Fifty years ago this week in Grand Rapids: The WERX 15+30 Survey (December 6, 1967)

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(Above: A bit of this week’s chart, typos and all.)

The bulk of the research done for my dissertation had to do with looking at original copies of pop surveys from the 1960s. You see these for sale on eBay and at record shows quite often for big stations like WLS and WCFL.  The ones that are harder to come by – and yet more interesting – are the surveys from smaller stations in smaller cities.

Fortunately, Bob Stickroe – a longtime radio friend and a consummate collector – had all of ’em for Grand Rapids. Bob grew up there and began the process, with his brother, of raiding the record stores each week to get the lists.  By the end of the decade, Bob was working in radio himself and had easier access to the lists. Much attention has been given by organizations like the Radio Preservation Task Force (of which I am a proud member) to saving recordings of radio stations.  It’s estimated that well over 95% of the radio that was created is gone forever.  I’d argue that preserving the ephemera – the playlists, memos, advertisements, even bumper stickers – is just as important because it serves as an important means of cultural transmission.  (There.  I’ll take my academic hat off now.)

Besides, there’s great musical surprises on them.  Fifty years ago this week, WERX – a small AM station licensed to Wyoming, MI, a Grand Rapids suburb, was playing a great list of songs. The list is called the “15 + 30,” so we could fight over who is ranked where.  Only the top 15 songs have numbers, but the list is not alphabetical, so I think we can safely assume it’s in an order of preference.  Let’s start from the top:

  1. The Monkees – “Daydream Believer.” It still puts a smile on the face.  I also recall being part of a crowd of about sixty thousand or so singing it at a U2 show in 1997.
  2. The Soulbenders – “Hey Joe.”  And HERE’s why I love local charts – local bands are on them.  The Soulbenders were a local Grand Rapids-area group led by longtime local radio personality Aris Hampers. Their cover of Hendrix’ “Hey Joe” is beating out a lot of powerful records this week.
  3. The Stone Poneys – “Different Drum.”  It’s on the list with “drums” as a plural.  It wasn’t uncommon to find mistakes like this on these charts, especially with new artists.  (One station in town – WGRD – always spelled Elvis’ name with dollar signs where the ‘s’ should be. That might not have been a typo.) Obligatory DJ trivia – that’s Linda Ronstadt, of course, singing the song, which was written by Monkee Mike Nesmith. More after this word for the Beltline Bar…
  4. The Rose Garden – “Next Plane To London.”  Wow.  What a cool record to be this high up the list. Nationally, it barely broke the Top 20.
  5. Robert Knight – “Everlasting Love.”
  6. The Beatles – “Hello Goodbye/I Am The Walrus.”  It’s two hits for the price of one, and both are four notches below the local high school kids.
  7. Cher – “You Better Sit Down Kids.”  I’ve long been puzzled by two things: 1) Why Cher sings this as the man leaving and doesn’t flip the gender, and 2) what the hell is going on at the end of the song.  I once remarked on air that it sounded like they dumped all of the instruments on the floor and began jumping on them.
  8. Victor Lundberg – “An Open Letter to My Teenage Son.”  In which pro-war rant makes the Top 10.  Lundberg was from Grand Rapids, and worked on a competing station.  That didn’t stop him from making appearances to push the record, which did very well on the national charts.  Lundberg famously announced the end of the rock and roll format at crosstown WMAX in 1965 by decrying the tastelessness of the music (coming out of a Supremes record). Life imitates art: in the record, Lundberg effectively disowns his fictional son for being a hippie.  He didn’t have much to do with his real-life kids, either.
  9. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion.”
  10. The American Breed – “Bend Me Shape Me.”  Remember that the big signals from Chicago boomed across the lake.  You’d expect to hear the local Chicago acts on Grand Rapids stations. What you see – and sometimes don’t expect – is to see them here first.  That doesn’t happen in this case – WLS and WCFL were a week earlier than WERX. But “Don’t Forget About Me,” which wasn’t listed by the Chicago stations, was reported played by WERX back in September.
  11. Kenny O’Dell and Bobby Vee, “Beautiful People.”  It’s not a duet.  Both artists recorded the record, and the station appears to have played both of them.
  12. Dionne Warwick, “I Say a Little Prayer.”
  13. Sam and Dave, “Soul Man.”
  14. The Turtles, “She’s My Girl.”
  15. Gladys Knight & the Pips, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”  Yes, this is the original version.  No, it’s not the best-known one.

So what else is lurking on this chart?  Among the highlights:

-Al Green, “Back Up Train.” Al lived in Grand Rapids for a while, and this is a fantastic record.  He became much more popular in the 1970s, of course.

-The Supremes, “In and Out Of Love.” This is a record I’d often try to sneak into my oldies stations as an “oh, wow.”  It’s just a fun record on the heels of the popularity of “The Happening” – which is why they sound kind of similar to me.

-The Small Faces, “Itchykoo Park.” This is one of those songs that I will always stop on when I hear it on the radio and listen to the conclusion.  Getting hung up and feeding the ducks with a bun is optional.

-The Box Tops, “Neon Rainbow.”  Damn, this station plays great music.

-Glen Campbell, “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.”  What I love about the old Top 40 is that so many genres of music were represented.  By the mid-1980s we lost most of that. (Of course, this year, we lost Glen Campbell, too, so there’s that.)

-Bobbie Gentry, “Okolona River Bottom Band.”  Country before country was cool. Or is this country-jazz?  I don’t know, but it’s yet another cool thing to see on this station.

-Donovan, “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” A song probably better remembered for its use selling Hathaway shirts, but it’s a cool psychedelic remnant.  Especially cool to think that this might have been next to Glen Campbell one afternoon. (Apparently it was also used – sort of – to sell Love Cosmetics.)

-The Hollies, “Dear Eloise.”  Speaking of weird ones: this song starts and stops so many times it’s a wonder Top 40 touched it.  Good thing they did.

-The Buckinghams, “Susan.”  See above, “Chicago groups.” Again, they’re just a bit behind WLS and WCFL on this one, but ahead of the national charts by a few days. (I’m looking for a good version of them performing live with the weird psychedelic break, if you know where it exists.)

And, last but not least: The Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy’s Christmas.”  Long before there was an all-Christmas format, you’d get a sprinkling of holiday tunes.  Christmas 1967 featured Snoopy in the song that went on to become the top-selling record in New Zealand chart history – at least until Elton John recorded his tribute to Princess Diana.

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