When was the last time an instrumental song became a hit? It seems like no one is writing or playing them these days, and that's a shame. I have a soft spot for instrumentals and perhaps no other decade spawned as many, and with such musical variety, as the 1960s. These ten are my personal favorites. Although certainly not the only instrumentals from the decade, some of them proved that often a song can be a greater hit when the vocals are sweetly absent.
1) "Walk Don't Run," The Ventures (1960)
It was tough to choose between "Wipeout" and "Walk Don't Run" for this list. Both have equal musical merit and contributed to the surf rock legacy but ultimately, "Walk Don't Run" has the edge because it's more difficult to play on the guitar vs. "Wipeout", which is an actually easy riff after you've been playing for a while. Jazz guitarist Johnny Smith composed the song in 1954 with chords based on "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." For the Ventures, it was their first single and the song that catapulted them into notoriety in 1960. 2) "Green Onions," Booker T & the MGs (1962)
It's a no-brainer that any list of great instrumentals is going to include Booker T & the MGs' classic, "Green Onions." As I noted on REBEAT, the song isn't even my favorite by this group (that would be "Time Is Tight") but I don't think there's any other rock instrumental that is more quintessential 1960s with its hypnotic Hammond organ and bass riffs. And as a cat aficionado, I love the bit of trivia revealed by the group's guitarist Steve Cropper that the song and title were inspired by the funky feline strut of a cool cat named Green Onions. It's impossible for me to ignore my inner go-go girl when this song gets going. Let's face it--they don't make 'em like this anymore. 3) "Miserlou," Dick Dale & The Del-Tones (1962)
We can thank Quentin Tarantino for a lot of things...for example, Christoph Waltz, Christoph Waltz, and Christoph Waltz. Oh, and for reintroducing "Miserlou" to the public's ears via the soundtrack of 1994's Pulp Fiction. But ultimately, we must thank Dick Dale & The Del Tones for taking a 1920s' song with Greek/Middle Eastern roots and making it an anthem of the 1960s' American surfing scene. The above clip is from the 1963 film A Swinging Affair--and doesn't the blonde look like she's having fun? 4) "A Taste of Honey," Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (1965) I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit that I absolutely love Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass...why should I be? Yes, their music was considered a little cheesy and often used on The Dating Game, but they were an enormously successful group, as evident by their six Grammys, fifteen gold records and fourteen platinum disks. Four of those Grammys can be attributed to "A Taste of Honey" which appeared on an album with infamously risqué cover art, Whipped Cream & Other Delights. With its lyrics, the song has seen coverage by everyone from the Beatles to Chet Baker, but not too many groups attempt an instrumental version. There's a reason for that; it would be pretty hard to beat the Brass. 5) "Music to Watch Girls By," The Bob Crewe Generation (1967)
Whenever I hear this song I automatically think of Don Draper and Roger Sterling of Mad Men. Even though the song has never been used on the series (to the best of my memory) it would have been perfect to include on the soundtrack. Bob Crewe first heard the song as a jingle being demoed for a Diet Pepsi commercial, decided to cover it, and it became a hit. Andy Williams recorded the vocal version, which landed at number 34 on the U.S. music charts. Leonard Nimoy also recorded a cover of the song, aptly named "Music to Watch Space Girls By." 6) "Flying," The Beatles (1967)
The Beatles didn't record too many instrumentals which is one of the reasons why "Flying" has always stood out to me as an underrated song by the Fab Four. It wasn't released as a single, it didn't chart, and to this day it's a Beatles song that I'm pretty sure I've never heard on the radio, but that doesn't mean it can't have a place among a top instrumental list. Appearing on the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack it's a great chill-out tune and judging from the psychedelic period of the Beatles' career it was composed in, I don't think the title necessarily refers to flying in an airplane. 7) "The Horse," Cliff Nobles (1968)
I love that there was an official dance for "The Horse" as demonstrated in this video clip from a locally produced music show called Groove In (I also love that the host refers to himself as "the boss with the hot sauce.") "The Horse" is actually an instrumental version of Nobles' "Love is All Right." Both were released on the same single in 1968, but it was "The Horse" on the B-side that shot up the charts just shy of the number one spot which was being dominated by Herb Alpert's "This Guy's In Love With You." No offense to Nobles, but the song works better as an instrumental--the vocals get overpowered by the rhythmic horns, and without them, the appropriately named instrumental definitely calls to mind a jaunty cantering horse. For those that love to compare, here's the vocal version:
8) "Soulful Strut," Young-Holt Unlimited (1968)
My ears were actually first introduced to the "Soulful Strut" melody in the 1980s--thanks to Swing Out Sister's hit, "Am I the Same Girl." Then I heard the Young-Holt Unlimited instrumental on an oldies radio station and loved it equally as much. Little did I know that Swing Out Sister's version was a cover of Barbara Acklin's 1968 recording, written by Eugene Record (Acklin's husband) and Sonny Sanders. For reasons unknown, music producer Carl Davis had her vocals scrapped, added a piano played by Floyd Morris and credited the result to Young-Holt Unlimited. Stranger still is that the actual recording is by studio musicians; neither Eldee Young nor Red Holt contributed to the track. Nonetheless, it became a hit, reaching number three on the U.S. music chats, while Acklin's version--released in 1969--reached number 33 on the R&B chart. Dusty Springfield recorded a cover of the song, and there's even a '70s disco version that became a hit in Peru. This is a song for a sunny spring or summer day--or a snowy one in winter (like the one I'm experiencing as I write this) when you're longing for a warmer season. Also, there's not a thing wrong with Acklin's version:
9) "Classical Gas," Mason Williams (1968)
A common misconception is that Eric Clapton composed "Classical Gas." He's actually never even recorded it, but I have no doubt that he could play it with complete ease. That's because this song is considered one of the holy grail compositions for acoustic guitar players to learn; a true masterpiece even without the symphony backing it up. It was a one-hit wonder for Mason Williams, who was the head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and would often perform it on the show. A music video requested by Williams that set the song against the evolution of 3,000 years of art helped push it onto the music charts where it reached number two. 10) "Grazing in the Grass," Hugh Masekela (1968)
There must have been something about the year 1968 that made it turn out so many great instrumentals. "Grazing in the Grass" was composed by Philemon Hou and recorded by South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. It hit number one on the U.S. music charts and charted again in 1969 with the Friends of Distinction, who recorded a vocal version. Grazing in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it? Needless to say, I can and I do. There were so many awesome and notable instrumentals recorded during the 1960s--which ones are your favorite?
Hi, I'm Pam - thanks for visiting Go Retro! If you've ever been called an old soul like I have, or you were lucky enough to actually live during the mid-20th century in America, then you're in the right place!
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