John Denver has his first #1 hit with “Sunshine On My Shoulders”

Year
1974
Month Day
March 30

Of his many enormous hits in the 1970s, none captured the essence of John Denver better than his first #1 song, “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” which reached the top of the pop charts on March 30, 1974.

“Sunshine On My Shoulders” was John Denver’s attempt to write a sad song, which is really all one needs to know in order to understand what made Denver so appealing to so many. “I was so down I wanted to write a feeling-blue song,” he told Seventeen magazine in 1974, “[but] this is what came out.” Originally released on his 1971 album Poems, Prayers and Promises, Denver’s lovely ode to the restorative powers of sunlight only became a smash hit when re-released on his John Denvers Greatest Hits album in late 1973—an album that went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide.

It should come as no surprise that an artist who played such an enormous role in the softening of mainstream pop music in the 1970s would find little support from rock critics. “Television music” marked by “repellent narcissism” was Rolling Stone‘s take on Denver. “I find that sunshine makes me happy, too,” wrote Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, “[but] there’s more originality and spirit in Engelbert Humperdinck.”

Such critical response did little to dampen public enthusiasm for Denver’s records during his heyday, however. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, John Denver has sold 32.5 million records—4.5 million more than Michael Bolton, and only 4.5 million fewer than Bob Dylan.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico, John Denver died in California on October 12, 1997, when his ultra-light aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay.

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W.C. Handy—the “Father of the Blues”—dies

Year
1958
Month Day
March 28

“With all their differences, my forebears had one thing in common: if they had any musical talent, it remained buried.” So wrote William Christopher Handy in his autobiography in discussing the absence of music in his home life as a child. Born in northern Alabama in 1873, Handy was raised in a middle-class African American family that intended for him a career in the church. To them and to his teachers, W.C. Handy wrote, “Becoming a musician would be like selling my soul to the devil.” It was a risk that the young Handy decided to take. He was internationally famous by the time he wrote his 1941 memoir, Father of the Blues, although “Stepfather” might have been a more accurate label for the role he played in bringing Blues into the musical mainstream. The significance of his role is not to be underestimated, however. W.C. Handy, one of the most important figures in 20th-century American popular music history, died in New York City on March 28, 1958.

While Handy’s teachers might not have considered a career in music to be respectable, they provided him with the tools that made his future work possible. Naturally blessed with a fantastic ear, Handy was drilled in formal musical notation as a schoolboy. “When I was no more than ten,” Hand wrote in Father of the Blues, I could catalogue almost any sound that came to my ears, using the tonic sol-fa system. I knew the whistle of each of the river boats on the Tennessee … Even the bellow of the bull became in my mind a musical note, and in later years I recorded this memory in the ‘Hooking cow Blues.’” The talent and the inclination to take the traditional black music he heard during his years as a traveling musician and capture it accurately in technically correct sheet music would be Handy’s great professional contribution. It not only made the music that came to be called “the Blues” playable by other professional musicians, but it also added the fundamental musical elements of the Blues into the vocabulary of professional song-composers. Jazz standards “The Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” are the most famous of Handy’s own compositions, but his musical legacy can be heard in the works of composers as varied as George Gershwin and Keith Richards.

More than 25,000 mourners filled the streets around Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church for the funeral of W.C. Handy, who died at the age of 85 on March 28, 1958.

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Black music gets whitewashed, as Georgia Gibbs hits the pop charts with “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)”

Year
1955
Month Day
March 26

For its time, the mid-1950s, the lyrical phrase “You got to roll with me, Henry” was considered risqué just as the very label “rock and roll” was understood to have a sexual connotation. The line comes from an Etta James record originally called “Roll With Me Henry” and later renamed “The Wallflower.” Already a smash hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart, it went on to become a pop hit in the spring of 1955, but not for Etta James. Re-recorded with “toned-down” lyrics by the white pop singer Georgia Gibbs, “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” entered the pop charts on March 26, 1955, setting off a dubious trend known as “whitewashing.”

In addition to replacing “Roll” with “Dance,” the lyrics of the Georgia Gibbs version omitted lines like “If you want romancin/You better learn some dancin,’” but its most important change was more subtle. Even in an era when radio audiences rarely saw the faces of the singers they listened to, the rhythmic and vocal style of the Georgia Gibbs record made it as obviously white as the Etta James record was black. And while many Americans might have preferred the Etta James version to the Georgia Gibbs cover had they heard the two in succession, they would rarely have the opportunity to do so. Pop radio was almost exclusively white radio in 1955 America, and middle-of-the-road artists like Nat “King” Cole and the Ink Spots were rare exceptions to this rule.

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The Moondog Coronation Ball is history’s first rock concert


Year
1952
Month Day
March 21

Breathless promotion on the local radio station. Tickets selling out in a single day. Thousands of teenagers, hours before show time, lining up outside the biggest venue in town. The scene outside the Cleveland Arena on a chilly Friday night in March more than 50 years ago would look quite familiar to anyone who has ever attended a major rock concert. But no one on this particular night had ever even heard of a “rock concert.” This, after all, was the night of an event now recognized as history’s first major rock-and-roll show: the Moondog Coronation Ball, held in Cleveland on March 21, 1952.

The “Moondog” in question was the legendary disk jockey Alan Freed, the self-styled “father of rock and roll” who was then the host of the enormously popular “Moondog Show” on Cleveland AM radio station WJW. Freed had joined WJW in 1951 as the host of a classical-music program, but he took up a different kind of music at the suggestion of Cleveland record-store owner Leo Mintz, who had noted with great interest the growing popularity, among young customers of all races, of rhythm-and-blues records by black musicians. Mintz decided to sponsor three hours of late-night programming on WJW to showcase rhythm-and-blues music, and Alan Freed was installed as host. Freed quickly took to the task, adopting a new, hip persona and vocabulary that included liberal use of the phrase “rock and roll” to describe the music he was now promoting. As the program grew in popularity, Mintz and Freed decided to do something that had never been done: hold a live dance event featuring some of the artists whose records were appearing on Freed’s show. Dubbed “The Moondog Coronation Ball,” the event was to feature headliners Paul Williams and his Hucklebuckers and Tiny Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders (a black instrumental group that performed in Scottish kilts). In the end, however, the incredible popular demand for tickets proved to be the event’s undoing.

Helped along by massive ticket counterfeiting and possibly by overbooking on the part of the event’s sponsors, an estimated 20,000-25,000 fans turned out for an event being held in an arena with a capacity of only 10,000. Less than an hour into the show, the massive overflow crowd broke through the gates that were keeping them outside, and police quickly moved in to stop the show almost as soon as it began. On the radio the very next evening, Alan Freed offered an apology to listeners who had tried to attend the canceled event. By way of explanation, Freed said: “If anyone…had told us that some 20 or 25,000 people would try to get into a dance—I suppose you would have been just like me. You would have laughed and said they were crazy.”

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First Gold Record awarded to Perry Como for “Catch a Falling Star”


Year
1958
Month Day
March 14

For as long as most people have been buying popular music on records, tapes and compact disks, the records, tapes and disks they’ve bought have carried labels like “Certified Gold!” and “Double Platinum!!” Those labels have been in use since the early days of the rock-and-roll era, when a young trade organization called the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) created and trademarked its precious-metals-based scale for measuring music sales. On March 14, 1958, the RIAA awarded its first official Gold Record—it had gifted an unofficial gold-sprayed record to Glen Miller in 1942—record to to Perry Como for his smash-hit single “Catch A Falling Star.”

Those who’ve been conditioned to believe that rock and roll wiped out everything in its path on its way toward dominating late-20th-century pop music may be surprised to hear that Perry Como was such a viable commercial artist fully two years after the arrival of Elvis Presley. Como, a 50-something holdover in a cozy cardigan sweater, stood for everything that youthful rock and roll did not, after all. Where rock and roll promised sex, excitement and social change, Como’s act evoked much more staid pursuits. Yet “Catch A Falling Star” was not the only hit record for Perry Como in the early years of the rock-and-roll “revolution.” Songs like “Hot Diggity” and “Round And Round” more than held their own against more rebellious fare, and while they might not have been “cool,” they didn’t need to be in order to find an audience in late 1950s America.

It is certainly worth noting, however, that the RIAA waited until Elvis Presley’s string of pre-Army hits was over before codifying what was formerly a loose, PR-driven process and creating an objective standard (500,000 sales) for the Gold Record. After the first Gold Record was awarded to Perry Como for “Catch A Falling Star,” the RIAA’s next honoree was Laurie London for “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.” And while Elvis Presley was the third artist to receive such an honor (for “Hard Headed Woman” in August 1958), his single Gold Record through the end of 1961 had him tied on the RIAA’s list with Lawrence Welk (whose “Calcutta” was certified Gold in February 1961).

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Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler hits #1 with “Ballad of the Green Berets”


Year
1966
Month Day
March 05

Thanks to Hollywood, America’s collective memory of the Vietnam War is now inextricably linked with the popular music of that era. More specifically, it is linked with the music of the late-’60s counterculture and antiwar movement. But opposition to the war was far from widespread back in 1966—a fact that was reflected not just in popular opinion polls, but in the pop charts, too. Near the very height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, on March 5, 1966, American popular-music fans made a #1 hit out of a song called “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler.

Sadler was exactly what his name and uniform implied he was: a real-life, active-duty member of the United States Army Special Forces—the elite unit popularly known as the Green Berets. In early 1965, Sadler suffered a severe punji stick injury that brought a premature end to his tour of duty as a combat medic in Vietnam. During his long hospitalization back in the United States, Sadler, an aspiring musician prior to the war, wrote and submitted to music publishers an epic ballad that eventually made its way in printed form to Robin Moore, author of the then-current nonfiction book called The Green Berets. Moore worked with Sadler to whittle his 12-verse original down to a pop-radio-friendly length, and Sadler recorded the song himself in late 1965, first for distribution only within the military, and later for RCA when the original took off as an underground hit. Within two weeks of its major-label release, The Ballad of the Green Berets had sold more than a million copies, going on to become Billboard magazine’s #1 single for all of 1966.

While it would not be accurate to call “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” a pro-war song, it was certainly a song that enjoyed popularity among those who opposed the growing anti-war movement. A year after “Green Berets” came out, Buffalo Springfield would release the anti-war anthem “For What It’s Worth,” which continues to be Hollywood’s go-to choice for many films and television programs depicting American involvement in the Vietnam War. On this day in 1966, however, the American airwaves belonged to a clean cut, uniformed member of the U.S. Army and his anti-antiwar epic.

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“I Will Survive” wins the first—and last—Grammy ever awarded for Best Disco Recording


Year
1980
Month Day
February 27

After watching it utterly dominate the musical landscape of the late 1970s, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave disco their stamp of approval, deciding to give a Grammy award for Best Disco Recording, just as the musical style was preparing to die. The first and final Grammy for Best Disco Recording was awarded on February 27, 1980, to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

On a fundamental business level, there was growing disillusion within the record industry by early 1980 regarding disco’s profit potential. As popular as the music was on the radio and in the clubs, disco had failed to produce many of the kind of dependable, multi-platinum acts that the industry depended on for its biggest profits. It was also hard to ignore the obvious signs of the backlash in the popular culture of the time. One of 1979’s biggest acts, the Knack, was being marketed explicitly as the group that had come to destroy disco. At a Chicago White Sox game the previous July, tens of thousands of marauding disco-haters forced the cancellation and forfeit of a game at Comiskey Park on “Disco Sucks” promotion night. And then there was Ethel Merman’s disco version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a sure sign of the coming apocalypse that the Academy chose to ignore.

The Best Disco Recording category, recognized by the Grammys for the first time on this day in 1980, was summarily eliminated from the following year’s awards.

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Western Roman Empire falls

Year
476
Month Day
September 04

Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, is deposed by Odoacer, a German barbarian who proclaims himself king of Italy.

Odoacer was a mercenary leader in the Roman imperial army when he launched his mutiny against the young emperor. At Piacenza, he defeated Roman General Orestes, the emperor’s powerful father, and then took Ravenna, the capital of the Western empire since 402. Although Roman rule continued in the East, the crowning of Odoacer marked the end of the original Roman Empire, which centered in Italy.

READ MORE: 8 Reasons Why Rome Fell 

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Watts Rebellion begins

Year
1965
Month Day
August 11

In the predominantly Black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, racial tension reaches a breaking point after two white policemen scuffle with a Black motorist suspected of drunken driving. A crowd of spectators gathered near the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street to watch the arrest and soon grew angry by what they believed to be yet another incident of racially motivated abuse by the police. 

An uprising soon began, spurred on by residents of Watts who were embittered after years of economic and political isolation. The rioters eventually ranged over a 50-square-mile area of South Central Los Angeles, looting stores and torching buildings as snipers fired at police and firefighters. Finally, with the assistance of thousands of National Guardsmen, the violence was quelled on August 16. 

The five days of violence left 34 dead, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested and $40 million worth of property destroyed. The Watts Rebellion, also know as the Watts Riots or the Watts Uprising, foreshadowed many rebellions to occur in ensuing years, including the 1967 Detroit Riots and Newark Riots. 

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Watergate burglars arrested

Year
1972
Month Day
June 17

In the early morning of June 17, 1972, five men are arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office-hotel-apartment complex in Washington, D.C. In their possession were burglary tools, cameras and film, and three pen-size tear gas guns. At the scene of the crime, and in rooms the men rented at the Watergate, sophisticated electronic bugging equipment was found. Three of the men were Cuban exiles, one was a Cuban American, and the fifth was James W. McCord, Jr., a former CIA agent. That day, the suspects, who said they were “anti-communists,” were charged with felonious burglary and possession of implements of crime.

READ MORE: The Watergate Scandal: A Timeline 

On June 18, however, it was revealed that James McCord was the salaried security coordinator for President Richard Nixon’s reelection committee. The next day, E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a former White House aide, was linked to the five suspects. In July, G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel for the Committee for the Re-election of the President, was also implicated as an accomplice. In August, President Nixon announced that a White House investigation of the Watergate break-in had concluded that administration officials were not involved. In September, Liddy, Hunt, McCord, and the four Cubans were indicted by a federal grand jury on eight counts of breaking into and illegally bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

In September and October, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post uncovered evidence of illegal political espionage carried out by the White House and the Committee for the Re-election of the President, including the existence of a secret fund kept for the purpose and the existence of political spies hired by the committee. Despite these reports, and a growing call for a Watergate investigation on Capitol Hill, Richard Nixon was reelected president in November 1972 in a landslide victory.

In January 1973, five of the Watergate burglars pleaded guilty, and two others, Liddy and McCord, were convicted. At their sentencing on March 23, U.S. District Court Judge John J. Sirica read a letter from McCord charging that the White House had conducted an extensive “cover-up” to conceal its connection with the break-in. In April, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst and two top White House advisers, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, resigned, and White House counsel John Dean was fired.

On May 17, 1973, the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, headed by Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, began televised proceedings on the rapidly escalating Watergate affair. One week later, Harvard Law professor Archibald Cox was sworn in as special Watergate prosecutor. During the Senate hearings, former White House legal counsel John Dean testified that the Watergate break-in had been approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell with the knowledge of White House advisers Ehrlichman and Haldeman, and that President Nixon had been aware of the cover-up. Meanwhile, Watergate prosecutor Cox and his staff began to uncover widespread evidence of political espionage by the Nixon re-election committee, illegal wiretapping of thousands of citizens by the administration, and contributions to the Republican Party in return for political favors.

READ MORE: Watergate: Who Did What and Where Are They Now?

In July, the existence of what were to be called the Watergate tapes–official recordings of White House conversations between Nixon and his staff–was revealed during the Senate hearings. Cox subpoenaed these tapes, and after three months of delay President Nixon agreed to send summaries of the recordings. Cox rejected the summaries, and Nixon fired him. His successor as special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, leveled indictments against several high-ranking administration officials, including Mitchell and Dean, who were duly convicted.

Public confidence in the president rapidly waned, and by the end of July 1974 the House Judiciary Committee had adopted three articles of impeachment against President Nixon: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process. On July 30, under coercion from the Supreme Court, Nixon finally released the Watergate tapes. On August 5, transcripts of the recordings were released, including a segment in which the president was heard instructing Haldeman to order the FBI to halt the Watergate investigation. Four days later, Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign. On September 8, his successor, President Gerald Ford, pardoned him from any criminal charges.

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