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Congas, Sambas and Falling Plaster

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Billy Joel (Credit: Columbia)
Billy Joel (Credit: Columbia)

I was 15 years old, sitting cross-legged next to my friend Mascha on a cork-tile floor at Mammoth Gardens, a roller-skating rink built in 1910. Plaster, occasionally, was falling from the ceiling – because the band on the stage that night was the drum-heavy Santana, which had just released its 1970 album “Abraxas.” That’s the album with the breakout singles “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va” and the beautiful “Samba Pa Ti.”

What we thought was seriously cool then has held up pretty well. “Abraxas” has just been added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, which recognizes sound recordings worthy of permanent preservation on grounds they have cultural, artistic or historic importance. This year’s offerings also include Billy Joel’s single “Piano Man.”

“I am very honored to have my song, ‘Piano Man,’ included in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress,” said Joel. “While the recording of the album featured the now familiar song “Piano Man,’ some may not know that it was not initially a retail success. It was, however, considered a ‘turntable hit’, due to widespread airplay of various ‘album tracks’ by progressive FM radio stations around the country. Both the single and the album ‘Piano Man’ eventually went on to achieve ‘platinum’ status, thanks to that kind of free-form radio airplay.

“I personally owe a great deal of thanks to those independent disk jockeys who did not have to adhere to the restrictions of ‘program consultants’ and ‘hit formats’ as commercial radio does today,” added Joel (who received the Library’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song two years ago). “They took the risk of broadcasting new and unproven music, based mostly on listener requests and their own enthusiasm for the recording artists of that time.”

The other recordings among this year’s 25 selections range from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” to blues numbers, a landmark Zydeco album, a frenzied 1938 Mahler’s Ninth that foreshadowed Hitler’s invasion of Austria and the speech by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall that kicked off the “Marshall Plan” that gave hope to citizens of the European nations devastated by World War II.

The registry also includes George Carlin’s icon-smashing “Class Clown,” the fourth quarter of Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain’s astounding 100-point basketball game in 1962; the LP in which Metallica stopped thrashing and took metal music in a new direction; and two variations on the song “Mack the Knife,” by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin.

(I had a boss once who used to deliberately botch the words of “Mack.” “Oh, the snark bites, with its feet, dear …” Try working on deadline with that distraction!)

Congress created the National Recording Registry (which now holds 450 designated recordings) to preserve these sounds of our times for posterity. You can nominate recordings of all kinds to become part of the registry, and you should. Here’s the link where you can have your say.