by Mark Seaman
(Known across the globe as “The Soft Rock Kid,” Mark is imminently qualified to break down the best years in soft rock. This is the first in an occasional series.)
In 1978, I turned 12 years old and my world consisted of Trapper Keepers, Life cereal, and rooting for the Houston Oilers. The top TV shows of 1978 were Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, and Mork & Mindy while Grease, Animal House, and Superman reigned at the box office. Meanwhile, these ten soft rockers were all over our radio airwaves:
“Baby Come Back” – Player
Released: October 1977
Chart Peak: #1 Billboard Hot 100 on January 14, 1978
Released in late ‘77, this smash owned the charts in January 1978, overcoming a barrage of tough competition from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It sounds a lot like a Hall & Oates tune to these ears (that’s a compliment), but that bass intro grabs you from the get go and then the harmonized chorus hook takes it up a notch. Plus, who hasn’t pleaded with an old flame for their affection, using something along the lines of “you can blame it all on me. I was wrong, and I just can’t live without you.”
“Just the Way You Are” – Billy Joel
Released: September 1977
Chart Peak: #3 Billboard Hot 100 on February 18, 1978 (#1 Adult Contemporary)
The rare ‘70s song that has found its way into the Great American Songbook. An unabashed love song, this arrangement sounds like it might have come directly from the lounge at the Holiday Inn by the airport, but strong writing, along with a solo from legendary jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, elevated it to its timeless status. Winner of Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Not to mention I absolutely crush this one at karaoke.
“We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again” – England Dan & John Ford Coley
Released: February 1978
Chart Peak: #9 Billboard Hot 100 on April 15 (#1 Adult Contemporary)
Good music from good Texas boys – a great tune with just a sprinkling of country. The duo placed six soft rock tunes in the Top 40 from 1976-79 and I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Here we’ve got just the right mix of strings, electric guitar fills, female background harmonies, and a chorus so simple its only lyrics are the song title.
“With a Little Luck” – Wings
Released: March 1978
Chart Peak: #1 Billboard Hot 100 on May 20
London Town isn’t the best Wings album by a long shot, but this tune, with it’s opening electric piano, positive lyrics, and easily singable melody, is easily the highlight of the album and immediately identifiable as a Paul McCartney cut. There’s also a lot of synth pads here considering it was 1978. Radio stations would sometimes play the shorter 3:13 edit, but with a little luck, we’d get the full 5:45 album version through our AM transistor radios.
“You Belong to Me” – Carly Simon
Released: April 1978
Chart Peak: #6 Billboard Hot 100 on June 24 (#4 Adult Contemporary)
Ahhh, that slinky bass line intro, then the Fender Rhodes, then some smooth vocals, then a David Sanborn sax solo takes this thing over the top. This beauty features an all-star cast, familiar to geeks like me who read the liner notes of albums as if he was studying for a midterm: written by Simon and Michael McDonald, background vocals by James Taylor, and the backing band were all members of the jazz supergroup Stuff.
“Reminiscing” – Little River Band
Released: June 1978
Chart Peak: #3 Billboard Hot 100 on October 28
My pick for this Australian band’s best release. The laid back groove, the just-behind-the-beat vocals, the sublime electric piano, the references to Glenn Miller and Cole Porter, the exquisite vocal harmonies and beautiful instrumental arrangement – it all works. And just when you think “a flugelhorn solo would go good about now,” Bob Venier appears and makes it happen. The tune was hailed as a favorite by no less than John Lennon and Frank Sinatra; the latter calling it “the best 1970s song in the world.”
“Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’” – Kenny Loggins with Stevie Nicks
Released: July 1978
Chart Peak: #5 Billboard Hot 100 on October 28
This is my favorite Loggins tune and, considering his output, that’s really saying something. It’s the vocal harmonies that grab me, followed by the positivity of the lyrics. But it’s the build-up and anticipation of the chorus that makes this song for me (and a tasty sax solo never hurts). Written by Loggins with Melissa Manchester and produced by Bob James, a smooth jazz keyboardist becoming known in ‘78 as the guy who wrote and performed the theme to the TV sitcom Taxi.
“How Much I Feel” – Ambrosia
Released: August 1978
Chart Peak: #3 Billboard Hot 100 on November 18
Classic blue-eyed soul. Catchy melody, smooth background vocals, tasty piano and string arrangements – it’s like a soft rock blueprint. Ambrosia, given their break by Zubin Mehta, then-conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, would crack the Top 40 five times between 1975 and 1980. Band leader David Pack would go on to work with artists such as Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Olivia Newton-John, and Linda Ronstadt.
“I Just Wanna Stop” – Gino Vannelli
Released: August 1978
Chart Peak: #4 Billboard Hot 100 on December 9
Vannelli famously got a record contract after cornering Herb Alpert on the A&M lot and forcing him to listen to a demo. In 1975, he toured with Stevie Wonder and made his American TV debut on Soul Train. On this soft rocker, Gino’s brother Joe almost steals the show for his work on the electric piano, but it’s hard to beat those skillful background vocals and an Ernie Watts saxophone solo. Nominated for Grammy award for Best Pop Male Vocal Performance, this release became Vannelli’s biggest single.
“Time Passages” – Al Stewart
Released: September 1978
Chart Peak: #7 Billboard Hot 100 on December 9 (#1 Adult Contemporary)
Immediately recognizable for the guitar accompaniment part that runs throughout, and the final lyric of the chorus. (Full disclosure, for several weeks I thought the name of this single was “Last Train Home Tonight.”) Produced by Alan Parsons, the use of strings and Phil Kenzie’s screaming alto sax are impeccable. This release spent ten consecutive weeks atop the Adult Contemporary chart from November 1978 through January 1979 – the longest chart-topping run up to that time.
A formidable year indeed for soft rock. If it was hot, Johnny Fever was spinning it on WKRP in Cincinnati (with more news, and Les Nessman). As great as 1978 was, let’s not rush to crown it soft rock’s best year ever. Join me next time when we’ll take a look at another stellar year in the soft rock era.