In 1971, The Old Grey Whistle Test made its debut on BBC2, running for 17 years and playing host to some of the greatest names in rock, pop, R&B, folk, punk, new wave, and just about any other genre that made it up the charts.
Created by Rowan Ayers and Mike Appleton and then commissioned by none other than David Attenborough, the series took its name from a Tin Pan Alley phrase: when a record was first pressed, it was played to the doormen, who wore grey suits; if the song was memorable enough that they could whistle it back after having heard it only a few times, then it was deemed to have passed the "old grey whistle test."
On the first episode of the program, viewers were treated to a performance by British singer-songwriter Lesley Duncan, best known for her 1970 single “Love Song,” but the performer on the series premiere who’s likely best known to folks nowadays was the band America.
At the time America appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, they were – to put it bluntly – nobodies. In fact, the band’s debut album hadn’t even come out yet when they appeared on the show: it wouldn’t actually see release until later that year, and when it finally hit stores, it only sold moderately well.
As such, those in the U.K. who saw the band perform “Riverside” on Sept. 21, 1971 were lucky to be getting a sneak preview of the opening track of an as-yet-to-be-released LP, but as song selections go, it was definitely an odd choice. Heck, it wasn’t even a song that was destined to be released as a single!
Fortunately, America finally did see release, and after it became somewhat of a “grower” in terms of finding its footing with listeners, it eventually led to a single that remains a signature tune for the band to this day.