Instrumentals: When no words were necessary, Pt. 2

By Hank Davis & Scott Parker

In Part 1 (Goldmine Issue 793, Cover date Dec. 17, 2010), we talked about how instrumental records were a regular and successful part of the popular music scene in the 1940s, ’50s and into the early ’60s. We noted that sometime around the mid-1960s, around the time of the British Invasion, the number and success of instrumental records dwindled to barely a trickle. This represented a major change in the face of popular music and left unanswered the obvious question: Why?

GUITARIST JAMES BURTON (right) and bassist James Kirkland (left) collaborated with Ricky Nelson (center) as part of Nelson’s backing group on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” Photo courtesy Bear Family records

How did such a stable genre in pop music disappear almost overnight? Remember, instrumentals were a regular feature of both “adult” music as well as kid/rock ’n’ roll music. Look at the record charts in the late ’50s/early ’60s and compare it to what happened next. It wasn’t just Les Baxter, Nelson Riddle and Roger Williams who disappeared. They took with them Duane Eddy, Link Wray and Bill Doggett. Whether instrumentals were still being recorded and released as often as they had been, the fact remains that fewer people were buying them. A lot fewer. Again the obvious question: Why?

Here are several possibilities we’d like to suggest. We’ll name the first one after an old Gene Vincent record.

Important Words
Beginning in the late 1950s and even more in the 1960s, lyrics in popular music became far more important than they were only a few years earlier. Nobody would confuse 1950s pop music with Cole Porter or Irving Berlin. Much of it was of the “I love you so/I’ll never let you go” variety. Rhymes were often cheap, functional and unimaginative. The songs weren’t meant to be analyzed or contemplated. They were typically meant to be disposable teen fare — backseat anthems or dance music. They were often written by teens or by adults pandering to teens. Neither comes with particularly high expectations for literacy or verbal cleverness. A twangy guitar or a honking sax was often a welcome reprieve from such superficial lyrics.

Of course, there were exceptions, even in the late ’50s — the heyday of instrumentals. Chuck Berry’s big hits such as “Maybellene” and “School Days” were, in fact, clever (as were his less-successful compositions like “No Money Down” and “You Can’t Catch Me”). Cleverness in the 1950s reached an apex in the hits that Leiber & Stoller wrote for the Coasters such as “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak” and “Along Came Jones.” Even more lyric-oriented were the story songs that became popular in the late ’50s, such as Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” (both No. 1 in 1959), continuing into the early ’60s with Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” (#1 in 1961). Clever lyrics were also the hallmark of singer-songwriter Roger Miller, who had five Top 10 hits in 1964-65, beginning with “Dang Me” and including “King of the Road.” Miller parlayed his Grammy-winning success into a popular 1966 TV show.

Another and more lasting genre in which the lyrics were all-important was folk music. There had been a flurry of folk hits in the early 1950s in the records of The Weavers who took “Goodnight Irene” and “So Long (It’s Been Good To Know Yuh)” to the top of the charts. The style returned in the late 1950s, beginning with the Kingston Trio, whose first hit, “Tom Dooley,” went to No. 1 in 1958 and was followed by lesser hits for several years after. The Brothers Four’s “Greenfields” was No. 2 in 1960, and 1961 saw both the Highwaymen’s “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and The Tokens’ (Neil Sedaka’s former singing partners) reworking of The Weavers’ “Wimoweh” at No. 1.

Something happened to elevate folk music to greater prominence in the early ’60s. It was the emergence of the singer-songwriter. The kids who’d spent their adolescence dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” were now college age or beyond. They were the rock and roll generation, and although they still loved that music, they no longer listened with the ears of a 12-year-old. Some of them became songwriters and wrote in the style they’d grown up with. Peter, Paul and Mary had a few hits singing “folkie” material in 1962, but went to the Top 10 twice in 1963 by introducing Bob Dylan’s songs (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”) to a larger audience. (Two years later, they’d do Gordon Lightfoot’s “For Lovin’ Me”). Dylan and Joan Baez and their ilk were popular among college kids, and their albums were successful even if they themselves didn’t have singles in the Top 40. Current events contributed to the interest in lyrics. First and foremost was the civil rights movement, followed by the drug culture and war in Vietnam.

Close behind the folk boom was the British Invasion. After a brief period of the Beatles singing “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” there were more records where the lyrics mattered, except now the music and musicianship had started to matter, as well. By 1965, Bob Dylan had records of his own on the charts, rising to No. 2 with “Like A Rolling Stone.” The Byrds took Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” to No. 1 (soon followed by a reworking of Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn”), and Barry McGuire brought political content to the fore (and to No. 1) with “Eve of Destruction.” It wasn’t 1958 anymore, and the new rules were clear: When these folks sing, you’d damn well better listen. They had something to say, and it wasn’t “Hold my hand / Understand.” A new era was upon us.

Like Elvis-based high school bands of a decade earlier, guitar-playing folkies were everywhere. Their sensitive poetry was initially set to three-chord acoustic guitar playing but merged with rock and roll fairly quickly. What people expected from pop records changed. Give us more lyrics. More message. An entire 3-minute record of lyric-less playing fell out of favor. Hello, Donovan; goodbye, Duane.

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