A Soundtrack for Everyday People

Earlier this week, I wrote that the way we perceive 1968—as a time of turmoil and change—is not necessarily the way it felt to many people living through it. Millions of Americans worked their jobs and raised their families and went on day-by-day without feeling continually buffeted by the currents of history. As for the music of 1968, we remember it as a wildly creative time. The greatest stars were at the peak of their powers, from London to Detroit to Los Angeles.

But just as each day did not feel like an entry in the history books to those who were living them, daily listening didn’t necessarily feel like it either. Behold the Billboard Easy Listening chart dated May 18, 1968, pictured at the top of this post. (As always, click to embiggen.) Consider it the soundtrack for everyday people, born in the first third of the 20th century, going about their lives with the radio on.

The list is extremely light on the pop stars we remember as the titans of the age, the ones favored by the kids who grew up to write the histories of 1968. Simon and Garfunkel have two hits on the list, “Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair,” but that’s it. A trippy hippie might gravitate to the folky/ethnic sound of “The Unicorn,” or to “Master Jack” by Four Jacks and a Jill, Spanky and Our Gang’s “Like to Get to Know You,” and “Goin’ Away” by the Fireballs. But there are no Beatles, no Motown stars, and no Laurel Canyon folkies on the list.

But wait a minute: five of the top 11 songs on Easy Listening during this week were also in the Top 10 of the Hot 100: “Honey,” “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Unicorn,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” and “Mrs. Robinson.” “Honey” and “Love Is Blue” had been #1 on the Hot 100. “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, new on the Easy Listening chart in this week, would spend a month at #1 on the Hot 100 in the summer. The distinctions we’d make today between the kids’ music and older styles weren’t always the distinctions the kids made themselves in 1968. It would have not been remotely uncommon for a teenager to walk out of a record store with “Lady Madonna,” “Mony Mony,” and “Honey” during this week.

However, apart from the Hot 100 hits, the Easy Listening chart is full of stuff with mainly adult appeal, the sort of thing that would have been a staple of shows like Dick Whittinghill’s on KMPC in Los Angeles, mentioned in my earlier post. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Sammy Davis Jr. are all in the Top 20. Al Martino is riding high with his version of “Lili Marlene,” which is another song I knew before I knew that I knew it, absorbed and remembered thanks to Mother and Dad’s radio, same as “The Look of Love” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. Popular nightclub and TV acts of the moment such as the Lettermen, Jack Jones, Ed Ames, Jerry Vale, and Nancy Wilson share space with stars of an older generation, Margaret Whiting and the Mills Brothers. There are prominent bandleader/composers and instrumentalists, not just Herb Alpert and Paul Mauriat but Henry Mancini, Roger Williams, and Raymond Lefevre. Young Tom Jones and young Engelbert Humperdinck are here; so is rising star Glen Campbell and early 60s pop mainstays Bobby Vinton and Connie Francis. Ethnic flavor comes from Trini Lopez, although his song is as countrypolitan as Eddy Arnold’s; Erroll Garner adds a bit of jazz. The great Memphis impresario Willie Mitchell is on the chart under his own name with “Soul Serenade.” So are King Richard’s Flugel Knights, an act we have discussed at this website before. Dick Behrke’s studio group hit the Easy Listening chart six times without ever making the Hot 100, which is among the most ever.

The appeal of this stuff to a salesman listening on his car radio as he calls on clients, or to his wife listening on the kitchen radio as she tries to finish her daily chores before the kids get home from school, should be obvious. It’s tasteful and melodious and relatable. It expresses adult emotions in adult ways. If it doesn’t place great intellectual demands on the salesman or his wife, that’s fine. They’ve got enough things to think about already.

7 thoughts on “A Soundtrack for Everyday People

  1. By 1970, the pace of Top 40 crossovers to adult radio had quickened to the point that Top 40 programmers were alleging that MOR stations were “stealing” their music (see front page story in January 31, 1970 Billboard).

    Click to access BB-1970-01-31-i.pdf

    To be honest, I liked it better when there was adult music and hit music. In some ways, really good MOR was like really good album rock—not tied to chart success and programmed for a sound, not sales.

  2. Brian Rostron

    Wait, Four Jacks and a Jill was a real group? I thought they were just made a made up name for a middle of the road group in This Is Spinal Tap.

  3. Jim Cummings

    Two questions to take your mind off the rest of the world:
    Did Herb Albert ever outsell The Beatles?
    How many songs that Shel Silverstein wrote do you really know?

    Thanks, JB!

    1. mikehagerty

      Herb Alpert & the TJB actually did outsell the Beatles one year in one year—1966. The Beatles had two U.S. releases that year, YESTERDAY AND TODAY and REVOLVER, while the TJB had two, as well, WHAT NOW MY LOVE and S.R.O, but also had two albums from 1965 that were still selling—WHIPPED CREAM and OTHER DELIGHTS and GOING PLACES.

  4. Gary Omaha

    King Richard’s Flugel Knights!!! One of the definitive instrumental groups used on NBC’s “Monitor” in the late 1960s. I never thought I’d hear reference s to them again, yet here they are in THJKOC. Their name or music will likely mean nothing to most reading this, but a few oldsters like me should remember Gene Rayburn, Bill Cullen, and many others taking those instrumentals up to “the NBC Monitor beacon” at the top of the hour. (Yes, JB, I followed your link for the backstory on them, thanks.)

  5. Chris Herman

    The BB Easy Listening Charts from May 18, 1968, and January 1970 brought back some early memories of being in the back seat of my dad’s car. My family lived in Northern California so the spot on the AM dial for MOR music was on San Francisco’s KNBR rather than KMPC. At the time, I was just a passive listener so I never gave KNBR’s selection of music much thought but I now realize the station programmer’s selection of what songs to play was a fine art. The audience for KNBR and every other MOR station almost entirely consisted of people over the age of 30 (i.e., the middle-aged and those on the cusp of middle age) so, unlike a Top 40 station or an FM “free-form” station, the goal was to avoid anything that would seem “edgy” to them. That made for some interesting inclusions on their playlists. Aside from the obvious “no-brainer” selections like Sinatra, Martin, Bennett, Como, Herb Alpert, and anything Burt Bacharach-related, there was a surprising amount of Motown (especially the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder). The Beatles were played often but it was songs like “Yesterday” or “Something” rather than stuff like “Helter Skelter” or “I Am the Walrus”. While covers of his songs were okay, Bob Dylan’s voice kept the songs he sang from getting much airplay with the exception of “Lay Lady Lay” and everything else off of “Nashville Skyline.” You never heard The Rolling Stones largely because their music was too raucous (“As Tears Go By” excepted) and Jagger’s voice was too raw. When the ’70s arrived, the singer-songwriter era was well-represented (e.g., Carole King, James Taylor, Carly Simon, John Denver, and early Elton John) as was Philly Soul. Of course, this is just what I remembered being played on KNBR. The playlists for the MOR stations in other markets may have been more conservative.

  6. porky

    “Soul Coaxing”….my white whale! I also listened to easy listening via my folks’ radio habits while we got the day started. I’d filed “Soul Coaxing” away in my memory bank but it took me years find out its title. Perusing the song’s YouTube comments it seems like many others were in the same boat as me.

    Ditto the comments on Spanky’s “Like to Get to Know You.” I could have written the first 25 or so. There’s a moment around 2 minutes in where the music almost fades but for a repeating vocal and then, audio magic that raises goosebumps every time.

    One last comment. The Fireballs “Goin’ Away” was known to collectors for its B-side “Groovy Motions,” a fuzz guitar adorned piece of strained psychedelia with the classic line, “You’ve got to tune your mind like a string.” Compadres of Buddy Holly, did his plane crash spare him from recording this kind of stuff? The world will never know…..

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