Whether in an elevator, in a doctor’s office, on the telephone, or in the most comfortable room in your home, Easy Listening music can slip into the background like a well-designed wallpaper-adding ambiance, color, and interest without taking center stage. From the smooth vocals of Perry Como and Andy Williams to the lush instrumentals of Liberace and Henry Mancini to the contemporary sounds of Kenny G and Whitney Houston, Easy Listening features soothing melodies, soft rhythms, and-sometimes-even dreamy vocals.
Easy Listening encompasses a sweeping number of musical styles, and many of the artists bridge into other genres, such as jazz, big band, neo-classical, pop, or rock-and-roll. Ultimately, it’s considered a catchall phrase, defined by the gentle, melodic feel of the music, not a particular era or composition style.
One thing, however, has remained the same since the genre’s beginnings in swing and light orchestral arrangements–Easy Listening has basically always been considered the music of adults, the music of our parents, the music of a mainstream and conservative crowd. Often over time, as harder-edged artists or musical groups aged, they came to be considered part of the Easy Listening genre. Even the king of rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley, before his death in 1977 appeared on Easy Listening charts, appealing mainly to a middle-aged listening crowd.
Following World War II, the original takers of Easy Listening were the silver-haired parents of the baby boomers. As the nation was coming to terms with its identity, parents stayed home to watch Lawrence Welk and listen to Perry Como in their living rooms, while their sons and daughters went to teen clubs to dance to the burgeoning music of rebellion-rock-and-roll.
easy1.jpg – 15960 BytesOne of the genre’s earliest success stories, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians had a long string of hits in the 1940s and 1950s, selling well over 100 million records to the established adult market. Lombardo achieved wide acclaim for his annual New Year’s Eve radio broadcasts, making his rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” a national standard.
In the 1940s through 1960s, a host of versatile vocalists and crooners produced a string of ballads, lifting the love song to a veritable art form. Each of these crossover artists was remarkably prolific and also found success in other genres. Johnny Mathis concentrated on holiday music and soft interpretations of jazz and pop standards like “Tender is the Night.” Tony Bennett bridged the gap as a jazz vocalist with his Gold Top-10 hit “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” firmly taking hold of America’s popular imagination.
The consummate American male singer in the 1940s and beyond, Frank Sinatra made married women swoon and made men wish they had that same swagger and style of old blue eyes. The ballads on “In The Wee Small Hours” and unforgettable songs like “Strangers in the Night, ” cemented Sinatra’s position as the undeniable forefather of all American vocalists of the 20th century.
conniff.jpg – 8608 BytesIn the 1960s, Ray Conniff gained fast popularity with wordless vocal choruses and light orchestral arrangements of old stand-byes and billboard hits of the day. With 12 Top 10 LPs and more than 50 million albums sold, Conniff remains one of the top record makers of all time.
Composer, arranger, and conductor Henry Mancini is perhaps the original musician who saved Easy Listening from exclusively becoming soft interpretations of billboard hits. In a career that spanned 40 years, Mancini won four Oscars and 20 Grammys-still unparalleled in the film and music industry. Mancini’s 1961 score to the acclaimed film Breakfast at Tiffany’s features the unforgettable tune “Moon River” (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer). Other notable songs by Mancini include “Dear Heart,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “Charade,” the last two with lyrics by Mercer.
mancini.jpg – 9934 BytesAs the baby boomers began to get older, their musical tastes matured into something closer to their parents’ generation. In 1979, Billboard reinvented the genre and changed the name of its Easy Listening Chart-remembered as the music of the older, hokey set-to Adult Contemporary.
Adult Contemporary is basically considered to include the soft rock hits over the last 30 years, covering the dramatic musical developments since the British invasion. Throughout the 1970s, highly stylized and polished instrumental bands with melodic vocals-bands like Chicago and Air Supply-came to dominate the Adult Contemporary charts. Also during this time, the tender lyrics and vocals by singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Jackson Brown, and Joni Mitchell captured the reflective spirit of the Vietnam War generation.
elton.jpg – 7783 BytesIn a class of his own, British singer-songwriter Elton John was a constant figure on the Easy Listening charts in the 1970s. A remarkably prolific artist, Elton John created an astounding number of intimate and lyrical songs that have become virtual calling cards of today’s Easy Listening stations, including “Your Song,” “Rocket Man,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.” Add lyrical female vocalists Barbara Streisand and Linda Ronstadt into the mix and Adult Contemporary music began to take on a diversity of sounds and personalities.
In the 1970s and 1980s, talented instrumentalists like Kenny G, George Benson and Chuck Mangione made the cross over from jazz into the Easy Listening genre, appealing to fans with soaring and inspirational melodies.
The tradition of singer-songwriters continued in the 1980s with artists like Christopher Cross, who came out of the blue with his self-titled debut album of light pop tunes. Cross’s first album generated several substantial hits with “Ride like the Wind,” “Never Be the Same,” “Say You’ll Be Mine” and the transcendental “Sailing.”
bolton.jpg – 8320 BytesIn the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Bolton and Bryan Adams’ soulful vocals brought the legendary male love song back. Movie soundtracks provided a built-in audience for Easy Listening artists during this time. Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of Dolly Parton’s ballad “I Will Always Love You”-part of the Bodyguard soundtrack-spent a record-breaking 15 weeks on top of the charts. In the late 90s, Canadian-born Celine Dion and pop diva Mariah Carey have ruled the airwaves. Many of their ballads and softer-edged tunes merge the gap between Easy Listening and Pop Rock.
Other niche categories of the Easy Listening genre experiencing a renaissance today include cocktail-hour Lounge Music and the heavily ornate and gothic genre of Chamber Pop.
Even though international sensation Celine Dion has announced her temporary retirement from the music scene and queen of pop Madonna is now a mommy, Easy Listening in the 21st century shows no sign of slowing down. Who knows … as the Generation Xers begin to reach their 30s and 40s, we may even see hipster bands like Oasis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers change with their aging audience and turn out songs that are easy on the ears.