Unpacking the 50 Biggest Hits of the ’70s

After Casey Kasem counted them down, I picked them apart.

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Elton John, live in Hamburg, 1972 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excuse me. I’m about to geek out again. What am I obsessing over now? A meeting of two of my favorite retro things: 1970s music and a marathon Casey Kasem countdown. This one was a very special American Top 40 flashback from 1980 in which Casey counted down the Top 50 hits of the ’70s on Billboard’s Hot 100.

What a decade! Musically, it was my all-time favorite. Sorry, ’80s fanatics. Your pet decade had its moments (particularly the new wave of 1980-83, the post-disco soul of 1980-82, and college rock), but the slick, polished mid-to-late ’80s pop sound, which generally emphasized production over substance, just hasn’t aged as well. The proof is in a 1986 American Top 40 countdown that I recently cringed through.

I’m still trying to process the ’70s Top 50 after five listens, and there’s no better way to organize any list in my head than to write about it. So here we go!

Art, George, and Paul X 2

I’ve always tended to think of The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel as strictly ’60s acts, but not so fast. Like Paul McCartney and George Harrison (who logged three post-Beatles hits between them and The Beatles “Let It Be” in the ’70s Top 50), Paul Simon was represented on the countdown in two incarnations. He was solo on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” number 48, and with Art Garfunkel on “Bridge over Troubled Water,” number 2.

It’s always struck me as interesting that Simon’s biggest post-Simon and Garfunkel success and his only solo number one sounds less like a Paul Simon song than any of his other hits. When I was a kid, I could have sworn it was by a black guy!

Before “50 Ways” in ’75 and the African influences that colored 1986’s Graceland, the closest Simon had ever come to black-ish were The Dixie Hummingbirds singing back-up on “Loves Me Like a Rock” and Aretha Franklin’s gospel version of “Bridge over Troubled Water.”

Today, “50 Ways” sounds more dated to me than vintage Simon generally does, which might have more to do with its ubiquity when I was about six years old than with the production of the record. As for “Bridge,” I’ve always been more about Aretha’s 1971 cover, but until Casey Kasem educated me, I had no idea that it was basically a Garfunkel solo track written by Simon.

Hail Canada… again

The Guess Who was like a Canadian The Hollies — a great second-tier band whose hits spanned both the ’60s and ’70s but with completely different sounds in each decade. Could the same group possibly have been responsible for both “These Eyes” and “American Woman” (number 38)?

Until listening to this countdown, I never noticed how similar “American Woman” is to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”? That they were released mere months apart (“Love” in November of 1969 and “Woman” in January of 1970) must mean the similarities were purely coincidental. Right?

What happened to ’70s classic rock?

“American Woman” aside, classic rock was unrepresented in the decade’s Top 50. No appearances by Grand Funk Railroad, The Steve Miller Band, or The Doobie Brothers, all of whom had a pair of ’70s number ones.

The Rolling Stones were hardly sucking in the seventies, despite the title of their 1981 compilation Sucking in the Seventies, but still, none of the band’s trio of ’70s chart champs — “Brown Sugar,” “Angie,” and “Miss You” — graced the Top 50.

Even Paul McCartney, the hardest-rocking ex-Beatle, was represented by his considerably softer side, via “My Love” (number 28) and “Silly Love Songs” (number 17).

Elton rocks

So “Crocodile Rock” (number 36) was Elton John’s biggest hit of the ’70s? Odd. Is that the first song anyone thinks of when they think of ’70s Elton today? Interestingly, while the bulk of Elton’s ’70s number ones were uptempo pop-rockers (“Bennie and the Jets,” “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Island Girl,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” number 44), he’s best known for mournful ’70s piano songs like “Daniel,” “Rocket Man,” and “Your Song.”

Those uptempos have aged quite well, though. They sound better now than I remember them sounding when I was a kid. I used to hate “Crocodile Rock.” Now I can listen to the entire thing without being tempted to turn it off. But I’d still rather hear “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

A Beatles surprise

Wow. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” (number 15) was the biggest hit by an ex-Beatle in the ’70s. Does that make him the ex-Beatle with the biggest solo single overall? I think it’s pretty safe to assume that John Lennon’s six-weeks-at-number-one “(Just Like) Starting Over” and Paul McCartney’s seven-weeks-at-the-top “Ebony and Ivory” and six-weeker “Says Say Say” surpassed the ’70s success of “My Sweet Lord” in the ’80s.

Family feud

Hmm… The Osmonds’ biggest ’70s hit (“One Bad Apple,” number 11) was bigger than The Jackson 5’s (“I’ll Be There,” number 19). Who knew? I have to admit, I prefer “One Bad Apple” to that particular Jacksons track.

Rod’s triple play

When Rod Stewart hit number one, he really hit number one. Each of his three chart-toppers made the Top 50 (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” number 35, “Maggie May,” number 13, and “Tonight’s the Night,” number six). In fact, only the Bee Gees had more songs in the ’70s Top 50 (more on them later).

But here’s the odd thing about Stewart’s ’70s run. Aside from his three chart-toppers (all good songs, none essential to my listening pleasure), he had only one other Top 10 ’70s single, “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim),” which hit number four and is my favorite of the quartet.

Motown’s ’70s

Then there’s Diana Ross, whose four ’70s number ones were her only Top 10s of the decade. Of her chart-topping quartet, only “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (number 30) made the decade’s Top 50.

With the exception of Ross and The Jackson 5, no Motown acts placed in the decade’s Top 50, not Marvin Gaye, not The Temptations, not The Miracles (each of whom scored two Hot 100 number ones in the ’70s), and not… Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder! Where was Stevie Wonder? He had five number one singles in the 1970s and not one of them ranked among the decade’s 50 biggest hits? I demand a recount!

Single black males

There was a noticeable dearth of soul men in the ’70s Top 50. Unless you’re going to count Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” (number 26) as soul just because he’s black, Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (number 45) is the only song sung rhythm and blues by a black male soloist on the countdown. There was no Wonder or Marvin Gaye, no Al Green, no Al Wilson, no Barry White, no Bill Withers, no Billy Preston, no Carl Douglas, no Eddie Kendricks, no Edwin Starr, no George McCrae, no Isaac Hayes, no Johnnie Taylor, no Michael Jackson solo — and they all went to number one in the ’70s at least once.

In a decade during which a number of male black groups hit number one — including The Chi-Lites, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Miracles, Ohio Players, The O’Jays, The Spinners, and The Temptations — only The Commodores and The Jackson 5 placed a song among the decade’s hottest.

Also shut out…

The Eagles, who also had five ’70s number ones; John Denver, who had four; and The Rolling Stones, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Cher, and Helen Reddy, all of whom had three.

Speaking of no Denver…

Country music’s lone representative in the ’70s Top 50 (and she was only a little bit country) was Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You” (number 41), which means country-crossover number ones by Anne Murray, Billy Swan, B.J. Thomas, Charlie Rich, Freddie Fender, Glen Campbell, Mac Davis, and Ray Stevens were nowhere to be heard.

Two-number-one-hit wonders strike out

Despite topping the Hot 100 twice in the ’70s, Billy Preston, Frankie Valli, Glen Campbell, Jim Croce, Marvin Gaye, Neil Sedaka, Ohio Players, Ray Stevens, Ringo Starr, and The Staple Singers (along with the aforementioned classic rockers) all missed the decade’s Top 50, though Valli’s group The Four Seasons slipped in with “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” at number 42.

Comeback kings

The ’70s were great to returning pop and rock vets from previous eras. Like Neil Sedaka and Frankie Valli, Chuck Berry, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, and Sammy Davis Jr. all reached the Hot 100 summit, but of all the resurgent chart-summiters, only The Four Seasons made the final 50.

A number of performers most associated with the ’60s also missed the ’70s Top 50 despite topping Billboard’s Hot 100 that decade: Dionne Warwick, Herb Alpert, Janis Joplin, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and The 5th Dimension’s Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo.

The ’70s Top 50 was dominated by quintessentially ’70s acts, which might help explain Motown’s near shut-out. By contrast, two of the ’80s biggest hits — Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” — were by acts who were most prominent in the ’70s.

Nonsense song

According to Dewey Bunnell, the member of America who wrote the then-trio’s first and biggest hit, “A Horse with No Name” (number 22), the song is about absolutely nothing. That would make it the ’70s musical forerunner of Seinfeld.

Disco disappoints

Though it was the decade of disco, there were actually fewer disco songs than I expected inside the ’70s Top 50 and only one in the Top 10.

Aside from Andy Gibb’s two entries (“I Just Want to Be Your Everything,” number 40, and “Shadow Dancing,” number 12), two of Bee Gees’ four (“Night Fever,” number 16, and “Staying Alive,” number nine), Donna Summer’s two (“Hot Stuff,” number 33, and “Bad Girls,” number 24), and Rod Stewart’s “Sexy” disco turn, the genre also was represented by Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive,” number 37), The Emotions (“Best of My Love,” number 20), and Chic (“Le Freak,” number 18). That means none of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s four ’70s number ones made the Top 50 cut.

The most-shocking M.I.A. disco smash

It also means Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” missed. That’s actually fairly suspicious, considering that it was a huge hit that spent four weeks at the top and was Billboard’s number three Hot 100 single of 1976. The Four Seasons’ aforementioned “December 1963” was the fourth biggest hit of 1976, so how did it make the list and not “Disco Lady”?

WTH, Part 2?

If, as Casey said, “Le Freak” was the biggest disco song of all time, why was it lower on the list than “Night Fever,” “Staying Alive,” and “Shadow Dancing”? And how did the number one song of 1974 — “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand — end up all the way down at number 46?

Bee Gees revelation

Before listening to this countdown, I would have called Bee Gees’ signature song “Stayin’ Alive” and their biggest hit “Night Fever.” After all, the latter spent a whopping eight weeks at the top. But the trio’s biggest chart hit was actually “How Deep Is Your Love” (number eight), which spent 17 weeks in the Top 10 and forever on the Hot 100.

Hello, ‘80s!

The Knack’s “My Sharona” (number nine) was the most ’80s-sounding hit in the ’70s Top 50.

No thanks!

I’ve never cared for Don McClean’s “American Pie” (number seven). It might be my least favorite song in the Top 50. As much as I love Three Dog Night, I’ve never been a fan of “Joy to the World” (number three) either. (Fun fact: “Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” the opening line of “Joy,” gave me one of my childhood nicknames, “Bullfrog.”)

All by myself

Before listening to Casey count down the biggest hits of the ’70s, I never would have guessed that the biggest one by a foreign act was “Alone Again (Naturally)” (number five) by Ireland’s Gilbert O’Sullivan. It might very well be my favorite song in the Top 10, closely followed by “My Sharona” and then “How Deep Is Your Love.”

Built for the future

Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (number four) was the most durable song in the Top 10. It’s a true pop standard, still being sung by singers who were born decades after it hit.

“Friend”-less at the top

Where was James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” one of the ’70s most-definitive singer-songwriter hits (though written by a different singer-songwriter, Carole King)? The Taylor-sung cover of King’s Tapestry track entered Billboard’s Top 40 the same week in 1971 that the King-sung Tapestry track “It’s Too Late” (number 14) slipped into the number one position for the first of five weeks.

Taylor’s wife-to-be Carly Simon was also in the Top 40 that week with her debut, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” I would have expected her signature “You’re So Vain” — one of the first pop songs I can remember ever hearing — to be higher than number 29.

Love of “Life”

For a decade that was so heavy on one-hit-wonder number ones, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the biggest hit of the decade, “You Light up My Life,” was sung by one-hitter (in the Hot 100’s Top 40) Debby Boone.

Now, on with the countdown…

50.) “Family Affair” Sly & The Family Stone

49.) “Kiss You All Over” Exile

48.) “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” Paul Simon

47.) “The Way We Were” Barbra Streisand

46.) “I Think I Love You” The Partridge Family

45.) “Me and Mrs. Jones” Billy Paul

44.) “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” Elton John and Kiki Dee

43.) “Three Times a Lady” The Commodores

42.) “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” The Four Seasons

41.) “I Honestly Love You” Olivia Newton-John

40.) “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” Andy Gibb

39.) “Let It Be” The Beatles

38.) “American Woman” The Guess Who

37.) “I Will Survive” Gloria Gaynor

36.) “Crocodile Rock” Elton John

35.) “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” Rod Stewart

34.) “Without You” Nilsson

33.) “Hot Stuff” Donna Summer

32.) “Love Will Keep Us Together” The Captain & Tennille

31.) “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” B.J. Thomas

30.) “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” Diana Ross

29.) “You’re So Vain” Carly Simon

28.) “My Love” Paul McCartney & Wings

27.) “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” Dawn featuring Tony Orlando

26.) “I Can See Clearly Now” Johnny Nash

25.) “Reunited” Peaches & Herb

24.) “Bad Girls” Donna Summer

23.) “Close to You” Carpenters

22.) “A Horse with No Name” America

21.) “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” Bee Gees

20.) “Best Of My Love” The Emotions

19.) “I’ll Be There” The Jackson 5

18.) “Le Freak” Chic

17.) “Silly Love Songs” Paul McCartney & Wings

16.) “Night Fever” Bee Gees

15.) “My Sweet Lord” George Harrison

14.) “It’s Too Late” Carole King

13.) “Maggie May” Rod Stewart

12.) “Shadow Dancing” Andy Gibb

11.) “One Bad Apple” The Osmonds

10.) “My Sharona” The Knack

9.) “Stayin’ Alive” Bee Gees

8.) “How Deep Is Your Love” Bee Gees

7.) “American Pie” Don McLean

6.) “Tonight’s the Night” Rod Stewart

5.) “Alone Again (Naturally)” Gilbert O’Sullivan

4.) “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” Roberta Flack

3.) “Joy to the World” Three Dog Night

2.) “Bridge over Troubled Water” Simon and Garfunkel

1.) “You Light Up My Life” Debby Boone

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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