Sixties MOR That Rocks

The narrative that the birth of rock ‘n’ roll essentially eliminated the ‘50s MOR that preceded it with one big blast in 1956 has been pretty well discredited now. It took a while for the obvious vestiges of pre-rock to be eliminated. Even in the late ‘50s, you could find holdover hits like the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra’s “So Rare” (1957) or Doris Day’s “Everybody Loves a Lover” (1958) that were absolutely of a piece with what preceded rock ‘n’ roll.

But I’ve been thinking of just how blurred the lines between pop, rock, and MOR remained throughout the ‘60s. Just as anything worked first to the Alternative format seemed to qualify as Alternative for a while, even if it was Hootie & the Blowfish or Haim, almost any artist who broke after 1956 started with a clean slate, and a number of others reinvented themselves. A few, like Nat “King” Cole,  went back and forth until the mid-‘60s

So throughout the late ‘50s and ‘60s, you had…

  • Artists who began as rock, but quickly wanted to show their sophisticated side (Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, and even Elvis Presley). As the ‘60s wore on, some of those and similar artists would veer back toward a “bold new sound” with varied results;
  • Artists who were accepted under the umbrella of top 40/rock ‘n’ roll at the time, but are clearly part of the MOR canon now (Tom Jones, Petula Clark, Herb Alpert, Sonny & Cher, Gene Pitney);
  • A generation of artists who, regardless of style, had all grown up with standards and ‘50s MOR. The recasting of the Supremes for the supper-club audience is legend, but group members have pointed out in interviews that it wasn’t hard for them to sing their childhood music.
  • The influence of the Brill Building songwriting teams (Goffin/King, Mann/Weil, Barry/Greenwich), as well as the imprint of Burt Bacharach/Hal David and Jimmy Webb (often via Glen Campbell).
  • The common musical language of the late ‘60s, particularly the impact of punchy big-band style horns and ‘60s jazz elements in rock music.

The ‘60s MOR legacy is most obvious at holiday time, and not just because AC radio fills up with Burl Ives and Andy Williams. Much of the new Christmas music of the last 20 or so years takes its stylistic cues from early-to-mid-‘60s MOR. The obvious reference point for Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was the Phil Spector Christmas album, but that had its MOR aspects, too (including the Brill Building connection), and since then the references have become that much blurrier.

As the “Mad Men” ‘60s are channeled now by those who were young kids or not born in that era, the lines have blurred as well. Over the course of his career, Michael Bublé has gone from reimagining pre-rock Sinatra for our era to mid-‘60s MOR to late ‘60s sunshine pop (a genre that many grouped with bubblegum at the time, but which now seems unmistakable in its influences).

The lines have also been blurred by the near dissolution of the Adult Standards format. Some Adult Standards stations, armed with Bublé and other retro-martini acts, have tried to reinvent themselves as mid-century modern. Some have become Oldies stations playing anything that today’s Classic Hits stations won’t play (which gives them pretty much anything up to the mid-‘70s now). Most have pretty much skipped past the format that I’d like to hear.

So that’s why I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist, Better Living Through MOR.  It brings together Glen Campbell, the 5th Dimension, Tom Jones, Lou Rawls, Brenda Lee, and Nancy Sinatra in one logical place. You’ll also find the first hour of it surprisingly uptempo, and easy to work out to. And when there’s more tempo in ‘60s MOR than there is in today’s hit music, what does that say?

Chances are that the bulk of the music will be familiar to you. One that likely will not carries its own fascinating story. In the mid-‘60s, Motown veteran Jack Ashford produced an obscure R&B/MOR record, “I’m Coming Home” by September Jones. That song took some thematic cues from Mel Tormé’s early ‘60s reinvention, “Comin’ Home Baby.” But it also had tentacles going forward when Ashford repurposed the track for a funkier 1970 hit, “Do It” by Billy Sha-Rae. Then disco/R&B artist Bohannon referenced “Do It” in the 1978 classic, “Let’s Start the Dance.”

In other words, long before sampling and interpolation had become a regular part of the landscape, an obscure ‘60s MOR record had been essentially interpolated twice by fall 1978 — a year before “Rapper’s Delight.” Just on its own merits, “I’m Coming Home” is a stunner, and reason alone to check out this playlist. For years, it was an easy song for record collectors to find, but at some point, Britain’s Northern Soul scene adapted it. I gave up on trying to find an original copy when I saw a cracked copy on eBay going for upwards of $100.

For those Classic Hits stations that still debate the ‘60s at all (and for many, the debate is long over), it’s worth knowing that at least some of the ‘60s that endures for an audience born well afterwards comes from this stack of wax. I don’t have a lot of reasons to test “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones now, but when I do, it actually does better with younger listeners than older ones. I’ve also heard that Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” has taken on the same sort of hipster cred now. Many people may only have room for a few songs in that category. But if you have a greater appreciation, enjoy.

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  1. Joseph_Gallant says

    Several of the songs highlighted in Sean Ross’s article are ones I’d classify as bona-fide rock ‘n roll (like the Vogues’ “You’re The One”).

    1. Sean Ross says

      Hi, Joseph. I might be tagging “You’re The One” because of how the Vogues evolved. You can have some fun thinking about them vs. the Association, for instance. But everybody draws the line a little differently, especially with 50 years of perspective, and that’s part of what drew me to the topic.

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