Even before the Beatles backlash, radio programmers were resistant to “raucous” rock and roll preferring to play anodyne “sweeter, swinging sounds.”
– 1960: Will Rock & Roll Be Replaced by “Sensible Programming”?
Rock and roll is only five years old – but will it live to turn six? Maybe not. A page one Billboard story reports that it might be the result of Federal Trade Commission hearings on payola or the “natural evolution of musical popularity cycles,” but many top 40 stations are giving up “raucous” rock in favor of a “sweeter, swinging sound.” Format changes at radio are bringing about “a stepped-up emphasis on melodic, easy listening disk programming, both old and new.”
Mike Collier of RCA Victor’s promotion staff confirmed to Billboard that radio stations were looking for music that was “more melodic and less rhythmic – more of a beautiful sound.”
Billboard’s June Bundy wrote, “Even if top 40 programming does survive, and it’s quite possible that many stations will retain the format, that doesn’t mean they will continue to spin raucous r&r material.” Bundy pointed out that network radio stations, both owned and operated, “have made the most concentrated pitch for “sweet swinging wax” and that the networks “have always followed more conservative record programming patterns.”
Bundy cites the example of the NBC owned and operated radio stations, which have adopted a policy to feature “listenable melodies” as opposed to more “extreme” sounds, with the flagship WNBC in New York airing “Wall to Wall” music, described as “lush, fully-orchestrated,” and WMAQ in Chicago dropping top-rated DJ Howard Miller in favor of “predominantly standards and some light classics.”
Other stations around the country are also abandoning rock and roll. KAYO in Seattle has eliminated “hard rock” songs in favor of their new “soft sound.” KJAY in Topeka, Kansas, dropped rock and roll on Dec. 1, 1959, returning to what the station called “sensible programming.” WNTA in Newark, N.J., switched to a “Sound of the Swinging Sixties” format on Jan. 11, claiming that, “both rock and roll and insipid instrumental ‘schmaltz’ music are on the way out.” The station is now playing big band music featuring “big personalities, who can actually sing, and big tunes that last longer than three weeks.”
So what was the effect of all this format-switching on the Hot 100 in 1960? The biggest single of the year was an instrumental; Percy Faith’s “The Theme from ‘A Summer Place'” reigned for nine weeks. Elvis Presley had three No. 1 hits, though only one could be considered rock and roll – “Stuck on You,” his first single after his discharge from the United States Army. The other two, “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” were ballads. Also reaching pole position in 1960: the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” So if rock was dead, it wasn’t lying down.
[Billboard, Jan. 25, 1960, page 1]
1978: An Album Comes Out of the Closet
1978’s Out of the Coset
Bob Booker and George Foster, producers of the hit comedy albums “The First Family” and “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish,” have teamed with Bruce Vilanch to helm the first “above ground” gay comedy album, “Out of the Closet,” released on Ariola. “Nobody had ever really looked at the gay community before in this fashion and we felt it was time to do it,” Booker told Billboard. “The gay community is a minority community but is culturally rich and has its own special brand of humor.”
To make sure the album would be “tasteful,” Foster says the producers made a pact with the writers – if any one writer objected to a joke, it was out. Billboard reports the album is receiving some radio airplay and that sales are strong in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago and Boston. One in-store marketing tool from the label: album covers displayed on coat hangers.
[Billboard, Jan. 28, 1978, page 20]
1982: Stevie Wonder Releases ‘Happy Birthdy’ For An MLK Holiday; Some In the Music Biz Ahead of the Curve
Stevie Wonder, who released the Martin Luther King tribute song “Happy Birthday” in 1980, traveled to Washington, D.C. to lend his support for a national holiday on King’s birthday. Wonder participated in the second “Birthday March” despite the city’s bad weather and addressed a packed luncheon at the National Press Club. King’s birthday is already a holiday in D.C. and 18 states, but not nationally. Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) and Charles Mathias (R-Md) introduced a bill in 1981 to make King’s birthday a national holiday but the legislation hasn’t passed the Senate or the House yet. In a separate story, Billboard details which record label offices will be closed on MLK’s birthday, even though it is not yet a national holiday. Among the companies observing the day: Motown, Solar, Philadelphia International and Qwest. A poll of “black music department staffers” at major labels revealed that many of them would be taking the day off in remembrance of Dr. King. Billboard also reported that some radio stations were breaking format for the day to air tributes to the civil rights leader. (In November 1983, President Reagan signed a bill introduced by Rep. Katie Hall of Indiana to commemorate King’s birthday as a national holiday. It was first observed in January 1986). Interestingly, the late-Gil Scott Heron’s recent posthumous book, “The Last Holiday: A Memoir,” (Grove Press, 2012) chronicles Scott-Heron’s 41-city tour with Stevie Wonder to gain support for the creation of a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
[Billboard, Jan. 23, 1982, page 4]