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Soft Rock’s Best Year Ever? 10 Tunes from 1976

Now that’s the spirit! In 1976, the United States of America celebrated its 200th birthday. I celebrated my tenth. America celebrated with parades, fireworks and concerts. I celebrated with a big slab of Texas sheet cake and a new G.I. Joe action figure. Advantage: me. And even though I got grounded for trying to sneak in to see Raquel Welch (along with Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel) in Mother, Jugs & Speed, my dad still let me tune the car radio to my favorite stations.  Let’s look back on that bicentennial year with these 10 fantastic soft rock hits:

“If You Leave Me Now” – Chicago

Released: July 1976
Chart Peak: #1 Billboard Hot 100 on October 23

Getting dumped never sounded so good.  As far as soft rock goes, this song’s got it all: strings, French horns, light rhythm section with acoustic guitar, and Peter Cetera’s overdubbed falsetto floating on top of it all, singing his sappy, pleading lyrics. The band wasn’t wild about including this on Chicago X, but they were overruled by producer James Guercio.  The producer knew best as it shot to #1 in both the US and UK, in addition to winning a couple of Grammy awards.

“You Are the Woman” – Firefall

Released: August 1976
Chart Peak: #9 Billboard Hot 100 on December 11

Immediately identifiable by the flute in the song’s intro. It’s got a country-rock feel, especially in the harmony vocals and the guitar solo. I dug the music, but the record’s popularity was quite likely solidified on the request lines of radio stations around the country. What teenage girl didn’t want to hear this song dedicated to them? Wise suitors knew exactly what to do. “I saw your face and that’s the last I’ve seen of my heart” is a helluva line.

“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”  – England Dan & John Ford Coley

Released: May 1976
Chart Peak: #2 Billboard Hot 100 on September 25

Is this song about a booty call or not? It certainly seems like it, but there’s also talk of walks through a windy park and drives along the beach so it’s open for interpretation. This soft country-rocker turned out to be the biggest hit of the duo’s career. With a piano-based intro that sounds like it was taken from a Manilow single, the verse builds into a hook-filled chorus featuring soaring strings & backing vocals, and pleading guitar licks. This thing is brief with no solos – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus  – hit ‘em with the hooks and be on your way.

“Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” – Diana Ross

Released: September 1975
Chart Peak: #1 Billboard Hot 100 on January 24, 1976

Written by songsmiths Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser, this single was a huge hit despite the fact that the title ends a preposition with ; ) I love how this thing builds and by the time it gets to the strings and wordless background vocals, they take it all away and we start again. But the arrangement takes a backseat to Ross’s urgent vocals throughout. This single served as the theme song to the 1975 film Mahogany, starring Ross as a woman of humble origins who becomes a famous fashion designer. The film was directed by Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

“Sara Smile” – Daryl Hall & John Oates

Released: January 1976
Chart Peak: #4 Billboard Hot 100 on June 26

I’m relaxed from the first bent note of guitar over a subdued organ pad and when the blue-eyed soul vocals of Daryl Hall come in – I’m in love with Sara before he’s even mentioned her name. And that falsetto a capella break before the chorus? Fuhgeddaboudit. Hall wrote this tune for his longtime collaborator/girlfriend Sara Allen (his perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card, I’ll bet). Daryl Hall & John Oates charted 28 Top 40 hits after “Sara Smile” but I’m not sure they ever topped this effort.

“I Can’t Hear You No More” – Helen Reddy

Released: July 1976
Chart Peak: #29 Billboard Hot 100 on September 11

My sleeper pick for this list. I’ve always associated Reddy with slower songs (“I Am Woman,” “Angie Baby”) in which my younger self had no interest. So when I first heard this disco take on a ’60s Goffin-King tune, I was pleasantly surprised, as it turns out to be a catchy disco tune. Evidently, Reddy didn’t even want to record the thing, recalling “That was the record company really putting its foot down and saying, ‘You have to have a disco hit.'” Glad they did.

“Moonlight Feels Right” – Starbuck

Released: December 1975
Chart Peak: #3 Billboard Hot 100 on July 31, 1976

This band was so good, they named a coffee shop after them : ] This song sets itself apart from other soft rockers of the time with its heavy reliance on Mini-Moog synth sounds.  When this song was on Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40 radio show, it was promoted as the first rock song ever to feature a marimba (OK, cool). Most groups in ’76 would have opted for a guitar solo, but it’s the fast-handed solo from Bo Wagner that makes this song venti.

“Get Closer” – Seals & Crofts

Released: April 1976
Chart Peak: #6 Billboard Hot 100 on July 24

Everything works with this hit single. Starting with simple piano and bass, this tune quickly builds throughout the verse, adding strings, then vocals, then harmony vocals, and when the guest vocals of soul singer Carolyn Willis finally hit, I’m carried away. Duo member Jim Seals is the older brother of England Dan (see above) and that either led to some soft rock sibling rivalry or some fantastic sing-alongs around the piano at family gatherings.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” – Olivia Newton-John

Released: August 1976
Chart Peak: #33 Billboard Hot 100 on September 18

Written and produced by John Farrar, this was one of the last country-flavored soft rock hits for Olivia before she and Farrar changed musical direction to a more pop sound with the help of her starring roles in Grease and Xanadu. I’m usually not a fan of slide guitar, but it doesn’t matter when I hear Olivia’s sweet, pure voice. And what a great chorus hook, complete with ONJ’s overdubbed vocals. While this single barely inched into the Top 40, it hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. I much prefer it to the Journey hit of the same name.

“Lowdown” – Boz Scaggs

Released: June 1976
Chart Peak: #3 Billboard Hot 100 on October 9

The only top-down smooth disco tune you’ll ever need. Those staccato woodwinds, that cymbal drive, those sublime background vocals, the slinky bass line – all grooving over synth and orchestra pads! Have mercy! Allegedly, this tune was selected for the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, but the label declined. No matter, Boz used his walk to win a Grammy award for Best R&B song, and place on 4(!) Billboard charts: #3 Pop, #11 Adult Contemporary, #5 R&B, #12 Disco. Its album, Silk Degrees, would stay on the album charts for over two years. Notable players on this tune include drummer Jeff Porcaro, keyboardist David Paich, and bassist David Hungate – all 21 years old at the time of recording – who would soon form Toto

While I couldn’t tell you where those action figures are, I know exactly where Boz Scaggs is 46 year later – still on stage. [Editor’s note: I witnessed it with my own ears; you can read my review here.] Other artists like Hall & Oats and Chicago continue to tour behind these songs, a testament to their soft-rock eminence. And when I feel cold, these tunes warm me. It’s them and me, forever. It’d still be nice to have those action figures, though. And that old Raquel Welch poster, too.

Mark Seaman asks a musical question

Soft Rock’s Best Year Ever? 10 Tunes from 1978

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