Writing a history of musical genres, no matter how modest or brief one attempts to be, is a complicated undertaking.
Genres are fluid, with poorly-defined boundaries, and tend to shift and melt into one another as time goes forward. Looking back from the future we can see certain trends take shape, as particular styles rise and fall in popularity; but this is really only available with hindsight. Such a perspective also gives us the opportunity to look at social and historical trends that reflect themselves within the music, allowing certain forms to rise up and take shape, while other trends are downplayed, intentionally or otherwise.
It certainly doesn’t help the matter when the types of music one wants to talk about are generally overlooked by the modern listening public, as well as by scholars and critics. Jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues – these are all important musical trends, and certainly deserve the bulk of listeners’ attention; but does that mean that other forms should be completely ignored? To look within histories of popular music, or even at album collectors’ price guides, one would be tempted to think that these other genres didn’t even exist – like Communist officials who have fallen out of favor, and are therefore removed from paintings and history books.
This is not to suggest that there’s some sort of organized conspiracy to never speak of Easy Listening or other previous styles of music; rather, the attitude seems to be more one of contempt: why would anybody want to listen to, much less talk about, such old-fashioned stuff? It’s all mostly white people’s music anyway, from back when the boys wore a jacket and slacks, and the girls wore dresses, even to a casual get-together. Squaresville, man – strictly squaresville.
Given the current political climate, one might be tempted to think that such a backlash might be so racially motivated – if Black Lives Matter, does White Music Matter? But, it’s not quite that simple. If anything, it’s not Black Vs. White, but Youth Vs. Squares – i.e., Mom and Dad. The 1950s saw a definite break between music meant for teenagers, and music meant for a somewhat older and more settled audience. What we are looking at in this installment is primarily the latter.
Part I: Easy Listening
The genre we tend to refer to now as Easy Listening had its origins in the late 1940s when different orchestras began recording music that was softer, lighter, and usually offered no overt vocals or harsh instrumental sections that might tend to break the mood. It was meant, theoretically, to be played in the background, during dinner or pleasant conversation, without intruding or imposing itself on the listener. Rather, it could enhance moments of romance or relaxation, if necessary, but without overwhelming the given situation. In the commercial world, this took the form of Muzak, which was music licensed by companies to play unobtrusively in the background, soothing and mellow.
Composer and arranger Paul Weston began recording albums starting in about 1945 that were slower and smoother than what most other bandleaders were doing – this seemed to be part of a larger musical trend where audiences were going to hear bands just to listen, and not to dance. ‘Hot’ bands and faster songs were also still popular, and always would be, but there was also a desire (probably more from the female audience members) for music that was slower and softer. Weston’s Music For Dreaming, released at first as a 10” disc, fit the bill perfectly. Calling the style Mood Music, Weston had a hit, and knew he was onto something.
Easy Listening (or Mood Music, or Beautiful Music, as it was also called) might have been okay with the younger female audience members, but it was certainly palatable to older listeners – the parents, but also young marrieds who were settling into domestic life. The adults generally didn’t want to be confronted by the more abrasive aspects of much popular music; Easy Listening strode somewhere between Classical and Pop music; not harsh, but lively and interesting enough to make for a pleasant listening experience.
In time, arrangers found that they could do Easy Listening versions of popular tunes that were never meant for such treatment. The results were ultra-smooth concoctions with all of the jagged edges ground down, and naturally musical purists hated them – but nevertheless, a certain portion of the record-buying public preferred these versions to the originals. The songwriters, of course, still got their royalty payments regardless of the interpretation; and besides, if one preferred, one could always go back to the source material. But the fact that – for example – the Hollyridge Strings could offer their Beatles Song Book albums and get respectable sales, while the original Beatles recordings were still in the charts, proves that there were two distinct audiences, each of whom had very different wants and expectations.
This sort of thing, of course, further convinced the kids and the hardcore fans that Easy Listening was the music of squares – watered-down, milquetoast versions of popular songs cranked out for Mom and Dad who couldn’t handle the originals. In essence, this was correct. Not that Mom and Dad ‘couldn’t handle’ the more raucous musical styles that came along during the 1950s & ’60s, but they generally didn’t want to: Easy Listening gave them a certain aural satisfaction without demanding much from them. The kids might go buy a Jimi Hendrix album and bring it home to listen to over and over, staring at the cover and trying to grok every note, but generally their parents just wanted something nice playing in the background while they ate dinner. Certainly, from a more purist point of view, the kids’ motivations are more laudable; but does that completely invalidate Mom and Dad’s desires?
Given its softer and romantic nature, Easy Listening was also deemed perfect music for affaires d’amour, whether it was a young bachelor trying to seduce his date for the evening, or a couple in love hoping to get each other in the mood. These days this aspect of Easy Listening is usually referred to as “Bachelor Pad Music,” or some variation thereof. Indeed, the 1950s and ’60s were certainly the Age of the Bachelor, when that lifestyle was essentially defined by the men’s magazines and other aspects of popular culture: not for nothing did so many album covers from that period feature lovely, buxom young women in glorious dishabille. Most were in fact quite tame – like those of, say, Jackie Gleason or Ray Conniff, which featured young women in the throes of romantic love, often embracing the male of their desire. Others featured women in quite a different mood, the look in their eyes unmistakably one of lust and animal passion (or so it was supposed to appear to the common male record purchaser).
Another aspect of Easy Listening that may strike modern listeners is that…well…it’s really, really white. Not that black people could not, or did not, participate; but the vast majority of the genre’s progenitors were not only white, but seriously white dudes. Percy Faith and Henry Mancini may have been giants of popular music during the 1960s, but God love ‘em, they resembled high school shop teachers more than rock stars. Black record buyers tended to stick with the shifting landscape of rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, and popular music during the time period in question. This isn’t to say that their tastes were superior, nor inferior; but much of it didn’t seem to resonate with black listeners. Who can blame them? It’s really not very funky; in fact, it’s practically anti-funky. But, by definition, that’s what Easy Listening is.
Easy Listening began to fade somewhat in the late 1960s. Why this is, is probably a complex topic of study, but the changes in popular music that were taking place, first in 1964 with the Beatles, then with groups like the Tijuana Brass and Brazil ’66, then toward the end of the decade with the hippie movement when things tended to get looser and harsher at the same time – all of this resulted in a radically altered listening landscape. Even the music that the grownups enjoyed was changing. Post-Whipped Cream and Other Delights, softened versions of popular songs were still around, but tended to take a more modern approach, doing away with the heavy use of strings and multi-piece orchestras. This was “The Now Sound,” which had the same basic goals as Easy Listening, but used different methods to achieve its aims.
By the early ’70s, Easy Listening was still around, but was barely hanging on. A lot of popular music seemed to be about excess, but there were also a few trends with a softer and more relaxed approach. Singer-songwriters like Carole King were coming more often to the forefront, offering a nice alternative to the harsher radio offerings. Songs from the ’40s and ’50s became less and less in demand, and when the more modern (i.e., post-Beatles) songs were desired, more listeners wanted to hear the original artists rather than some orchestra’s interpretation – so, the decades-old habit of doing ‘standards’ (that is, songs that existed in many different versions) gradually began disappearing. (Name That Tune notwithstanding.)
It wasn’t until 1979 that the Billboard Easy Listening chart was renamed Adult Contemporary; it had held its previous name since 1961. But those two dates are each a bit late to the party; the trend had started several years before 1961, but certainly ended long before 1979.