Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio

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Alas, it looks like the U.S. Board of Geographical Names has shot down an effort to name a mountain after singer and songwriter John Denver. The whole thing made me wonder if anyone from Toledo signed the petition that was forwarded to the board this week.

That’s because Toledo and John Denver go back a long way (in a good-natured sort of way) thanks to a song of his that made the rounds in the early 1970s: Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio.

And, if I’m not mistaken, The Blade started the fuss themselves on March 25, 1973, with a Tom Gearhart story, Ditty Gets Dander Up Of Men Strong For Toledo.

At the time, Denver’s album, Rocky Mountain High, was #3, Denver was singing the song (written by Randy Sparks, of the New Christy Minstrels, and here’s a Toledo Free Press interview of Randy) at every concert, and he even sang the song on the Tonight Show. Denver told Johnny Carson he was bruised up at a Cleveland concert by three people from Toledo and “they were three of the biggest girls I’ve ever seen.”

“Some local ears were stung by the lyrics, and several persons complained to the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce and to WSPD-TV, which carries the Carson show, that the song was appalling, degrading, ridiculous, and in rotten taste. And they were serious,” Gearhart wrote.

So Gearhart contacted John Denver, who was in New York City recording a new album, and found “that for a no-account slanderer, John Denver is disgustingly pleasant and easy to talk to.” (I told you, this was all really good-natured)

“I’ve never gotten an adverse reaction to the song. Former Toledoans have come up to me after the show and laughed about it. And they all say it’s true…it’s really less about Toledo then about all the seemingly boring places people go to,” Denver said. Why Toledo? “Well, Toledo sounded better than Fargo.”

Mayor Harry Kessler felt differently.

“That song is offensive as hell to me, and I’m sure it is to the people of this city. It’s disgraceful,” he was quoted as saying.

Lou Thomson, head of the Labor-Management Citizens Committee, offered to take Denver on a tour of the city some Saturday night: “To the places my wife doesn’t know about,” he said. The story noted that Thomson had earlier teamed with the Chamber of Commerce’s Kent Galvin to respond to something Gloria Steinem, also a Toledo native, said in a national magazine about her childhood home in Toledo being rat-infested. Galvin, however, correctly pointed out that “The more commotion we make, the worse it will get.”

The Blade printed a selection of reader letters the following Wednesday that didn’t exactly stand up for Toledo, however: ‘Saturday Night’ Ditty Tells It Like It Is. Many decried the Mayor’s lack of a sense of humor, and others were very pointed:  “Let’s face it, the Glass Capital of the World doesn’t rank among our country’s Excitement Cities,” wrote Terry Mercer of Glenwood Ave.

Denver was due to appear in a June 16 concert at the Sports Arena, but had to cancel the concert two weeks beforehand, which was too bad according to Mayor Kessler: “We were planning a warm welcome for him,” Mayor Kessler said, “and I thought it would be a really good time. We also wanted the opportunity to show John what Toledo is really like and what a warm town it is.”

Toledo was a regular stop for Denver, and this 1985 review didn’t even mention the dreaded song.

In fact, in 1980 he broke Kenny Rogers’ one-show attendance record at Centennial Hall when 9,771 showed up for his concert, which The Blade’s Hank Harvey called “an amazing tour de force of song, sparkle and outright stamina,” as the show went over two hours with no intermission. And, yes:

The packed house roared and rose to its feet as Denver started the familiar three-quarter time introduction to “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio” and invited the people to join in.

He didn’t have to, because many who were in the audience know the song as well as he does. At a couple of points, Denver, alone on stage with his guitar, stopped singing, and the house filled in with the words and music.

Proving once and for all that bad publicity is better than no publicity.

John Denver died in a plane crash in 1997, but his music, and his fans, clearly live on: just this month (August, 2011), Legacy Recordings released a box set of 24 RCA albums released between 1969 and 1986.

So given that nearly forty years have passed since Toledo and John Denver had a lot of good-natured “bad blood” between them, there probably aren’t any objections from Northwestern Ohio about it. Plus, I can safely say I know more words to We’re Strong For Toledo than Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio.

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