It goes on and on, watching the river run

There are so many fascinating stories from the ’60s and ’70s about how and why bands were formed and broke up, who wrote which songs, who appeared on which albums, who paired off with whom, who produced the albums, which acts became famous and which didn’t.

And it’s such a gas to be lucky enough to hear these stories from someone who was there, right in the thick of it.

In the burgeoning Los Angeles music scene at the time, folk artists and rock musicians were combining forces to create the genre that became known as folk rock.  Soon thereafter, those who appreciated elements of country music added their talents to the mix, and the result was (what else?) country rock.

gtr_plyr_1977_smIn the middle of all of this creative mixing of styles and influences, one name kept popping up:  Jim Messina.

Most rock music aficionados recognize his name as one half of the popular ’70s duo Loggins and Messina.  Although, truth be told, most folks are probably more aware of Kenny Loggins, but are only marginally familiar with Messina and his accomplishments.  And that’s a shame.

In my opinion, and in the view of many knowledgeable observers, Messina is the greater talent.  In fact, without him, it’s likely no one would have ever heard of Loggins, as we shall see.  Messina’s contributions, meanwhile, have sometimes been behind the scenes and therefore less in the limelight.

unnamed-2As Messina and his current band came through town last week on the California leg of their concert tour, he graciously agreed to sit down with Hack’s Back Pages for a chat.  Let’s start this story at the beginning, which would be in 1965 when Messina, who grew up in the Riverside/San Bernardino area east of L.A., relocated to Hollywood at age 17 to pursue a career in music.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize I wasn’t going to find much work as a musician because everybody I came across was so damn good, so I started apprenticing as a recording engineer,” he recalled.  “I learned how to build studios, and had the chance to work on a home studio for Joe Osborn, one of the all-time great session bass players.  I loved the way he played, so I agreed to work for free if he would give me a few bass lessons.”

Messina’s ever-growing knowledge in engineering and recording soon brought him to Sunset Sound Recorders in 1967, a hotbed of rock music activity.  One of his first assignments as an engineer there was to set up mics for a simple guitar-and-voice session for a new artist.  He was awed by the gentle beauty of her voice and the delicate melodies she sang.  “What’s her name?” he asked, and was told, “Joni Mitchell.”

His next project, thanks to Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, was as an engineer on the second album by Buffalo Springfield, the seminal rock/folk/country band that featured the formidable talents of Stephen Stills, Neil Young and Richie Furay.  “I had heard Stills’ song ‘Bluebird’ on the radio, not knowing who it was, so I was pleased to learn that was their song, and looked forward to working with them based on that,” Messina said.

In early 1968, when the band was set to record its third album, Messina was asked to be its producer, unaware of the inner turmoil that was threatening the group’s future.  “They’d seen what I was doing and trusted me, I guess, so I quickly accepted.  I had no

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Buffalo Springfield in 1968:  Dewey Martin, Jim Messina, Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

idea of the issues that were going on.  I soon saw I could never get these guys to come work in the studio at the same time.  Stephen would show up but Neil wouldn’t, and vice versa.  Or (drummer) Dewey (Martin) would be so stoned he couldn’t sit on his stool.

“Then (bassist) Bruce Palmer got arrested and deported back to Canada, so they were without a bass player.  I could play guitar, and I’d been practicing on bass, and I was very familiar with their sound, of course.  So I raised my hand and offered to play the bass parts.  Stephen was blown away with how it sounded, so just like that, I was in the band.  There were some live dates coming up, so I joined them for those too.”

Messina contributed his song “Carefree Country Day” and played bass on tracks like Furay’s classic “Kind Woman,” all the while serving as producer of what turned out to be the Springfield’s final product (the 1968 LP “Last Time Around”), trying to give continuity to what would have otherwise been a fragmented mess, as the group was disintegrating.  Many observers feel the album never would have been released if not for Messina’s efforts.

So as Young embarked on a solo career, and Stills headed off to collaborate with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Messina considered his options.  “Richie and I had become friends,” he said.  “He and I were both pretty straight, not really into the party lifestyle, and I loved his songs.  So we agreed we ought to team up.”

Furay and Messina were impressed with the pedal steel playing of Rusty Young, who was brought in on the final Springfield sessions, and he was pleased to join the new band.  They held auditions for a bass player, taking a look at both Gram Parsons (??) and a young Gregg Allman (??!!) before eventually bringing Randy Meisner into the fold.  With drummer George Grantham completing the quintet, they chose to call themselves Pogo, named after the Walt Kelly cartoon character.  “Kelly didn’t like that and threatened to sue,” Messina recalled.  “We were doing our first set of shows at The Troubadour, so our road manager had the idea of just changing the G to a C on the marquis, and we became Poco that night.”

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Poco in 1970:  Rusty Young, George Grantham, Timothy B. Schmidt, Richie Furay, Jim Messina

Their 1969 debut LP, entitled “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (the pieces of Buffalo Springfield — get it?), is now widely regarded as one of the first important country rock albums.  Messina again produced, and played guitar and sang, and most of the songs were written by Furay.  Meisner recorded his parts but then had a falling out with Furay and soon left, eventually joining The Eagles and riding that rocket to stardom.  Poco replaced him with bassist/singer Timothy B. Schmidt, and this lineup released the fine “Poco” album in 1970,   included Messina’s minor hit “You Better Think Twice” and the fabulous 18-minute jam, “Nobody’s Fool/El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa.”  It should’ve been a huge hit, in most critics’ opinion, but the general public was still apparently not enthused, and even the FM album-oriented rock radio stations weren’t playing it.

Poco had a loyal following, and the band toured relentlessly, but the albums just didn’t sell, which Messina said was a source of great frustration to Furay, who watched with envy while his former bandmates Stills and Young became superstars.  “He was angry,” Messina noted, “in ways that started affecting our friendship, and it reached the point when I decided I needed to leave.”  He agreed to help groom his successor, guitarist Paul Cotton (who remained with the group for decades), and finished producing the Poco live album “Deliverin'” in early 1971 before signing a six-record deal with Columbia as an independent producer.

Curiously, the first artist Columbia paired him with was easy listening crooner Andy Williams.  “I turned them down,” Messina said.  “He was a very sophisticated singer who typically worked with orchestras, and I told them there were other people better suited to the job.”

The next attempted pairing was with newcomer Dan Fogelberg.  “I loved his voice, and he had some pretty good songs, but when I asked him why he came to me out of all the choices he had, he said, ‘I’m a big Poco fan, and I want to make a Poco record.’  I had to tell him, ‘Well, I just spent two years making Poco records, and we were told by radio programmers that we were too country for rock stations, and too rock for country stations.’  I didn’t want any more of that frustration, so I passed.”

Then along came Kenny Loggins.  Said Messina, “I liked him, and I liked his songs, especially ‘Danny’s Song” and “House at Pooh Corner.’  I agreed to produce him, but I knew we had a lot of work to do.  He was basically a folk singer, and some of the stuff he brought wasn’t really what we needed.  We had to make the kind of album that a solo artist would need to be successful in that arena.  People like Dave Mason, Delaney and Bonnie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash were out already, doing sophisticated types of songs, and I needed to bring Kenny up to that level.  He’d never had a band, didn’t even own a guitar, had no manager, no agent.”

51NVG15ASRLMessina worked with him to assemble a talented band of players — drummer Merle Bregante, bassist Larry Sims, multi-instrumentalists Al Garth and Jon Clarke, and keyboardist Michael Omartian — with whom they rehearsed and recorded Loggins’ songs, plus several more Messina contributed (“Peace of Mind,” “Listen to a Country Song,” “Rock and Roll Mood” and “Trilogy”).  “My mindset was we needed to get Kenny out on the road quickly, right after the album was released, to help promote the album and get his name out there, and it needed to be with this same group of musicians.”

Messina had made such a significant contribution to the finished product (and because Messina had more name recognition than Loggins at that point) that Columbia chose to title the album “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In.”  The marketing strategy seemed to work; while it peaked at only #70 on the Top 200 album charts, “Sittin’ In” spent 113 weeks there (more than two years), and they sold a lot of concert tickets because of it.

660af44b8b8ad4110597e12963625557Loggins the solo artist had now morphed into Loggins and Messina the duo, and the eponymous follow-up LP, which reached #16, included the tour-de-force “Angry Eyes,” Messina’s catchy “Thinkin’ of You” and the Top Five single “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” which became their signature song (although neither Loggins nor Messina thought much of it).

They remained a formidable recording and live act for another five years and six albums.  “Full Sail” (1973), “On Stage” (1974) and “Mother Lode” (1974) all reached the Top 10, followed by “So Fine” (1975), “Native Sons” (1976) and another live album, “Finale” (1977).   Loggins then finally began the solo career he’d been seeking, while Messina, meanwhile, continued producing, also recording a few solo albums of quality material.

When asked about the craft of songwriting, he said, “Remember, I’d been engineering and producing for some damn good songwriters from early on.  Intuitively, even then I knew what I needed to do, which was to grow and become a better musician, and a better singer.  I saw what was necessary for a song to be successful, and learned a lot from that period.”

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“Mother Lode” (1974)

Indeed.  If you aren’t familiar with specific songs in Messina’s composing portfolio, let me introduce you to his best.  In addition to the tunes already mentioned, check out these:  “Watching the River Run,” “Traveling Blues” and “Pathway to Glory” from “Full Sail”;  “Be Free,” “Changes,” “Lately My Love,” “Move On” and “Keep Me in Mind” from the superb “Mother Lode”;  “Sweet Marie,” “Pretty Princess” and “When I Was a Child” from “Native Sons”;  “A New and Different Way” and “Seeing You For the First Time” from his first solo LP, “Oasis” (1979); and “Whispering Waters” and “Child of My Dreams” from 1981’s “Messina.”

Poco, meanwhile, had soldiered on with and without Furay, with nothing resembling a hit single or album until 1979, when “Legend” became a Top 20 LP on the strength of Rusty Young’s “Crazy Love” and Cotton’s “Heart of the Night,” both Top 20 singles.  Ten years later, in 1989, Poco’s original lineup of Furay-Messina-Young-Meisner-Grantham reunited for the “Legacy” LP, which included two Messina-penned tracks, “Follow Your Dreams” and “Lovin’ You Every Minute,” and a Top 20 single, “Call It Love,” co-written by Messina.  The fivesome toured behind labelmate rocker Richard Marx before disbanding again.

LogginsMessinaNewPubcA much-discussed Loggins and Messina reunion finally occurred in 2005 with a lucrative tour and a live CD, “Live:  Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl,” and then another tour in 2009.  On his own, Messina released “Under a Mojito Moon,” which features Cuban and Spanish-inflected melodies and Messina’s flamenco guitar work.  More recently, he and his band released “Jim Messina Live at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts,” a venue near San Luis Obispo, in 2012.

At 70, Messina is still plenty busy.  He runs The Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, a six-day program for aspiring artists he conducts at resorts and hotels around the country, and he stays active producing and engineering as a recording studio owner.

a1274309676_10He is currently on the road promoting “In the Groove,” recorded live in 2015 with Rusty Young making a guest appearance.  This release is available on vinyl and, in a new innovation, as a USB card, which includes not only mp3 files of the songs but also files of lyrics, video footage and more.

IMG_2489“It’s pretty cool,” Messina said,  “You can pop it into your laptop and play or download whatever you want.  I’m told this is the wave of the future as far as physical music delivery systems are concerned.”

 

 

 

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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.