What's the most important musical year of your life? The one year you can look back on right now with the fondest of recollections? For me, it's always been 1976.
I was only 12 years old. Many things happened that birthed my love of music in 1976. What was the source? Good old terrestrial radio. Remember AM radio? We had two AM Top 40 radio stations in our area. Every week both published a Top 40 singles weekly chart. There wasn't much difference between the two, but I picked them up whenever I had a chance. These charts proved handy because I still hadn't read a copy of Billboard. Interesting note: one of those stations would give away the weekly Top 10 singles if you were the lucky caller and could name them. I happened to win twice.
At this stage, I knew all about the Billboard charts because I listened to Casey Kasem's American Top 40. We moved to California in 1975. Before that I listened to Kasem’s program on the Armed Forces Network in Germany every weekend. But when we got to the US, finding AT40 became more of a chore. The only station that played the show was in San Francisco, two hours away, and my radio had problems picking up its signal. Still, I did the best I could. I'd often catch the show at different points, but I always listened as long as I could. And I kept a journal where I wrote down as many of the hits I would hear every week. But it wouldn't be until the summer of 1977 when I got my hands on a copy of Billboard that I became an avid chart-watcher. It was the first magazine I subscribed to (until Rolling Stone in 1978). What a revelation Billboard was to read! All those charts! All that music biz info! Pretty mind-blowing for a 14-year-old.
But back to 1976. For most of that year AM radio was the only frequency I visited, although I knew of FM radio. We had a local gospel and R&B/soul channel on the top of the FM dial. It would play R&B hits that you would never hear on the pop charts, and it was an ear-opener. I began to explore this new frequency on the dial, but I was still stuck on AM for the majority of my listening time.
I should also point out how important American Bandstand and Soul Train were to my musical upbringing. Both came on back-to-back on Saturday mornings. I would catch them often when I wasn't playing sports or doing something else. Soul Train was the bigger revelation since they showed and played records that didn't always cross over to the pop charts.
One fall night I was flipping through the AM dial and came upon an album countdown show. The only way I knew of the best-selling albums in 1976 was through my local paper, which published the weekly Billboard Top 20 albums and singles. The show was called the National Album Countdown, a weekly Top 30, and it had just launched in 1976 (and ran until 1985). Because of my paper's Top Albums list, I knew of these albums, and most had singles in the Top 40. But there were others. Names I didn't know, like Bob Marley, Jeff Beck, a Bob Seger live album, Led Zeppelin's Presence.
What was all this and why hadn't I heard of any of it? I still hung on to AM radio even after this revelation, but I finally figured out how FM radio could be different than AM. Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations played songs that you would never hear on American Top 40. It would be a few years before I started listening to AOR regularly, but that barely-remembered Countdown show from '76 started it all. And little did I know then, but I was hearing the future of classic rock radio.
In 1976 radio was filled with what would become classic singles and albums by Peter Frampton, Boston, Thin Lizzy, Blue Öyster Cult, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, Heart, ELO, Abba, Thelma Houston, the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Hall and Oates, Bob Seger, Queen, Spinners, KC and the Sunshine Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Manhattans, and Aerosmith. The list goes on and on.
Everything that happened during that year had a bearing on how I became a music junkie: winning the Top 10 weekly singles, the AM radio countdown sheets, that lone R&B station in my town, my continued pursuit of American Top 40, and the National Album Countdown. It all shaped the eclectic listening tastes that I still have today.
1976 was a glorious year for music. It changed my life.
Just some of my favorite recordings of 1976:
Abba – "Dancing Queen"
Aerosmith – Rocks
Al Stewart – "Year of the Cat"
Bee Gees – Children of the World
Bellamy Brothers – "Let Your Love Flow"
Billy Ocean – "Love Really Hurts Without You"
Blue Öyster Cult – Agents of Fortune
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Rastaman Vibration
Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – Night Moves
Boston – Boston
Boz Scaggs – Silk Degrees
Brothers Johnson – "I'll Be Good To You"
Candi Staton – "Young Hearts Run Free"
Car Wash – Soundtrack
Commodores – "Sweet Love"
Daryl Hall and John Oates – "Sara Smile"
David Bowie – "Golden Years"
Deniece Williams – "Free"
Diana Ross – "Love Hangover"
Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band – Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band
Doobie Brothers – "Takin' It To The Streets"
Eagles – Hotel California
Eagles – "Take It To The Limit"
Earth, Wind & Fire – "Can't Hide Love"
Earth, Wind & Fire – "Getaway"
ELO – A New World Record
ELO – "Strange Magic"
ELO – "Evil Woman"
Elvis Presley – "Hurt"
Elton John and Kiki Dee – "Don't Go Breaking My Heart"
Elvin Bishop – "Fooled Around and Fell In Love"
England Dan and John Ford Coley – "I'd Really Love To See You Tonight"
Flamin' Groovies – Shake Some Action
Fleetwood Mac – "Rhiannon"
Foghat – "Slow Ride"
Four Seasons – "December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”
George Benson – Breezin'
George Jones and Tammy Wynette – "Golden Ring"
Graham Parker and the Rumour – Howlin' Wind
Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes – "Wake Up Everybody"
Heart – "Crazy On You"
Hot Chocolate – "You Sexy Thing"
Isley Brothers – Harvest For The World
Jackson Browne – The Pretender
Johnny Cash – "One Piece At A Time"
Joni Mitchell – Hejira
Kansas – "Carry On Wayward Son"
Kate and Anna McGarrigle – Kate and Anna McGarrigle
KC and the Sunshine Band – Part 3
L.T.D. – "Love Ballad"
Lou Rawls – "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine"
Manhattans – "Kiss and Say Goodbye"
Marvin Gaye – "I Want You"
Maxine Nightingale – Right Back Where We Started From"
Mighty Clouds Of Joy – "Mighty High"
Miracles – "Love Machine"
Modern Lovers – Modern Lovers
Nazareth – "Love Hurts"
Norman Connors – "You Are My Starship"
Ohio Players – "Love Rollercoaster"
O'Jays – "I Love Music"
Parliament – Mothership Connection
Paul Simon – "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover"
Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive
Queen – "You're My Best Friend"
Ramones – Ramones
Roxy Music – "Love Is The Drug"
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan – "Sweet Thing"
Runaways – "Cherry Bomb"
Seals and Crofts – "Get Closer"
Spinners – "The Rubberband Man"
Steve Miller Band – Fly Like An Eagle
Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life
Tammy Wynette – "'Til I Can Make It On My Own"
Thelma Houston – "Don't Leave Me This Way"
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – "American Girl"
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – "Breakdown"
Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak
Warren Zevon – Warren Zevon
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson – "Good Hearted Woman"
Wild Cherry – "Play That Funky Music"
One of the first Spotify playlists I made was on the music of 1976.
Here's a link to it: Music of 1976
Tom Lane's article, "What if Elvis Had Lived?" appeared in Copper Issue 174.
Header image: Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life, album cover.