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Let’s (Soft) Rock: 60 Fun Facts for the Adult Contemporary Chart’s 60th Anniversary

“Let’s go soft-rock the [bleep] out of these fans.”

In Richard Marx’s new memoir, Stories to Tell, the singer-songwriter who has scored success on Billboard charts in five distinct decades, recalls a night in 2019 when despite a fever of 104 degrees, the show had to go on.

And that night’s concert would include some of the biggest hits in the history of Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, i.e., the weekly soft-rock scorecard.

(The LP accompanying Marx’s book adds yet another chapter to his chart history, debuting in the top 40 of the latest, July 17-dated Top Current Album Sales tally. He has achieved four AC No. 1s, among 14 top 10s.)

Sixty years ago, in the Billboard issue dated July 17, 1961, the Adult Contemporary chart premiered. Upon its diamond anniversary, let’s run through 60 fun facts about the survey.

Are you ready to soft-rock?

1. Brook Benton’s “Boll Weevil Song” topped the first Adult Contemporary chart, which originated under the name “Easy Listening.” Arthur Lyman’s “Yellow Bird” flew in at No. 2 and Floyd Cramer’s “San Antonio Rose” ranked at No. 3. As rock was breaking through commercially, AC represented the softer side of mainstream music that was now sharing space on Billboard’s charts.

2. Benton’s song placed at No. 2 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 that week, below Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’.” Lewis’ hit also led the Hot R&B Sides chart (now Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs), as well as the Teen Beat chart (which also started in the July 17, 1961, issue; it could be considered a forebearer to today’s Pop Airplay chart, which began in 1992).

3. The AC chart launched as a 20-position ranking and has swelled to as many as 50 spots. (It now houses 30 songs weekly.) After opening as Easy Listening, it was known as Middle-Road Singles and Pop-Standard Singles in the mid-’60s (and reverted to Easy Listening), before the words “Adult Contemporary” first appeared in its name in the April 7, 1979, issue, above a list led by Poco’s classic “Crazy Love.” It has reflected AC radio airplay exclusively since Aug. 21, 1982 (a chart paced by Chicago’s fellow format standard “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”).

4. In July 2011, Billboard celebrated the AC chart’s 50th anniversary. Citing AC radio’s continuously strong ratings and library that encompasses multiple decades of proven hits, Sean Ross, author of the Ross on Radio newsletter, noted, “AC is the format most likely to be playing a song that people are passionate about at any given time.”

5. “In order to get a hit at AC radio, the second ingredient a song should have is a degree of familiarity to a female listener between 25 and 54,” said Jerry Lembo, principal of Jerry Lembo Entertainment Group (and formerly of Columbia Records), in Billboard’s 50th-anniversary AC spotlight. In true countdown fashion, he added the first ingredient: “You need a great song.”

6. Per Joel Whitburn, Billboard chart historian, “Adult contemporary music is better known as melodies that are easy on the ears and gentle on the nerves.”

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7. Elton John was revealed as the top performer of the Adult Contemporary chart’s first 50 years. To-date, he boasts the most No. 1s (16) and most total appearances (73), the latter sum ranging from “Your Song” in 1970 through “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” with Taron Egerton and from the movie musical Rocketman, in 2019.

8. “Elton would call me to tell me a song had hit No. 1,” Bernie Taupin, John’s writing partner for over a half-century, told Billboard in 2011. A chart historian himself, “Elton has an extraordinary recollection of those figures.”

9. Neil Diamond ranked at No. 2 on the 50th anniversary AC artist recap, followed by …

10. Barbra Streisand at No. 3 …

11. Barry Manilow at No. 4 …

12. and Kenny Rogers at No. 5.

13. “It is the pinnacle of how the public feels about what I’m doing,” Manilow said in 2012 of a coveted chart rank. “It gets down to the Billboard charts. To, ‘Does the public like this work?’ The charts tell you whether you will be allowed to continue to do the work that you love to do.”

14. Joining John as the AC chart’s top all-time artist, the top song, as recapped upon the chart’s 50th anniversary? Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply,” which spent 11 weeks at No. 1 in 1998 and totaled 123 weeks on the chart overall through May 2000. “That song changed my life and continues to do so,” singer-songwriter Darren Hayes told Billboard in 2011. He co-wrote the smash, which he sang, with Savage Garden partner Daniel Jones. (The Australian duo disbanded in 2001.)

“It was originally a different song that Daniel and I had written and recorded on our first-ever demo,” Hayes recalled. “The verses were exactly the same, but the chorus didn’t exist. Instead, I’d written a rather awful lyric about magical kisses. There was something magical about the song, however. When it reached the ears of producer Charles Fisher, who produced the first Savage Garden album, he proclaimed it to be a potential hit. It sat on the bottom of the pile of our demos during recording until the eve of the last day. I sat alone, at the Bayswater Cafe in Sydney, and rewrote the chorus over a cup of coffee. The rest is history.”

15. “Truly Madly Deeply” topped the all-time AC chart over Maxine Nightingale’s “Lead Me On” at No. 2 …

16. Uncle Kracker’s “Drift Away,” featuring Dobie Gray, at No. 3 …

17. Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven” at No. 4 …

18. and Roger Williams’ “Born Free” at No. 5.

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19. At the time, Uncle Kracker’s version of “Drift Away” (originally a pop and AC hit for Gray in 1973) held the record for the most weeks at No. 1 on the AC chart: 28. “How long was it No. 1?,” he asked Billboard in 2011. “You sure Kelly Clarkson hasn’t kicked my ass?”

20. It was actually Maroon 5 that ultimately claimed the longevity record atop the AC chart: “Girls Like You” reigned for 36 weeks beginning in November 2018. (Clarkson’s “Breakaway” booted all contenders from the top spot for 21 weeks in 2005.)

21. While “Drift Away” represents a hit that has been embraced on AC radio for decades via its different iterations, some songs that might be expected among the chart’s biggest hits never reached the ranking at all. “For example, the world’s No. 1 rock group, The Beatles, did not have a chance at making the AC chart in 1965 with their plaintive song ‘Yesterday’,” Whitburn wrote in the 2001 edition of his Top Adult Songs chart reference book. As Beatlemania swept the U.S., and the Hot 100, the AC chart was still home to well-established crooners such as Dean Martin and Jerry Vale, both of whom scored AC No. 1s in 1965.

“The AC chart has continually represented the calmer alternatives to heavier pop-music movements (British Invasion, disco, punk, rap, grunge),” Whitburn mused. “Though the name of the category may change, there will always be music of the moment that is soft and sweet.”

22. By 1970, The Beatles hit No. 1 on the AC chart with “Let It Be,” while follow-up “The Long and Winding Road” hit No. 2.

23. Other stars and songs long synonymous with AC took time to be welcomed at the format, through a combination of growing familiarity with adult listeners and their music softening edges to better fit AC’s sound. Similar to The Beatles, Rod Stewart didn’t hit the AC chart until 1976, five years after he topped the Hot 100 with “Maggie May,” when “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” reached No. 42. “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)” peaked at No. 17 in 1977 and “Some Guys Have All the Luck” hit No. 32 in 1984. In 1986, “Love Touch” became his first AC top 10, of 23 to-date. In 1990, “Downtown Train” marked his first of four No. 1s.

24. Other hits now ingrained in AC catalog rotation were not fully accepted at AC amid their original runs. Among them: Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” peaked at No. 28 …

25. Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” made it to the border of the top 25, and just beyond, to No. 24 …

26. John’s “Tiny Dancer” hit No. 35, followed by “Rocket Man” reaching No. 39 …

27. and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” stopped at No. 38 …

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28. Meanwhile, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” never charted on AC. But the anthem, from 1981, drew 569 plays among the 88 stations that currently report to the tally in the July 5-11 tracking week, according to MRC Data. (The group hit No. 1 in 1996 with “When You Love a Woman.”)

29. Other songs that were considered outside AC’s orbit at the time of their releases draw notable play at the format today. In the latest monitored week, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was played 545 times …

30. Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” scored 504 plays …

31. and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” notched 386. Like “Don’t Stop Believin’,” none of those three songs has ever appeared on the AC chart.

32. Frank Sinatra scored the most AC No. 1s in the ’60s: six. “Somethin’ Stupid,” with daughter Nancy, led the longest, for nine weeks in 1967.

33. The Carpenters dominated the ’70s with 14 No. 1s …

34. Lionel Richie ruled the ’80s with 11 leaders. He first hit No. 1 with “Endless Love,” with Diana Ross, for three weeks in 1981. In 2016, he told Ross … via a Billboard interview … that he’d love to collaborate with her again: “Hey, Diana: Say yes to Lionel and let’s get this thing going!”

35. Celine Dion reigned in the ’90s with 10 AC No. 1s …

36. Josh Groban led the ’00s with five No. 1s …

37. and Taylor Swift topped the ’10s with six leaders.

38. Dion has spent the most cumulative weeks atop the AC chart: 87. Ed Sheeran has led for 65, followed by Maroon 5 (62) and Adele (59).

39. After Benton’s “Boll Weevil Song” inaugurated the chart, Tom Jones notched the first new AC No. 1 of the ’70s, “Without Love (There Is Nothing).”

40. Dionne Warwick’s “Deja Vu” (a song title that, of course, returns repeatedly) became the first new No. 1 of the ’80s …

41. Stewart’s “Downtown Train” became the first new leader of the ’90s …

42. Faith Hill’s “Breathe” ascended as the first new AC No. 1 of the ’00s …

43. Michael Bublé’s “Haven’t Met You Yet” became the first new No. 1 of the ’10s …

44. and Maroon 5’s “Memories” marked the first new No. 1 of the ’20s.

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45. “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,” Debbie Cerchione told Billboard in 2011 as she was promoting the song as Warner/Reprise vp of adult formats. While AC often plays hits once pop radio has warmed them up, “Playing artists like Bublé and Groban define an AC radio station and separate it from the rest.”

46. Grown-ups aren’t always serious. Light-hearted, fun-loving hits that have connected with adult audiences include Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp),” which he sent to No. 9 on the AC chart in 1964 …

47. Ernie’s “Rubber Duckie” (No. 36, 1970; with a hand, literally, from Jim Henson) …

48. and Ray Stevens’ “I Need Your Help Barry Manilow” (No. 11, 1979).

49. Two song titles have hit No. 1 on the AC chart three times each, encompassing six distinct compositions. “Cherish” has reigned for David Cassidy in 1972, Kool & The Gang in 1985 and Madonna in 1989 …

50. and “Home” has moved into the penthouse thanks to Bublé (2005) and two acts that broke through on family-, and, thus, AC-friendly, American Idol: Daughtry (2007) and Phillip Phillips (2013).

51. Same compositions that have hit No. 1 on AC via two versions each: “I’m Leaving It Up to You,” by Dale & Grace (1963) and Donny and Marie Osmond (1974) …

52. “Sukiyaki,” by Kyu Sakamoto (1963) and A Taste Of Honey (1981) …

53. “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” by Laura Branigan (1983) and Michael Bolton (1989-90) …

54. “This Christmas,” by Seal and Train (both in 2016) …

55. and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” by Groban (2016) and John Legend, featuring Esperanza Spalding (2018).

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56. Per the last two carols, Yuletide music, driven by sky-high ratings (watch out for Santa’s sleigh), has taken over the bulk of AC stations each holiday season for much of the last two decades. In December, Meghan Trainor and Seth MacFarlane’s “White Christmas” became the 25th holiday No. 1 on the AC chart, all since 2000.

57. By the mid-’90s, a more uptempo and guitar-driven side of adult music had caught on, sparking the sister Adult Pop Airplay chart that first appeared in Billboard’s pages in the March 16, 1996, issue. Santana’s “Smooth,” featuring Rob Thomas, is the tally’s top all-time song and Maroon 5 is the leading artist.

58. Billboard published a third pop-leaning adult chart in 1997-2005: Modern AC, as alternative music (then reflected on Alternative Airplay under the chart name Modern Rock) went more mainstream and the Lilith Fair era bloomed.

59. The other current adult-focused Billboard charts measuring formats that continue to thrive: Adult Alternative Airplay, Adult R&B Airplay and Smooth Jazz Airplay.

60. The AC chart’s reigning No. 1 could wind up especially historic: The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” dominates for a 33rd week, pushing closer to the 36-week record set by Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You.” And given that The Weeknd performed the song as the finale of his Super Bowl LV halftime show medley Feb. 7, with the game the most-watched primetime TV program of the season, the format continues to both win over adult audiences and remain ever contemporary.

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