Category Archives: Superstars of Easy Listening

All There Is

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Peggy Lee. That’s showbiz glamour right there.)

The other day Peggy Lee’s “Fever” came up on shuffle while I was avoiding work I should have been doing, and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, “Hot damn, this is one fabulous record.” That’s something I have believed for years, but on that day, the imperative of avoiding work led me down a Peggy Lee rabbit hole.

Little Willie John recorded “Fever” in 1956. A number of singers recorded it thereafter, so it was a reasonably well-known song by 1957. One night, Lee’s bass player, Max Bennett, was playing in a club when a member of the audience requested it—and ended up teaching them the two chords the band needed to play it. Bennett liked it well enough, but he didn’t know the Little Willie John version, and the only recording he could find was by pop crooner Ray Peterson. Neither he nor Lee cared much for that version, but she thought that it could be reshaped into a torch song for her nightclub act. Bennett said it was Lee’s idea to strip it down to bass and drums.

Lee opened at the Copacabana in February 1958, a major engagement after four or five years away from the New York nightclub scene, and “Fever” was part of her act. She had no plans to record it, but audience response indicated that she was on to something. She sang it on TV in April, and when a disc jockey in Canada played the TV recording on his show, people loved it. When Lee went to Los Angeles for a recording session in May, “Fever” was one of the tracks laid down. It became a hit, reaching #8 in Billboard and #6 in Cash Box late in August of 1958. It even made Billboard‘s R&B charts. The song also got two Grammy nominations for the inaugural awards, including Record of the Year.

It would be 11 years before Lee returned to the charts in a major way, with a performance even more unusual than “Fever.”

In 1968, Jerry Leiber, inspired by a German short story, wrote a set of lyrics titled “Is That All There Is?” He and Mike Stoller worked them into a song for a British TV special. Its first version on wax was by Leslie Uggams, but Lieber and Stoller were shooting higher. “We wanted a record of the song interpreted by someone who understood this genre,” they wrote. At one point, they thought the song’s German roots might make it a good fit for Marlene Dietrich, but she declined. They sent it to Barbra Streisand’s manager, but he didn’t even bother to forward it to Barbra (who would eventually want to know why it hadn’t been offered to her). Finally, they thought, “How about Peggy Lee?”

Leiber and Stoller gave Lee a demo after she performed at the Copa one night in 1968; she would later say that the song read like the story of her life. She cut it in January 1969. Leiber said a single take of the song, take 36, was one of the two greatest performances he’d ever heard in a studio—but the engineer had failed to start the tape. (Take 37 became the master, although bits were spliced in from earlier takes.)

Capitol Records didn’t want to release “Is That All There Is?” as a single, thinking it was very much out-of-style for 1969. But the label had several artists it wanted to place on The Joey Bishop Show (a late-night competitor with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin). Bishop agreed to take them on if he could get Peggy Lee too; she agreed to go if Capitol would release “Is That All There Is?” Thanks to exposure on the Bishop show, the song became a hit, charting in September and rising to #11 on the Hot 100 50 years ago this week. (In the Top 10 that week: “Suspicious Minds,” “Come Together,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Sugar Sugar,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “And When I Die,” and “Something.”)

Hitting when it did makes “Is That All There Is?” an oddly appropriate epitaph for the 1960s. Lee did not read it as fatalistically as it is possible to do—as existentially bleak as Leiber intended. After each disappointing experience, she resolves to “just keep dancing.” Maybe there will be more . . . next time. As so we went on into the 1970s, thinking exactly the same thing.

Peggy Lee died in 2002 at the age of 81. There’s a fabulous website devoted to her career, and I strongly recommend to you its essays on “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” 

Continue reading →

Bubbles in the Wine

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: a late-period shot of Lawrence Welk. Dig that wild background, man.)

Me, 2011: “History is written by the winners. So when the history of pop music on television is written, that history focuses on the shows that featured rock music.” Which is why, I went on to say, Lawrence Welk doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for what is now, in 2019, nearly 70 years on television.

Neither is he remembered for hit records, although had a few.

You might be surprised to learn that Welk scored his first hit songs as far back as 1938. In those days, his band was known as a “sweet” band, a term that distinguished bands playing pop music from “hot” bands that played jazz. At some point in the 30s, Welk nicknamed his style “champagne music,” light and bubbly with a steady beat for dancing. (His theme song to the end of his career was “Bubbles in the Wine,” which became a modest hit in 1939.) During the 40s, his band was especially popular in the Midwest, and they played regular, extended engagements at big-city hotels, including a 10-year residency at a ballroom in Chicago. Welk also recorded a number of “soundies”—early music videos—during the 1940s. Welk’s biggest hits in this period came in 1944 and 1945: “Don’t Sweetheart Me,” which was not in the “champagne” style at all, spent 20 weeks on the Billboard chart in 1944 and got as high as #2; in 1945, the country song “Shame on You,” recorded with Red Foley, went to #1 on what Billboard then called the “Juke Box Folk” chart. (The song had been a bigger hit earlier in the year for singer Spade Cooley, thus establishing Welk’s rep as a cover act.)

After Welk relocated to Los Angeles, he started appearing on local TV in 1951, going national in 1955. At about this time, he began visiting the pop charts again. His best year was 1956, when he hit the Top 20 three times, all with covers: “Moritat,” “Poor People of Paris,” and “Tonight You Belong to Me.” His biggest hit was yet to come, however: “Calcutta” hit #1 in a couple of cities before the end of 1960, racked up more local #1s in January 1961, and finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in February.

I can’t describe the appeal of “Calcutta” any better than I did in 2011: “The song features a harpsichord, a unique sound that gets a listener’s attention. ‘Calcutta’ clocks in at a compact 2:13, with a melodic and rhythmic drive that would not alienate parents even as it attracted their kids. And speaking of attracting the kids: What’s that there, leading into the final reprise of the main theme, about 1:40 into the record? Is that a backbeat?”

After “Calcutta,” 10 more Welk singles would scratch into the Hot 100 by 1965. One might be familiar to you today: his version of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” which did decent business on Easy Listening in 1962. On the Billboard album chart, Welk charted 42 times between 1955 and 1973. Calcutta! was #1 for 11 weeks in 1961; later that year, Yellow Bird made #2. As late as 1967, his album Winchester Cathedral went to #12; it was one of the albums in my parents’ collection.

One of the more significant shifts in American cultural history took place around the turn of the 70s, when television shows that appealed to older and/or rural audiences were systematically dumped in favor of those intended to appeal to younger, urban viewers. Pat Buttram of Green Acres famously cracked that CBS “canceled everything with a tree,” although the “rural purge” also claimed shows on other networks, and several variety shows. One of them was The Lawrence Welk Show, which still drew decent numbers, although not the “right” ones, and it aired for the last time on ABC in September 1971. The show went immediately into first-run syndication for 11 more seasons. After that, the shows were repackaged, sometimes with new introductions by Welk and other members of the show’s cast. They continue to run down unto this very day, even though Welk himself has been dead since 1992.

If you want to know why Lawrence Welk had such a powerful appeal to his target demographic, listen to this version of “Bubbles in the Wine,” recorded in 1956. Welk (and/or his longtime featured player and assistant conductor Myron Floren) fills with accordion lines like a lead guitarist on a rock record, and it’s a perfect distillation of the classic Welk sound. “Bubbles in the Wine” makes it easy to understand why, whenever you were at your grandmother’s house on a Saturday night, she made you tune the TV over to the Lawrence Welk channel.

Billy Who?

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: a silvery moon, sailing along.)

From the earliest days of recording, instrumental music was always popular. During the 30s and early 40s, jazz was America’s favorite form of popular music. But as the big-band era faded and jazz evolved in ways that some fans couldn’t follow, the instrumental acts that were left standing, by 1950 or so, were largely pop acts.

While these acts still released singles, the 10-inch and later the 12-inch long-playing album were an even-better format for them. The coming of consumer stereo in 1958 created a market for them that hadn’t existed before. Early adopters wanted to buy records that would sound good on their new systems. They weren’t the kids buying 78s or 45s by Elvis, Pat Boone, and the Everly Brothers; they were their adult siblings, or their uncles and fathers. For those older consumers, the content of the records was secondary to the sonic experience they created, but if the tunes were familiar, so much the better. Thus the market for instrumental music exploded. (What’s known as “space-age pop,” a genre with several offshoots, developed during this period.)

There are any number of bandleaders one might write about in this period: some had been sidemen in big bands, others had been arrangers or composers. One of the most prolific was involved with a lot of other people’s hits and released dozens of albums and singles under his own name: Billy Vaughn.

During the first half of the 50s, Vaughn had been a singer. He later became an A&R man, arranger, and conductor at Dot Records, where he was responsible for a boatload of cover recordings, often the white versions of R&B hits, including many of the most famous by Pat Boone. (If it was on Dot in the 50s and it wasn’t by Lawrence Welk, chances are Vaughn was involved.) At the same time, he was releasing records under his own name. He charted a remarkable 36 albums on the Billboard album chart between 1958 and 1970. He also charted 28 singles between 1954 and 1966.

Here is your Billy Vaughn Top Five:

5. “A Swingin’ Safari” (1962). I have written quite a bit in recent months about songs I heard before I knew it, songs that played on my parents’ radio and lodged in my head, so that when I heard them years later, they came with a set of pre-loaded associations. “A Swingin’ Safari” likely came to me from both the radio and the TV: it was the theme song for the original Match Game, which ran from 1962 to 1969.

4. “Raunchy” (1957). The cover versions Vaughn arranged and produced at Dot sanded the edges off the originals, and his “Raunchy” is no exception. It tones down both the guitar twang of the Bill Justis original and the rock beat of the Ernie Freeman version. But there was room on the radio for all three to make the Top 10, all in December 1957.

3. “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (1956). The most unusual record in Vaughn’s catalog is “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a two-part, six-minute tale of Western adventure and existential philosophy narrated by voice artist Ken Nordine. Nordine would later be famed for the creation of what he called “word jazz.” In the 70s he narrated a series of iconic commercials for Levis, and he died this past February at age 98.

2. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” (1958). If you didn’t recognize “A Swingin’ Safari,” maybe you know “Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” an alto-saxophone duet performed to a medium-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. The “duet” is actually one guy, Los Angeles studio musician Justin Gordon, overdubbing himself. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” was the original B-side of “Raunchy” and followed it up the Billboard chart in early 1958.

1. “Melody of Love” (1955). This old-fashioned, sentimental tune was first heard in 1903. Vaughn’s recording of “Melody of Love” was the biggest of five versions that hit simultaneously in early 1955; the Four Aces and Frank Sinatra cut vocal versions.

Bonus Track: “Wheels” (1961). Although other Vaughn singles charted higher than “Wheels,” I suspect it’s better known today (to the extent that Vaughn is remembered at all) than all but “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” and “A Swingin’ Safari.”

In any period of music history, there are always records that escape the generalizations we make when narrating that history. The pop instrumentals of the 50s and 60s—by the Billy Vaughns of the world—are among the most frequent escapees.

Make It Rain

Embed from Getty Images

(Pictured: Tanya Tucker onstage in 1975.)

Radio and Records is a now-defunct industry trade paper. It was founded in 1973 (according to Wikipedia, one of its founders was Robert Kardashian—yeah, that guy) and ceased publication in 2009. In its heyday, its music charts were highly influential. Chances are, the radio station you listened to in the 80s and 90s either reported to R&R or took its airplay cues from the magazine. Radio Rewinder recently posted the Radio and Records Pop 40 chart from June 12, 1975. It’s an adult-contemporary chart, although it lists many of the big Top 40 hits of the moment. Melissa Manchester’s lovely “Midnight Blue” is at #1, one week before it would get to the same spot on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. The R&R chart gains bonus points for the oddball records appearing on the list. Including:

11.  “Lizzie and the Rainman”/Tanya Tucker. Tucker was a country superstar in 1975, and “Lizzie and the Rainman” was her fourth #1 in the last two years, although she’d first hit with “Delta Dawn” in the summer of 1972, when she was only 13 years old. All of her country #1s in this period crossed to the pop charts, but “Lizzie and the Rainman” was the only one to make the Billboard Top 40, hitting #37 in the same week R&R published this chart. It peaked at #7 on the Easy Listening chart, and it’s got some monster hooks: “I betcha I can make it rain” and “Step back non-believers, or the rain will never come.”

Digression: 1975 was a big year for crossover country. Ten of the year’s #1 country singles were major pop hits, and six of those made #1 on the Hot 100: “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” by B. J. Thomas, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” by Freddy Fender, John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “I’m Sorry,” Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and “Convoy” by C. W. McCall, which hit #1 country in December and topped the Hot 100 in January 1976.

16.  “I Dreamed Last Night”/Justin Hayward and John Lodge. As the Moody Blues got ready to make the followup to Seventh Sojourn, Michael Pinder, Ray Thomas, and Graeme Edge opted out. Because the group owed its record label something, Hayward, Lodge, and producer Tony Clarke made Blue Jays—an album I remember seeing in many, many cutout bins in the late 70s. “I Dreamed Last Night” made #47 on the Hot 100 and #29 Easy Listening.

20.  “Ding-a-Dong”/Teach-In. I’d never heard of this record until the moment I saw this chart, but it turns out that “Ding-a-Dong” was the Netherlands entry and eventual winner of the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest. It’s catchy, but it disappears like cotton candy, and its resemblance to an ABBA record is almost certainly intentional. It didn’t make the Hot 100 but went to #22 Easy Listening.

21.  “Please Tell Him I Said Hello”/Debbie Campbell. In June 1975, Billboard described Debbie Campbell as “a young and cute rock refugee.” She had played in an all-girl band called the Kandy Kanes in the 60s, and in the early 70s with a country-rock band called Buckwheat. “Please Tell Him I Said Hello” didn’t make either the Hot 100 or Billboard‘s country Top 40, although it did have a 13-week run up to #12 on the Easy Listening chart. BTW, Glen Campbell had a daughter named Debbie who was a singer, but this isn’t her; this Debbie Campbell was a favorite around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and died young.

34.  “Susanna’s Song”/Jerry Cole and Trinity. Jerry Cole was in the Champs for a while, and he played on lots of records in the 60s as a session guitarist, including work with Them, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and Phil Spector. He also made several albums of space-age/bachelor-pad pop in the middle of the 60s. He has a spectcularly detailed Wikipedia entry with an exhaustive list of credits, but that list doesn’t include anything with a group called Trinity. Still, he seems to have recorded three singles under that name. “Susanna’s Song,” which is not available at YouTube, went to #20 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart but didn’t make the Hot 100.

Writing about a song so obscure that it isn’t even on YouTube: geek achievement unlocked.

Kinda Dumb and Kinda Smart

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

A Thing or Two About Vic Damone

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

%d bloggers like this: