What records were hits because of payola?

Is there any way to know? A list somewhere? I’m thinking mainly of the payola scandal of the '70s, but I understand there was at least one payola scandal earlier than that, too.

I wonder this sometimes when I’m listening to one of those “Monster Hits of the '70s” 3-CD sets and I hear something just totally awful, and I look it up and discover it was in the top 10 for 6 weeks or something, and I think, “Must have been payola.”

Payola was not an issue in the 70s; it was made illegal long before that.

The main scandal was in the late 50s and was partially motivated by people who hated rock 'n roll. Payola had been around for years in radio, but when rock music became popular, adults were willing to believe it was all because the DJs were paid to play it.

The most notable casualty of the scandal was Alan Freed, credited with creating the term “rock 'n roll.” He admitted to taking payola, but also claimed that he only took money on songs he wanted to play anyway. It ended his career.

There have been more recent scandals about “pay for play,” which is legal (the rules require that you disclose any financial payments to play a song, and some stations have been willing to do so). But the sanctions are serious and few radio stations were willing to risk a payola charge (which would put an end to the career of any DJ who did it) once the practice was made illegal. Corporate radio these days is even quicker to shy away from any hint of it.

I can’t seem to find a list of songs that were played due to payola, but the main reason songs you think are awful were big hits were that the people who bought the records at the time didn’t think so.

There is a show I listen to on the radio called The Ongoing History of New Music. They did one episode on the history of Payola, including the legal Pay for Play, which you might enjoy.

Go here and click on “Past Shows” to access streaming podcasts of older shows. The Payola episode is on page 22.

It was the 70’s. Lots of hideous things were popular in the 70’s.

I don’t know if it was Payola, but there’s got to be something to explain the popularity of the song Muskrat Love by the Captain and Tenille.


But the drug of choice at that time was, iirc, cocaine. Cocaine doesn’t help that song. Neither does weed. Maybe acid or other psychedelics, but they were in decline at the time.

That would explain “Torn Between Two Lovers.”

Weed does it - imagine the scene- a buncha stoners sitting in a circle, smoking grass, song comes on the radio and fits of giggles hit, cascading like a waterfall…

No, that was reserved for “Rock Lobster”. :slight_smile:

Muskrat Sally and Muskrat Sam hold a special place in my heart.

“Muskrat Love” was called “Muskrat Candlelight” on* Willis Alan Ramsey*. It was just a silly little throw-away tune in that context. The context being ten other really excellent songs–one of the best albums in the Progressive Country/Texas Singer Songwriter categories.

I may have even giggled myself, hearing the tune on that album or during one of many live shows I caught. But my response to Captain & Tennille’s version reminds me of the morning after my introduction to Tequila Sunrises.

And apparently his life, soon thereafter:


I doubt a list of payola songs would be made by the perps. Such a list would be in invitation to prosecution.

Part of the payola scandal of the late 50’s revolved around Dick Clark and “American Bandstand.” You could measure the play songs received on his show. And you could note the record companies he had a financial interest in.

"Jackson claims that what he calls Clark’s “furtive” ownership of the records he plugged on his show was “most definitely a deceptive conflict of interest.” It’s too bad the congressmen didn’t have this book’s appendix, showing the hits in which Dick Clark had a financial interest: “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors was a No. 1 song in 1958; Clark owned the publishing rights and played it on “American Bandstand” 51 times. “Sixteen Candles” by the Crests was No. 3 in 1958; the records were pressed at a company owned by Clark, who played it on “American Bandstand” 35 times. There are lots more on the list.

Of course, it didn’t always work. Clark played records he owned that failed to become hits. Nevertheless Jackson contends that records produced by the three labels in which Clark had an interest got far more play on “American Bandstand” than records from other labels."

I personally saw payola destroy the career of one guy.
Once you take payola the record promoter who gave it to you has a sword over your head. Piss that person off (by not listing a song they’re currently promoting, for example) and they can make a friendly call to your Program Director and “accidently” spill the beans.
The station has no choice. You must be fired and no other station would dare touch you.

I was actually kind of hoping for a list put together by the prosecution.

Muskrat Love was a hit because of Toni Tenille’s legs. Think about it. Did Willis Allan Ramsey have a hit with his version? Did America have a hit with their version? Nope. Toni Tenille had great legs, and it was her version that hit.

Dick Clark escaped payola charges because he technically owned the rights to the songs he plugged – he didn’t pay himself to play them, (he didn’t have to obviously) so nothing of value changed hands, ergo, no payola. Conflict of interest in spades, but not technically illegal at the time.

As a side note, I worked in radio in the 1970s. I knew some really sleazy deejays, music directors and owners. But NONE of them took payola. Some took drugs, some got teenage girls pregnant, but none of them was willing to kill their careers for cash (or drugs) under the table.

VH-1 did a “Greatest One-Hit Wonders” show and hit upon the “classic” I’ve Never Been to Me, by Charlene. The narrator broadly hinted that payola was involved in its popularity.

Also, there was a Behind the Music episode about Styx. The band’s former manager (or maybe it was one of the band members) talked candidly about how, in the early years, they achieved airplay by maintaining a list of “penguins” in influential markets. “Penguins” being DJ’s who liked “snow,” if you know what I mean.

These last two posts make me realize that when I’m thinking of payola in the '70s, I’m mostly thinking of the deejay on WKRP who got caught accepting drugs from a promoter.

The line between reality and fantasy is sometimes a little hazy for me. :slight_smile:

I’m a lifelong amateur musician, but (or, maybe, therefore?), I’ve never understood why bribes influencing record exposure shocks so many people.

If you accept that the music business is just that, then why wouldn’t you expect its principals to take any legitimate steps to maximize revenue? (I realize that if public outrage leads to laws against it, it isn’t legitimate anymore).

But I think the music business feeds the appearance of a pure meritocracy, to convince people that if they’re hearing a song that Dick Clark is playing on his show, it’s because “industry experts” (and other people) said it’s a ‘good’ song.

Which entails acting “shocked, shocked” at revelations of payola.

Do you really think there’s much difference between an advertisement from Ford Motors extolling the quality of their latest model and a radio disk jockey plugging the latest blockbuster hit?

Apologies for the hijack…

Record companies often get around the payola laws by offering or declining favors to radio stations rather than outright money. An excellent book about the country music industry (Bruce Feiler’s Dreaming Out Loud) had a chapter about how favors help manipulate the charts. Record companies will dole out tickets, interviews, and promotional items to stations that help them and keep them from others that don’t. One radio promotion lady was quoted that if stations didn’t add a star’s record. “I’ll kill them. If they have a competitor, I’ll start giving them promotions.” When one station resubmitted a Garth Brooks dropped single in a few minutes, she said “looks like somebody wanted some tickets or a jacket”.