Atomic Age Cocktail Party

Essay: Music from the Golden Age of the Hi-Fi?


By Jason Croft

Music from the Golden Age of the Hi-Fi? I guess I should explain myself. You hear me say “music from the golden age of the hi-fi” a lot in the program. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ll indulge me a bit, part of it was marketing. I wanted to think of a good catch phrase for the program. It’s hard to fit everything this music is into one snappy little sentence. That’s why I came up with what I did. "Hi-fi," as most people have come to understand the term, really fits into that middle part of the 20th century. It’s more than a radio, not yet a stereo, and decades away from a Bluetooth speaker. When you picture it, you come up with an image of a turntable and amp and a couple of speakers on the side. It’s the bedrock setup for the record-listening experience. Personally, I love those console units that looked more like pieces of mid-century modern furniture with the slide top panels. But however you picture it, you get the idea.

     Now that the hi-fi part is out of the way, time for the more complicated “golden age” part. Of course, labeling any era is subjective. So, here’s where I land. I consider this era to be around the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, with the peak being 1959 to 1960. It was the time after the Big Band Era and before rock and roll changed the landscape of popular music. So, in all honesty, we’re only talking about a decade or so of this music. But what a time it was! The world was rocketing (literally and figuratively) into the future. There was an imagination and charm to what composers and arrangers were doing. Sure, they were still leaning heavily on the Great American songbook, but they were really making something new and fun with it. There was also this new technology called stereo that was changing how music was recorded and listened to. The musical future was bright and bold and, frankly, a lot of fun to listen to. Just drop a needle on any album from Juan Garcia Esquivel and you’ll know what I mean.

     Let’s talk about the other musical elephant (or elephants) in the room. Now, what I cover on the program is basically music we now call lounge or easy-listening, or even “space age bachelor pad music” (as coined in the 1990s). Add to that a smattering of exotica, Latin, Broadway, movie music, capital “J” jazz, and the like that I include. I like to cast a wide net, but of course there were many other genres during the era that were doing equally amazing stuff. This was a big time for blues, R&B, country, folk, doo-wop, and early rock and roll. But as much as I love all those different styles of music, for this show I’m programming the music and artists that were the most popular, biggest sellers, and most influential to the mainstream music listening public. Like I said, a lot of it is subjective. But you can’t deny the hurricane-like culture force that was Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack during this particular era. (That is until the Beatles tsunami hit.)

     Hopefully, this quick overview puts into perspective how I approach the show. (That not to say I won’t throw in a curve ball now and again. Got to keep things interesting.) So, when you hear me say, “celebrating music from the golden age of the hi-fi,” you’ll have a better understanding of what I’m talking about.