Remember when story songs were a staple of any given week of the country’s Top 40? Well, no, I know some of you are not old enough to remember that, but trust me, there was a time. And I’m sure you’ve heard some of them, such as Ode To Billie Joe (Bobby Gentry, 1967); Harper Valley PTA (Jeannie C. Riley, 1968); In The Year 2525 (Zager and Evans, 1969); The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia (Vicki Lawrence, 1973); Rocky (Austin Roberts, 1975). Stories songs peaked in 1974 — Billy, Don’t Be a Hero (Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods), The Night Chicago Died (Paper Lace), Dark Lady (Cher), Seasons in the Sun (Terry Jacks), The Streak (Ray Stevens), Cats In the Cradle (Harry Chapin), and Angie Baby (Helen Reddy) all went to number one on the charts.
Story songs are not great music or even great songs. Art fart types loathe them, which of course makes me love them even more. My favorite is the incredibly melodramatic Billy and Sue by B. J. Thomas from 1966. Early in the song, B. J. cautions: And yet Billy had to die / And when you hear of the reason why / You’ll hang your head and cry. And by God, the end of that record has been routinely choking me up, play after play, for over fifty years. I’ve included the audio of this record at the end of this blog. Please listen, but grab a hankie first.
I’m not sure why story songs eventually faded away. Burn out, I guess. Or perhaps it was the drop dead, campy — disco even! — turn by Barry Manilow with Copacabana that brought the curtain down. I don’t know. I do know, however, that as much as I, Nick, the 45 Freak, love story songs, the disc jockey Nick hates them. Once these records have their run on the charts they are marvelous once-in-a-while audio treats, but request callers at Oldies stations have a tendency to ask for them all the time. Every day. Sometimes twice in the same air shift. Uhhhh, no. I’ve worked at stations where requests of some of these records were expressly forbidden because of such overplay. About ten years ago, I was with my friend Scotty at the Oldies station he managed in Indianapolis. He showed me his highest rated songs, and most of them were story songs. “Can I really play ‘Ode To Billie Joe’ three times a day?” He asked me in despair. “No,” I told him, ” not unless it’s 1967 all over again.” Hmm. I think I just figured out why story songs fell out of favor.
Story songs have been on my mind the past few months. One story song, in fact, was one of the myriad inspirations for my forthcoming book. (No, it is not one of the ones listed above. You think I’m gonna give that much away this far away from publication??) I will tell you this much: In THE HANDYMAN’S SUMMER, Ed and Rick will learn about the night the lights went out in Porterfield. It’s a sad story, and it just might make you hang your head and cry. Well, crying is optional, but I’m convinced you will enjoy the book. If the comments from my line editor mean anything, I believe this could be the book that takes the guys to an even larger audience. We’ll see…
Meanwhile, it’s summer, and the livin’ is supposed to be easy. Relax and enjoy your personal summertime routines, and I promise, when the weather turns cold again, you’ll have a “Summer” book to read for warmth.
BILLY AND SUE B.J. THOMAS & THE TRIUMPHS 1966 This one barely scraped into the Top 40 in the summer of ’66. I’m not sure how a 45 of it ended up in my siblings’ 45 collection, but I managed to wear it out over the years. I had to order a replacement copy of the original from a Collectors’ store some years back. 😉