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October 29, 2009
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Dial tunes

Who remembers phone numbers any more?It used to be, in days of yore, people stored phone numbers in their cells -- their gray cells, that is. Consider what memorizing a phone number means in biological terms; in order to retain, say, your mother's phone number, you need to push that seven- or ten-digit sequence through your hippocampus so many times it takes up permanent residence in your frontal and temporal cortexes.Today, there exists a generation which has never, ever memorized a single phone number, instead relying on the ubiquity of Flash ROM to maintain contact with friends, family and colleagues. No doubt the ability of modern phones to remember often-called numbers is a great boon to efficiency, but it represents a loss of numerical poetry when it comes to pop music.The earliest pop songs built around phone numbers were written when those numbers still began with exchange names. For instance, when Glenn Miller scored a major hit in 1940 with a song featuring the phone number of New York City's famous Pennsylvania Hotel, it was entitled, "Pennsylvania 6-5000," not "1 (212) 736-5000," which is what you would dial to reach the historic hotel today.Likewise, 22 years later, the Michigan girl group known as the Marvelettes would lodge Marvin Gaye's "Beechwood 4-5789" in the Top 20; although in this case, the exchange name and number were apparently phony. (Reportedly, there were both "Beachwood" and "Beechmont" exchanges in Columbus, Ohio, but apparently no city used "Beechwood.")Starting in the 1960s, exchange names began to disappear, and subsequent phone songs separated their alpha- from their -numeric. Just four years after the Marvelettes' "Beechwood 4-5789," Wilson Pickett retained that song's last five digits to turn "634-5789" into a #13 pop hit.When the B-52s issued "6060-842," about a number written on a bathroom wall, they could rest assured they wouldn't be causing anyone a headache with crank calls, because at that time, no U.S. number included zero as the second digit. But the same couldn't be said for what is perhaps the most famous numeric phone number song, which emerged in 1982, when one-hit wonders Tommy Tutone gave the world "867-5309/Jenny." That song's titular number was then valid in many different area codes around the country. Also, that same year, Minneapolis band the Time took "777-9311," which was then the phone number of Prince's guitarist, Dez Dickerson, to #2 on the R&B charts. Dickerson had to change the number after the Time's debut album was released. And six years later, British popsters Squeeze enjoyed one of their few American Top 40 hits with "853-5937" from their "Babylon and On" album.We'll continue our look at pop music's love affair with the telephone next week in this space when we review how musicians have reacted to changing telephonic technology over the years... including how a one-way phone conversation between two mustachioed radio engineers inspired one of the biggest pop songs of the early 20th century, and how the cell phone has radically changed the economics of the pop music industry. Let's connect then, shall we?Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, helping the Girl Scouts build leaders throughout Colorado.Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, You can visit for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.

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The Post Independent Updated Oct 29, 2009 08:09PM Published Oct 29, 2009 08:08PM Copyright 2009 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.