Lyrics Not Required: 10 of the Grooviest Instrumental Grooves of the 1960s

Saturday, January 24, 2015

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? 


  1. Hi, Pam! You're speaking my language and didn't even use words.

    First I want to say hello to your reader "JZ" in Baltimore and ask if his initials are in any way related to Westinghouse station WJZ-TV or to Jersey (New Jer(Z)sey). Regardless, I was thrilled to read his comment here.

    Over the years I have featured a few of these great instrumentals on my own blog. I also made a list of the most popular instrumentals at my juke joint hangout the Shady Dell during the mid 60s:

    “Philly Dog” – Mar-Keys (March 1966)

    “Agent Double-O-Soul" B side instrumental – Edwin Starr
    (August 1965)

    “Soul Finger” – Bar-Kays (June 1967)

    “Knucklehead” – Bar-Kays (June 1967)

    “Hip-Hug-Her” – Booker T & the MG’s (April 1967)

    “You’ve Got to Pay the Price” - Al Kent (August 1967)

    "20-75" - Willie Mitchell (September 1964)

    “Hungry for Love” - San Remo Golden Strings
    (September 1965)

    I confess that I never heard of Barry Richards or his music TV show. It's interesting that he called himself "the boss with the hot sauce" because those exact words were used by Philadelphia DJ Jerry Blavat. The Richards show apparently also made use of Blavat's instrumental theme "Jam Up" by Tommy Ridgley and his band:

    Thank you, Pam, for bringing us this terrific post about pop instrumentals, recordings that ran high up the chart in the 50s and 60s but became a vanishing breed after the Beatles arrived.

  2. Hi JZ and Shady -- thanks so much for your comments! There were SO many great instrumentals from the 1950s through the '70s and I even remember a few charting in the '90s. I love just about anything from Booker T & the MGs and of course, the Shadows made it big in the UK after the Ventures took off here in the States.

    The '60s also gave rise to many terrific movie and TV themes that are still recognizable today, such as Peter Gunn, Hawaii 5-0 and of course, James Bond!

    Shady, I must confess I am unfamiliar with some of the songs you listed, so I will make a point this week to check them out. Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. Thanks for your replies, Pam and JZ. I once applied for a job at WJZ and just thought I'd ask if there was a connection. I grew up in York, PA, and had the benefit of being able to pull in the signals of television stations in both Baltimore and Philly. I watched the music/dance shows of the 50s and 60s that originated from those cities including Bandstand, Jerry Blavat's Discophonic Scene, The Hy Lit Show and Buddy Deane. I got only a faint signal from one D.C. station, WTTG-5 DuMont/Metromedia, but rarely watched the grainy picture. That probably explains why I didn't know about Barry Richards until now.

    JZ mentioned Duane Eddy. I loved his instrumental "Because They're Young" which was used in the 1960 movie that starred Dick Clark, and let's not forget "Rumble," the tough sounding record by Link Wray.

  4. Another couple I've always loved:

    "Rinky Dink," by Baby Cortez; 1962. Always a favorite at the skating rinks.

    "Telstar," by the Tornados; 1962. "Telestar" made use of contrived sound effects from very ordinary objects (even a toilet!) to arrive at it's VERY Space Age sound.

    I love, "Flying" by the Fabs as well, though there ARE some non-lyrical vocals mixed in. I believe they were ran through a Leslie like so much of their work in this era, so they almost have an instrumental character. A bit of trivia about it: it was the first Beatles track that was written by all 4 members.

  5. Hey, Pam! We are soul mates. I walk around humming "Flying" all the time.

  6. In addition and no specific order...
    Billy Vaughn - Swingin Safari
    Burt Bacharach - Look Of Love
    The Chantays - Pipeline
    Dave Brubeck - Take Five (ok late 50s)
    Markettes - Out of Limits, Sun Power
    Ramsey Lewis - The In Crowd
    Charlie Byrd - Desifinado
    T-Bones - No Matter What Shape
    Lalo Shifrin - Mission Impossible
    Paul Mauriat - Love Is Blue
    Henry Mancini - Baby Elephant Walk

    Is Google promoting their upcoming music store/programming?


  7. More great instrumentals, Pam:

    "Shangri-La" - Robert Maxwell & His Orchestra

    "Forever" - Pete Drake and his Talking Steel Guitar

    "Batman Theme" - Neal Hefti

    "Wild Weekend" - The Rebels


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