Category Archives: Superstars of Easy Listening

Kinda Dumb and Kinda Smart

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(Pictured: Bobby Goldsboro and his remarkable helmet of hair.)

Fifty years ago today, according to the ARSA database, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” made its first appearance on a radio survey, listed as a pick hit at WKIX in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2012, I wrote about the song at Popdose as part of a feature called World’s Worst Songs. It’s been edited a bit.

The farther back we go in time, the harder it is to fairly judge what sucks, because tastes and styles change. Complicating matters is the post-modern ironic distance through which we look at almost everything. I provide this caveat because this week’s entry in World’s Worst Songs was staggeringly popular in its day, blasting up the charts to #1 and staying there for five weeks, beating back all comers in one of the greatest years popular music ever experienced. To listeners in 1968, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” was not as awful as it seems to us now.

But holy crap it seems awful to us now.

“Honey” was written by Bobby Russell. He also wrote “Little Green Apples,” which won a 1969 Grammy for Song of the Year and briefly threatened to become a standard, and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” a #1 hit in 1973 for his then-wife, Vicki Lawrence. He also scored a handful of minor hit singles as a singer. Many of his songs were sketches of middle-class domestic life in the 60s, and “Honey” is the ne plus ultra of the form.

“Honey” is told in the voice of a husband describing life with his wife, who is “always young at heart / Kinda dumb and kinda smart.” And right there we get at what drives modern listeners to “Honey” around the bend: the singer condescends to nearly everything his wife does, and everything he does for her. She wrecks the car and fears his wrath; after he pretends to be angry for a while, he forgives her, and (instead of being pissed off at his emotional manipulation) she hugs him. He buys her a puppy, but the goddamn thing keeps him awake all night. She cries over sad movies and he thinks it’s silly. You half-expect him to eventually say, “Women—what are you gonna do?”

But then the proceedings take a dark turn: “I came home unexpectedly and caught her crying needlessly / In the middle of the day.” And within half-a-verse more, she’s dead: “One day while I was not at home / While she was there and all alone / The angels came.” (Perhaps if he’d paid more attention to her as a human being, he might have known her crying wasn’t needless.) We do not know what happened, whether she had some disease he couldn’t be bothered to find out about, or whether she killed herself in despair over being treated like a child. In any case, once she’s gone, he realizes he’s lost, well, something: “Honey, I miss you / And I’m being good / And I’d love to be with you / If only I could.”

“Honey” is produced to tug the heartstrings, with an angel choir and chimes that ring out when Honey departs this vale of tears. And at the fade, when Goldsboro repeats the song’s first verse, he does so with an audible lump in his throat. It’s a fine performance for its time, but you probably wouldn’t do this song now, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t do it this way.

“Honey” had already reached #1 in several cities by the time it debuted on the Hot 100, on March 23, 1968. It would blast to #1 on the Hot 100 in just its fourth week, on April 13, and stay five weeks. It would spend three weeks at #1 on the Billboard country chart and two atop the Easy Listening chart. ARSA shows it as the #1 song of the year at stations in Flint, Pensacola, and other medium-sized markets, and #2 at several of the biggest Top 40 stations, including KNUZ in Houston, WRIT in Milwaukee, KJR in Seattle, WCOL in Columbus, and KGB in San Diego. In Chicago, both WLS and WCFL ranked it at #3 for all of 1968. In one of music’s most magical, innovative years, “Honey” stood tall above almost everything else.

Eight-year-old me absorbed “Honey” from hearing it on my parents’ radio stations, and it lingers 50 years later as the sound of spring awakening after the long winter. And although I was pretty snide about the song in this Popdose piece, honesty compels me to report that there’s another reason why “Honey” lingers: it gave eight-year-old me an excuse to think, for the first time, about love and loss. But not for the last.

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A Thing or Two About Vic Damone

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(Pictured: Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone, 1986.)

If this blog has a motto in recent years, it might be “you gotta pick your spots.” I don’t write memorial posts for every musician who passes from the scene because in many cases, other writers are better qualified than I. However, as somebody who grew up with easy-listening music and as a former elevator-music DJ, I think I might be entitled to write about Vic Damone, possessor of the easy-listeningest name ever, who died this week at the age of 89.

It wasn’t his real name: he was born Vito Farinola, a first-generation Italian-American from Brooklyn. Damone was his mother’s maiden name. An usher’s job at the Paramount Theater in New York City brought him into contact with various celebrities including Perry Como, who is said to have encouraged him to pursue a singing career. In 1947, 19-year-old Damone was the winning contestant on the radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and that same year he scored two Top-10 hits, “I Have But One Heart” and “You Do.” In 1949, as his TV and nightclub career was taking off, he hit #1 with “You’re Breaking My Heart.” Between 1947 and 1954, he charted 36 times, including the #4 hit “My Heart Cries for You” in 1951.

(“My Heart Cries for You” was a monster. At least seven competing versions of it were out at the same time; Guy Mitchell did it first and took it to #2 while Dinah Shore hit #3.)

The coming of rock ‘n’ roll in the middle of the 1950s made it harder for crooners like Damone to score radio hits, although his best-known hit came in 1956: “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, which made the Top 10 on three Billboard charts in that pre-Hot 100 day. Its position of #8 on the Best Sellers chart came in July, alongside Elvis, Pat Boone, and Fats Domino in the Top 10 (but also with Perry Como, Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” and two versions of “Moonglow” from the movie Picnic). As the hit songs became scarcer, it’s possible he got his most consistent airplay from a couple of Christmas songs that appeared on those Firestone collections so popular in the 60s.

By the middle of the 1950s, Damone had launched an acting career, appearing in stage musicals, on TV, and in the movies well into the 1960s. He also hosted a couple of variety shows in the late 50s and early 60s. His best-known acting role today is probably from The Dick Van Dyke Show, where he guested as singer Ric Vallone. He is said to have turned down the role of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather.

Vic Damone retired from performing after a stroke in 2002, although he gave one last public performance in 2011. He was married five times. His first wife, actress Pier Angeli, reportedly left James Dean to marry him; after their divorce, he was involved in a messy custody battle over the couple’s son. Wife #4 was actress Diahann Carroll; they were married from 1987 to 1996.

The phenomenon of the Italian-American crooner is an interesting one: Damone, Como, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Al Martino, and Jerry Vale are the most famous, but there were quite literally dozens of others, first coming up in the 1930s and remaining fixtures in nightclubs and on TV for the next 40 or 50 years. While many of them sound remarkably bland to our ears today (as a callow youngster, I used to call Damone “the whitest man in show business”), they worked with legendary composers and arrangers. Damone, for example, made two of his best-selling and most-acclaimed albums with famed Sinatra collaborator Billy May in the early 60s.

We have said around here in the past that one of the purposes of art is to show people things they can’t see for themselves. But it can also be to take people out of a moment and away to some other place. That’s the art of the Italian-American crooner. As you sit in a club with your date, with gin and tonics and a candle on the table, or in front of the TV at home, while the dog barks in the kitchen and traffic rumbles outside, the crooner takes you to romantic places, idealized places, lonely places, and for five minutes or 15 minutes or an hour, you can live lives other than your own.

As artistic gifts go, that’s not a bad one to have.

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.

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.

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