Nice ‘n’ easy does it every time

Most fans of rock music, even those now in their ’50s and ’60s, have probably forgotten (or maybe never knew) what the pop music scene looked like before rock and roll arrived in the mid-’50s.

This blog purports to look at “Musical Milestones, 1955-1990,” and I have explored virtually every sub-group from those three-plus decades:  early rock and roll (Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley);  the blues (Howlin’ Wolf, The Allman Brothers);  surf music (The Beach Boys, The Rivieras);  Motown (Smokey Robinson, The Supremes);  the British Invasion (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones);  folk rock (The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel);  garage rock (The Standells, The Troggs):  psychedelic rock (Jimi Hendrix, Cream);  singer-songwriter (James Taylor, Joni Mitchell);  country rock (The Eagles, Poco);  progressive rock (Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull);  disco (The Bee Bees, Donna Summer);  heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Kiss); reggae (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh); new wave (Blondie, Elvis Costello).

But up until now, I’ve neglected to explore the one genre that has endured, in one form maxresdefault-11or another, alongside all of these:  “Easy listening.”

The very name sends shudders up the spine of most rock music fans.  It conjures up images of straight-laced crooners singing saccharine-sweet love songs you might hear in medical building elevators or Vegas cabarets.

That generalization, like most generalizations, has truth in it, but it’s also quite unfair.  Let’s look at the record (or records).

FRANK_SINATRA_NICE+N+EASY-434057Before rock music arrived, almost everything on pop radio — or “the hit parade,” as it was called then — was what we eventually called Easy Listening.  It certainly wasn’t labeled as such, however; it was simply “popular music” — records that featured vocalists singing over orchestral arrangements, doing songs from the “Great American Songbook,” Broadway show tunes, jazzy ballads, romantic torch songs and post-Swing era standards.

The vocal stylings of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone, Doris Day, Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Mel Tormé, Frankie Laine and Rosemary Clooney ruled the roost in the early 1950s.  Even after Elvis Presley and other rock and rollers elbowed their way onto the charts in the latter half of the decade, Sinatra and company were still large and in charge, their ranks bolstered by a newer crop of crooners — Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Vic Damone, Vikki Carr, Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand — who came along in the late ’50s or early ’60s.

And, as we shall see, this music had serious staying power.  Here’s a tidbit that will rock the world of you stoners out there:  The Mathis collection “Johnny’s Greatest Hits,”

Singer Johnny Mahtis On Ed Sullivan 1967

Johnny Mathis

released in 1958, spent an unprecedented 490 consecutive weeks on the Billboard top 100 album charts (that’s more than nine years).  It held the record for the most number of weeks on the Top 200 album chart in the US until Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” LP reached 491 weeks in October 1983.

The term “Easy Listening” was coined by radio formatters who needed a way to distinguish vocalists singing in the style established in the 1930s and 1940s from singers who adopted a style closer to rock and roll.  If you look at the best-selling artists of the 1955-1959 period, Presley was the only rock star in the bunch.  The majority were singers of the Sinatra/Mathis variety, along with instrumental/choral maestros like Mantovani, Lawrence Welk, Jackie Gleason (!) and The Ray Conniff Singers.

 

Unknown-15Indeed, Gleason — a comedian who enjoyed a remarkably potent side career as a songwriter/arranger — struck upon a quintessential “easy listening” formula he felt was inherently marketable.  His goal was to make “musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive to romance.”  He saw how love scenes in the movies were “magnified a thousand percent” by the background music, and concluded, “If Clark Gable needs music to get the job done, a guy in Brooklyn must be desperate for that kind of help!”

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Doris Day

By 1960, white-bread teen idols like Brenda Lee, Bobby Vee, Connie Francis and Paul Anka made a significant dent in the charts for a spell, sometimes blurring the line between genres by favoring schmaltz (Anka’s “Tonight My Love, Tonight”) over young heartache (Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby”).  But even as R&B artists from The Miracles and Ben E. King to Chubby Checker and Jackie Wilson began adding their earthy approach to the mix, and Broadway show tunes and themes from film soundtracks periodically topped the charts, the Easy Listening artists hung on strong.

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Andy Williams

It’s not hard to see why.  Most of the pop music audience at that time was from a generation that liked their music traditional, melodious, nostalgic, even sentimental.  Rock and roll, and all that followed in its wake, was, to them, unpleasant, harsh, even non-musical.  Give them “Moon River” and “Mona Lisa” any day.

In my family household in the early 1960s, I remember hearing a lot of pretty music coming from my dad’s “hi fi” — a lot of Sinatra and Nat King Cole, plus Como, Mathis, Williams, Jo Stafford and Jack Jones.  Now and then, Dad would also play big band and swing music by the orchestras

Perry_Como_2_1956

Perry Como

of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, but mostly I recall the gentle strains of romantic ballads with lush string arrangements.

But the burgeoning teen audience was on the rise, and when the arrival of the Beatles and the “British Invasion” in 1964 triggered a seismic shift toward rock in the makeup of the US Top 40, the Easy Listening crew began their inexorable downslide from chart success.

Although Easy Listening music waned as a dominant force, it was clear there remained a sizable audience for it.  The TV variety shows of that period — “The Dinah Shore Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Hollywood Palace” — offered occasional

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Barbra Streisand

appearances by rock groups, but for the most part, they still featured plenty of Vic Damone and Robert Goulet, and Streisand, and Vegas duos like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé.

By the late ’60s, all these artists had pretty much vanished from the mainstream charts, with a few exceptions.  Sinatra still managed two big hits in 1966 — “Strangers in the

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Engelbert Humperdinck

Night” and “That’s Life” — and new crooners like Englebert Humperdinck and Bobby Goldsboro topped the charts in 1967 and 1968 with the cringeworthy “Release Me” and “Honey,” respectively.  Some vocalists like Mathis and Williams evolved, and started capitalizing on the popularity of the singer-songwriter movement, releasing albums of covers of contemporary hits by the likes of James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King and even The Beatles (together and solo).

As the variety of radio formats mushroomed in the 1970s to meet ever-broadening tastes, Easy Listening music took on other names, ranging from “Music of Your Life” and “adult standards” to “Unforgettable Favorites” or, eventually, “Adult Contemporary.”  Regardless of the moniker, it was considered by most rock music fans as hopelessly square and outdated.

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The Carpenters

By the late 1970s, Easy Listening as a radio format had split into two camps.  The diehards could tune into Adult Standard, or “Beautiful Music,” which kept the decades-old classics alive.  A newer version of the genre known as Adult Contemporary featured the music of softer-sounding current artists like The Carpenters, Bread, Barry Manilow, John Denver, Seals and Crofts, Air Supply, Christopher Cross, Lionel Richie and Olivia Newton John.  And stalwarts like Mathis found new life by collaborating with new singers like Deniece Williams on the Top Ten hit “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” in 1978.

No self-respecting rocker would ever admit at that point to liking this stuff, but in secret, the fortitude of these artists to forge ahead in the face of critical lambasting was admired.  Indeed, in 1988, Bob Dylan stopped Manilow at a party, hugged him and said,

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Barry Manilow

“Don’t stop what you’re doing, man. We’re all inspired by you.”

Adult Contemporary still exists today, although it has further fragmented into smaller niches like “hot AC” (includes electric guitar and drums) and “soft/smooth AC” (stresses vocals and acoustic instrumentation) and even “urban AC” (black artists doing mellow music).

A personal aside:  I’m a rock music guy, with a fondness for blues and classic R&B, but I have a soft spot for some of these AC artists.  I consider some songs by The Carpenters, Bread and Christopher Cross (“Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Make It With You,” “Sailing”) to be guilty pleasures.  They’re melodic, well produced, and full of warm memories, and there have been times I have proudly cranked up the volume, and not just when I’m alone in my car.  Hey, even the most straight-laced artist has a great song or two in his/her repertoire.

In the mid-1980s, in the midst of New Wave and Madonna-type dance music, a curious thing happened.  As with fashion styles that make a comeback decades after they were 81wCLUf0TRL._SL1079_first popular, we witnessed a revival of the marvelous tunes of the ’40s and ’50s.  Country rock superstar Linda Ronstadt, who had been exposed to Sinatra’s music as a little girl and had always wanted to try singing the standards, rolled the dice.  She paired up with legendary orchestral arranger Nelson Riddle to release “What’s New,” the first of three albums featuring her luxurious covers of some of the best traditional songs of that bygone era — Gershwin classics like “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Rodgers & Hart classics such as “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “It Never Entered My Mind.”

Ronstadt recalled in her 2013 memoir, “Rock ‘n roll diehards in the music press wondered why I had abandoned Buddy Holly for George Gershwin.  The answer is that there was so much more room for me to stretch and sing, to mix my head voice and my chest voice.  And besides, I couldn’t bear the idea that such beautifully crafted songs would be condemned to riding up and down in elevators.”

Her gamble paid off handsomely.  These revivals were not only an unqualified success — “What’s New” reached #3 and went triple-platinum — but also inspired quite a few other rock-era artists to release copycat collections of once-shunned material over the ensuing years.

41BT27CF6SL._SX300_QL70_The first to follow Ronstadt’s efforts was the spectacularly popular (7X platinum) “Unforgettable…With Love,” Natalie Cole’s 1991 Grammy-winning album of standards, capped by a spooky duet with her long-gone father Nat singing the title song “together” in a bit of remarkable studio trickery.

Cole’s success seemed to open the floodgates as at least a dozen singers tackled the standards, with varying results.  Some were quite good — Carly Simon’s “My Romance” (1990), Boz Scaggs’s “But Beautiful” (2003) and Art Garfunkel’s “Some Enchanted Evening” (2007) come to mind.  Others have fallen flat — Bryan Ferry’s “As Time Goes By” (1999), Michael Bolton’s “Vintage” (2002) and Cyndi Lauper’s “At Last” (2003).

a5-stewartRod Stewart has made an entire second career of it, pumping out five such albums since 2000 with erratic quality but plenty of sales.  Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, two of the best songwriters of the past half-century, recently chose to offer their treatments of songs from their parents’ generation.  (McCartney had the voice to pull it off, but Dylan?  Not on your life.)

In the past 20 years, artists like Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé have become the the new millennium’s version of Sinatra and company, offering credible covers and even a few original tunes that have kept Easy Listening music alive.  Before 320px-Duets_An_American_Classic_album_coverhe died in 1998, Sinatra produced two albums of standards called “Duets” and “Duets II,” which paired “The Chairman of the Board” with major contemporary artists like Bono,Gloria Estefan, Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder and Chrissie Hynde.  More recently, the ageless Tony Bennett has done the same thing, singing his generation’s classics with 21st Century stars like John Legend, Carrie Underwood and John Mayer, and Lady Gaga, with whom he collaborated on an entire album.

So the way we view “our parents’ (or grandparents’) music” has come full circle, from derision and disrespect to admiration and appreciation.  Not all of it, mind you; some of it will always be dismissed as mushy and trite.

I guess there are two conclusions I want to make:

1) There are musical styles to suit every taste.   I don’t care for opera, or hard-core country-western, or gangsta rap, but there plenty of folks who do, and I say, to each his own.  I do enjoy a range of genres, and I try to keep my mind open.  But often, sometimes The_Very_Thought_of_You_(Nat_King_Cole_album)too often, I find myself leaning on “the songs of my youth” because, well, they’re familiar, and they remind me of childhood, or young adulthood, and they make me smile.

Which leads me to:  2) There is always a place for The Oldies.  What constitutes an “oldie,” anyway?  That depends, I suppose, on when it was released, and how old you were when you first heard it.

Easy Listening?  It might be rather safe, tame, non-threatening and old-fashioned…but damn, it can be comforting.  And, by the way, easy to listen to.

 

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Jammin’ in the name of the Lord

“This is my message to you:  Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right…” — Bob Marley

*************

Insistent yet gentle offbeat rhythms.  Lyrics of overwhelming positivity and confident pursuit of justice.  Fiercely defiant, yet warmly exhilarating.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of reggae music.  Or, as any Jamaican bus driver will tell you: “It’s island music, mon.”

3340414-reggae-wallpapersReggae, born in Jamaica in the ’60s, blends a tantalizing hybrid of ska, mento and calypso musical strains with a powerful lyrical message that focuses on social criticism and political consciousness, and the need for positivity, eternal love, joy and peace.  It’s most readily distinguished by its rhythmic emphasis on the offbeat, or backbeat (the second and fourth beat), instead of the downbeat (first and third beat), which characterizes most pop music styles.

Much more than many musical genres, reggae also has strong ties to religion, specifically Rastafarianism, a religious and social movement (they prefer “a way of life”) founded by Afro-Jamaicans in 1930s Jamaica primarily as a rejection of British colonialism.  Its beliefs include the healing powers of copious cannabis use and hypnotic, rhythmic music “to achieve the spiritual balance necessary for a satisfying existence.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly mainstream thinking in America at that time, although fringe audiences in isolated regions around the world took to it enthusiastically — both the music and the message.

Reggae first found favor outside Jamaica in the mid-’70s in England, where West Indian communities in and around London helped expose music lovers to the genre there.  Indeed, major British pop stars like Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton developed an interest in the island rhythms from hearing it performed by Jamaican musicians in the clubs of London.

Here in the United States, the acceptance and assimilation of reggae into the popular music market seems to have had a peculiar off-and-on history throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

johnny-nash-hold-me-tight-festival-3Its first appearance here, it’s generally agreed, came when an American-born artist — Johnny Nash, a Houston-based pop singer-songwriter — took his version of Jamaica’s indigenous music to #5 on the U.S. charts in 1968 with the catchy “Hold Me Tight.”  But if record companies were expecting to then cash in on a flood of reggae songs and bands, it didn’t happen.  (At least not yet.)

True, The Beatles, always savvy and forward-looking in their musical development, took a shot at reggae during sessions that same summer for “The White Album.”  McCartney explains:  “I had a friend named Jimmy who was a Nigerian conga player, and he was a happy happy guy all the time, like a philosopher to me, because he had all these great expressions about life.  One of them was ‘obladi, oblada, life goes on, bra…’  I told him I loved it and was going to use it in a fun little song I was writing that used a rhythmic approach I was starting to hear from Jamaican bands in the London clubs at the time.  Wonderful vibe, this music called reggae.  So that’s what ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ was, our rudimentary attempt at reggae.  I don’t know if we quite got it, but we had a blast trying.” But it wasn’t a single, just one of 30 album tracks, so it didn’t achieve widespread popularity until nearly a decade later.

R-532201-1371131732-1351.jpegSo reggae went back into hiding for a few years until the great Paul Simon, always curious about “world music” and intriguing new rhythms, visited Kingston in 1971 to record his new song “Mother and Child Reunion.”  He admired reggae artists like Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker and wanted to explore the music further at its source, using Jamaican musicians who instinctively knew the way it should be played.  He invited Cliff’s backing group to accompany him on the recording, and the result was also a #5 hit that put reggae back in the public eye.

MI0001597709The attention Cliff gained from that connection helped him later that year when he released “The Harder They Come,” the soundtrack album to the movie of the same name (in which he also starred).  The film, a crudely made crime drama, was largely ignored but later became a favorite with the midnight-movie crowd.

Then, in the fall of 1972, a reggae song finally reached #1 on the charts here (and in Canada) when Nash returned with “I Can See Clearly Now,” the most popular song in the U.S. for four straight weeks.  A year later, Clapton took the plunge that inadvertently brought reggae to an entirely new level in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Recalled the guitarist, “We were in Miami cutting the album that became ‘461 Ocean Boulevard.’  One day, guitarist George Terry came in with an album called ‘Burnin” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, a band I’d never heard of.  When he played it, I was mesmerized.  George especially liked the track ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and kept saying to me, ‘You should cut this, we could make it sound great.’  But it was hard-core reggae and I wasn’t sure we could do it justice.  We did a version of it anyway, and although I didn’t say so at the time, I wasn’t that enamored with it.  Ska, bluebeat and reggae were familiar to me, but it was still quite new to American musicians, and they weren’t as finicky as I was about the way it should be played — not that I really knew myself how to maxresdefault-8play it.  I just knew we weren’t doing it right.

“When we got to the end of the sessions, and started to collate the songs we had, I told them I didn’t think ‘Sheriff’ should be included, as it didn’t do the Wailers’ version justice.  But everyone said, ‘No, no, honestly, this is a hit.’ And sure enough, when the album was released and the record company chose it as a single, to my utter astonishment, it went straight to Number One.  Though I didn’t meet Bob Marley until much later, he did call me up when the single came out and seemed pretty happy with it.  I tried to ask him what the song was about, but I couldn’t understand much of his reply.  I was just relieved that he liked what we had done with it.”

Marley had been a tireless devotee and champion of reggae throughout its early years of development, when his fellow Wailers (including Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), along with Toots and The Maytals, were the true pioneers of the genre.  It was Marley, through his songwriting, singing and relentless performing, who caught the eye and ear of Chris Blackwell, founder of the seminal Island Records and a native Jamaican himself.

In Marley, Blackwell recognised the elements needed to snare the rock audience: “Rock music was always rebel music at heart, and so was reggae.  I felt that demonstrating that similarity would really be the way to break Jamaican music in the U.S.  But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in, it was clear to me that he really was that image.”

marleyHe signed Marley to a lucrative contract in 1973, let him loose in his studios in the Bahamas and England, and sat back and waited.  The debut LP, “Catch a Fire,” marked the first time a reggae band had access to a state-of-the-art studio and were accorded the same care as their rock ‘n’ roll peers.  Blackwell, hoping to create “more of a drifting, hypnotic-type feel than a rudimentary reggae rhythm,” restructured Marley’s arrangements and supervised the mixing and overdubbing.

While the album and its immediate follow-up, “Burnin’,” didn’t do much on the charts, the songs were getting better, and the rock critics and savvy listeners (especially in the UK) caught on.  When Marley made his debut live appearance in London in 1975 (and the concert was later released as the “Live!” LP), he had become a major sensation there, with his iconic “No Woman, No Cry” climbing to #8 on the UK charts.

Marley had been complimentary of the efforts of Nash and Simon to expose American audiences to the world of reggae, and he publicly endorsed Clapton’s version of “Sheriff,” but he remained determined in the belief that only Jamaicans could play reggae as intended.

He told Britain’s Uncut magazine in 1976, “The real reggae must come from Jamaica. Others can go anywhere and play funk and soul, but reggae — too hard.  Must have a bond with it.  Reggae has to be inside you.”

By the release of “Rastaman Vibration” later that year, Marley’s music had broken through to the U.S. market.  While its single, “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” stalled at #51 on the fd16-bw-bob-marley-billboard-1548pop charts, the album soared to #8 and the 1977 followup “Exodus” (with the FM hits “Jammin’,” “Waiting in Vain” and “Three Little Birds”) was a respectable #20.

In the UK, “Exodus” stayed on the charts for an astonishing 56 consecutive weeks.  Reggae’s boom there existed concurrently with the burgeoning punk movement, which shared that same rebellious streak.  But the message in reggae’s lyrics offered a more lasting form of rebellion — the one-two punch of hope and truth, which ultimately won out over punk’s dead-end nihilism.  It’s why reggae’s popularity has grown exponentially in recent decades while punk, frankly, isn’t much more than a glorified footnote (even more so in the U.S.).

The Police evolved from their punk/New Wave beginnings in 1977 to become international superstars in 1983, but reggae definitely played a pivotal role in their repertoire, from hits like “Roxanne” to deeper tracks like “Walking on the Moon” and 1981’s mantra-like “One World (Is Enough For All of Us).” As drummer Stewart Copeland put it, “We plundered reggae mercilessly.”

stevie-wonder-master-blaster-reggae-reggaetoday-okIn America, Motown/funk superstar Stevie Wonder was so taken by reggae in general, and Marley in particular, that he wrote a tribute to him in 1980 called “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” which became a #5 hit in the US and #2 in England.  Marley and Wonder even performed several shows together that summer.

While many of Marley’s most cherished songs preach love and serenity, his final efforts — 1979’s “Survival” and 1980’s “Uprising” — adopted far more militant tones, as he felt compelled to speak out more against the social injustices he saw on the rise as the ’80s began.  Just glance at the changing mood in the song titles:  Instead of “One Love” and “Positive Vibration,” we have “Africa Unite,” “So Much Trouble in the World,” “Zimbabwe,” “Ambush in the Night,” “Real Situation,” “Redemption Song.”

Jamaica was rocked to the core when Marley succumbed to cancer in 1981 at only 36 years old.  More than three decades later, Marley is still regarded as a figurehead and near-deity among the Jamaican people, and the spread of reggae worldwide is due in large part to his impact.  Several of his 11 children have picked up the Marley mantle ziggy_marley_australian_toursince then, most notably Ziggy in the late ’80s (particularly “Tomorrow People” in 1988) and Damien in the ’90s, perpetuating and growing the reach and influence of reggae music as their father intended.

In the Eighties, acts like Blondie kept reggae prominently in the picture with their #1 cover version of The Paragon’s “The Tide is High,” and Culture Club contributed reggae-flavored hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which was more an amalgam of multiple styles that included reggae.   As Boy George remarked, “In the the ’70s, we had glam rock, but we also had reggae and ska happening at around the same time.  I just took all those influences I had as a kid and threw them together, and somehow it worked.”

Some purists regarded these and other non-Jamaican acts UB40 as “weaker, pastel versions” of true reggae — one critic called it “reggae that wouldn’t frighten white people” — and truth be told, they’re probably right on.  And still others never liked reggae to begin with.  Morrissey, the iconoclast who served as frontman for The Smiths, one of England’s most popular bands of the ’80s, summarized his feelings this way:  “Reggae is vile.”

Me, I enjoy a little reggae now and then, but usually only if I’m sitting by the pool or on the beach.  To my ears, it has a certain sameness to it that gets old after a short while.  But damn, it’s fun, it’s soothing, it gently gets under your skin, in a good way.  Take a listen to the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below for a healthy cross-section of reggae’s earliest hits and timeless anthems.  Or, if you prefer, you certainly can’t go wrong anytime you play Marley’s incredible “Legends” CD compilation, which has now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.