A Tasteful Encore

My father-in-law periodically ships boxes of stuff he has accumulated over the years to his kids, for them to keep or dispose of as they wish. In his last shipment was a big box of CDs, a number of which are now in my collection. Among them: several volumes of Time Life Music’s 1994 series Instrumental Favorites. I am a former elevator-music radio jock, so I have a professional interest in this stuff—but it’s also imprinted on my DNA because it was so frequently on the radio stations my parents liked, long before I had stations of my own to listen to.

In my head, when I hear the name “Mantovani,” it’s always spoken by John Mallow, who was heard on WGN in Chicago from the 40s to the 70s, one of those big-voiced announcers—with pipes like his, you dare not call him a mere DJ— that they don’t make anymore. Mantovani would have been a staple of any show like Mallow’s, which featured tasteful evening music for adults. The Italian orchestra leader charted 10 singles between 1951 and 1960 (the most famous, “Charmaine,” hit in 1951), but he was mainly an album artist. Between 1955 and 1972, he hit the Billboard album chart 49 times. Film Encores reached #1 in the summer of 1957 and rode the chart for 231 weeks.

Mantovani had charted a couple of songs as far back as 1935, but the bulk of his career coincided with that of Percy Faith, another of the most famous names in easy listening. Faith’s first hit came in 1950, and he notched a couple of #1 singles during the pre-rock 50s, the uncharacteristically rhythmic “Delicado” in 1952 and the lovely “Song From Moulin Rouge” a year later. His biggest hit came in 1960, when “Theme From a Summer Place” spent nine weeks at #1 and became the song that, for many people, defines the sound of easy listening. Faith put 30 albums onto the Billboard album chart between 1956 and 1972. The most successful were propelled there by “Theme From a Summer Place” and in its wake, all hitting in 1960 and early 1961: Bouquet, Jealousy, and the most successful, Camelot. Faith also charted plenty as a conductor and arranger for some of the biggest acts in showbiz, including Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis during their years on the Columbia label.

While Faith used an occasional vocalist or chorus on his recordings, the chorus was the whole show with the Ray Conniff Singers—although the secret to Conniff’s unique sound was the way he treated the human voice as another instrument in the orchestra. The singers are often so seamlessly integrated that you scarcely realize they’re there. Conniff, who started as a big-band trombone player and released instrumental-only albums under his own name in addition to those billed to the Ray Conniff Singers, charted only five singles. The most famous was the gloriously romantic “Somewhere, My Love,” Lara’s theme from the movie Dr. Zhivago, which made the Billboard Top 10 (tucked in right behind the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper”) in August 1966. On the album chart, Conniff ranks among the most popular of all time in any genre, not merely easy listening, charting 51 times between 1957 and 1973 and hitting the Top 10 far more often than either Mantovani or Faith. Somewhere My Love was his highest-charting album, but if there’s something else of his you’ve heard, it’s probably from Christmas With Conniff, which first appeared in 1959.

Faith and Conniff (and to a lesser extent, Mantovani) are part of the soundtrack that plays in my head when I think of being very young, when the house I grew up in was my whole world. They were there on those rainy Saturday afternoons, as Mom bustled around with her chores and Dad popped in and out between his, while young boys played with their toys on the dining room floor. As such, their music is both dated and timeless.

2 responses

  1. Those names and sounds carry me back, too, and I still love the work of Conniff, Mantovani, Faith and many of their brethren. “Somewhere My Love” will always nudge my melancholy spot; and “Theme from A Summer Place” not only defines easy listening but also brings me the feel of the era that I would now describe as post-Buddy Holly and pre-Dallas more vividly, perhaps, than any early episode of “Mad Men.” Finally, somewhere in a scrapbook – I should find it and scan it – I have a picture postcard of Mantovani handed to me by one of his minions and signed by the maestro himself after a Civic Music concert in St. Cloud sometime in the mid-1960s.

  2. Huzzah! A genre of music many of us on-air guys spent a year or two playing. Nice to read about it. Well-said, JB.

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