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.