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Radio review: The Birth of Blondie; Try a Little Tenderness – The Lost Legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks

Like all musical genres, punk and new wave saw an exciting explosion of new musical wheat,  combined with an equal ration of chaff. Firmly in the former camp was New York-created Blondie, fronted by Debbie Harry, poster girl on a million teenage boys’ bedroom walls.

In BBC Radio 2’s The Birth of Blondie, founding members Harry and Chris Stein celebrated the band’s 40th anniversary by telling the story of the formative years in the 1970s’ Big Apple. Back in those days, says one contributor, people forget how unusual it was to have a girl fronting a rock band, and Blondie’s success was resented by some peers.

But the “wise-cracking, gum-snapping, good-looking” Harry had a distinctive voice, ballsy attitude and flair for the ridiculous. In one early Blondie performance in a fleapit bar in New York, she carried a goldfish bowl on stage; for another, she arrived in full wedding dress.

Other bands on the cusp of success they met on the way up included Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads and the New York Dolls, often cited as the godfathers of punk. Blondie tracks such as Picture This, Heart of Glass and the sublime Fade Away and Radiate still sound edgy and original. And I’ve still got my poster of Harry, never to be binned.

A poignant reminder of the fickleness of fame and fortune, BBC Radio 4’s Try a Little Tenderness – The Lost Legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks, profiled “probably the best blues singer you’ve never heard of”. Author and poet Salena Godden, whose rhythmical verse added real heart to the narration, uncovered the story of the eponymous singer and her lost legacy. Winding back the clock to 1930s Chicago, it told how the young Mildred Cummings, from Dayton, Ohio, performed in sleazy clubs wearing an old shabby dress and a broken straw hat, picking up tips with her toes and putting them in a basket. By the 1940s, though, she made top billing at nightclubs across America, performing heart-breaking ballads.

“She could cry at the drop of a hat,” said one contributor, and there’s no doubt that she was a shrewd manipulator of audiences. She probably had to be to survive, having honed her skills in salubrious ‘black and tan’ (racially integrated) bars and clubs. One of her best-known songs, Try a Little Tenderness, became a hit for Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding – it “sounds sad and just got sadder with time”, said music guru Russell Davies.

When Godden arrived at Cummings’ family home and chatted to her daughter Francey, a sense of sadness still hung in the air about what might have been. Little Miss Cornshucks died penniless in 1999, the combination, said one observer, of “bad luck, bad management and missed opportunities”. Other female singers who followed and were more commercially successful certainly owe her a debt.

In 1974, the Eurovision Song Contest, held at the Brighton Dome and attended by around 500 well-behaved and appropriately attired guests, was a staid affair, nothing like the huge party it is now. That night, Abba took the contest by storm with Waterloo. In Scott Mills’ profile of the group on Radio 2 Eurovision – a pop-up digital radio station to celebrate this year’s Eurovision Song Contest – songwriter Mike Batt recalled that “it was clear Waterloo was going to wipe the board”. But UK judges gave Abba zero points. Terry Wogan, the BBC presenter, said: “No one took them very seriously because of the silly way they dressed.”

In a candid and very giggly chat with Patrick Kielty as part of BBC Radio 2’s Eurovision coverage, this year’s UK entrant Molly Smitten-Downes gave an refreshingly honest and PR waffle-free assessment of her chances at this year’s competition in Copenhagen. Seemingly unfazed by performing Children of the Universe in front of some 125 million TV viewers, the unknown singer said the weeks leading up to the show had turned her world upside down, but in “a positive way”.

Given the spectacular failure of recent UK entrants, Kielty questioned the wisdom of doing the gig at all. “The best thing you can do is go with your gut, and that’s what I’ve done,” said Smitten-Downes. You can’t argue with that.

The Birth of Blondie, R2, Wednesday, May 14
Try a Little Tenderness – The Lost Legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks, R4, Tuesday, May 13
Abba, BBC Radio 2 Eurovision, Friday, May 9

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