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.

I Get Around

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(Pictured: Dionne Warwick with Burt Bacharach at the piano, 1971.)

I have a 60s playlist sourced from the Time-Life AM Gold and Classic Rock series, and another of MOR that comes from the Lifetime of Romance series. I dipped into both of them on a recent all-day car ride, and here are some notes.

Continue reading “I Get Around”

Mid-Century Style

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We had a fair amount of Dean Martin slander here recently, inspired by Casey Kasem appearing as Hitler at Martin’s 1974 roast of Don Rickles. For those of us growing up in the 60s, Martin was on TV with a variety show that came on past our bedtime. To the extent that he left much of an impression later on, it was as an avatar of the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas showbiz era. Fair or not, what seemed like casual cool to our parents and grandparents came off almost sadly decadent to our generation: a martini-swilling cad, the kind of guy who would order a steak well-done and pinch the waitress as she walked away, and later stub out his cigarette in what was left of the mashed potatoes.

But this post isn’t about Martin the martini-swilling cad, or the actor, or the TV personality, or the restauranteur. Instead, it’s about Martin the pop star—because he was a big one, and for quite a while.

I submit for your consideration that “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,” is among the most famous lines in all of American popular music. “That’s Amore” was Martin’s breakthrough hit, making #2 in 1953. We think of 1956 as a time when the rock ‘n’ roll era was blooming, but that winter, the earlier era was not yet over, and Martin hit #1 in Billboard with “Memories Are Made of This.” A far more unlikely #1 hit was “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which topped the Hot 100 for a week in August 1964, knocking “A Hard Day’s Night” from the top spot before being knocked out itself by the Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.”

The success of “Everybody Loves Somebody” made Dean Martin into one of the superstars of easy listening. He would hit the Top 10 of Billboard‘s variously named Easy Listening charts with 22 straight hits through 1969, and rack up 11 gold albums in the same period. After “Everybody Loves Somebody,” he would hit #1 on Easy Listening four more times. “The Door Is Still Open to My Heart,” “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You,” “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” and “In the Misty Moonlight” all made the Hot 100 too; “The Door Is Still Open” went to #6. “I Will,” which was #3 on Easy Listening, went to #10 on the Hot 100 late in 1965. Many of his other Easy Listening hits made the Hot 100 as well, and I know them from Mother and Dad’s radios, long before I had one of my own, including “Houston,” “Lay Some Happiness on Me,” and “Not Enough Indians. ”

Martin’s last charted single would come in 1983. “My First Country Song” scraped the bottom of the country charts in that year—although it wasn’t really his first. A version of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” was his last Easy Listening Top 10 in 1969; he also charted on Easy Listening with Merle Haggard’s song “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” and the country standard “Detroit City.” But apart from “Gentle on My Mind” and the album with the same title, country Dean didn’t really stick. The end of his chart heyday came swiftly; no more charting albums after 1972 or Easy Listening singles after 1973.

Dean Martin would remain a major star through the 1970s, although as he pushed past the age of 60, he slowed down, and he was in poor health for the last decade of his life. He died in 1995 at the age of 78. There was a revival of interest in his music when space-age pop and mid-century modern style became fashionable; today, his boozy charm summons up an entire constellation of images that has nothing to do with stubbing out a cigarette in the mashed potatoes.

On Another Matter: I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s “It’s About TV,” and I am overdue thanking him for periodically shouting out my website, as he did in a recent Around the Dial post. Much as my website intends to illuminate our lives and times through music and the ways we listened, his discussions of classic television, especially his This Week in TV Guide posts, offer insights into how we once lived that can tell us something about how we live now. I am pretty sure we would not always draw the same conclusions, but our interest comes from the same general place. If you enjoy the typical run of pondwater here, you will enjoy his site also.

Letter Winners

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(Pictured: the original Lettermen, Jim Pike, Tony Butala, and Bob Engemann.)

A while back, after I tweeted a March 1971 Hot 100 chart, a friend noted the presence of Andy Williams singing the theme from Love Story among the legendary rock and soul records of that day, referring to it as “jarringly out of place.” And yeah, if you look at it one way, it is out of place; but then again, that kind of thing happened all the time in a day when there were fewer radio stations, and they had broader audiences. Stations wanted and needed to play records with adult appeal, and if the kids liked them too, great. So behold the two most iconic hits of the Lettermen, superstars of easy listening, and the records with which they shared the chart:

February 10, 1968:
1. “Love Is Blue”/Paul Mauriat
2. “Green Tambourine”/Lemon Pipers
3. “Spooky”/Classics IV
4. “Judy in Disguise”/John Fred and the Playboy Band
5. “Chain of Fools”/Aretha Franklin
6. “I Wish It Would Rain”/Temptations
7. “Goin’ Out of My Head”-“Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”/Lettermen
8. “Nobody But Me”/Human Beinz
9. “Woman Woman”/Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
10. “Bend Me Shape Me”/American Breed

September 20, 1969:
1. “Sugar Sugar”/Archies
2. “Honky Tonk Women”/Rolling Stones
3. “Green River”/Creedence Clearwater Revival
4. “A Boy Named Sue”/Johnny Cash
5. “Easy to Be Hard”/Three Dog Night
6. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”/Tom Jones
7. “Get Together”/Youngbloods
8. “Jean”/Oliver
9. “Little Woman”/Bobby Sherman
10. “I Can’t Get Next to You”/Temptations
11. “Oh What a Night”/Dells
12. “Hurt So Bad”/Lettermen

The Lettermen look like an outlier at a half-century’s distance, just as Andy Williams did next to Ike and Tina Turner and Janis Joplin in 1971, but at the time, they weren’t the only act straddling the easy-listening and Top-40 worlds. In these weeks alone, the records by Paul Mauriat, the Archies, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, and Oliver were easy-listening hits too. And before 1968 got much farther along, later releases by Gary Puckett and the Classics IV would land on the easy-listening charts. Bobby Sherman would eventually make it, too.

The original Lettermen lineup—Tony Butala, Bob Engemann, and Jim Pike—coalesced in 1960 out of a group of musicians and singers who played hotel ballrooms in Las Vegas and Miami. They scored their first Hot 100 hit in 1961, a version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” and in their first year on the charts scored four sizeable hits on the Billboard Easy Listening chart, including the #1 “When I Fall in Love,” which was also went Top 10 on the Hot 100 in January 1962. They didn’t hit again until 1965, with a vocal version of “Theme From A Summer Place,” which had been a smash by Percy Faith in 1960, and it was off to the races after that. When their easy-listening/adult-contemporary chart career ended in 1975, their final scorecard was 19 Top 10s, although they never again returned to #1 on that chart: “A Summer Place,” the “Going Out/Can’t Take” medley, and “Hurt So Bad” all peaked at #2. Other major easy-listening hits included versions of “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “Shangri-La,” and a medley of the Classics IV’s “Traces” and “Memories,” a song famously recorded by Elvis Presley. Their final AC Top 10 hit was a cover of John Lennon’s “Love” in 1971. They put 32 albums onto the Billboard 200 as well.

The Lettermen started going through lineup changes at the peak of their fame. Tony Butala remained a constant until his retirement in 2019, and an edition of the trio still exists today; the senior member is Donovan Tea, who joined in 1984. Like every other performing act, they haven’t done much recently, although they have a few hopeful dates on their 2021 calendar.

The Lettermen’s most famous hits are engraved on baby-boomer DNA thanks to their ubiquity on radio, which played them til the labels fell off. They were still on the air when I worked in easy-listening radio during the 80s, and on the big-band/nostalgia format in the 90s. Today, the Lettermen represent the sort of old-time, tuxedo-clad, hotel-ballroom showbiz that you just don’t see anymore, but their records are as capable of bringing back a time and place as their contemporaries, from Marvin Gaye to Three Dog Night. At least in my house.

Additional Note: I was crushed yesterday to hear of the sudden death of the writer/teacher who called himself Lance Mannion. I have been reading him regularly since 2003 or thereabouts. We followed each other on Twitter and occasionally corresponded, although we never met in the real world. He wrote about politics, literature, movies, and his family; I will miss his 5AM tweets as he sipped coffee and watched his neighborhood wake up. As journalist Tom Watson says in a tribute today, “His work was a gift to me and so many thousands of others.” 

The Total Sinatra

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I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now. 

Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.

That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.

While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.

It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.

Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.

Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.

Out of the Long Ago

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(Pictured: the Supremes deplane, 1966.)

Back at the beginning of the summer, we noodled with the idea of the greatest single Top 10 of all time. There are lots of candidates, as we found, but I keep going back to the one dated September 24, 1966. To refresh your recollection:

1. “Cherish”/Association
2. “You Can’t Hurry Love”/Supremes
3. “Sunshine Superman”/Donovan
4. “Yellow Submarine”/Beatles
5. “Bus Stop”/Hollies
6. “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep”/Temptations
7. “Black Is Black”/Los Bravos
8. “96 Tears”/? and the Mysterians
9. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”/Beach Boys
10. “Reach Out I’ll Be There”/Four Tops
11. (bonus track) “Eleanor Rigby”/Beatles

It wasn’t just a killer Top 11. The rest of the Top 40 was studded with classics as well:

14. “Cherry Cherry”/Neil Diamond
15. “Sunny Afternoon”/Kinks
17. “Wipe Out”/Surfaris
21. “Sunny”/Bobby Hebb
22. “Turn Down Day”/Cyrkle
23. “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted/Jimmy Ruffin
24. “Land of 1000 Dances”/Wilson Pickett
25. “Psychotic Reaction”/Count Five
26. “Last Train to Clarksville”/Monkees
27. “Working in the Coal Mine”/Lee Dorsey

Sweet mama look at that. And this:

33. “7 and 7 Is”/Love
37. “Summer in the City”/Lovin’ Spoonful
39. “God Only Knows”/Beach Boys
40. “Walk Away Renee”/Left Banke

And below the Top 40:

41. “Just Like a Woman”/Bob Dylan
47. “Blowin’ in the Wind”/Stevie Wonder
50. “With a Girl Like You”/Troggs
53. “See See Rider”/Eric Burdon and the Animals
72. “Poor Side of Town”/Johnny Rivers
73. “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing”/Lou Rawls
89. “Knock on Wood”/Eddie Floyd
90. “Mr. Spaceman”/Byrds
96. “I’m Your Puppet”/James and Bobby Purify

It was an exceptional week for easy listening music on the Hot 100 as well.

30. “Flamingo”/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
32. “Summer Wind”/Frank Sinatra
44. “Summer Samba”/Walter Wanderley
49. “In the Arms of Love”/Andy Williams
54. “Born Free”/Roger Williams
86. “Mas Que Nada”/Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66

Over on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, all six of those are in the Top 10, along with more of the easy-listeningest music of all time:

3. “Guantanamera”/Sandpipers
13. “Somewhere My Love (Lara’s Theme)”/Ray Conniff Singers
17. “The Impossible Dream”/Jack Jones

But Easy Listening is really winning on the Top LPs chart. Revolver is #1, but:

2. Doctor Zhivago/Soundtrack
3. Somewhere My Love/Ray Conniff Singers
4. The Sound of Music/Soundtrack
5. What Now My Love/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
6. Whipped Cream and Other Delights/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
7. Strangers in the Night/Frank Sinatra
11. Going Places/Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
13. Sinatra at the Sands/Frank Sinatra

Those big movie soundtracks, Sinatra albums, and the historic Tijuana Brass threesome make for an interesting mix with Revolver and the others in the Top 13: Best of the Beach Boys, the Stones’ Aftermath, Gettin’ Ready by the Temptations, and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Although the biggest rock acts are able to consistently break through, the album market is still dominated by acts selling to adults, although that will start to change within a year or so.

Digression: I am pretty sure that no famous movie has gone further down the memory hole than Doctor Zhivago. Adjusted for inflation, it’s still one of the top-grossing films of all time, but it never turns up on cable. [Very late edit: it’s on TCM fairly often now.] It’s on several streaming services, but I suspect there are not a lot of people under the age of 70 who are willing to pony up $2.99 on a Saturday night for a three-hour epic set during the Russian Revolution. But in September 1966 it was still popular in theaters. The score had won an Oscar, and “Lara’s Theme,” heard only as an instrumental in the movie but with lyrics added by three-time Oscar winner Paul Webster, was a smash. Conniff’s version was #1 on Easy Listening for a month and had made #9 on the Hot 100.

“Somewhere My Love” also contains a lyric line that stops me in my tracks every time: “You’ll come to me out of the long ago.” As many of the most precious things often do.

The Hot Country Singles chart for the week of 9/24/66 is not the bonanza of eternal classics that the Hot 100 is, but it’s led by a record that didn’t get off the radio for years thereafter: “Almost Persuaded” by David Houston. Although he is forgotten now, David Houston was one of the biggest stars in country between 1965 and 1971, with seven Billboard #1 hits. The nine weeks “Almost Persuaded” spent at #1 country was the longest run of any record since 1963, and it wouldn’t be surpassed until the download era. It’s also at #29 on the Hot 100 in this week, on its way to #24.

It’s well known that terrestrial radio stations, even ones specializing in oldies or classic hits, have largely dumped 60s music. But it’s not because music of later decades is consistently better, cuz it ain’t. And the chart from 9/24/66 is Exhibit A.