March 21, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau
Easy listening music will never go away.
Sorry to be so blunt, but some things just need to be dealt with in a head-on way. Plus, I think you need to hear this from a voice and source you can trust. It crawled slowly but with great determination into our culture’s fabric 60-plus years ago and has often been written off as either a cruel joke foisted upon us by the music gods or just a quaint reminder of a simpler time in our history. And yet, here we are, on the verge of a 3,000 word report. Why? Because it just won’t go away.
One of the first lessons you learn after foraging through garbage records a few times is you’re going see a lot the easy listening albums. As the genre reached its commercial peak in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the succession of albums seemed never-ending with one-off labels sprouting up looking to make some money while the major labels such as RCA and Capitol started subsidiary labels to supply the demand. Of course, the market became saturated and, of course, the industry didn’t seem to care so the onslaught of albums, both good and bad, continued. Nowadays, those records clog thrift stores, gutters, and landfills from sea to shining sea. Easy listening is by far the most discarded of all genres, thereby forcing anyone digging through the trash or $0.50 bins to make a decision: ignore it all or fall into its warm, welcoming arms. Your humble reporter here didn’t just fall, I dove.
The backstory here is surprisingly complex, but the nutshell version goes something like this: The rising popularity of Rhythm & Blues in the early 1950s was upsetting to a lot of people within the music industry; the fact that it was rooted in African American culture forced critics to complain about its “jungle beats” and overt sexual overtones. That it was quickly spawning a whole new style of music, rock ‘n’ roll, was the final insult as it meant white kids were now getting into it. “Why can’t it be like the old days?!” wondered the old timers. Charlie Whitaker, program director for KODA in Houston, was motivated enough to do something about it and developed a radio show with a format of instrumentals and light vocals in hopes of maintaining the musical integrity from the 1930s and 1940s. This was a huge hit and Whitaker was soon poached by WPIX in New York where his concept was naturally exposed to a wider audience, eventually spreading throughout the rest of the country. Billboard magazine’s radio and TV editor, Claude Hall, was an early convert and the one who coined the phrase “easy listening.”
Despite the genres name, there is some difficulty when it comes to actually listening to this stuff, yet there is something to be said about its white noise. No matter the selection, it all has the same effect on the brain: after a few minutes, the audacity wears off and your mind does begin to wander toward other things; the music fades into the background without disappearing, transforming the air around you. With a little patience, you’ll notice its presence is akin to that of a refrigerator’s hum — always there, hardly heard.
What follows are a mere smattering of the easy listening records I liberated from the trash; a rough estimate suggests they make up a third of my “garbage collection” so there’s a good chance this will become a recurring series for “Look What I Found” (The actual conditions of these albums vary; covers are often banged up and the inner sleeve is usually missing but the vinyl always playable). As with any genre, there’s many variants — some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Not all the titles I pulled for made this list as some are so aesthetically and contextually tepid I couldn’t find anything to write about. For example, That’s Life, the 1967 release by The International Pop Orchestra was so amazingly void of anything substantial, I couldn’t even fake enthusiasm. Also, I’m not even sure what follows can be classified as an overview of the genre as a whole, maybe it’s more of a sampling. It’s best to not think of this as a starter list for your own introduction into this world because, unless you’re looking for a copy of Funny Girl or Rumors, hunting for specific records in the trash or bargain bins is a futile endeavor. What you may find on your first day might be something I never came across in all of my 10 years of garbage-ing. And that, right there, is the beauty of it all.
Quiet Music Vol. 10 – Various Artists
Let’s begin with the earliest example of easy listening in my collection, volume 10 of a 1953 Columbia Records collection called Quiet Music. The interesting aspect to this one is certainly not the music since it contains some of the most overplayed, boring classical selections knows to man, but then, this LP is 65 years old. If anything, it indicates there was a time when people still wanted or needed to hear “The Skater” and “Stardust.” The focal point to this one is the idea behind the music. Taken on its own, or even held up against the rest of the records in this column, this looks to be merely a quaint throwback to a “simpler time” and a look at what easy listening sounded like before it became stuck in the mid-’60s as a vehicle that watered down current hits of the day. The unattributed notes on the back give a glossed-over motive for this collection’s, and the genres, existence:
“No matter what your mood, you will find in these songs the pleasure and enjoyment that only quiet music with its soft, flowing memories of yesterday can bring.”
The emphasis here is on “quiet music” and “soft, flowing memories of yesterday,” which is just a more pleasant way of saying the older generation was reacting against the rising tide of savage jungle music that was Rhythm & Blues. It would be unfair to suggest easy listening was based strictly on outright reactionary racist attitudes, but the underlying tone here is one of cultural preservation through musical segregation and exclusion. Of course, classical music and pop standards can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of race or economic background, but Quiet Music is stiflingly European; a few bars of any of these selections instantly brings images of large ballrooms filled with waltzing, formally dressed white men and women.
The main ingredients which formed the basis for easy listening’s main concept was (1) comfort and (2) familiarity, two undeniable and long-established parts of our culture. The best place to find this today would be on your radio dial. Most (perhaps all) major radio stations play the same allotment of songs day in, day out, as a continuous loop broken only by loops of advertisements. The most popular stations are those playing music recorded within a span of 10 to 50 years ago, aimed smack dab at the heart of major demographics. Be it classic rock, urban contemporary, adult hits or contemporary christian, familiarity gives us a safe space when we’re feeling out of sorts or a place for those who refuse to move on to tread water. But it’s all on the same loop; we’ve all heard it before and we’re going to hear it again. That’s considered “good business.” No matter the sociological undertones, Quiet Music must’ve been good business for Columbia because it was a long and successful series.
The Keys to Her Apartment – Ferrante & Teicher
Arthur Ferrante and Louis Teicher were one of easy listening’s most prolific teams, churning out at least 80 albums between 1952 and 1990 of piano-driven schmaltz. They would’ve had a career with or without easy listening, so it is perhaps thanks to Ferrante & Teicher’s dedication that the genre was able to survive as long as it did. Some of their work is just duo-pianos, some of it, like Keys to Her Apartment, finds them playing with a classical accompaniment. Talent lies in such different ways with musicians and, however technically proficient these two Julliard grads may be, their real strength was in how they effortlessly reduced otherwise amazing songs into absolute drivel. The Flamingo’s 1959 hit “I Only Have Eyes for You” is a masterpiece of subtle, elusive anguish; its six-part vocal arrangement is steeped in reverb, its pacing so slow and purposeful it crawls into you. It’s a song of night, the sound of fog. I guess there are some people out there who aren’t comfortable with that kind of atmosphere, they only want to hear a familiar melody, they only want to hear light, and that’s where Ferrante & Teicher’s talents come into play. They skillfully deflate the song’s majestic qualities with their grand pianos and weepy string sections by concentrating only on the original’s chorus and ignoring the rest of its structure. The result is a mere husk of what The Flamingo’s gave us. Now that’s talent.
Finally, I must address the title to this one. Keys to Her Apartment is just another in a long line of easy listening album titles alluding to either sexual gratification, conquest, or extra-marital affairs. (Others in my collection include Rendezvous by Bobby Hackett; An Afternoon Affair by Verrill Keene, and One Night of Love! by Daniel De Carlo.) The fine print on the back of this album reads in part: “… the piano wizardry of this magnificent team achieves its finest hour as it serenades the girl of every man’s dream.” It’s fascinating as much as it is unsettling; as we’ll see later on, there is never a lost opportunity to placate the most base interest of the male record buyer.
The Best of ’68 – Terry Baxter and His Orchestra
In addition to being a magic potion for men trying to seduce women, easy listening records often courted audiophiles with proclamations of amazing fidelity; sometimes the rhetoric becomes pure balderdash. The label on the actual vinyl reads: “Recorded in Dynamic Dimension Sound,” while the back of the jacket states it was “recorded in TotalSound®.” Well, which is it? Despite it being trademarked, I couldn’t find any information as to what the former might’ve been and, after some digging, the closest to a definition of what Dynamic Dimension Sound may’ve been was found on a half-page ad Columbia took out in the October 29, 1965 issue of Life for their The Lively Years (Hits of ’64-’65) collection:
Sound-engineered by Columbia Records in beautiful Dynamic Dimension Sound: To bring you the best of today’s sound, these 120 great songs were recorded in New York, London, and Nashville. Furthermore, each record is made in the Columbia tradition of “sound” leadership.
That’s doesn’t really explain anything; in fact, it just complicates matters and seems to be just more disingenuous music industry razzmatazz to ensnare a prospective buyer. But let’s not dwell on how business hasn’t changed one damn bit as it will only distract from the greatness of this record.
Terry Baxter has replaced the usual lush, piano/orchestra-driven sound found on many easy listening records with a more crisp, bouncy modern take. Consider this as the other side to easy listening, the style with which they hoped to snag a younger listening audience. Even to the casual listener, the difference is remarkable; instead of oppressing the listener into sleep with classical accompaniment, this sound forces you to engage. Peel away the corny mystique and you’ll find some fascinating elements, starting with the fact that most of the tracks cross fade into each other. This move is an anomaly, as far as I can tell, and makes a far more interesting listen than just a batch of bland songs collected together separated by the usual four-second band of silence. Then there’s the musicianship. Often only the band leaders were named on the record and would get all the accolades, but here the uncredited musicians and arranger steal the show from Mr. Baxter. Granted, the material on Best of '68 is made up of more than just a collection of pop songs; the addition of movie themes obviously motivated everyone to get more creative with not just arrangements but with instruments as well.The bass clarinet opening to the theme to Mission: Impossible is pretty damn good and the decision to use a muted trumpet for the vocal lines on their version of The Association’s “Never My Love” was brilliant; what was originally an unremarkable ballad is turned into a swinging Herb Alpert-styled jam. Then there’s their take on the theme to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” where the memorable whistling ocarina opening is replaced with a harpsichord and, to top it off, a samba beat is slid underneath the entire song. Only studio musicians on top of their craft can pull off these kinds of intricate subtitles and the result is a bizarre but successful purée of sounds and styles. It’s borderline experimental.
Love Rhapsodies – Midnight String Quartet
“Has the Midnight String Quartet happened to you?” So asks Mel Bly’s short liner notes for this, the fifth album from the Midnight String Quartet, a group of students and graduates from the University of Southern California. As vice-president of the tiny Viva Records, Bly can’t help himself by using the group’s more romantic sounds as an extended metaphor. Unfortunately, he comes off sounding like an aging, desperate hipster trying to pick up some unfortunate woman with hyperbole and unnecessary sexual innuendo to make his pitch:
“Have the irresistible love moods of the MSQ playing the world’s most beautiful melodies touched you yet?
If they have, then you must own at least one of their first four best-selling albums, which have made them the most successful new instrumental group in the world.
You also must know that when you are longing for an atmosphere of romance, you simply fill the air with the sounds of the MSQ playing their quietly exciting ‘Love Rhapsodies’.”
Such was the uneasy world of easy listening. That the vice-president had to get creepy for his sales pitch only underscores how out-of-touch a lot of the record executives were at that point in time. He’s also trying to take what was (still is, actually) considered “old people’s music” and making it fashionable for the kids to dig because, at the time of this release (1968), kids were the ones throwing down the most money for records. Therefore, the difficult task of gearing your product for the coveted Youth Market fell to old-guard fellas such as Bly. While it’s highly doubtful no one affiliated with The Weather Underground were listening to Love Rhapsodies while making bombs in lower Manhattan brownstones, there were plenty others who thought this was the perfect music for a relaxing night at home or a candle-lit dinner.
There are two camps within the easy listening genre: vocal groups and instrumental groups. The Midnight String Quartet was an all-instrumental ensemble and — just like any other studio amalgamation that took on standards and hits of the day — watered them down and replaced vocals with violins thus creating a heavy, somber air. My research in the field shows the vocal groups tended to play around a bit with arrangements where as the instrumental groups prefer to stick to the original.
Another factoid my research has unveiled is a common thread among easy listening albums released during the genre’s heyday is they will most certainly have one or more (sometimes all three) of the following songs: “Never My Love,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and “Going Out of My Head.” Love Rhapsodies has two of these; the latter is in the choice position of opening side two. Written by Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein, and originally recorded by in 1964 by Little Anthony & The Imperials, it has since been covered close to one 100 times by both high- and low-brow artists: Ella Fitzgerald, The Zombies, Ray Coniff, Willie Bobo, and the Lennon Sisters all had their way with the song. And why not, since is possesses the same musical building blocks that makes up easy listening: harmless lyrics, a sense of wonder, and an non-abrasive melodic structure. As expected, MSQ smooths the few rough edges this song ever had into a nice little ball of ineffectual music.
There’s something so equally compelling and repulsing about a perfectly executed song; listening might be easy for some but recording it must’ve been something altogether different. Every note had to be perfect, tempos cannot alter, notes and beats must be spot-on. And, in the case of the vocals, the words need to be a-NUN-cee-A-ted just right. The music is glass, transparent (on so many levels), clear and perfect. One blemish would ruin the intent. In the case of “Going Out of My Head,” the song ends on a fade-out with the drums doing perfectly executed repeated fills. The effect is both amazing and yet robotic, which goes against the whole natural quality about this stuff as alluded to on the cover.
There was no indication easy listening was going to last just as there was no hint that it would suddenly die off. As with the common cold, no one is responsible or wants to take credit for its existence. Instead, it’s just there, in our lives and, for some of us, in our heads. This investigation will continue again in the not-so-distant future, a continuous loop mirroring the genre itself. Until then, I’ll let our friend, Mel Bly, wrap this up with a fittingly creepy send off: “To all of you potential MSQ lovemakers, why not take them home and let them happen to you.”