50 Years of Adult Contemporary: From Johnny Mathis to Elton John, From Celine Dion to Bruno Mars
50 Years of Adult Contemporary: From Johnny Mathis to Elton John, From Celine Dion to Bruno Mars

"I was on my way to an airport," said Richard Marx, "flipping the dial. I was like, 'Awesome, it's the new single!'" At a June 23 performance at Clear Channel's P.C. Richard & Son Theater in New York, Marx is talking about hearing his new song, "When You Loved Me."

"At the end of the song, the DJ came on and said, 'That's brand-new from Richard Marx. Next up: Nickelback with 'Photograph.' I freaked out, because usually, if I hear my song on the radio, it's like, 'That was Richard Marx, and next up is ... Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' which is cool," Marx said to the crowd's chuckles. "But, that day, I was sandwiched between Daughtry and Nickelback - and it was a little cooler."

Marx's reaction is a fairly typical response to an artist finding success on adult contemporary radio-often maligned as the vanilla of radio formats. And in truth, AC was designed not to offend, but to provide background companionship during the workday, and to lull listeners to sleep with gentle ballads on late-night love songs shows. While Marx did add, "Thank God I hear my songs on the radio," being pegged as an AC act, for those who consider themselves hipper than Midler's "Wings," can be humbling. When you think you're Phish Food, you find out you're vanilla. The flip side? Vanilla is the top-selling ice cream flavor (according to the International Ice Cream Assn.'s latest rankings).

And, AC is routinely a top-rated format.

The Top 50 Adult Contemporary Artists Ever

A few stats: In Arbitron's May ratings for persons aged 6-plus, AC stations ranked first in top 20 markets New York (WLTW); Houston (KODA); Philadelphia (WBEB); Seattle (KRWM); Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y. (WALK); and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Fla. (WDUV). New York's WLTW (Lite 106.7) likewise led the nation's top market with a 7.5 share in women 25-54 and a 6.4 share in persons 25-54. "In Boston," says Don Kelley, VP/director of programming at Greater Media, which owns the city's WMJX (Magic 106.7), the station "has celebrated No. 1 rankings [in] persons 25-54 44 times since 1991. That's a market record."

That's also why Marx understands that being heard next to Midler ultimately means you're being heard. By a large audience. "With approximately 35 years of music to choose from," Edison Research VP of music and programming Sean Ross says, "AC is the format most likely to be playing a song that people are passionate about at any given time. 'Uncool' isn't quite an issue. Successful AC stations always turn up a wide swath of listeners-including men and 18- to 34-year-olds. Even when a successful station was mocked in TV campaigns by a competitor for being 'lite,' the taunt ultimately didn't take, ratings-wise."

THE EVOLUTION OF AC

In line with the AC format's image, the Billboard chart that is celebrating its 50th anniversary debuted unostentatiously in the July 17, 1961, issue. Without any editorial mention of its debut, the first survey appeared next to the Billboard Hot 100 as the 20-position Easy Listening chart, with rankings of songs considered "not too far out in either direction" (according to the chart's legend) culled from their standings on the airplay/sales hybrid Hot 100.

Brook Benton's "Boll Weevil Song" (Mercury) ranked as the first AC No. 1. (The chart's current leader, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" [Columbia] is the 756th topper.) The list joined previously launched Hot C&W Sides (today, Country Songs) and Hot R&B Sides (now R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) as a tool for those who were programming current hits but, as rock'n'roll was emerging, opted to offer a softer mainstream musical menu. The chart repeatedly changed names, with Middle-Road Singles and Pop-Standard Singles alternating as the list's title through 1965, when it reverted to Easy Listening. Adult Contemporary took hold to stay the week of April 7, 1979. (It became an airplay-only chart beginning Aug. 21, 1982.)

The Top 100 Adult Contemporary Songs Ever

Similarly, the format itself has evolved. In its early history, the AC chart was devoid of acts that today would be considered easy listening. The Beatles, for instance, didn't chart an AC single until "Something" peaked at No. 19 in 1969. The Fab Four had placed 62 entries on the Hot 100 by then. Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," the format's most-played '60s song for the week ending July 3, according to Nielsen BDS (whose radio airplay data has powered the chart since the week of July 17, 1993), never made the list as a current in 1967.

Instead, the mellow tones of Roger Miller, Barbra Streisand and Bobby Vinton scaled the survey throughout much of the '60s. Elvis Presley did, too, but generally with such lush ballads as "Can't Help Falling in Love." It wasn't until the '70s that the AC chart began to welcome uptempo hits more regularly, as stations started specializing in different sides of pop. The AC format began to more closely resemble its current form and, from the decade's start, even such rock-leaning acts as Chicago, the Eagles and Elton John dominated the tally from early in their careers. From Michael Jackson and Madonna in the '80s to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion in the '90s, to boy bands, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry today, AC radio has chiefly played the top adult-friendly pop hits, once top 40 has warmed them up. The blueprint has worked for both radio stations and record labels.

"AC airplay has always been a major asset and outlet for us to reach the upper-demo consumer, which, thankfully, remains a loyal physical CD buyer," says RCA Music Group senior VP of adult music Adrian Moreira, who cites the value of between 15 million and 20 million in audience that an AC No. 1 accrues weekly. Still, AC radio itself fights its vanilla stereo­type. Longtime RMG acts Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow have combined for 13 top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 since 2002, but Stewart added just two AC top 10s in that span after logging 19 between 1986 and 2001. Manilow notched his 27th and most recent top 10 in 1989.

Moreira has seen that as adult listeners have begun to accept some of the rhythmic/pop ubiquitous on today's top 40 radio - in addition to Gaga and Perry infusing AC playlists, even Usher's dance club thumper "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" reached the format's top 20 last month - AC is making sure to keep a foothold in current pop music.

"We've seen a fairly tidal shift in what AC will play," Moreira says. "Whereas it was once always a very specific home for heritage acts, like Stewart and Manilow, with storied pasts and long histories, in most cases now, AC has essentially become a time-shifted top 40 playlist, trailing proven hits at mainstream and adult top 40 by a few months. I'd like to see more of a balance between proven hits from other formats, which I understand ACs need to play, and support for those acts which have always defined AC in the past. There's room for both. It's a missed opportunity for radio and labels when great songs from established upper-demo acts get passed over."

Not that AC is in danger of ceding its identity as the radio dial's gentle resting place. "AC radio broke Michael Bublé and Josh Groban," Warner Bros./Reprise VP of adult formats Debbie Cerchione says of the Reprise vocalists who now represent a rarity: largely AC-exclusive superstar acts. "While AC is playing mostly multiformat hits, programmers also know that their listeners will come to them exclusively to hear these artists.

"A great example of AC radio's ability to actually break a song is Bublé's 'Haven't Met You Yet,' which started at AC, reached No. 1 and then crossed to adult top 40 and, ultimately, pop, which now rarely happens," Cerchione says. "Playing artists like Bublé and Groban define an AC radio station and separate it from the rest."

THE SECRET TO AC's SUCCESS

As music progresses - Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are" taking its place at AC alongside Billy Joel's - a constant has been the format's presentation between the songs. It doesn't play rap or hard rock, and doesn't employ shock jocks. "Focus groups say that Magic 106.7 is a station you can tune to with your eyes closed," Greater Media's Kelley says, praising WMJX's instantly recognizable air talent, including midday host Nancy Quill and night jock David Allan Boucher, each of whom has been a station staple since Magic's 1982 sign-on.

"When people talk about Boucher, they never mention the music he plays. They talk about his delivery," Kelley says. In addition to his rich, deep voice, Boucher "has a way of sounding laid-back without trying to. He speaks off-mic to his producers and engineer ... both of whom are figments of his imagination. He rattles papers or clicks computer keys when he's trying to 'find' a special dedication to read. He squeaks his chair when he turns to look out the window when reading the weather. He is very good theater of the mind."

Mirroring the format's approach, WMJX is synonymous with family-friendly content. "The 'Magic Lyric Guarantee' is in effect 24 hours a day," an entry on Magic's website says. "We promise to play songs with lyrics that won't embarrass you in front of your kids or your customers." Kelley says: "We came up with the idea for the 'Magic Lyric Guarantee' in 1996 when Toni Braxton released 'You're Makin' Me High.' We never played that song, but we were playing three other Braxton songs. We decided to clarify our mission, and the audience loved it and expected everything on the station to live up to that standard."

A glance at this week's AC chart reveals the format's embrace of such titles as P!nk's "F**kin' Perfect" and Cee Lo Green's "F**k You (Forget You)," but "we obviously never play the unedited versions," Kelley says. The transformation from "Boll Weevil Song" to boldly titled songs simply shows that AC continues to adapt, ensuring its staying power.

The secret to its success? "We focus on the same demo year after year," says Kelley, who has programmed WMJX since December 1989. (Assistant PD Mark Laurence joined in 1991 and 15-year morning host Mike Addams has been on-air in Boston since 1974.) "It's like a fifth-grade teacher who always has students that are 10." And while Billboard's weekly ranking of the format hasn't been called Middle-Road for 46 years, the descriptor still fits. Says Kelley of his station, although he could be echoing the format's overall appeal, "We're familiar and comfortable."

And, like vanilla, perennially victorious.