Category Archives: Superstars of Easy Listening

I Hear You Singin’

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(Pictured: Glen Campbell on The Johnny Cash Show, 1969.)

I need to write a little about Glen Campbell, but it’s daunting. My Twitter timeline exploded with goodness in the hours following the announcement of his death yesterday. I couldn’t possibly summarize it, or do as well as other writers. (The image of the Internet as a firehose of information has rarely seemed more appropriate.) But I can cobble together an annotated list. Campbell enjoyed great success on the pop and country charts, but his strongest performance came on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, including a run of 14 out of 15 singles making the Top 10 between 1968 and 1971. So according to those numbers, here are the Top 10 Glen Campbell hits:

10.  “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” (#2 EL, #31 pop, #7 country, 1971). A Roy Orbison cover in which Campbell, his backup singers, and an orchestra get their Ray Charles on.

9.  “It’s Only Make Believe” (#2 EL, #10 pop, #3 country, 1970). From the fabled fall of 1970, this version stomps the 1959 Conway Twitty original into fine powder.

8.  “Don’t Pull Your Love”/”Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (#1 EL, #27 pop, #4 country, 1976). More than a lot of the other songs on the list, this medley is clearly an artifact of its time. “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” fits Campbell’s voice and style better than “Don’t Pull Your Love.”

7.  “Try a Little Kindness” (#1 EL, #23 pop, #2 country, 1969). If you asked me to pack one Glen Campbell record for the desert island, it would probably be this one.

6.  “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L. A.)” (#1 EL, #11 pop, #3 country, 1976). One night early in my radio career a kid called the studio to ask for it, except he referred to it as “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in a Lake).”

5.  “Sunflower” (#1 EL, #39 pop, #4 country). Written by Neil Diamond, and maybe a little too country for the Top 40 stations that had propelled “Southern Nights” to #1 a couple of months before.

4.  “Rhinestone Cowboy” (#1 EL, #1 pop, #1 country, 1975). The Mrs. tells the story of going on a family vacation during this song’s summertime chart run, and how her four-year-old sister picked it off the radio and sang it, continuously, until it came up in the radio station’s rotation again.

3.  “Southern Nights” (#1 EL, #1 pop, #1 country, 1977). The first time you heard this, it burned itself into your brain, and every time you heard it after that, it stayed with you, continuously, until it came up in the radio station’s rotation again.

2.  “Galveston” (#1 EL, #4 pop, #1 country, 1969). “Galveston” is perfect; there’s not one thing you can imagine that could make it any better. It did six weeks at #1 Easy Listening and three weeks at #1 country. The week it reached #4 on the Hot 100 (4/12/69), it trailed only the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” by Blood Sweat and Tears, and “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe. (“Dizzy” had recently kept CCR’s “Proud Mary” out of the #1 spot, so Tommy Roe will have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day.)

1.  “Wichita Lineman” (#1 EL, #3 pop, #1 country, 1968/69). This, too, is what perfection sounds like. “I am a lineman for the county / And I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.” Dude works for the telephone company, or maybe it’s the power company, neither of which is a profession that often makes its way into song. But Jimmy Webb’s genius is that he took this not-easy-to-relate-to job and mined it for metaphors (“I hear you singin’ in the wires”) that anybody could understand. Like “Galveston,” it did six weeks at #1 Easy Listening, and it was a #2 country hit. The week “Wichita Lineman” hit #3 on the Hot 100 (1/11/69), giants walked the earth: it stood behind only “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the Supremes/Temptations collaboration “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” Also in the Top 10 that week: Stevie Wonder, the Temps and Supremes as individual acts, and “Crimson and Clover.”

(Back in 2012, I wrote a thing for Popdose about Campbell’s Wichita Lineman album, which you can read here.)

If you expected to find “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” here, so did I. But it made only #12 on the Easy Listening chart and #26 on the Hot 100, although it was a #2 country hit in 1968. “Gentle on My Mind,” Campbell’s famous theme song, was #8 Easy Listening, but reached only #30 on the country chart in 1967, and #39 on the Hot 100 when it was re-released a year later.

People drinking from the firehose today are either being reminded or learning for the first time of Glen Campbell’s towering importance to popular music in the last half of the 20th century. We shall not see his like again.

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Decades Away

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For a long time, people counted the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll era from the summer of 1955, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit #1. That’s still a decent marker, although there are others—“Gee” by the Crows in 1954, “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston in 1953, or DJ Alan Freed’s 1952 Moondog Coronation Ball in Cleveland. In any event, historical eras rarely click from one to another with a definite break; they more often shade from one into another. And if we look at the Billboard charts for early January 1955, we can see that shading begin, even though artists of the pre-rock era continue to dominate.

Before the Hot 100 era began in 1958, Billboard published a confusing welter of charts each week, including Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, and Most Played in Juke Boxes. There’s a great deal of overlap—so much so that an observer 60 years later wonders why they bothered separating them. It seems pretty safe to say, however, that the most popular song in America for the week of January 5, 1955, was “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes. It was spending its eighth week atop Best Sellers in Stores, and sat at #2 on the other two charts, having topped them both at the end of December. “Let Me Go Lover” by Joan Weber tops Most Played by Jockeys and Most Played in Juke Boxes. Its story is fairly well known: featured in an episode of the TV series Studio One in November 1954 and stocked in stores a week before the show because Columbia Records knew it was a hit and wanted people to be able to buy it the day after they first heard it.

In the rock era, performances would become more important than songs—we wanted a specific artist doing a specific song a specific way, instead of simply wanting the song and not caring who performed it. Evidence of the older way is on the first Billboard charts of 1955. Three versions of “Let Me Go Lover” appear, by Weber, Teresa Brewer, and Patti Page. Several songs appear twice: in addition to the Chordettes, “Mr. Sandman” is also performed by the Four Aces. The Aces themselves double up on “Melody of Love,” which also charts in a version by Billy Vaughn. Two versions of “Hearts of Stone” appear on Best Sellers: the R&B original by the Charms and a white cover version by the Fontane Sisters; likewise two versions of “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” one by the Ames Brothers and one by Archie Bleyer and His Orchestra, as well as two “Teach Me Tonight”s, by the DeCastro Sisters and Jo Stafford. “This Ole House” appears in its original country version by Stuart Hamblen and in a cover by Rosemary Clooney, which is quite good, and features the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft.

(The record charts of January 5, 1955, are thick with sibling acts: not just the Fontane and DeCastro Sisters and the Ames Brothers, but also the DeJohn Sisters and the McGuire Sisters.)

Rosemary Clooney is all over this week, also charting a version of “Hey There” (the flip of “This Ole House”) and “Mambo Italiano.” The mambo had been a popular dance step for several years, and in January 1955 the craze seems to have been peaking, with “Mambo Italiano” and “Papa Loves Mambo” by Perry Como. Clooney’s mambo lays on the ethnic stereotypes to a degree that makes us squirm today, but unlike Como and the remarkably annoying backup singers he featured on a lot of his early 50s tunes, she doesn’t come off stiff enough to break a hip. (Any short list of the most awful records of all time should include “Papa Loves Mambo.”)

There was indeed real rock ‘n’ roll in the air in January 1955: Bill Haley and the Comets, still a few months away from “Rock Around the Clock,” were tearing it up with “Dim, Dim the Lights” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” The R&B sound that we would come to associate with the early rock ‘n’ roll era was already widely popular, including “Earth Angel” by the Penguins. No one could have predicted back then that “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Earth Angel” would forever call up a whole constellation of powerful images, even among listeners decades away from being born.

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.

In Flight With the Carpenters

As we went back to school in 1972, one of the radio hits had a big, blazing guitar solo in it. What made it unusual was that it was on a Carpenters record.

There’s never been another record quite like “Goodbye to Love,” which, at first, is a lot like every other Carpenters’ record. Karen’s voice, which starts in an impossibly low register, is impossibly perfect, and a tasteful orchestra plays behind her. Then, about 1:20 in, a fuzztone guitar comes up out of nowhere, and for just a few seconds it threatens to run amok until Karen and the orchestra return to restore order . . . but only for a little while.

At about the 2:30 mark, we begin the greatest 90 seconds in the entire Carpenters’ catalog. Karen is multi-tracked into an angel chorus—and here comes that guitar again. Only now, it quickly comes completely unchained, shredding and soaring, utterly spectacular, and only weird if you can’t stop thinking about whose record it’s on.

The guy who played that solo was longtime Carpenters guitarist and collaborator Tony Peluso. Thirty years later, he recalled the session.

“In the middle, Richard [Carpenter] says ‘That’s where you play.’ I’m thinking: ‘What would be right?’ I played something that was very soft and easy, I tried to stay out of the way. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Richard said: ‘No, no, no, not like that. Play the melody for five bars and then burn it up! Soar off into the stratosphere. Go for it!’ He wanted an aggressive, sawtooth guitar solo in the middle of this Doris Day easy-listening-style record. I thought, ‘he can’t be serious.’ . . . Inadvertently, Richard had broken new ground. No one had ever really mixed the elements of rock ‘n’ roll and easy listening. Totally crazy. I take a tiny bit of credit for being there and playing it, but it was Richard’s great idea. From then on, it became very commonplace for a big power ballad to have a raging guitar solo.”

Commonplace eventually, yes, but not right away. “Goodbye to Love” was several years ahead of its time—not until 1975 and 1976, and records like “Love Hurts,” “Dream On,” and “More Than a Feeling,” did big guitars consistently find their way into ballads.

“Goodbye to Love” hit #7 on the Hot 100 in late August 1972. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), some adult radio stations resisted playing it because of that solo. Maybe a few, but not very many: “Goodbye to Love” went to #2 on the Easy Listening chart. (Maybe some stations faded the record early or edited the solo, like the elevator-music station I worked for.) It was the eighth straight Carpenters single to reach either #1 or #2 on Easy Listening. That streak, which had begun in 1970, would eventually reach 17 in a row before being snapped in 1976. Thirteen of those songs went to #1.

Tony Peluso’s mother was an opera singer and his father the musical director for NBC Radio on the west coast. His first big professional job was with Bobby Sherman. A Song for You, the album containing “Goodbye to Love,” was his first with the Carpenters, when he was barely 22 years old; he’d be their guitarist until Karen died in 1983. Peluso himself passed in 2010 at the age of 60.

Despite the success of “Goodbye to Love,” a big guitar would not reappear on a Carpenters’ single until 1975. It’s there on “Only Yesterday,” but Peluso keeps it in check. Some flights you only get to take one time.

Make It Together

For people of a certain age, the names of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé call up a kind of showbiz that doesn’t exist anymore, an era of TV variety and Las Vegas showrooms, tuxedos and evening gowns and big-band arrangements, and of easy-listening radio. That they were enormous stars of the 60s and 70s, there’s no doubt—and they remained a popular act for years after, until Eydie retired from performing in 2009. But here’s the thing about Steve and Eydie: you’re probably not able to name one song most clearly associated with them. To find their songs, we have to go to the record books.

Lawrence hit the Billboard singles charts under his own name 21 times between 1957 and 1964. In January 1963, he had a #1 hit, “Go Away Little Girl,” and he reached the Top 10 on four other occasions, all between 1957 and 1961. Eydie charted under her own name 16 times between 1956 and 1969. Her biggest chart hit was “Blame It on the Bossa Nova”—a trifle in the grand scheme of things, albeit a trifle written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil—which made the Top 10 early in 1963 at the height of the bossa nova craze. (“Go Away Little Girl” and “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” spent a couple of weeks together in the Top 20 late in February.) Together, Steve and Eydie hit the Billboard singles chart three times, twice in 1963 but not again until 1972, when “We Can Make It Together” was billed to Steve and Eydie featuring the Osmonds, despite sounding like a Partridge Family outtake.

As you might expect, Steve and Eydie made a big impression on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. “Go Away Little Girl” topped it for six weeks in December 1962 and January 1963. Oddly, “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” failed to make what was then known as the Middle-Road Singles chart; Eydie’s biggest easy-listening hit under her own name was “If He Walked Into My Life” from the musical Mame in 1966. It’s a big, traditional Broadway pop song, and her performance is magnificent—she just flat sings the hell out of it.

Steve and Eydie would hit the easy-listening chart 10 times together, including the 1979 hit “Hallelujah,” on which they were billed as Parker and Penny. Although “Hallelujah” had won the Eurovision Song Contest, Steve and Eydie figured that radio stations would shy away from it if they were billed under their real names. Lawrence told a reporter in 1989, “It reached #46 before some disc jockey in Chicago blew our cover.”

Eydie had more success on the album chart than Steve did, charting a dozen albums to his six. Chart guru Joel Whitburn ranks each performer’s debut album as their most successful, Gorme’s self-titled 1957 album and Here’s Steve Lawrence from 1958. Steve and Eydie charted three albums as a duo in the late 60s, none getting above #136. Nevertheless, it’s for one of their albums that they might be best remembered.

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé released That Holiday Feeling! in time for Christmas 1964. The album’s most famous songs will be on the radio for a 50th Christmas later this year, “That Holiday Feeling” and “Happy Holiday.” They hit that December sweet spot, when we want to hear something warm and familiar and traditional, something that takes us back to Christmas as children, when the tree glowed brighter, the snow piled deeper, and the season seemed more magical than it does now. For traditional pop singers of the 20th century, that’s the main route to immortality in the 21st.

Eydie Gormé died this past weekend, as you almost certainly know.  Tomorrow would have been her 85th birthday.

Music From a Distant Galaxy

Creativity’s weird, man. Things happen. Once you start mixing stuff in the test tube, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Don Sebesky played trombone in the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson in the 1950s, arranged music on some great jazz albums in the 60s, and has been around the music world ever since. In the late 60s, he released a couple of studio-group albums intended to merge jazz, rock, and classical, one billed to the Distant Galaxy and another to Don Sebesky and the Jazz-Rock Syndrome.

A Billboard magazine blurb from late 1968 describes the Distant Galaxy album thusly: “Combine some exotic instruments (electric sitar, clavinet, Moog synthesizer) with more conventional ones, add a sometime chorus of celestial voices and unusual arrangements by Don Sebesky and out come the way-out sounds of the Distant Galaxy. . . . Interesting are some electronic intros which reinforce the out-of-this-world mood.” Albums of synthesizer music were all the rage about this time, from famous ones like Switched-On Bach to the lesser-known Plastic Cow Goes Moooog and the albums  by Moog Machine.

Also all the rage about this time was a particular piece by Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21. In 1967, it had been featured in the Swedish film Elvira Madigan. The film won a bunch of awards in Europe, although its music was more popular here, and to this day, the Mozart concerto is sometimes called the Elvira Madigan Concerto. So in 1968, when Don Sebesky and his musicians started working up the album that would become Distant Galaxy, it was natural that the haunting Elvira Madigan theme be included alongside other familiar tunes of the day, such as “Lady Madonna,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “The Sound of Silence.”

We do not know the identity of the musicians Sebesky hired for his album, but we can guess that he had his pick of the top jazz cats in the record business thanks to his work for Verve and A&M Records. Sebesky’s arrangement of the Elvira Madigan theme is moving along nicely, and at midpoint, an anonymous saxophone player cuts loose on a solo. And in the middle of that solo, the sax quotes a few notes from another one of the familiar pop tunes of 1968—Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.”

Creativity’s weird, man. Things happen. There are no more than a couple of lines from “Honey” in the solo, and when the theme first appears, it takes a second before you realize what it is. The orchestra backing the sax eventually picks up the “Honey” theme—and rather neatly blends it with “Elvira”—but I wonder if the whole thing had its origins in an improvised solo that all of a sudden went to an unexpected place.  Regardless of how it happened, precisely, the atmospheric theme from a foreign cult movie got mashed up with a sappy housewife-pop hit—an early example of sampling, maybe, and one of the stranger musical hybrids you’re gonna hear.

If you’re interested in the whole Distant Galaxy album, it’s here. Those short electronic intros Billboard praised don’t add much to the album—most of the time, they have little to do with the more traditional instrumental pop numbers that follow them, as if they were tacked on to retrofit the album for the synthesizer pop audience. That wouldn’t have been a bad bit of marketing in 1968, but without them, the album is not nearly so way-out as Billboard believed it to be. Distant Galaxy didn’t make the Billboard 200, but “Elvira Madigan Theme/Honey” was the obvious choice as a single, far and away the most commercial thing on it. It barely scratched the Billboard Easy Listening chart, appearing for two weeks in July 1968, peaking at #39.

Note to Patrons: This blog is going on hiatus for a while. There will be a robo-post here at some point next week, but that’ll be all until sometime early in June. Go play outside.

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