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June 26, 2015 12:31 pm  #1

The Rise and Fall of Easy Listening

A look at the marketing and mockery of a genre on its 70th birthday.
(Via The Wall Street Journal)

Easy-listening music and its maestros never had to worry about screaming teenage fans or long stadium tours. Ridiculed in the 1960s and since as “elevator music,” the gentle genre was marketed then as music for frazzled adults run ragged by the decade’s social upheavals, argumentative kids and rock’s blare. Unlike other forms of music, easy listening wasn’t meant to be analyzed or even heard. Instead, albums typically featured lush orchestras playing pop melodies at a slow tempo that subliminally freed minds from the clutches of anxiety and distraction.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, easy-listening orchestras led by Mantovani, Bert Kaempfert, Ray Conniff and Percy Faith, among others, accomplished this with yawning violins, wandering trumpets and moody pianos playing in a style free of jarring moments or aesthetic calories. Today, given the music’s calming, reflective powers, many aging baby boomers are rediscovering the soothing sounds they once derided in their parents’ dens and station wagons.

Found now largely on satellite radio stations, easy-listening music has a long history that dates back 70 years to the end of World War II, when the government and the music industry sought to help returning soldiers relax as they rejoined families and society. The first easy-listening album was released to widespread popularity at the end of May 1945, and enjoyed strong sales almost immediately. Issued by Capitol Records, Paul Weston’s “Music for Dreaming” featured eight songs on four 78s, which today remain masterpieces of understated jazz-pop orchestration.

“Music for Dreaming” introduced a radical new genre of pop-instrumental music that quickly became known as “mood music.” Its precursors were the “Sweet” bands of the 1930s and early ’40s that served up a softer form of swing, and Glenn Miller and Claude Thornhill both developed distinctly mellow sounds for their prewar dance bands. Weston’s album, however, was the first created specifically to change the moods of audiences. Songs like “Don’t Blame Me,” “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Rain” featured warm-milk string arrangements to prepare evening listeners for a good night’s sleep.

Weston’s instrumental album was recorded just as the federal government was looking into music’s powers to alter emotions. With World War II winding down in early 1945, military officials researched music’s ability to help recondition millions of veterans struggling with psychological disorders ranging from trauma and stress to anger-management and insomnia. In March 1945, the U.S. War Department issued Technical Bulletin 187 detailing a program on the use of music for reconditioning service members convalescing in Army hospitals.

Record labels looking for new niches to exploit sensed an opportunity. With the country in the thick of World War II in 1944, pop vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford and Doris Day had been recording romantic ballads backed by lush orchestrations. Weston, who was signed to Capitol that year as the label’s chief producer and arranger, conceived an album of softly arranged instrumentals that relaxed listeners without the distraction of singers.

The success of Weston’s “Music for Dreaming” was immediate: By July 1945, it was No. 3 on Billboard’s pop album chart. But despite the album’s success, Weston put the mood concept on hold. In 1944, an album was merely a collection of 78s slipped into a binder that resembled a photo album. Listeners had no hope of enjoying more than a few minutes of music on each side before having to get up and turn over the record, which ran counter to Weston’s chill-out objective.

This fundamental drawback was removed when Columbia introduced the long-playing record in 1948 and RCA unveiled its 45 a year later packaged in boxed sets to rival the LP. RCA also marketed a turntable that dropped the stacked 45s quickly for uninterrupted listening. Only then did Weston resume his mood-music series, releasing new titles between 1949 and 1951 that included “Music for Romancing,” “Music for the Fireside,” “Music for Easy Listening” and “Music for Reflection.”

But the 45 boxed album was a clumsy alternative to the LP, and by 1952 RCA conceded that the 45 format was better suited for singles. Once the 10-inch LP became the industry standard for pop albums, a wave of mood-music releases followed in 1953 from artists such as Bobby Hackett, Faith and the Jackie Gleason Orchestra.

When the larger 12-inch LP began to replace the 10-inch album in 1955 thanks to lower production costs, themes of mood albums expanded to assist in all matters of romance, dating and matrimony. Titles included Gleason’s “Music to Change Her Mind” and Sid Feller’s “Music for Expectant Mothers.”

Stereo’s arrival in 1957 resulted in larger ensembles like the 101 Strings Orchestra, which were formed to maximize the new wider-sounding technology. After the British Invasion began in 1964, virtually all easy-listening artists shifted to contemporary adaptations of the “now sound.” Even Beatles producer George Martin formed an orchestra to arrange and record instrumental albums of Fab Four hits that were aimed at adult buyers.

Perhaps easy listening’s finest moment came in the late 1960s, with the proliferation of FM radio. Stereo stations began embracing a lucrative format known as “beautiful music,” which featured easy-listening recordings played throughout the day with limited interruption.

But in the 1970s, symphonic strings appeared with greater frequency in nearly all forms of music. The long list included rock’s Moody Blues, jazz’s albums on the CTI label and soul’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. Before long, easy listening began to lose its appeal and purpose. By the 1980s, the “light FM” format replaced “beautiful music” with soft-rock vocal hits, and “smooth jazz” followed with the rise of CDs. Now the genre is known euphemistically as “adult contemporary,” which seems to include any slow song by today’s leading pop stars.

Though the genre has been mocked over the years in movies and comedy sketches, many easy-listening albums remain sophisticated to the jazz ear. My favorites include Johnny Smith’s “Moonlight in Vermont” (1952), Hackett’s “In a Mellow Mood” (1954) and “That Midnight Touch” (1967) and Weston’s “Mood for 12” (1955) and “Solo Mood” (1956) with Ziggy Elman on trumpet. As these albums demonstrate, clearing one’s head never goes out of style.

Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about the arts and music at

Last edited by ig (June 26, 2015 12:32 pm)

Madness takes its toll.  Please have exact change.

June 27, 2015 12:56 am  #2

Re: The Rise and Fall of Easy Listening

no matter how old i get, i can't seem to get my head around "easy listening".


June 27, 2015 10:31 pm  #3

Re: The Rise and Fall of Easy Listening

Reminds me of the time that GM George Ferguson in Saint John called to say, "Hey, guess what. We've moved to an easy listening format. Not too hard, not too soft."
"Oh, flaccid rock," I said. (I can't take credit for it being an original quip but he'd never heard it before.)
George laughed, then said, "Thanks, you've ruined it for me."


Last edited by iPatch (June 27, 2015 10:32 pm)