Easy listening is a popular music genre and radio format that was most popular during the 1950s to 1970s. It is related to middle-of-the-road (MOR) music and encompasses instrumental recordings of standards, hit songs and popular non-rock vocals. It was differentiated from the mostly instrumental beautiful music format by its variety of styles, including a percentage of vocals, arrangements and tempos to fit various day parts during the broadcast day.
Easy listening music is often confused with elevator music provided by Muzak Holdings and other music services for malls and elevators, or lounge music, but while it was popular in some of the same venues it bore only modest resemblance to the background sound of this kind of music.
A significant portion of easy listening music is purely instrumental and included some big band and orchestral arrangements of standards, themes from movies, bossa nova hits and small instrumental ensembles playing instrumental versions of popular songs, including light jazz and even some soft rock. However, it was distinguished by slower tempo, and the large prominence of strings. When reed instruments such as saxophones were employed, they were used in a gentle, as opposed to brash, tone.
The style has been synonymous with the tag, "with strings." The use of stringed instruments had been used in sweet bands in the 1930s and in background contexts in films. In the 1940s and 1950s strings had been used in jazz and popular music contexts. As examples in the jazz genre, there are the post-World War II recordings of Charlie Parker and the 1955 recordings of Clifford Brown and Helen Merrill. Early examples of practitioner in the popular context were Dinah Washington in 1951, and Jackie Gleason in 1952. In the 1950s the use of strings quickly became a main feature of the developing easy listening genre.
The name "easy listening" was used by Claude Hall, radio-TV editor of Billboard magazine to describe the sound of the WPIX-FM radio station in New York. The format was developed by Charlie Whitaker, Program Director of the New York Daily News' station, broadcasting from the "Pix Penthouse" in the Daily News Building. Whitaker had designed the format as program director of KODA FM in Houston, where it achieved top ratings in that market. WPIX FM also quickly became the top-rated FM radio station in New York and ranked among the top five of all stations, AM and FM, with adults 25–49 from 1964 through 1968. The format was emulated by many syndicated programmers (including Whitaker himself) and became the most popular format in FM radio nationwide. It later became known as Adult Contemporary, and this signaled an end to the instrumental content of the format. An attempt by Whitaker and his partner Lynn Christian, formerly GM of WPIX FM, to revive the original format in the late 1990s was unsuccessful because of problems with delivery. It remains one of the most popular radio formats of all time.
A precursor to easy listening consisted of soft and unobtrusive instrumental selections, in large department stores, on a very structured schedule with limited commercial interruptions. It often functioned as a free background music service, with commercial breaks consisting only of announcements aimed at shoppers already in the stores. This practice was known as storecasting and was very common on the FM dial in the 1940s and 1950s.
Jackie Gleason, a practitioner of this genre, expressed the goal of producing "musical wallpaper that should never be intrusive, but conducive".
Examples of performers
The magazines Billboard and Record World featured easy listening singles in independently-audited record charts. Generally 40 positions in length, they charted airplay on stations such as WNEW, New York City, WWEZ, Cincinnati, and KMPC, Los Angeles. Record World began their listings January 29, 1967 and ended these charts in the early 1970s. Billboard's Easy Listening chart morphed into the Adult Contemporary chart in 1979, and continues to this day.
During the format's heyday in the 1960s, it was not at all uncommon for easy listening instrumental singles to reach the top of the charts on the Billboard Hot 100 (and stay there for several weeks).
Beautiful music was a precursor to easy listening music, had rigid standards for instrumentation, e.g., few or no saxophones, and restrictions on how many vocal pieces could be played in an hour. The easy listening radio format has been generally, but not completely, superseded by the soft adult contemporary format.
Easy listening singers
Easy listening/lounge singers have a lengthy history stretching back to the decades of the early twentieth century. Easy listening music featured popular vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Dionne Warwick, Bill Kenny, Astrud Gilberto, Matt Monro and many others. The somewhat derisive term lounge lizard was coined then, and less well known lounge singers have often been ridiculed as dinosaurs of past eras and parodied for their smarmy delivery of standards. In any event, these lounge singers, perhaps performing in a hotel or cocktail bar, are usually accompanied by one or two other musicians, and they favor cover songs composed by others, especially pop standards, many deriving from the days of Tin Pan Alley.
Many well known performers got their start as lounge singers and musicians. Although he claims not to have worked for very long, Billy Joel worked as a lounge musician and penned the song "Piano Man" about his experience. Not all lounge singers, however, sing lounge music.
Lounge, a more modern term that lumped together exotica, light jazz, easy listening and nostalgia, emerged in the late 1980s as a label of endearment by younger fans whose parents had played such music while they were growing up in the 1960s. It has enjoyed resurgences in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, led initially by ironic figures such as Buster Poindexter and Jaymz Bee.
In the early 1990s the lounge revival was in full swing and included such groups as Combustible Edison, Love Jones, The Cocktails, Pink Martini and Nightcaps. Alternative band Stereolab demonstrated the influence of lounge with releases like Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and the Ultra-Lounge series of lounge music albums. The lounge style was a direct contradiction to the grunge music that dominated the period.
In the 2000s Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine has added to this resurgence by covering (usually profane) hit songs of other genres (primarily metal and hip hop) in the style of a lounge singer. Other artists have taken lounge music to new heights by recombining rock with pop, such as Jon Brion, The Bird and the Bee, Pink Martini, the Buddha-Lounge series, and the surrounding regulars of Café Largo.
Most stations adopted a 70–80% instrumental – 20–30% vocal mix, a few offered 90% instrumentals, and a handful were entirely instrumental. The WPIX FM format called for a 60% 40% instrumental to vocal mix, and included vocal groups such as Brazil 66, The Lettermen, The Sandpipers, The Fifth Dimension, and other groups in addition to vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Perry Como, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and others. By the 1970s, softer songs by artists like The Carpenters, Anne Murray, John Denver, Barry Manilow, Elton John, Nancy Wilson and others were added to the mix on many stations. Also, some of these stations even played soft songs by artists like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Billy Joel, and other rock-based artists.
All vocals on such stations had to be extremely soft. Therefore, on one hand a song like "She's Out of My Life" by a non-core artist like Michael Jackson would be heard on some of these stations; similarly, "Crazy for You" or "Live to Tell" by Madonna. On the other hand, even uptempo jazzier songs by standards artists, such as "Detour" by Patti Page, would not be heard on easy listening music stations except during specialty shows.
The custom recordings were usually instrumental versions of current or recent rock and roll or pop hit songs, a move intended to give the stations more mass appeal without selling out, but also disgusted some longtime listeners of the format. Some stations would also occasionally play earlier big band-era recordings from the 1940s and early 1950s.
Many music stations would air a few Christmas songs during the season. The stations' vocal content would typically increase to about 40 to 60 percent of the playlist during this period, as well. This concept was later borrowed (and expanded upon) by Soft AC, Oldies, and even some country music and Hot AC stations.
The predominantly instrumental-vocal mix is still in use today, mainly by smooth jazz stations.
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