100 after that, but charted nearly 20 more hits on the Country charts into the ’80s. Not bad for a guy who didn’t want to do Country!

#3 Elton John – Philadelphia Freedom

Now of course 1976 was America’s bicentennial, but the celebration (such as it was) was already underway in ’75. I say “such as it was” because with so little to celebrate about America in the here and now in the mid-’70s, kinda hard to get those patriotic juices flowing. Still, there were bicentennial quarters, The Freedom Train, tall ships, the movie Rocky, a big parade with Johnny Cash, a new Liberty Bell donated by Queen Elizabeth II for the occasion, lots of fireworks, and for Pop fans, a big #1 single by the hottest name in music, who strenuously denies that it had anything whatsoever to do with American patriotism or the bicentennial. But fans didn’t get that memo, or didn’t care. It’s the closest thing there was to a bicentennial anthem on the U.S. Pop charts: Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom.”

“Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John. Lyrics by John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin. A single-only release that besides K-Tel’s Music Express hits compilation, didn’t appear on any album until Elton’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2 set in 1977. Again, not intended as a bicentennial record, and to dispel the notion, the 45 label says “with Love to B.J.K. and the sound of Philadelphia.” Which made as much sense to fans as most of Taupin’s lyrics in the song. That’s not Bernie’s fault though. His only instruction? “Please write a song called ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ for me? Thank you, Elton.”

Well, the Philadelphia Freedoms was feminist icon Billie Jean King’s tennis team, but Taupin had no idea about that, so the lyrics have nothing to do with tennis, Billie Jean King or for that matter “The Sound of Philadelphia.” Music fans would’ve had more of a clue had Elton chosen to abbreviate that on the label instead of “B.J.K.” The Philly Soul instrumental “T.S.O.P.” had been a #1 hit for Gamble and Huff’s M.F.S.B. studio aggregation in ’74 and was the theme of Soul Train. Gosh, what a mess! But it was the bicentennial and Elton John’s new single was “Philadelphia Freedom,” so fans drew their own conclusions. “God Bless America!”

Footnote: Gamble and Huff’s M.F.S.B. aggregation was out with an album titled “Philadelphia Freedom” that had an American flag on the cover and an instrumental version of “Philadelphia Freedom,” and cracked the top 40 on the album chart heading into ’76.

#2 Glen Campbell – Rhinestone Cowboy

Well we’re down to #2 here on our 1975 edition of Chartcrush, the first record since Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” in 1961 to top the Country and Pop charts at the same time. Not surprising that ’75 would be the year that drought was be broken: Country crossover was big in the mid-’70s. And not only that, trucker culture and CB radios were all the rage, with C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” also among 1975’s 35 #1 hits (also a #1 Country Hit, but not at the same time). And the movie “White Line Fever” starring Jan-Michael Vincent as an independent long-haul trucker becoming a surprise box office hit. Smokey & The Bandit came out just a couple years later. At #2, not a trucker song, but a surprise comeback by a guy who got hot on the charts after teaming up with songwriter Jimmy Webb in the late ’60s, who had his own TV variety show for three years and even played opposite John Wayne in True Grit. His phone hadn’t been ringing for a few years by ’75 though, so he had an idea how the protagonist in the song felt. At #2, it’s Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

No one really saw “Rhinestone Cowboy” coming. Glen Campbell recorded it for the album he was working on, but then a programmer with L.A.’s biggest top 40 radio station, KHJ, saw him play it live on a TV charity telethon and called Capitol Records to get a copy. Until it took off on radio, no one was even planning to release it as a single! Joining Glen Campbell in the studio to record the song was a loose group of professional L.A. session players that is today known as The Wrecking Crew. They played on thousands of records in the ’60s and early ’70s, but as studio musicians hired basically by the hour, they were never credited on any of them. Campbell himself had paid his bills as a Wrecking Crew guitarist before becoming a star in his own right. “Rhinestone Cowboy” had the most weeks in the Top 40 of any 1975 hit (18) with two weeks at #1 in September: the #2 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown of 1975’s top hits.

#1 Captain and Tennille – Love Will Keep Us Together

Now our #1 song, also recorded with Wrecking Crew musicians, but one of the last. As studios went from four to 16 tracks in the ’70s, producers no longer needed an entire ensemble playing live, so time and money-saving pre-mic’d setups like The Wrecking Crew became obsolete. But what a way to go out, huh? The #2 and #1 hits of the year! And at #1, the debut single and the first of eight top 20 hits ’75 to ’80 by a husband-and-wife duo who scored their own prime-time network TV variety show after this song was a smash. The #1 record of 1975, both in our Chartcrush ranking and according to Billboard, it’s The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.”

Didja hear that callout just now? Toni Tennille subbing “Sedaka’s back” for one of the “da da da’s” in the fadeout? How Hip-Hop of her! Sedaka, of course, Neil Sedaka, who wrote the song, and who’d just scored his own big comeback hit early in ’75 with his song we heard back at #9, “Laughter in the Rain.” Notwithstanding the composition or The Wrecking Crew’s involvement though, it was Darryl Dragon (a.k.a. “The Captain’s”) pioneering synthesizer work that really made the song leap out of the speakers and get noticed in early ’75. The synth bass sound that opens the song and plays throughout: no one had ever heard anything quite like that before, especially on a Top 40 record, and the solo was pretty cutting-edge too. Stations in Alabama, Kentucky and Ohio were playing it for a few weeks before the big California stations added it, but once that happened it was everywhere.

Darryl Dragon and Toni Tennille met as keyboard virtuosos in The Beach Boys touring band before teaming up as a duo for gigs at a restaurant in Encino, California. That and a self-released record got them signed to A&M Records, the Carpenters’ label. Another superstar, Roberta Flack, had gotten her start as a Lounge act in a pub in D.C. earlier in the ’70s. Apparently, people actually paid attention to live music in restaurants in those days! When “Por Amor Viviremos,” the Spanish version of “Love Will Keep Us Together” charted, it was the first time that two versions of the same song by the same artist were on the Hot100 simultaneously.

Well that’s our top ten countdown. Now due to the two Disco “year-straddlers” coming into our top ten, plus “Island Girl” and some differences in ranking methodology, four songs that made the top ten in Billboard’s 1975 year-end Hot100 got bumped out of ours, so let’s shout those out.

At #10, Billboard had a rollicking live version of a song by one of the early ’70s’ top Singer-Songwriters

…but “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (which lands at #23 on our Chartcrush ranking) was arguably not John Denver’s biggest hit of 1975. He had a double-A-sided single on the charts late Summer into the Fall. That’s a 45 where both sides were hits, and in ’75, Billboard’s policy was to chart whichever side was getting more airplay. So a week after “I’m Sorry” dropped down to #2, the other side of the record, “Calypso,” took over on the Hot100. Now if they’d been combining sides of records like that for chart positions as was their policy in other eras, one of those two songs would’ve definitely been in the top ten on the year. Oh well! Without access to Billboard’s underlying Airplay data though, nothing we can do to separate them out.

Billboard’s #7 song of 1975 just misses our Chartcrush top ten at #11.

David Bowie’s “Fame” was something completely different on your radio in ’75. And former Beatle John Lennon, who was hanging with Bowie in the studio, supplied those falsetto “Fame’s” heard throughout. Bowie described “Fame” as “plastic funk … the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak Rock, written and sung by a white Limey.”

Well, as if to balance out Bowie’s “Plastic Funk” at #7, Billboard‘s #6 song of the year is some legit Funk.

According to Rolling Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire redefined the sound of African-American Pop in the mid ’70s, and “Shining Star” was their biggest Hot100 hit of the ’70s, #14 on our Chartcrush 1975 ranking.

And finally, Billboard’s #5 song (#17 on our Chartcrush ranking) was another major comeback by an early ’60s legend.

Now unlike Neil Sedaka, whose last top 40 hit before “Laughter in the Rain” was all the way back in 1963, Frankie Valli didn’t hit his commercial slump ’til 1968, but a slump is a slump, and Motown wouldn’t release the record. So he bought the master and put it out on a start-up label. Well it took four months to get to #1, but after that, not only was Frankie Valli back; so was his group The Four Seasons. Their “Who Loves You,” our #40 song of 1975.

And that’s gonna have to be a wrap for our 1975 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. On our website, chartcrush.com, you can find written transcripts and links to stream this and other Chartcrush countdown shows on Spotify, plus chart run line graphs and other dyn-o-mite extras. Also, check us out on TikTok @Chartcrush. 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.

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