A Very Good Year

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(Pictured: Frank Sinatra talks with Walter Cronkite.) 

Maybe once a year I read a book so good I am literally sad that it ends. This year it was James Kaplan’s gigantic two-volume biography, Frank: The Voice (2010) and Sinatra: The Chairman (2015). If you choose to read it, pack a lunch: there’s something like 1800 pages between the two volumes. This week’s posts are all inspired by the book.  

By 1965, Frank Sinatra was firmly entrenched as America’s #1 pop star, Non-Elvis Division, his career revitalized since his Oscar for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and a string of classic albums. For Sinatra’s 50th birthday that year, CBS News planned a documentary on his life and career. Producer Don Hewitt very badly wanted him to sit for an interview with Walter Cronkite, but Sinatra famously hated reporters. Hewitt got him by telling Sinatra that if he spoke to Cronkite, he would be occupying “the same seat Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson sat in.” The appeal to Frank’s ego—that the special would treat him as if he were a president of the United States—was enough. Not only did he agree to the interview, he permitted the CBS crew to film him recording “It Was a Very Good Year.” And in fact, CBS News crews followed Sinatra around for six months.

CBS had done other profiles of serious artists, such as Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern. Sinatra believed his would be the same kind of reverent retrospective on the performer and his art. But in October, when Walter Cronkite came to Sinatra’s home to film the interview, there were fireworks. Cronkite asked about his hot temper. With anger flashing in his eyes, Frank insisted that he had grown “gentler” in recent years, a claim belied by a montage of newspaper headines about his confrontations with reporters and photographers. Then Cronkite asked about Sinatra’s Mafia connections, which caused Sinatra to bolt.

Hewitt followed him into a bedroom, where Sinatra claimed he’d been promised there would be no Mafia questions. Hewitt said he’d never agreed to that.

“I ought to kill you,” Sinatra said.

“With anyone else, that’s a figure of speech,” Hewitt said. “But you probably mean it.”

“I mean it,” Sinatra replied. Hewitt fled the house, and Sinatra withdrew his consent for the special. The New York Times explained that he “objects to stress on matters not related to his profession.”

Somehow, an agreement was reached, and Cronkite was permitted to ask about the mob, although what he got in response wasn’t much: “I do meet all kinds of people in the world because of the natural habitat from day to day in theatrical work and nightclub work, in concerts, wherever I might be, in restaurants, you meet all kinds of people. So there’s really not much to be said about that, and I think the less said the better, because it’s—there is no—there’s no answer.”

Sinatra (which you can see in its entirety here) aired on November 16, 1965, with a script written by Andy Rooney. In addition to the Cronkite interview and the studio footage, Sinatra sang several songs, including one at a prison (highlighted among his many charitable works), and was seen hanging out with family and friends in his favorite saloon. Afterward, TV critics panned the show as a puff piece for not asking hard questions about the Mafia or anything else, including his colorful love life, which currently starred Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior, who would soon become his third wife. Variety called it “an unmitigated rave for Frankie Goodfellow, star performer, tycoon with a heart of gold, family man (yet), and all around ball-haver.”

In December 1965, “It Was a Very Good Year” hit the radio, eventually reaching #25 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart—the very recording that Sinatra had made on the night CBS cameras were in the studio. And although Sinatra had been a pop star for 25 years by then, his greatest period of sustained singles chart success began with that song. In a 55-week period between June 1966 and June 1967, Sinatra would occupy the #1 spot on the Easy Listening chart for 22 weeks with five different singles: “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” and “The World We Knew.” Two of them, “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid,” a duet with Nancy, would also go to #1 on the Hot 100. For a man who had just turned 50, it was indeed a very good year.

In the next installment: Sinatra’s life was filled with capers, none stranger than one that temporarily cost him $239,985.

Your Mother Should Know

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(Pictured: the King Sisters with some of the rest of the family.)

I cannot say how anybody else’s blogging process works, but mine frequently goes like this: I’ll see something and think, “Hmm, that might be interesting to write about.” Sometimes I follow through right away, but more often, I don’t, and the idea vanishes. When I do follow through, however, it’s often because I saw the same thing again in some other context a day or two later. And that is why you are reading this:

You need to be relatively elderly for the King Family to ring a bell. They came out of California in the 1930s as the Four King Sisters, who had been performing with other family members since they were children. In the late 30s, they were featured singers with Horace Heidt’s big band, and later with the band led by Alvino Rey, who was Louise King’s husband. Between 1941 and 1945, they charted a few singles under their own name, although the records tended to be competing versions of songs that were more popular by other artists. They also appeared in several movies. By 1953, the group had expanded beyond the sisters and was being billed as the King Family. In 1958, their album Imagination got a Grammy nomination for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus.

The King Sisters had appeared on Alvino Rey’s TV show as early as 1953. In 1963, Yvonne King pitched ABC on a variety series for the family. The network didn’t bite at first, but when a 1964 appearance on Hollywood Palace generated thousands of fan letters, ABC gave the King Family a special and eventually, a weekly series, beginning in January 1965. In its two seasons, The King Family Show would include 39 family members ranging in age from seven months to 79 years. Four of them spun off into a group called the Four King Cousins, who became regulars on the Kraft Summer Music Hall in 1966. (The show’s head writer was a guy named George Carlin; one episode included another up-and-comer named Richard Pryor. Read about it here.) The family’s 1967 Thanksgiving and Christmas specials were big hits, and were repeated annually for years thereafter. They got another brief weekly series in 1969, but their main presence on TV was in specials, which ran through 1974.

Apart from those hit singles in the early 40s, the Kings’ only other chart appearances came in 1965, when two albums made the Billboard chart on the strength of their TV show. The more successful, The King Family Show!, went to #34 in a 16-week run.

By the dawn of the disco era, the King Family was no longer the kind of thing that drew big network numbers, but they remained a popular concert attraction for a few years. They played Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. Their last performance was at Yvonne King’s funeral in 2010. Marilyn King, the last of the original sisters, died in 2013. The Four King Cousins were still performing occasionally as recently as 2016.

The King Family dropped stones into the pop-music pond that are still creating ripples. King Cousin Tina Cole became a regular on My Three Sons toward the end of the 60s. Alyce King’s son, Lex De Azevedo, was a successful composer, arranger, and bandleader. (I first learned of him at the elevator-music station, where his orchestra provided custom music for the programming service we used.) Luise King’s grandsons, Win and Will Butler, are members of Arcade Fire. Several King Family specials have been released on DVD. The family has a website and a YouTube channel, as well as a presence on social media. Christmas With the King Family was revived by PBS in 2009, and is still being repeated annually on the GetTV diginet.

A half-century ago, if a comedian wanted an easy punch line lampooning A) square white-bread Americans or B) large families, the King Family was sitting right there. (Although as regards wholesomeness, all those brothers and sisters and cousins implied that the patriarchs and matriarchs of the King Family were horizontally bopping as enthusiastically as the hippies were.) Nevertheless, in the chaos of the late 60s, the King Family presented an oasis of old-fashioned entertainment, where rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles did not intrude and longhairs did not agitate for anarchy. Its appeal to the Silent Majority is easy to understand.

A clip from the 1965 premiere of The King Family Show, introduced by Bing Crosby, is here. A 1966 performance of “Yesterday” by the King Sisters is here. The Four King Cousins perform a 1969 medley keyed to the Beatles’ “Your Mother Should Know” here. The opening of the 1967 Christmas special is here.

Something Better to Do

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(Pictured: Olivia Newton-John, on the radio.)

(Warning: we are going full chart geek today. It maybe ain’t for everybody.)

Commenting on my post about Roger Whittaker recently, reader Wesley observed that Whittaker’s 1975 hit “The Last Farewell” was one of 24 consecutive adult contemporary hits to spend a single week at #1. But the streak (from Ringo Starr’s “Only You” during the week of January 11, 1975, through Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire” during the week of June 14) is actually part of a more impressive one. In the period between July 27, 1974, and October 11, 1975, 47 songs were #1 for a single week. Seven lasted two weeks. Only “I Honestly Love You” and “Please Mr. Please” by Olivia Newton-John managed three.

I chose the July ’74 to October ’75 period because there was never a time in that period with back-to-back multiple-week AC #1s. In June and July 1974, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” “You Won’t See Me” by Anne Murray, and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver spent two, two, and three weeks at #1 AC. Not until October 1975 did it happen again, with ONJ’s “Something Better to Do” (another three-week #1), “The Way I Want to Touch You” by the Captain and Tennille, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “My Little Town.”

(This may be easier to visualize by looking at the list of Billboard #1 AC hits, which you can find here.)

Some of the songs that made #1 AC during the 24-in-a-row stretch were enormous Hot 100 hits, including #1s “Please Mr. Postman,” “Best of My Love,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” (more ONJ; adult-contemporary stars didn’t come bigger in the mid-70s), “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Others were not. Neil Diamond’s “I’ve Been This Way Before” and “My Boy” by Elvis each made the Top 40, at #34 and #20 respectively, but “99 Miles From L.A” by Albert Hammond and Don McLean’s “Wonderful Baby” barely rippled (#91 and #93).

The same approximate period was fickle on other charts. From July 1974 to October 1975, 47 songs hit #1 on the Hot 100, and all but 12 of them were #1 for a single week. During a 12-week stretch early in 1975, there was a different #1 every week. In both 1974 and 1975, 35 different songs hit #1, which is still the all-time record. So “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain and Tennille, which stayed on top for four weeks in the summer of 1975, was clearly several orders of magnitude bigger than any other record of the time. Not even Elton John, red-hot as he was in this period, could come close; “Philadelphia Freedom” managed two weeks. The act that got closest to C&T territory was Tony Orlando and Dawn, who kept “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” on top for three weeks.

The R&B singles charts were similarly busy. From December 1974 to March 1976 (another period marked off with back-to-back multiple-week #1s), I count 54 #1 songs. Seven of them managed two weeks at #1 in that period. The only one to last three weeks was “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers.

What about the Billboard country chart? Finding strings of single-week #1s is practically redundant. For almost two decades, single-week #1s were far and away the norm.

1973: 35 #1 hits
1974: 40
1975: 43
1976: 36
1977: 30
1978: 31
1979: 33
1980: 43
1981: 47
1982: 47
1983: 50
1984: 50
1985: 51
1986: 51
1987: 49
1988: 48
1989: 49

In a generation of enormous volatility, Waylon Jennings doing six straight weeks at # 1 with “Luckenbach, Texas” and Dolly Parton doing five with “Here You Come Again,” both in 1977, is reeeeeeally something. And as you see, the chart would get even wilder in the 80s. In December 1979 and January 1980, two songs would do three weeks at #1 back to back. After that, to January 1990 and the coming of Billboard‘s methodology-changing BDS system (which monitored what stations actually played instead of relying on the historical practice of what stations said they played), only three songs total would spend three weeks at the top: “My Heart” by Ronnie Milsap and “Lookin’ for Love” by Johnny Lee in 1980, and “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis in 1987.

And there’s more:

—Between February 1980 and January 1990, there were only three instances when multiple-week #1s occurred back-to-back on the Billboard country chart.

—Between January 1985 and the coming of BDS in 1990, out of 250 #1 hits in the period, only 11 lasted two weeks at the top, and only Randy Travis made it for three.

I’d like to thank Wesley, a longtime reader and frequent commenter, for sending me down this particular rabbit hole. I did not know until recently that Wesley is the author of The Billboard Book of Adult Contemporary Number One Hits (among other titles), a book that is somehow not in my library but certainly should be. And if you have read this far, it should probably be in yours also.

English Mist

If the name of Roger Whittaker isn’t familiar to you, see if the TV compilation spot up there, from the early 90s, refreshes your recollection of that kindly looking English gentleman, with an impossibly resonant voice and perfect diction, who made the sort of music your mother or grandmother would have liked.

Whittaker’s life story is kind of interesting. He was born in England but grew up in Kenya after his parents moved there for the more salubrious climate. He served in the Kenyan army during the late 50s, then moved back to England to attend university. At the same time, he began a singing career, and landed a record deal in 1962. He recorded throughout the 60s, finally cracking the UK charts with “Durham Town” in 1969. “New World in the Morning” was an easy-listening hit in the States in 1970. He became popular in Scandinavia and Germany, and recorded a long streak of albums in phonetic German.

In 1975, Whittaker’s American label released a 1971 recording, “The Last Farewell.” There must have been something in the air late that spring and into the summer: it’s hard to imagine “The Last Farewell” becoming a pop hit in any other season. It got a boost from WSB in Atlanta, after the program director’s wife heard it on a Canadian station, possibly CKLW, which was one of the first to chart it. After hitting #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, it became a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations not just in Detroit but in Philadelphia, Dayton, Houston, Columbus, Denver, Boston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Hartford. At WLCX in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, it was #1 for five weeks in June and July, stayed in the station’s Top Five for four weeks after that, and ended up #2 for the entire year. On the Hot 100, it peaked at #19 for the week of June 21, 1975, doing a total of nine weeks in the Top 4o and 15 on the Hot 100. It went to #2 in the UK. Around the world, “The Last Farewell” moved something like 11 million copies.

For the next several years, Roger Whittaker was an easy-listening star in America, with six more chart hits, including a reissue of “I Don’t Believe in If Anymore,” which made the Easy Listening Top 10 in 1975 after being a relative stiff in 1970; “Durham Town” got an American release late in ’75 and made #23. He charted six albums: The Last Farewell and Other Hits was the biggest, making #31 on the Billboard 200. Although he never charted after the early 80s, he was a consistent seller, and claims to have received over 250 gold, silver, and platinum awards. It’s easy to understand how mail-order compilations like the one in the ad at the top of this post might have found a very rabid, loyal audience: ultra-familiar songs, most of them very romantic, quietly sung in a traditional and completely unthreatening way.

Roger Whittaker retired from performing in the early 00s, but he has continued to record a little, most recently a German-language album in 2012. (No more phonetic singing; after his earlier success in Germany, he learned the language.) He lives in Ireland now and is still among us at age 84.

When I got to the elevator-music station in the late 80s, “Durham Town,” “New World in the Morning,” and “The Last Farewell” were in the library. They’re maybe not your cup of tea and maybe not mine, but they were surely somebody’s. Although in the summer of 1975, “The Last Farewell” was my cup of tea. The introduction of it—that lush, rich, orchestrated thing. (Cable TV viewers got very familiar with it in the late 70s and early 80s; WGN-TV in Chicago used it for station IDs several years running.) That very romantic lyric—brave sailor stoically leaves his beloved to fight a war and hopes he won’t get dead and can return to her one day. And Whittaker’s voice, which certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else’s. I liked it, and I still kind of like it now, on those rare occasions when I hear it.

Though death and darkness gather all about me
And my ship be torn apart upon the sea
I shall smell again the fragrance of these islands
In the healing waves that brought me once to thee
And I should I return safe home again to England
I shall watch the English mist roll through the dell
For you are beautiful
And I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

Am I That Easy to Forget

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(Pictured: a summit meeting: Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, 1970.)

In the spring and early summer of 1967, when several legendary hits were atop the charts—“Respect,” “Groovin’,” Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”—riding high with them was an MOR ballad by a singer with a weird name. “Release Me” by Engelbert Humperdinck peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 in June, and hit #1 in Boston, Providence, Detroit, Buffalo, Toronto, Milwaukee, Houston, Winnipeg, Hartford, and smaller cities, including LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where it was #1 for five straight weeks at WLCX.

Engelbert Humperdinck was not born Engelbert Humperdinck. His birth name was Arnold George Dorsey. He was born in India, the son a British military officer stationed there. In the early 50s, he became known professionally as Gerry Dorsey, thanks to a popular Jerry Lewis impression he did on stage. At some point around 1965, pop impresario Gordon Mills, who managed Tom Jones, suggested he adopt the name Engelbert Humperdinck, which had once belonged to a real human being, a German opera composer who had died in 1921. Odd as it was, the name must have helped him cut through the clutter of the 1960s music scene in England. “Release Me,” an oft-recorded country song that dated back to the 1940s, ended up a #1 hit in 11 different countries, including six weeks at #1 in the UK, where it held the Beatles’ double-A sided “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” out of the top spot.

Despite the massive success of “Release Me” on the Hot 100, it made only #28 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. But I suspect it gained new popularity on easy-listening radio over the next four years, because Engelbert’s next 11 singles, through 1971, all made the Easy Listening Top 10. Two went to #1: the very Tom Jones-like “Am I That Easy to Forget” in 1968, and “When There’s No You” in 1971. Two others went to #2. Of those 11 singles, all made the Hot 100, and four of them climbed into the Top 20. Some elderly readers might know “A Man Without Love” and/or “The Last Waltz.”

A lot of people who enjoyed Tom Jones would have been primed for Engelbert, although his style was cooler and less histrionic. He could sing softly in your ear but also step back from the microphone and blow the roof off the studio. (He is said to have said, “I can hit notes a bank could not cash.”) His rugged good looks didn’t hurt his career, either. They helped get him a TV variety series, produced for a British channel and seen in the States on ABC in 1969.

While getting a TV series often signals a decline in a performer’s fortunes on the record chart, it didn’t happen to Engelbert right away. It was 1972 before his hits ceased to be quite as big as they had been, although he would hit the Adult Contemporary chart in every year through 1981. Only two of his singles in that period were big hits, but both went to #1 AC: “After the Lovin'” and “This Moment in Time.” “After the Lovin'” became his biggest pop hit since “Release Me,” going to #8 on the Hot 100 early in 1977. It got a little bit of country radio airplay too, as did later singles “Love’s Only Love” and “Til You and Your Lover Are Lovers Again.” The latter, in 1983, was Engelbert’s last chart single.

Between 1967 and 1970, Engelbert was also a success on the album chart. Three of his albums made the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, and two more peaked at #12. (His album Release Me was in my parents’ record collection.) At the end of the 70s, three more albums would reach the Top 10, including his two highest-charting: Christmas Tyme in 1977 and This Moment in Time in 1979 would both make #4.

When we tell the story of the late 60s, we’re more likely to talk about Aretha Franklin and the Jefferson Airplane than we are about Engelbert Humperdinck. But he was there, too, and people dug what he did. His late 60s and 70s success made him one of the superstars of easy listening, and it gave him a career that continues today. Since the early 80s he has continued to record, repackage and reissue his library, and tour, including frequent residencies in Las Vegas, right up until the virus crisis took everybody off the road earlier this year. Engelbert Humperdinck is now 84 years old.

Mozart and Michaelangelo

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(Pictured: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, stoned.)

What was the last instrumental to become a big hit? Has there been one since “Harlem Shake” in 2013? “Harlem Shake” was a streaming success as opposed to a radio hit, as I recall. Kenny G made the Top 10 around the turn of the millennium, but again, his “Auld Lang Syne (The Millennium Mix)” was a streaming hit. You have probably forgotten entirely about the Adam Clayton/Larry Mullen version of the “Mission Impossible” theme in 1996. (I know I have.) You have to go back into the 80s before you find actual radio hits, Kenny G’s “Songbird” and the Miami Vice theme and “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop and so on.

Instrumentals are another geeky niche interest of mine, but I’m not alone. A couple of years back I wrote a post about instrumentals that I didn’t think anybody would care about, only to see it generate a bunch of interesting comments and a reader-compiled Spotify list. So maybe you’ll indulge me if I dig into a couple more instrumentals I found down a rabbit hole one recent afternoon.

The group Michaelangelo (their spelling, different from that of the Renaissance sculptor) would likely not have been much different from a lot of other mildly psychedelic folk-rock outfits at the turn of the 1970s were it not for founding member and principal songwriter Angel Peterson’s preferred instrument: the autoharp. In 1971, Michaelangelo made an album, One Voice Many, produced by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind of Switched-on Bach fame. The whole One Voice Many album is up at YouTube, and it starts better than it finishes; the last couple of tracks fall into a hippy-dippy vibe that gets a little tiresome. Peterson (billed on the record as “Angel Autoharp”) sometimes takes a lead on her instrument that other bands might have given to a lead guitarist, which is a unique sound. She isn’t the strongest of singers, however; the best vocals on the album are sung by one of the two other male vocalists, Steve Bohn and Robert Gorman. I don’t know which one is which, but the better one sounds a little like Neil Diamond. He’s on the tightly rockin’ “Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)”.

For Michaelangelo, it was one album and done. One Voice Many didn’t go anywhere, allegedly due to friction between the producers and Columbia Records chief Clive Davis, who held back on promotion of it. As a result, within months of the album’s release, Michaelangelo disappeared from the pages of history. Unless you’re looking at the pages of Billboard or other music trade papers publishing record charts in the spring of 1971. The instrumental “300 Watt Music Box” rose to #18 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April.

At the same time Michaelangelo was leaving its very light mark on history, another instrumental left a somewhat deeper footprint. Spanish composer/conductor Waldo de los Rios went to #5 in Britain in the spring of 1971 with a record officially titled “Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 First Movement.” It would eventually cross the ocean and make #67 on the American Hot 100, but it was not the first version to hit over here. A group called Sovereign Collection, which I am guessing was made up of UK studio musicians, shortened the cumbersome title to “Mozart 40” and scratched onto Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April, at about the same time Michaelangelo did. The Waldo de los Rios record didn’t peak in the States until July 1971.

You will probably recognize the main theme of “Mozart 40.” It’s been frequently heard on TV and in the movies, and it was one of a handful of classical pieces that were often used as mobile phone ringtones in the 90s and early 00s.

If you need more and bigger instrumentals, friend of the blog Tom Nawrocki ran down 50 of the biggest instrumental hits at Cuepoint back in 2015, so go read.