My grandmother always had music on in her house, cascading out of a majestic wooden cabinet stereo that looked like a cathedral to little kid Me. Frank Sinatra, or his contemporaries. I picture that stereo and see its speakers rumbling with Tony Bennett’s “The Good Life.”
But more often than not, she had the radio tuned to a local radio station that broadcast something they called “Music from the Terrace.” (As a kid, I thought they were saying “Music from the Terrorists.”) The “terrace” was taken from the name of the street on which the studio was located (Radio Terrace), presumably because it sounded fancy. The “music” was an endless stream of easy listening instrumentals. Not muzak, exactly. Orchestral arrangements of old showtunes and movie themes. A million strings sawing away at “Days of Wine and Roses” in unison.
There were many perpetrators of this genre once upon a time, but the first and most successful was Mantovani, who sold roughly eight billion albums jam packed with this kind of thing beginning in the 1950s. At a time when most music was sold in 45 form, he was one of the first artists to recognize that there was dough to be made in albums, and the first to sell a million copies of a single LP. Like Liberace, another one-named dynamo of this time, he realized there was a market in selling oppressively mellow, treacly music to folks who just staggered out of World War II. Men and women who’d slogged their way through Normandy and Guadalcanal, who feared the bomb and Stalin and Mao, they craved escapism.
Unlike Liberace, Mantovani wielded an entire orchestra with which to lull a weary generation to sleep. His arrangements could barely be called that, as they consisted largely of an army of violins playing the tunes of songs grown ups of this era would have already heard innumerable times. And they couldn’t get enough of them. My grandmother had tons of these albums in her collection. Some of them were enormous, mighty sleeves bound up in leatherette with gilt lettering on the cover. Perhaps he invented the boxed set, too.
In 1959, Mantovani had six albums in the top 30 at the same time, a feat I doubt has been equaled by any other recording artist. In 1959, Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, Charles Mingus released Mingus Ah Um, Bill Evans released Portrait in Jazz, and Dave Brubeck released Time Out. Howlin’ Wolf put out his first LP. Elvis Presley was at the height of his powers, Johnny Cash was climbing toward his. Folk music was starting to break into the mainstream via folk-light acts like The Kingston Trio.
All of these events are more important, musically, then anything Mantovani did. But if you wanted to know who was selling albums in 1959, the answer was Mantovani. And it would be the answer, more or less, until The Beatles came along.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has advocated a Mantovani reappraising. There’s no Chuck Klosterman to sing his praises for once ruling the business side of music. Most of his biggest fans are no longer with us, and the ones who are left wield no power.
This is, I think, why I go overboard with my own enthusiasms, be they the 1999 Mets, or Jean Shepherd, or a Looney Tunes special no one ever watched but me. The things we love are fragile, and they won’t last for long after we leave. I can’t stop the march of time but maybe I can keep up with it for a few steps.
Love goes in cycles: First something is loved, then it is scorned for being out of date, and then it lives again as retro. And from there, it slowly fades out.
Think about how much you know about your own family. You probably know what your parents loved. You might know what your grandparents loved. But in all likelihood, you can reach no further than that. The things that were loved before then are gone forever. Entire worlds, dead. Those people lived and loved just as much as you have, and there isn’t the slightest hint of them left.
Something brought Music from the Terrace to mind this morning. I can’t say what, I just know that it reappeared to me. So this morning as I settled in at my desk, readying myself for a day of work, I looked for Mantovani on Spotify. I didn’t expect to find anything, but it turned out there were plenty of albums available to stream. Most had the appearance of cheap reissues, and many of them were labeled in Spanish for some reason. Still, they were there.
I clicked on one and…it was still as deadly boring as when it trailed out of my grandmother’s cathedral stereo years ago. I expected at least nostalgia and found only pillowy violins. I endured two songs before moving on.
And yet, I’m glad to find out Mantovani exists in this ultra-modern format. I’m comforted by the knowledge that a trace remains of someone’s love.