Superstars of Easy Listening

Not long ago I snagged a copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Adult Contemporary 1961-1993, which does for Billboard‘s various easy listening/soft rock/adult contemporary singles charts what Top Pop Singles does for the Hot 100. The chart was born as “Easy Listening” and bore that name for a little over a year, before flipping back and forth between “Middle-Road Singles” and “Pop Standard Singles” at various times until 1965, when it became “Easy Listening” again, a name it would retain until 1979, when it finally became “Adult Contemporary.” (In this post, we’re gonna call it AC to save a few keystrokes.)

With the 1965 name change, the chart expanded to 40 songs, and for the first time, it’s possible to note some meaningful comparisons between the AC chart and the Hot 100. A large percentage of AC hits also made the Hot 100, although I wouldn’t try to guess at the exact number. I was intrigued, however, by the songs that made the Top 10 of the AC chart without hitting the Hot 100 at all. As it turns out, between 1966 and 1993, there were about 100 of them. If you map ‘em out chronologically, there were a lot of them in the late 60s before the number drops off drastically in the 70s and much of the 80s. The number then rises to a peak again in the late 80s and early 90s.

During this entire period, only one record went all the way to #1 on the AC chart without scratching into the Hot 100 at all.

Crooner John Gary was the kind of young, attractive star record labels and TV executives liked to bank on in the early 60s. He began his singing career in 1962, and he charted 14 albums between 1963 and 1969, four of which made the Top 20. In 1966, he had his own network variety show as a summer replacement for Danny Kaye, which was syndicated after its network run. He was a frequent guest on other people’s variety shows, as well as on The Tonight Show. Gary charted only one Hot 100 single, “Soon I’ll Wed My Love,” in the fall of 1964. Another single, “Don’t Throw the Roses Away,” bubbled under a year later. But two other singles of his were big AC hits without crossing to the Hot 100: “Everybody Say Peace,” which made #10 in the late summer of 1967, and “Cold,” which went to #1 for two weeks beginning December 23, 1967.

There was precious little crossover to the pop charts among the top AC hits of that Christmas week. Gary shared the Top 10 with Perry Como, Roger Williams, Margaret Whiting, Marilyn Maye (about whom we’ll have more to say in a future post), Ed Ames (whose voice Gary puts me in mind of), the Sandpipers, Andy Williams, Jack Jones, and—oddly—Harper’s Bizarre, with a version of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is the biggest pop hit of the monent on the AC chart.

Despite the success of “Cold,” John Gary would never return to the AC chart afterward. He would continue to perform in hotels, aboard cruise ships, on telethons, and wherever crooners went in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. He died in 1998 at age 67.

In future installments of this series (which I’m calling Superstars of Easy Listening), we’ll look at and listen to some other performers and records that were big on the AC charts without corresponding success on the Hot 100. Just another service we provide in our ongoing mission to explore our Top 40 past in the present. We never said which Top 40 we’re talking about.

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4 responses

  1. Nice post, Jim. John Gary also recorded some regional singles…on Fraternity, I think. They were repackaged on budget labels after he started selling albums for RCA. Available Victor cds are fine, but slipping into the falsetto can get a wee bit old. I prefer his RCA Camden material…His recorded output after RCA is of note, if for nothing more than an interesting postscript. But I have never heard “Cold.”

    Look forward to your take on Maye, Whiting and more. They deserve more attention in the canon of 60s and 70s easy listening…it’s really quite fascinating the MOR stuff that crossed over to the pop charts…the ones that made it, the ones that died “bubbling under,” all of that. Thanks for recalling John Gary.

  2. Like Charlie, I have never heard “Cold” before. I find that a bit odd, as MOR/AC was the music menu of 75 percent of our household at 1967 came to a close. (My sister was a Top 40 fan.) Given its rank, one would think we’d have heard it on WCCO or one of the two St. Cloud stations – KFAM or WJON – during the daytime. Good idea for posts (and I have the Whitburn AC book on my want list).

  3. That Whitburn AC book is neck-in-neck with his Dance/Disco tome at the top of my wishlist. As a fan of anything worthy of the AC tag from the 60s to somewhere in the mid-80s, I applaud the launch of this series (though I do hope you’ll return to your Bubbling Under feature in time). My introduction to “Cold” happened just last December, thanks to random Christmas (or Christmas-y in this case) mp3s added to my portable player. It’s one I’ll want to work into a Sound Awake episode (alongside Tommy Roe’s sorta similarly seasonal “It’s Now Winter’s Day”) sometime after Thanksgiving.

  4. Chalk up another “never heard it before” for “Cold.” Nice tune, though; I certainly would have remembered it if it had popped up on WCCO or KQRS.

    I agree that the Ed Ames comparison is more than fair, and that may have ultimately worked against Gary’s attempts at establishing himself more firmly in the singles market. Once “My Cup Runneth Over” crossed over, Ed owned the brand.

    Out of curiosity, I checked out a number of the Marilyn Maye clips, none of which sounded familiar. Hearing any of them in 1967 would have definitely had me scrambling to switch stations.

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