JAIMIE VERNON – K-TEL’S SHINING STARS
I’ve run out of epitaphs. The battlefield of pop continues to accumulate bodies. During this past week we were reminded of the passing of Karen Carpenter (33 years ago) and the officially recognized Day the Music Died (really? Then what have we been listening to in the intervening 57 years?).
Then came news that Earth, Wind & Fire’s co-founder and frontman, Maurice White, had passed away at the age of 74. Despite faltering health for many years, he apparently lived up to his reputation as a hard-assed taskmaster. It probably made for bad interpersonal band relations, but it made for great R & B music. Music so great, it was even safe for rhythm-less white people to enjoy like me.
I grew up in a mixed race suburban neighbourhood in the East End of Scarborough (since annexed by the City of Toronto) – Malvern specifically. In the last 15 years Malvern has become synonymous with gang violence and drug deals. In the 1970s it was the Promised Land for low-income families to aspire to become middle class families. And back then you could actually make that happen. My parents did.
In 1974 I was 11 years old and still feeling my way through puberty and a musical awakening. I was deeply addicted to listening to AM Radio – time-shifting the dial between 680 CFTR and 1050 CHUM. I usually stuck with the latter as there were always contests (“I listen to CHUM!”) and the radio signal always seemed to be stronger out in our satellite community at the end of the world. I hadn’t discovered LPs as yet and invested heavily in 7” singles [which celebrated their 67th birthday this week as well].
But I only had so much disposable cash between my paper route and my weekly allowance – $1.00 to wash dishes and keep my bedroom tidy. The alternative was to wait until the hits of the month were compiled, chopped into 2-minute audio filets and slapped together on poorly mastered albums by Winnipeg, Manitoba’s K-Tel Records. For $4.99 you could get 22 hits by 22 stars. Or so the TV ads promised. After all, this was Canada where the reality of these albums was 12 hits by 12 stars and 10 additional songs by Canadian acts that record labels were desperately attempting to get people to like. It’s the only logical reason why actress Lois Fletcher appeared on so many of them with her horrific concoction “I Am What I Am”.
There was even a K-Tel board game. You’d roll the dice and wend your way around a recreation of a gold record picking up cards telling you what an amazing A & R guy you were – signing acts, getting radio play, making superstars. It came with a record with three alternating grooves to tell you whether the song you were promoting was a hit, a flop or you broke even. The record itself has become a collectible in its own right.
But I digress.
My Dad had a shitload of these records that I’d often sneak up to my room so I could record the material onto cassette tapes and listen to later: ‘Believe In Music’, ‘22 Explosive Hits’, ‘Bright Side of Music’, ‘Fantastic’, ‘Sound Explosion’, and ‘Music Power’ among them. These were adjective heavy and cleverly ambiguous named album titles stacked with CHUM’s Top 40 – though always six months to two years after they’d fallen off the charts.
My first of these albums was ‘Disco Rock’ in 1975 (Cat. # TC-226). It was a completely fucked up melange of rock tunes, R & B songs and material that was cresting on the cusp of Disco. Check out the playlist below the tape:
- 1. Bee Gees – Jive Talkin’
- Gwen McCrae – Rockin’ Chair
- Earth, Wind & Fire – Shining Star
- Minnie Riperton – Lovin’ You
- Golden Earring – Radar Love
- Labelle – Lady Marmalade
- Bachman-Turner Overdrive – Hey You
- Charity Brown – Take Me in Your Arms
- Billy Preston – Will It Go Round in Circles?
- Joe Simon – Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor)
- Van McCoy – The Hustle
- The Blackbyrds – Walkin’ in Rhythm
- B.T. Express – Express
- Polly Brown – Up in a Puff of Smoke
- Bazuka – Dynomite
- Barry White – I’ll Do for You Anything You Want Me To
- The Ritchie Family – Brazil
- Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes – Bad Luck
- Hot Chocolate – Disco Queen
- Sugarloaf – Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You
Only 20 hits and 20 stars on this particular release it seems. Most of the songs, to this 12 year-old Caucasian, were totally alien to me with the exception of the rock/pop tracks. It was my introduction to soul and R & B. I would investigate every act on this play list as my music palette expanded throughout my teens – including Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire. “Shining Star” is still, to this day, my go-to song for EW & F. From there I went to The Commodores (as they were riding the charts at the same time) with a great instrumental track “Machine Gun”. My Dad, though not always the most politically correct guy on the block, never dissuaded my listening choices and dropped Sly & The Family Stone on me. And that’s saying something for a parent who drove a 1967 Valiant with 8-tracks of The Carpenters, Jim Croce and John Denver in his glove box.
Our school dances never distinguished between styles of music either. I don’t know who DJ’d our Spring Flings but the material was always indicative of the Top40 – including much of the K-Tel regulars. That means the music, like our community, was multi-cultural. There was a general backlash of disco at the time but that usually came down to guys hating it, and girls liking it. Similarly, the guys liked KISS and the girls liked the Bay City Rollers. I didn’t care. Girls danced to disco. Girls danced with ME to disco. Girls danced really closely to R & B and soul. I was too young to catch the pheromone inducing smoothness of Barry White, but Earth, Wind & Fire were an innocuous safe bet for ‘Tween body contact as were The Commodores’ with “Easy”.
I claim very little knowledge of soul and R & B but I love it when I hear it – Chi-Lites, The Stylistics, Spinners, Dramatics, O’Jays, Delfonics, Main Ingredient, The Pursuaders, The Dells, Temptations, Three Degrees, Ruffin & Kendrick, Lou Rawls, Isaac Hayes, Billy Paul, Dorothy Moore, et al. If people think that the Bowies and Glenn Freys of the world are the only artists to affect pop culture, then you’ve never watched ‘Soul Train’ or went to The Apollo or had a James Brown vinyl marathon. This week Maurice White‘s passing put a huge hole in the souls of the rest of the Boomer generation. I can empathize and I feel your loss.
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon