When I was in eighth grade, I was obsessed with Top 40 radio. I followed the record charts like sports fans follow the standings, picking my favorite teams and seeing how they fared in the competition to have the most popular song. I listened to the weekly countdown shows and wrote down the surveys of my favorite New York radio stations, the top 14 on WABC and the top 20 on WMCA.
I’d track the Pick Hit of the Week — called the Sure Shot by WMCA — but I was especially intrigued by the WMCA Long Shot, usually a song that was pretty darn good but maybe not as sure-fire a hit as the Sure Shot. The Pick Hit would be something like “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops, which screamed #1 hit, while the Long Shot would be more obscure. Among my favorite long shots were “I’m A Man,” the churning Spencer Davis Group followup to their hit “Gimme Some Loving,” and an intriguing little tune called “Matthew and Son” by a brand-new artist named, of all things, Cat Stevens.
Two songs that WMCA picked as their weekly Long Shot opened lifetime fandom to me. One was by Tommy James and the Shondells, who had had a #1 hit with a rocky song called “Hanky Panky” and made a small splash with their followup, “Say I Am.” The new song, “It’s Only Love,” was a bouncy pop song that showed those guys had some versatility and perhaps a shot at longevity. I told anyone who’d listen (both of them) that the Shondells were going to have another big hit that sounded nothing like “Hanky Panky.” I was right, too, but it wasn’t “It’s Only Love,” it was their fourth single, a little number called “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
My favorite all-time WMCA Long Shot was “Buy for Me the Rain,” a haunting tune by a band with the unlikely name of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I loved that song so much that I went out and plopped down around 4 bucks — a heady price for an eighth-grader — to buy their album. It was kind of fun, but I was puzzled by the jug band and bluegrass sounds that came out of the speakers, with perhaps only one or two songs in the same vein as the first single. Of course, four years and several albums later, the NGDB produced Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy and then Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and I was hooked for life. Fifty years later, I think people finally agree with me.
I was always telling people “you gotta hear this artist,” and some of my favorite moments came a very long time later, when obscure albums I adored were re-released to a new audience and the singer(s) finally got the recognition they deserved. In the early 1970s I pushed friends to listen to Judee Sill’s gorgeous debut album, Parallelograms by Linda Perhacs, and Kongos by John Kongos, and they didn’t sell at the time but now enjoy cult popularity.
Then there was Slade, which kept racking up #1 hits in the U.K. like they were the new Beatles, and I kept predicting they would be huge in America, too, but it never happened. I got some satisfaction 10 years later, when Quiet Riot hit it big with a cover of Slade’s “Cum On Feel the Noize,” which opened the door for Slade themselves to finally break the U.S. charts with “Run Runaway” and “My Oh My.”
I learned through rooting for the Long Shots that excellence is not always recognized in the short term by the marketplace. The good news is in the long term, nearly all of my favorites stand up as classic 1960s and ’70s artists, and I have the pleasure of saying “I told you so.” Of course, I would never.