Earlier this week I admitted to liking 60s MOR–and I suppose I ought to explain myself further. MOR means “middle of the road,” which is a fairly archaic expression nowadays. MOR was the adult contemporary of the 60s and 70s–not kids’ music, but not Serious music (classical or jazz), either. It’s not quite analogous to today’s adult contemporary, which is essentially a rock format. MOR back in the day was aggressively, intentionally non-rock.
That’s why the MOR era seems to begin in the mid 1960s, after the Beatles conquered the world, and after it became clear that kids’ music could no longer be ghettoized or ignored by radio stations and record companies. When it ends is a more difficult date to fix. Maybe the early 80s, about the time mass-appeal, full-service radio started to die–oftentimes these stations, with a heavy commitment to local news, sports, and talk, would play music on their off-hours, and that music was inevitably MOR.
But even if we say that the golden era started in the mid 60s, we find that lots of definitive MOR records were recorded well before that. Take Johnny Mathis tunes like “It’s Not for Me to Say” and “Chances Are.” Both were recorded in the late 50s, yet both are considered to be MOR standards. (And just to complicate matters, they were also substantial pop hits in their day.) The format reached back into the 50s for records by the likes of Rosemary Clooney and pianist Roger Williams, and incorporated tunes by early rockers such as Bobby Darin (“Beyond the Sea”) and the Platters (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”) By the 1970s, country could be MOR, too. Country stars like Crystal Gayle, Charlie Rich, Kenny Rogers, and Glen Campbell scored substantial MOR hits. Plus, when we get to the 1970s, we’ve got to make room for the Captain and Tennille and Tony Orlando and Dawn.
As a radio format, however, MOR’s core music came from the 1960s. I think we can safely consider two specific types of music as prototypical MOR. Movie music is one. Warious Henry Mancini hits, like “A Time for Us” and “Moon River,” for example, approach the center of the target. The sound–lush, rich, stringy, and not a drum kit for miles around–is definitive. (MOR or not, however, “A Time for Us” made Number One on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1969.) The Ray Conniff Singers, whose recording of “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Doctor Zhivago was a Top 10 hit in 1966, are also a classic MOR act. Another MOR prototype might be music by artists who were big in Vegas and the nightclub circuit without scoring lots of hit singles: Jerry Vale, Vic Damone, Jack Jones, Robert Goulet. Even though their profiles were higher than mere nightclub singers, you’d have to put Sammy Davis Jr. and Andy Williams on the prototype list, too. And even Sinatra.
Yeah, it’s a male-dominated format, oddly enough–although maybe it’s not so odd if you imagine MOR, rightly or wrongly, as the music with which millions of stay-at-home American women spent their days during the 1960s. There were individual MOR hits by female singers, but precious few female singers made a career in MOR. Barbra Streisand, maybe, but her success transcended the genre. Lani Hall, who provided lead vocals with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, may have come the closest to making a career on MOR alone–and yet, Brasil 66’s two biggest hits both went Top 10 pop, too.
So, with all those qualifications in place, here are five solid records from MOR’s core–all of them placed on the Hot 100 and got pop airplay, but they’re remembered today as strictly MOR. Each one of them is tasteful enough not to offend your grandmother.
“The Look of Love”/Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, #4, 1968. Put this alongside their version of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” and you’ve got the uncrowned kings of 60s MOR.
“Last Date”/Floyd Cramer, #2, 1960. You have probably heard this song even if you can’t hum the tune, especially if you can remember the days when music stations had to hit a network news feed at a precise time every hour. Using an instrumental to “take us up to newstime” is a DJ technique as old as time itself.
“It Must Be Him”/Vikki Carr, #3, 1967. In which a woman tries to liberate herself from memories of the man who broke her heart, only to be reduced to loudly begging God for help every time the phone rings. Has become downright hilarious as the years go by.
“More”/Kai Winding, #8, 1963. The theme from a controversial Italian documentary film, Mondo Cane, that is now considered one of the precursors of reality TV. Sounded kind of futuristic in 1963.
“When I Fall in Love”/Lettermen, #7, 1962. Let this one record stand for the Lettermen’s entire body of work, which was barbershop harmony for the post-industrial age. Lush and rich and not an ounce of sweat in any of it, but romantic in its way nevertheless.