Why Don’t You Tell Me ‘Bout the Mystery Song?

Even as a lifelong record collector, it’s been a long time since I had a formal “want list.” The last one was exhausted close to 15 years ago, just as both used record stores and my willingness to deal with them were both starting to wind down. The obscure oldies that catch my interest now can almost always be bought, or at least streamed, somewhere online. Soundhound and Shazam help me identify the bulk of them, even those in languages other than English.

But it was not always thus. There were a handful of songs that couldn’t go on my want list, much less be crossed off, because I didn’t know what they were. They were fragments of songs I’d heard on airchecks. Or heard on a distant AM signal. Often the issue was that they were in a language other than English. Usually there was just enough to sound intriguing — the maniacal screaming at the end of a song on a Beaumont, Texas, AM station’s Cajun format that sounded like ‘60s garage rock, for instance. (It turned out to be the future Country chart artist Jo-El Sonnier.)

Two years ago, Canada’s CBC Radio One Vancouver made an on-air event out of helping two sisters track down the obscure Canadian song that they had taped off the radio more than twenty years earlier. I’ve helped other people, often outside the business, solve their own longstanding mysteries. (Several of them involve CKLW Detroit and Canadian songs of varying obscurity that weren’t big enough to make it to a printed playlist).

I’ve had probably a half-dozen mystery songs of that sort. And I think I’m closing in on the final one. Over the years, I’ve enlisted local experts on a genre to help me, often with varying results. From personal experience, even the collector or DJ who knows a million obscure songs doesn’t know them all. I’ve seen on-air veterans stumped even by an aircheck of themselves talking up some forgotten song. And in my cases, I usually haven’t offered them very much to go on.

Sharing these stories, I realize, involves the risk of appearing, well, perseverative. I can only say that wanting to know the name of a song you like is not limited to music geeks — most of the people who’ve sought my help were not. There would be no app and no “Beat Shazam” if nobody else cared. But if you’ve read this far, chances are I don’t have to justify anything to you.

Solving a mystery song is always gratifying. As for the songs themselves, they have to compete with what you’ve remembered over the years. Often the intros or waning seconds of a song heard on an aircheck aren’t even representative. One of the songs I’ve tracked down has led me to what turned out to be an all-time favorite album. Some were indeed better or more fun in my memory. Here are four songs that required forensics over the years.

The Bestest Christmas Song Ever

It was December 1972. We were driving from New York to Washington. We might have been listening to some 50,000-watt AM, but it was more likely some local, medium-market full-service AM between Wilmington and Baltimore. In the backseat, I half-heard the DJ setting up his favorite Christmas novelty song. It was by the Smothers Brothers (whom I had heard of, but been too young to appreciate during their controversial late ‘60s TV show). It was to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas.” It was a rapid-fire litany of increasingly dubious toy ideas until you got to the line “boom, boom/little bitty H-bomb.”

That was a lot to go on, by the standards of my oddball quests — everything but the title — but it still took years. I never came across the song in any of my used-record shopping, or ever heard it again. The list of songs you were likely to hear at the holidays only got tighter with the years. I saw Smothers Brothers holiday albums, but they featured more traditional songs. I’m pretty sure I asked Dr. Demento’s producer (or asked him to relay the question), but nothing came of it.  Even when everything became searchable on the Internet, typing in artist and lyric brought up nothing. Until one day, when the level of minutiae finally rose to include it.

Of course, if I had just typed “The Toy Song” and Smothers Brothers, I would have found it sooner. My friend Chris Granozio, someone who knows even more obscure songs of a certain type than I do, didn’t know it. But when I figured it out, he snagged me a copy that he happened across. You will hear it and wonder why I bothered (the line in question is still the funniest moment, and it is very much of its time).

The One I Can Only Hum You

In the early days of Internet radio, it was common for only one or two pop stations in a given country to be available online. That was how I ended listening to Hit FM Växjö Sweden — mostly Hot AC but with a typically wide gold library for a European Hot AC of that time. At that time, metadata on songs was rare (or perhaps nonexistent). And liking a song in Swedish was problematic because it wasn’t as if I could easily call the request line.

But I had friends with friends in Swedish radio. One of them sent me an MP3 that I never got to listen to because at Billboard magazine in 1998, there was nothing that could play it on my iMac (or so my IT person claimed). Many years later, I ran into the same Swedish radio person in the hall at an NAB Radio Show in Charlotte. I hummed it for him and he figured it out quickly.

But I can still only hum it for you. Because “Visa Mig” by Jacob Hellman is not on YouTube (except for a few nearly inaudible live versions that don’t do it justice). Hellman is legendary in Swedish music for releasing one phenomenal album in 1989, then never releasing another one. On that album cover, he looks like Marshall Crenshaw or Elvis Costello. But there’s also an odd rootsiness to his power pop. Other Hellman singles are easier to find on YouTube, and if the album sounds even vaguely interesting to you, it’s worth ordering used online as I did. 

The One I Already Knew

In my junior year of college, a friend of a campus radio friend dubbed me a tape he’d made more than a decade earlier of CKLW. It wasn’t exactly an aircheck. It was random breaks and, mostly, top-of-the-hour IDs. It was a disjointed listen, but it conveyed the essence of the radio station just fine. No station was its big top-of-the-hour IDs more than CKLW. And it’s probably why I still hold on to the idea of a big “ladies-and-gentleman”-type :00 ID as a policy statement, even if it makes little tactical difference.

Most of the top-of-the-hour songs were smashes, of course, although there were some differences in what constituted a smash in the Motor City. Then there was the top-of-the-hour ID where you could hear just a second or so of the song that preceded it. What I could hear under the ID as it began sounded like midtempo R&B. It sounded like a female vocalist. It sounded like a female vocalist going wild on the ad-libs of the sort that often end great ‘70s R&B records.

If the song was going into a top-of-the-hour (or maybe :30) ID, that meant it was probably Canadian content, which CKLW often played at :27 and :57. That made it extra-intriguing, since there wasn’t a ton of Canadian R&B in that era, although the aircheck had already introduced me to this great cover. 

Over the years, I would find the station surveys for the time period in question (summer 1973) and seek out every record I didn’t know. I would play the second or so of barely audible song for former PD Pat Holliday and legendary MD Rosalie Trombley. I also know that I played it for my friend Rich Appel, who initially came up dry.  Most people barely heard that there was a song down there.

Then a few years ago, in a new burst of activity, I decided to try Rich again. This time, he sounded quizzical. “Are you saying there’s another song there besides ‘Cinnnamon’?” he asked. Because every self-respecting music trivia geek knows “Cinnamon” by Derek, right? It was a No. 11 hit. In fact, it was a record I loved and was pretty sure I knew nuance for nuance. And Rich wasn’t going to insult me by asking, “Do you not recognize ‘Cinnamon’?”

But I didn’t. “Cinnamon” is uptempo bubblegum, not pounding midtempo R&B. By a man, not Canada’s great unheralded R&B diva. But buried under the beginning of a sweeper, it sounded completely different. That is, of course, until I knew what it really was. Now it sounds like “Cinnamon.” I was happy to have the mystery done with. I was nevertheless sorry that there was no pulsating Canadian R&B song for me to discover, although I’m happy to make do with this one.

The One I’m Still Looking For

In the late ‘70s, French-language CKLM was hot and energetic–everything I would come to appreciate over the years about Montreal radio. It was also a station infamous in programming circles for a strange programming tactic of skipping the song intro, starting a song after the post, then jingling in to the intro afterward.

I could hear CKLM in the Northeast and Midwest. But never clearly. So even if my high school French had been good enough to decipher rapid-fire DJ patter, it still would have been difficult to figure out any French-language song.

So these were the only clues I could offer my Montreal friends when I tried to figure this one out:

  • Came out sometime between 1977-79
  • Male vocal
  • Uptempo, pile-driving beat, sort of rock, sort of disco
  • Chorus stops and starts
  • Might have a woman’s name in the title or the hook, maybe Marianne

I’d gotten lucky with songs I heard on CKLM once before. There was a French-language song in 1980 that sounded like “Rock & Roll, Part 2.” A few years later, I was in a used book store in Los Angeles and brought this for a dollar just because it looked interesting.

Over the years, people who ventured a guess usually thought my mystery song was “Ou Sont les Femmes” [“Where Are the Women?”] by Patrick Juvet,  another uptempo, pile-driving slice of late ‘70s disco. But not this one. Or they heard about the stops and starts and thought, logically, that it was “Stop Ou Encore” by Plastic Bertrand, of “Ca Plane pour Moi” fame.

Because of the regulations governing French-language radio in Canada, the Oldies/Classic Hits format has been slow to take shape. But last year, Ottawa got French-language Classic Hits, CFTX (Pop 96.5). Going through its monitored playlist gave me a bunch of ‘70s French-language pop to listen to of the sort that would have been played in Montreal as well. That led me to other French-language stations that played some ‘70s.

Eventually it led me to 1977’s Alexandrie Alexandra, one of the last hits from ill-fated French superstar Claude Francois. The timing is right. The title is a female name (I think Marianne was my own invention over time). The energy and the insistent vocal is right. It doesn’t really stop and start, but there are places where the background vocals build to a crescendo. 

When I found “Visa Mej,” it didn’t sound exactly as I remembered it either after 20 years. Now, there’s little doubt in my mind that it was the song. (Other Hellman songs sounded familiar from Swedish radio as well.) Other people have sent me possible candidates for my French song, but they’re no closer. So I’m declaring this one solved as well. Unless you are somehow an expert in French pop and can name a song that sounds similar with a fake cold ending in the chorus. Then it’s on again.

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.


  1. Wonderful stories, Sean! Man, I love stories like these, hearkens back to a time when there was more “community” to music discovery. Hope others share their tales here on this page.

    Like many others, I first heard Frankie Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song” on a Lipton Iced Tea commercial in the early 1990s. Living in a small town with only a meager record store, my best bet was to call the 800 number listed on the bottle and ask. Took a while on the phone, but when the customer service rep returned, she was overjoyed to tell me that she’d found the artist and the song. I still remember the tone of her enthusiasm! That query led to one of my all-time favorite albums, too, Frankie’s “Beyond the Mix.”

  2. I used to listen to CKLM from Philadelphia a lot in the ’70s and a couple of years ago set out to identify some songs from back then that lodged in my brain and occasionally resurfaced. Could you be thinking of “Madona Madona” by Alain Chamfort?

  3. Thanks for the tip. It’s not the Alain Chamfort song — this was more intense and a different kind of uptempo, not ’50s influenced in the way this one is, but I was happy to know about “Madona Madona.” CKLM is clearly one of the great underappreciated AM powerhouses, though. 65% North American-influenced, 35% European, 100% awesome!

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