“Gimme the moon on the open road, somethin’ soft on the radio.”
– “I Don’t Want to Be in Love”, Andy Williams (1980)
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right; the sequel is never as good as the original. But, hey, writer’s gotta write. Right? For the sake of brevity, in my initial article on the origins of the Adult Contemporary chart I did not expand on as many of the original stars of this genre as I would have liked. Since the reception the first post received was favourable, I thought another look at some of these original stars of AC would be warranted. Additionally, I thought we’d take a look at the “second wave” of artists who plied their trade on the softer side. So, let’s roll.
Only three original adult contemporary singers made a bigger splash on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart than Al Martino. The fact that all three of them are serious legends who bring hefty numbers to the genre makes Al’s coming in at #4 a testament to his own successes on the “other” chart. To illustrate, between ’65 and ’68, Al put 10 of his 12 singles into the Top Ten AC. I’m tellinya, it’s amazing how many actors and singers I run across who were born in Pennsylvania and you can add Philly-born Martino to the list. Al’s music is the perfect example of a sub genre of sorts that I love. There is a rich maturity in some ballad singing to be heard in the mid-to-late 1960’s and songs like Al’s “Spanish Eyes” and his gorgeous “Mary in the Morning” have a particular grandeur to them. And, I have to report this. I kid you not; as I’m writing this, Al’s “Mary in the Morning” comes on the radio! Presley also did a sumptuous version of this – and “Spanish Eyes”, actually – in the early 1970’s. And speaking of grandeur, there is something positively majestic in Martino’s 1975 recording of “To the Door of the Sun (Alle Porte del Sole)” (#7 AC, #17 Pop). You see, this is “jazz/pop vocalizing” just like Frankie did with Nelson in the Fifties but some time has elapsed and consequently there is something more going on with these rich and grandiose later records, something significant. Think Andy’s “Speak Softly Love” or “Lady” by Jack Jones.
Speaking of Jack… I’ve written before of my love for Jones’ Lady album from 1967 and, to me, Jack is the quintessential album vocalist of the late ’60’s – he is a man you must own on vinyl. The son of cool dude Allan Jones who made many films including one of my favourites, One Night in the Tropics (1940), Jack won two Grammy awards early in his career and would carry on singing into the Eighties adding the perhaps dubious distinction of having sang the Love Boat theme. But he also – like Paul Anka – put out a record that incorporated some new sounds when he released New Jack Swing in 1997. Here he offers good takes on “Every Breath You Take” and “She’s Leaving Home”. As of this writing, Jack carries on singing in and around his home in the desert. One of the last great vocalists.
Surrey’s Petula Clark (born 1932) is best known as a pop singer of hits like “Downtown” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”. Those songs and her sound in general were custom made for the Easy Listening charts and she was able to place songs high on the US AC chart even when they didn’t do well on the UK’s pop charts. For example, her jaunty “A Sign of the Times” (1966) hit #2 AC but only #49 UK Pop and “Colour My World” was a Top Ten Easy Listening hit in 1967 but it didn’t hit the pop charts at all in England (#16 US Pop). In addition to these three, Tony Bennett and Jerry Vale were traditional singers who put out excellent music in the late ’60’s and Connie Francis and Roy Orbison were both better known as pop singers but they also placed songs at the top of the AC charts earlier in the decade. And now, onward to the “second wave”.
I mentioned in my previous article that the numbers some later artists put up on the Adult Contemporary charts were gargantuan. The singer-songwriters of the early 1970’s put forth a gentle sort of music that went well on the AC charts and while these singers had success internationally on all charts they emerge as stalwarts – the heavyweight division – of the “other” chart.
The Carpenters I hesitated to include as they are not a “solo artist”. While you could argue that the appeal of the siblings was “all” Karen Carpenter, a counter argument would be that her gorgeous voice shone brightest when it was placed in the intricate settings that Richard Carpenter created. I’ll leave that for you to debate. What can’t be countered is their ridiculous numbers on the AC chart. The thing I notice about these two is that their AC peak positions are not that much different from their Pop chart pinnacles. The Carpenters had a run of songs released in 1970 through ’73 that all charted in the Top Ten of both charts. AC #1’s like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” went to #2 Pop. In fact, between “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in 1970 and “Only Yesterday” in ’75, 12 of their 15 singles peaked in the Top Ten of both charts. Ridiculously, ELEVEN of these 15 went to #1 AC.
Neil Diamond – the “Jewish Elvis” – is a heavy hitter, period. Another artist right at home on the AC chart, Neil started as a songwriter and debuted on the Easy Listening charts with the immortal “Sweet Caroline” (#3) in 1969 and he scored a Top Ten AC hit 47 years later with 2016’s “The Christmas Medley” from his Acoustic Christmas album. Between those years, Neil topped the AC charts 8 times. Neck-and-neck with Diamond is Elton John who’s longevity equals that of his American counterpart. But Elton’s sheer bulk of recorded output may leave him head and shoulders above the pack. In addition to placing more than 70 songs on the AC chart, his seventh placing on that chart – 1971’s smash “Daniel” – went to #1, a place he would occupy over a dozen more times in his career. John enjoyed multiple #1 AC hits in each of the first three decades of his recording career including 9 in the 1990’s. Can’t talk about Adult Contemporary in the 1970’s without talking about Barry Manilow. While huge on the pop charts, Barry may be one of the most successful singers in history who’s records have never been anything but easy listening. Dig; of the first 10 studio, non-Christmas singles that Barry placed on the AC chart, fully 9 of them went to #1. Between Bruce Johnston’s “I Write the Songs” in ’75 and “Looks Like We Made It” in 1977, every one of his singles topped the Easy Listening chart. Further, between “Mandy” in ’74 and Jim Steinman’s epic “Read ‘Em and Weep”, a #1 AC song from 1983, only two of Manilow’s 27 singles did not reach the Top Ten AC. Barry may lack Elton’s longevity, but Manilow was dominant on multiple charts in the 1970’s.
I was surprised – perhaps I shouldn’t have been – by the Easy Listening numbers put up by Australia’s lovely Olivia Newton-John. Perhaps my disbelief stems from her having had a hit with the decidedly pop-sounding smash “Physical” in the days of my youth. My next acknowledgment of her in my life was, of course, Grease and later was the fact that Elvis Presley recorded two of her songs. Newton-John’s first appearance on the AC chart was with a song that went to the very top, “If Not For You”, in 1971 when she was 24. This was a song that Bob Dylan had written and recorded the year previously. Olivia was back in ’73 with a song that was Top Ten on the US AC chart, on the US Pop charts, on the US Country charts and in Canada, “Let Me Be There”, a song that won Olivia a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocalist. Next up was the even bigger hit “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”. It was these two songs that Presley put on his final album, 1977’s Moody Blue, both in live settings.
These tunes began a run for Newton-John through ’73 and ’74 of three straight #1 tunes on the AC chart. “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” were both also #1 on the US Pop charts and in Canada. The perhaps lesser-known “Please Mr. Please” rounds out the trio. She would later add 5 more AC #1’s before attaining superstardom alongside Travolta in ’77. Her two duets with John from that film were #1 hits the world over but did not crack the Top 20 AC. However, her solo number, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, went to #7 AC and was the only of these three to chart on the US Country charts, owing to Olivia’s past success there, I suppose.
Additionally, Olivia Newton-John would add the #1 hit “Magic” (1980, #1 AC, #1 US Pop, #1 Canada) although “Physical” (1981) was #1 everywhere BUT the AC chart where it stalled at 29. After a few more Top Tens, things would cool off for the classy lady from Down Under but with 10 #1’s on the AC chart to go along with 5 US Pop #1’s and 5 #1’s in her home country and this delightful lady packs a punch.
While I’ve been writing about Adult Contemporary, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of soul. When you think about black music, one of the things that comes to mind is the strong spine it has, the robust rhythm and staunch backbeat. Adult Contemporary is, by definition, not really like that. Think about it; “Easy Listening” is easy and light while soul music is strapping and sturdy. But a couple of black artists got their starts on the AC charts in the Sixties and carried on as the years rolled.
Brother Ray Charles – with Sam Cooke, the originator of soul – experimented with many types of music through his career all played through the prism of his rhythm & blues roots. Ray started off on the AC chart with his smash take on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” which was his first #1 on the “other” chart and he added other country-flavoured #1’s like “Crying Time”. Ray’s appearances on the chart extended into the Nineties when he enjoyed 2 of his 12 AC Top Tens.
Stevie Wonder has miles of cred in the soul field but he has also been a regular on the AC chart where he showed up in ’66 with “A Place in the Sun” (Top Ten Pop). It was not until the mid-70’s though when Stevie arrived in force with a Number One in “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”. But even after that it was not until the 1980’s that Stevie began to drift more to easier sounds and he had AC hits with “Ebony and Ivory” (1982, #1 AC; duet with Macca), a quintessential “Adult Contemporary song” with “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (1984, #1 AC), a song that was Number One in almost a dozen countries worldwide, and 1985’s “Part Time Lover” (#1 AC). Stevie is a man after my own heart; looking at his singles discography, you see consecutive singles charting high on the R&B charts and high on the AC charts.
I wanted to look at my main man, Herb Alpert, who was “Easy Listening” when Michael Bolton was still singing “Dock of the Bay” into his bedroom mirror. Because he was a hip and happening instrumental artist in the swinging Sixties he was Adult Contemporary by default; how else to categorize him? And even more than singles, Herb and the Tijuana Brass sold LPs by the millions throughout the decade. Billboard Magazine could easily have created the AC chart just to honour Herb’s ability to move units. Try to understand that the TJB sold more records than the Beatles in 1966. They were the biggest act in the world.
I’ve not crunched the numbers on Herb and the Brass because the 7-year run of the TJB on the AC chart didn’t generate Neil Diamond-sized numbers and adding Alpert’s solo endeavours to his totals is essentially combining two artists, if you get my meaning. Regardless, I can report that Herb and the Brass combined to place 46 songs on the Adult Contemporary listings including 22 Top Tens and 5 Number One songs – including my sixteenth-favourite song, “Rise”, the title track from my all-time favourite album.
I so enjoyed the table in the previous post that I’m laying another on you. I feel like this part is really for me though as I am a stats guy from way back. I’ve kept all 13 artists I looked into on this table as I didn’t want to leave anyone out. Thanks for reading! And remember to take it easy – easy like Sunday morning.
|Artist||AC Songs Charted||AC Top Tens||AC #1’s||Years Active|
|1||Elton John||70||36||17||1970 – 2019|
|2||Neil Diamond||58||39||8||1969 – 2016|
|3||Barry Manilow||48||28||13||1974 – 2020|
|4||Barbra Streisand||64||34||8||1964 – 2005|
|5||the Carpenters||31||23||15||1969 – 1989|
|6||Olivia Newton-John||35||22||11||1971 – 2006|
|7||Rod Stewart||48||28||4||1978 – 2018|
|8||Billy Joel||37||23||8||1973 – 1997|
|9||Stevie Wonder||33||14||8||1966 – 2020|
|10||John Denver||33||18||9||1971 – 1985|
|*||James Taylor||30||17||4||1970 – 2008|
|*||Ray Charles||31||12||4||1962 – 2005|
|*||Carly Simon||28||16||2||1971 – 2006|