1976 Top Ten Pop Countdown Podcast
Dancing is back and Disco crests with novelty hits and Pop veterans jumping on the bandwagon, while Soft Rockers and balladeers continue charting massive chart hits.
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 1976, a watershed year in music, for a lot of reasons, some of which were obvious at the time; others, not so much.
On the obvious side, Disco. After ten years, dancing was back. All the structured dances of the early-to-mid sixties: the mashed potato, the swim, the frug, the jerk: casualties of the Hippies’ “Do Your Own Thing” ethic and zoned-out free-form body swaying a la Woodstock. In the early ’70s the idea of going to a “dance?” Like, you mean at the junior high school? Nah, that was something your little sister did.
But fueling that, quantum leaps in sound quality had ushered in a golden age of listening to music, on vinyl LP’s or FM radio at home with your hi-fi rack system, bitchin’ speakers and state-of-the-art headphones, or sitting in a seat at the new civic center or arena, or in your car on eight-track tapes. The technology to fully immerse yourself in sound: almost all Americans could now afford. And for their part, the record biz delivered: sprawling, ambitious, mind-blowing stereophonic Progressive Rock and Soul concept album masterpieces that you could totally lose yourself in, which were now being reviewed as important artistic and cultural statements, not only in Rolling Stone and other upstart music journalism outlets, but even in highbrow dailies and glossy mags. And of course, also in those years, sonically-superior FM radio grew by leaps and bounds catering to album-oriented listeners.
But let’s face it, we humans? We have a basic need to get out on that dancefloor and shake our booties. One undeniable truth of pop culture history: people gonna find a way to dance. In the mid-’40s it seemed like the government and other powerful institutions had conspired to wipe out dancing, and Big Band Swing went extinct. That’s a story for another episode, but eventually, young people started seeking out R&B records that you could dance to and Rock ‘n Roll happened. And in the mid ’70s, Disco happened.
Its roots were in Funk, Latin Salsa, and of course the Philly Soul sounds of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff showcased (yes, with actual dancing) on the syndicated TV show Soul Train starting in 1971. A string of danceable hits had made the top ten in ’74 and ’75, but it was the underground Gay community, in New York especially, that took all of that and fashioned it into the late ’70s Disco scene, with its whole hedonistic, upscale aesthetic of flashing lights, snazzy clothes, and edgy (you could even say defiant), urban sophistication.
Women, looking for ways to express their newfound social and sexual freedoms, were immediately drawn to it. And as any club owner can tell you, get the women in the door, and the straight men follow. So Disco brought back dancing, which was the whole point of Disco music: the beat, the groove. Deep, meaningful lyrics and musical complexity though? Not just extraneous, but deadly to a track’s success on the dancefloor.
And at the same time Disco was erupting, a more frontal assault was coalescing to the whole pop-culture-as-high-art media Establishment. Namely, Punk. First The Ramones out of New York’s Lower East Side, with their February 1976 album of noisy, primitive two-minute songs. Sure, Disco went against everything critics considered artistically important, but for a reason: dancing. The Ramones’ though? Their only reason seemed to be: to go against everything critics considered artistically important!
You’d think critics would’ve been horrified, and some were, but most couldn’t deny the coolness of what The Ramones were doing. Why? Irony. Intentional irony: doing what’s considered low-brow and unsophisticated, not because that’s all you can do and don’t know any better, but because it’s low-brow and unsophisticated: as a conscious rebellion against assumptions and orthodoxies. Well, that was something new! And for aspiring musicians: “You mean I don’t have to double major in music theory and medieval literature to be a rock star? Where do I sign up?” Everywhere The Ramones played, new Punk bands formed. Youngstown, Ohio? The Dead Boys. U.K.? The Sex Pistols and The Clash. L.A.? Too many to count. And that set the attitudinal template for New Wave and Alternative Rock for the next 30-plus years.
The British tabloids covered Punk as the next big thing in music and fashion, and The Sex Pistols actually landed two singles in the UK’s year-end ranking for 1977. In the U.S., it took Blondie’s unlikely marriage of Punk and Disco on “Heart of Glass” (with Disco being by far the dominant partner in that marriage) to get New York’s Punk scene anywhere near the American charts in 1979. The Ramones barely dented the Hot100 in their ’70s heyday. But if you listen for it, you can definitely pick up on the new ironic attitude shift that was happening in music in 1976 in a couple of the tracks we’re gonna hear this hour.
#10 Elton John and Kiki Dee – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
Not in our #10 song, though. It has a touch of Disco but it’s as down-the-middle a straightforward Pop song as you could get in the mid-’70s, conceived as a nod to Marvin Gaye’s duets with Tammi Terrell and Kim Weston in the ’60s, by one of only two artists since the start of the Hot100 in 1958 to land hits in the top ten of our yearly rankings four years in a row. Needless to say, one of the biggest stars of the early ’70s. It’s Elton John, duetting here with singer Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
So “Crocodile Rock,” our #7 song of 1973, “Bennie and the Jets,” #3 in ’74. “Philadelphia Freedom,” #3 in ’75 and his duet with Kiki Dee we just heard, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” #10 on the year 1976 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown. Top ten hits of the year in four consecutive years: Elton John. The only other artist since the ’50s to pull that off: Mariah Carey, ’93 to ’96, and even pre-Hot100 there were only two: Bing Crosby, ’42 to ’45 and Patti Page, ’50 to ’53. That’s how big Elton John was in the ’70s.
His duet partner Kiki Dee, had just scored a #12 hit on the Hot100 with her soulful recording of “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” and she was one of Elton John’s go-to backup singers on a lot of his early classics. But she wasn’t Elton John’s first choice for “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” She only got the gig after Britain’s most famous blue-eyed soul singer, Dusty Springfield, turned it down due to illness.
#9 Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. – You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)
At #9, it’s another Soft Rock-Motown Disco-adjacent hybrid, definitely a winning formula in 1976, and our second duet in a row, by a husband and wife who were founding members of vocal group The Fifth Dimension. The husband, most famous for his ad-libbed, shouted counterpoints in the second half of the group’s era-defining 1969 Hair medley, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In;” and the wife, for her solo vocals on their follow-up hit “Wedding Bell Blues” and every Fifth Dimension top ten after 1969.
In ’75 they branched off as a duo and their second single slowly but steadily climbed the chart after entering in September, not reaching the top ten ’til December and not peaking at #1 until January ’77. But long chart runs like that make for good placements on yearly rankings, especially when you factor full chart runs regardless of whether they’re all in the same year or not, as we do for every song here on Chartcrush. #9 on the year 1976 because that’s when it earned most of its chart points: Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.’s “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show).”
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show),” #9 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown show of the biggest hits of 1976. In summer ’77 while the song was going gold and winning its Grammy award, McCoo and Davis became the first Black couple to host their own primetime network variety show, all six episodes of which featured up-and-coming comedian and future Tonight Show host Jay Leno.
Their follow-up album was a commercial disappointment in ’78 but it did include McCoo’s first recording of the song that became Whitney Houston’s first #1 hit in 1985, “Saving All My Love for You.” Gen-Xers may better remember Marilyn McCoo as the host of the countdown show Solid Gold in the early ’80s. In 2019, McCoo and Davis had clearly survived the “Wedding Bell Blues” when they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
#8 The Manhattans – Kiss and Say Goodbye
Up next at #8, one of the most successful of a string of slow R&B songs in the ’70s that featured a sexy deep-voiced spoken part, precision calibrated to make women go weak at the knees. Barry White, definitely the most enduringly famous artist in that style with his string of top tens from ’73 to ’77, but not the only. Here are The Manhattans: a #1 hit in the summer of ’76 that went on to be Billboard’s #3 year-end Soul/R&B hit of 1976 as well as our Chartcrush #8 Pop hit: “Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
“Kiss and Say Goodbye,” The Manhattans at #8 as we count down the top ten hits of 1976 here on the Chartcrush Countdown Show. Winfred “Blue” Lovett of The Manhattans wrote “Kiss and Say Goodbye.” And yep, that’s him with that groovy spoken introduction.
#7 Chicago – If You Leave Me Now
Now car radios, of course, have preset buttons, so if you don’t like a song, you push the button and change the station. Well in the ’70s, you only had four or five mechanical presets, and most folks set them to different types of stations. Well imagine a song being so ubiquitous that you’re in your car pushing the preset buttons, and all the stations are playing it at the same time. According to a writer at the music site PopMatters, in the Fall of ’76 in New York, our #7 song was that ubiquitous. It was by a band whose Greatest Hits album covering their first five years and nine top ten singles had just come out at the end of ’75, and then, not missing a beat, their next album of new material dropped in June of ’76. And its second single became their first and only #1 hit in the ’70s. It’s Chicago, not the first but the biggest of their hit ballads sung by bassist Peter Cetera before the ’80s, and the first to emphasize strings over the group’s trademark horns, “If You Leave Me Now.”
“If You Leave Me Now,” Chicago, #7. Bassist Peter Cetera’s last-minute addition to the album it was on, Chicago X, which featured the group’s script logo from all their albums on the cover, but this go-’round, embossed on a chocolate bar: a no doubt coincidental announcement of the new, more sugary sweet direction the group was being pulled in to keep scoring chart hits: ballads with strings, minimal horns and Peter Cetera at the mic. Their next top ten hit in ’77 was another Cetera lead with strings: “Baby What a Big Surprise,” their big, funky horn section on earlier hits reduced to a solo piccolo trumpet, which, unlike producer James William Guercio’s Flamenco-y guitar on “If You Leave Me Now,” was at least played by a band member!
#6 Barry Manilow – I Write the Songs
Now speaking of saccharine songs with strings… You know, I really shouldn’t introduce a song all snarky like that, but in this case, I really don’t think the artist would mind, because of all the artists throughout chart history who’ve scored big ballad hits, this guy was going for exactly that: big big ballad hits, in more than just a chart sense. Power ballads before there even was such a thing, and they built and sustained not only one of the longest and most successful careers in Pop history, but a record label and an entire radio format: Arista Records and Adult Contemporary, respectively. Even in a decade that brimmed with lush, sentimental ballads, there was nothing quite like a Barry Manilow song. Written by Beach Boys sideman Bruce Johnston, it’s Manilow’s second #1 hit after his breakthrough “Mandy” in 1975, “I Write the Songs.”
“I Write the Songs,” Barry Manilow, #6 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1976. How that song starts off slow and mellow and swells gradually to a thunderous orchestral crescendo that Phil Spector couldn’t have even imagined: all of Barry Manilow’s hits are like that, and he racked up nine of them in four-and-a-half years. Towards the end of that run of top tens in 1979, pop wiseguy Ray Stevens, whose novelty number “The Streak” was #1 for three weeks in 1974, nearly cracked the top 40 again with a send-up of the style called “I Need Your Help Barry Manilow.”
#5 Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots – Disco Duck
So here we are at #5 and all we’ve heard are ballads and mid-tempo pop records, where’s the Disco? Well it’s time to put on your dancing shoes, picture the mirror ball and flashing lights, and boogie down! The #5 and #4 hits in our 1976 countdown: we couldn’t have chosen a better pair of artifacts to reflect the magnitude of the cresting Disco wave. And I say “reflect,” because neither are the object itself. There are plenty of straight-up Disco records in our ’77 to ’79 countdowns (and for that matter ’75 too!). No, both of these records are more properly regarded as reactions to a pop culture phenomenon, Disco, that arrived very suddenly and very unexpectedly in the mid-’70s. First at #5, a Memphis radio deejay’s goofy side-hustle song about a guy dancing at a party who gets the sudden urge to flap his arms like a duck. Next thing he knows, everybody’s doing it! Here’s Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots: “Disco Duck.”
Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots: “Disco Duck,” #5 on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1976. Now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “wait a minute, do ducks cluck?” No, ducks don’t cluck! As any kindergartner can tell you, chickens cluck; ducks quack. But quack doesn’t rhyme with duck, so the Disco Duck clucks instead of quacks. But no self-respecting Donald Duck imitator would ever commit that gaffe, right? So you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s not Rick Dees quacking on the record. It’s not Clarence Nash either, the original voice of Donald Duck from the Disney films (Disney has had to officially distance itself from involvement in “Disco Duck” numerous times). No, the duck voice on “Disco Duck” is one Ken Pruitt, who’s the guy at Rick Dees’ local gym who inspired him to write the song in the first place.
#4 Wild Cherry – Play That Funky Music
Now Billboard’s National Disco Action Top 30 chart debuted August 28, 1976: the first chart to document the popularity of Dance music. Eventually it evolved into the Dance Club Songs chart. “Disco Duck” never made the Dance chart despite being a top ten Pop hit from September to December. Our next record, however, was #18 on that first Dance chart and stayed on it for 12 weeks, making it not just a reflection of the Disco phenomenon, but a disco hit in its own right.
It’s the first and only top 40 hit by a hard-working regional Rock band that’d been playing club gigs since the start of the ’70s, grinding ’em out four, five, six nights a week, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio. Then suddenly all the rock clubs are shutting down and Dance music is the happening new thing, with discos springing up everywhere, even where they were in Appalachia. So what’d they do? Well, the song tells the story. It got them their first major label record deal and was an immediate hit, catapulting them overnight from obscurity to the top of, not only the Hot100 for 3 weeks, but the Soul/R&B chart, and a pretty good showing on the Dance chart too. At #4 it’s Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music.”
“Play That Funky Music,” Wild Cherry, #1 for three weeks and the #4 song on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1976. White rapper Vanilla Ice had a #4 hit in 1990 with his Rap version of “Play That Funky Music.” Not a straight cover, but Ice sampled the Wild Cherry record quite liberally, without permission or co-writing credit. Well, you can probably guess what happened next. Big lawsuit; big payout: 85% of Ice’s royalties. Rob Parissi, Wild Cherry’s front man who wrote “Play That Funky Music,” says it amounted to nearly a million bucks, more than he made from the record in the ’70s!
#3 Walter Murphy – A Fifth of Beethoven
OK, so “Disco Duck” and “Play That Funky Music,” two reactions to disco that resonated in the culture massively enough to propel them both to #1. At #3 on our countdown, we head straight into the white hot center of Disco, with a Disco reimagining of one of Classical music’s best-known themes, and one of the few cuts that were on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, but were hits before film came out.
Walter Murphy was making a living on Madison Avenue writing ad jingles when something possessed him to adapt Beethoven for discos. No, apparently the Punk scene didn’t have a monopoly on irony in ’76. It’s an instrumental, the last in a Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown: Walter Murphy “A Fifth of Beethoven.”
Now although “A Fifth of Beethoven” was in fact all Walter Murphy, the label thought it would sell better if it was marketed as by a band. So “Big Apple Band” was tagged on after Murphy’s name on the single. But there was a real band with that name, so “Big Apple Band” was removed from later pressings of the record. The damage was done, though, and the real Big Apple Band had to change their name, to Chic: Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’s outfit who scored the #1 song of 1979 according to our Chartcrush ranking, “Le Freak.”
#2 Paul McCartney and Wings – Silly Love Songs
Now our song at #2 as we close in on the #1 hit of 1976 here on our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1976: you may not think it’s a Disco song, but the artist kind of did, on the strength of its bassline. Being a bass player, he thought it was one of the best things he ever did on the instrument, and bass players to this day marvel at videos of him effortlessly playing it live, a driving rhythm, while singing the melody. It’s former Beatle Paul McCartney, with his group Wings. Their Wings Over America tour, McCartney’s first since The Beatles, helped propel the song on the charts. #2: Paul McCartney and Wings, “Silly Love Songs.”
Paul McCartney and Wings, “Silly Love Songs,” the #2 song of 1976. Now after The Beatles broke up, the Fab Four released even more music individually than they had as a group. They’d always had their individual styles of course, even when they were together. But at their best as a band, their different approaches combined into… well, into Beatles songs.
As solo acts in the ’70s though, there didn’t need to be any of that compromising with bandmates, and with McCartney, that meant he could indulge his most sappy and sentimental tendencies that had come through on Beatles songs like “When I’m 64,” “Yesterday” and “Penny Lane.” He took a lot of heat for it though, from Rock critics, sure, but even from his former bandmate John Lennon, whose public disses must’ve stung pretty bad. So “Silly Love Songs” was his response. “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. What’s wrong with that?”
AllMusic writer Stephen Thomas Erlewine called the song “so lightweight that its lack of substance seems nearly defiant.” Well, against the backdrop of uber-serious mid-70s Rock and soul-bearing Singer-Songwriter confessionals (to say nothing about angsty punk rock), “Silly Love Songs” was defiant. And it was #1 for five weeks, Chartcrush’s #2 song of 1976 and the song Billboard named the #1 song of the year! So take that, critics!
#1 Rod Stewart – Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)
Now the only reason “Silly Love Songs” isn’t our #1 song of the year too is: the song Billboard named its #1 year-end Hot100 song of 1977, was really a 1976 hit. It was #1 for eight weeks starting November 13. But Billboard has never been able to count big hits late in the year towards year-end rankings because they have to call a cut-off week to give themselves time to tabulate the year-end charts and get their year-in-review issue out before New Years. It’s a flaw that’s been baked-in to Billboard’s year-end rankings since the beginning, which we correct here at Chartcrush by counting every song’s full chart run in whichever calendar year it accumulated the most points.
Fortunately for this song, Billboard did count its weeks at #1 in late ’76 toward its 1977 rankings, which made it the #1 song of 1977. But those weeks, being in calendar ’76, make it our #1 song of 1976. The artist: no stranger to ballads, but he was mainly thought of as a Blues Rocker from his start in the late ’60s in the Jeff Beck Group, then the British album rock group Faces and his early solo records like “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well” in the early ’70s. Here is Rod Stewart’s big Pop comeback, “Tonight’s the Night.”
So as we heard in the first half of today’s show, the mid-’70s, not just when Disco and Punk erupted, but also one of the great chillout periods in Pop history. Another example, the #1 song in our Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown for 1976, Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night.” What we just heard, by the way, is the single edit. The sexy French pillow-talk heard in the fadeout of the slightly longer album version, courtesy of Stewart’s then-girlfriend Britt Eklund: a bit too racy for AM Top 40 in 1976, so it was omitted from the single.
Well that’s our countdown. Before we wrap up the show though, I want to take a moment to shout out all the tracks that made Billboard’s year-end top ten which we didn’t hear this hour.
First, progressive rocker Gary Wright, from his album The Dream Weaver, one of the earliest chart records done almost entirely with synthesizers.
“Love Is Alive,” Billboard’s #9 song of 1976; #16 on our ranking.
Paul Simon, formerly of Simon & Garfunkel, scored his first and only solo #1 hit in ’76
A mistress’s advice to the married man she’s in a relationship with on how to leave his wife, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover:” #1 for three weeks in February, and that was enough to make it Billboard’s #8 song of ’76 despite its pretty short run on the charts. Billboard’s year-end ranking method in ’76 rewarded weeks at #1 more than usual. “50 Ways” was #26 on our Chartcrush ranking.
And The Miracles, post-Smokey Robinson…
Billboard’s #7 song, just missing our top ten at #11, “Love Machine.”
Billboard’s #4 song, #12 on our Chartcrush ranking, was The Four Seasons’ “December 1963 (Oh What a Night).”
Fun fact: according to songwriter Bob Gaudio, the original idea was to pay tribute to the date Prohibition was repealed in December 1933, but no one liked that, so he re-wrote it to be about a completely imaginary romantic memory in December 1963, which, by the way were The Four Seasons’ salad days just before the British Invasion.
Finally, Billboard’s #3 song of the year was Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady.”
“Disco Lady,” #1 for the four weeks of April 1976 and the first chart topper with the word “disco” in the title, beating “Disco Duck” by six months. In a year where only 30 points separate the #5 and #13 songs, it didn’t take much to rejigger things. “Disco Lady” notched in at #13 on our Chartcrush ranking for 1976.
Well that’s gonna have to be a wrap. Thanks for listening to our 1976 edition of the Chartcrush Top Ten Countdown Show. I’ve been your host, Christopher Verdesi. On our website, chartcrush.com, you can get a written transcript and streamable Spotify version of this and other Chartcrush Countdown Shows, plus chart run line graphs and other off-the-hook extras. Every week, we count down a different year from the beginning of the charts in the ’40s all the way up to the present, so tune again, same station, same time, for another edition of Chartcrush.