Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summertime ... and the Listening's Easy

If you are a follower of Billboard magazine's "Adult Contemporary" chart, you might be interested to know that it made its debut 50 years ago today.

Apparently, for a few years prior to this day in 1961, there had been a growing desire on the part of many radio stations in America to play popular songs without becoming known as "rock 'n' roll" stations. The music industry had to acknowledge that there was a portion of the market that wasn't rock 'n' roll — and it wasn't country — and respond appropriately.

Billboard's response was to devise a chart that would list the current best–selling recordings that the magazine had decided were not rock 'n' roll songs. Billboard had written about this a few times before so the list was hardly a surprise for regular readers.

Thus, in the beginning, there was a general hits chart — and, from that, a more style–specific (or, perhaps, content– is a better word) chart was derived that was known, initially, as Easy Listening.

The format was established enough by 1965 that Billboard was able to treat it as it did other genres. By that time, it had been through a number of name changes already — a year after it was introduced, it was known as "Middle–Road Singles," then it was known as "Pop–Standard Singles" in 1964.

In 1965, it was known again as "Easy Listening," and it retained that designation through the 1970s. In 1979, it was renamed "Adult Contemporary," and those words have been part of the chart's title, in one form or another, ever since.

The early editions of the list were led by the artists and the kind of songs you probably would expect — the songs were often show tunes and love songs, and performers who specialized in them tended to be the top sellers.

That's why it seems strange to me that the very first #1 recording on this chart was called "The Boll Weevil Song." Perhaps you aren't familiar with the song. It's a blues song, about 100 years old now, according to some folks, and it has been recorded by several blues artists.

(If you haven't lived in the South, you might not be familiar with boll weevils, either. They're insects, pests as far as cotton farmers are concerned. Well, the word pest probably isn't adequate. They devastated cotton farmers before and during the Great Depression — which happened to be when many of the initial followers of the Easy Listening chart were born.)

The version that was a hit 50 years ago today was recorded by Brook Benton, a popular performer of the time who was known for his rock 'n' roll recordings — but also for his R&B and blues stuff, too, which made him something of a crossover artist, I guess.

Actually, applying the label of "rock 'n' roll artist" to Benton seems inappropriate to me. His two breakthrough hits from 1959 — "It's Just a Matter of Time" and "Endlessly" — would have been right at home on an Easy Listening chart if such a thing had existed at the time.

And if you listen to the other hits he had in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I think you would conclude that he was more of an easy listening artist. He sure wasn't an Elvis or a Buddy Holly or a Chuck Berry. He was more like Nat King Cole.

(In fact, Benton and collaborator Clyde Otis originally offered those breakthrough hits to Cole — but, after Otis joined a music label, he persuaded Benton to record them instead.)

As I say, Benton recorded many songs that would have earned prominent spots on an Easy Listening chart — but it was the song about boll weevils that was popular when the chart debuted. Weird. Good song but weird.

Boll weevils aren't lovable or cuddly. Thus, it seems very odd to me that they should have such a role in the history of this kind of chart. If you haven't heard the song, the title read kind of like an ode to roaches.

It's also odd, I think, that, given the kind of songs Benton frequently recorded, he never returned to the top of the Easy Listening chart. He did come close, though — with his comeback song, "Rainy Night in Georgia," in 1970.