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Instrumentals: When no words were necessary, Pt. 1

Explore the rise of the 1950s pop music mainstay: the instrumental.
PEREZ PRADO brought the mambo into the pop mainstream. Photo courtesy Bear Family Records

PEREZ PRADO brought the mambo into the pop mainstream. Photo courtesy Bear Family Records

By Scott Parker and Hank Davis

Back in the 1950s, Duane Eddy was a huge star. He had 15 Top 40 hits between 1958 and 1963, three in the Top 10 and three more in the Top 20. He never sang a word, nor did anyone else on his records. And there’s been nothing like his career since.

Instrumentals — records without vocals — were a staple of the Top 40 in the 1950s. In this feature, we’ll let the ’50s run to 1964, after which things changed and the number of instrumental hits declined sharply. But in their day, instrumentals were a big presence in pop music. Some of them were themes from popular movies, but most weren’t. We believe that watching what happened to them tells us a lot about what happened in pop music in that era.

To see how big instrumentals were and how far they’ve fallen, let’s look at the lists of the year’s Top 40 records as they appeared each year in Billboard. In the decade from 1955 to 1964 there were 33 instrumentals on those lists, with at least two in every year. There were five instrumental hits on the list in both 1956 and 1962, and four each in of 1957, 1958, and 1959. Think about that! Instrumentals were 10 percent or more of the year’s Top 40 in each of five years. And consider this little piece of history: The first single issued by Sun Records — the label that discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich and Howlin’ Wolf — was an instrumental. Quite an odd beginning for the label that launched the careers of such famous vocalists.

Now compare that hit rate to the next decade. From 1965 to 1974, only nine instrumentals made it into the yearly Top 40s, and six of those nine were themes from movies, a good source for hit records. From 1975 to 2004 — a 30-year period — there was a grand total of 10 instrumentals, and five of those 10 were from movies or TV shows. Instrumentals that were just records with no movie or TV tie-in abruptly dropped off the top of the charts after 1964. Let’s go back and think about the era when instrumentals were big business.

What kind of music were the instrumentals that got to the weekly Top 10 lists? From 1950 to 1955, before the rise of rock ’n ’roll, hit instrumentals tended to be orchestral. In 1952, the Cashbox Top 10 had Leroy Anderson’s “Blue Tango” for 20 weeks and Percy Faith’s “Delicado” (featuring Stan Freeman playing an amplified harpsichord) for 15 weeks. There were some very popular movie themes, like Anton Karas’ “Third Man Theme.” TV was becoming popular, and Ray Anthony’s recording of the theme from the TV cop show “Dragnet” made it in 1953. (Anthony returned to the Top 10 in 1959, this time with the theme from another TV show, “Peter Gunn,” which was about a private detective rather than the police). One of the biggest records of 1955 was pianist Roger Williams’ “Autumn Leaves.” Williams’ career was jump-started by his appearance on the TV show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” — the “American Idol” of its day. (The show also introduced Pat Boone and Patsy Cline, among others, to the general American public. Elvis auditioned for the show but was turned down).

Almost all of the instrumentals of that period were songs you might well hum or whistle along with. This is no surprise. The A&R directors of the major labels were often veterans of the swing and Big-Band era of the 1940s. Back in those days, the performer listed on a hit record was likely to be a band leader rather than a vocalist, even if there was singing. There were hits credited to Guy Lombardo, Gordon Jenkins and Sammy Kaye as late as 1950. Many of America’s most popular vocalists — including Don Cornell, Doris Day, Eddie Fisher, Kay Starr — were former big band singers. The Big-Band era was coming to an end in the late ’40s, but its style dwindled and evolved rather than just stopping.

And then came 1956: the dawn of the rock ’n’ roll era, the year when the AM airwaves were shared by music for grownups (what had dominated the charts through 1955) and music for the kids (what rock ’n’ roll was when it began). That year, there were five instrumentals in the year’s Top 40, and four of them were the sort of thing that had come before — big orchestral productions. Three of them had in common the mention of foreign places in their titles — Les Baxter’s “Poor People of Paris,” Nelson Riddle’s “Lisbon Antigua” and Eddie Heywood & Hugo Winterhalter’s “Canadian Sunset” (Canada seemed more foreign in the days before the interstate highway system). In addition, that year also saw “Moonglow” and “Theme from Picnic” by Morris Stoloff. Three of those were No. 1 hits, and “Canadian Sunset” made it to No. 2.

The new thing in ’56 was Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk Part 2” — the first Top 10 rock ’n ’roll instrumental. Doggett was the barely audible organist leader of the small combo; Clifford Scott’s honking sax solo with Billy Butler’s guitar figure behind it took the country by storm. The record went to No. 2 with Part 2 overshadowing the flip side, Part 1. It’s fair to say that the Billy Butler “Honky Tonk” figure (which opens Part 1) influenced a generation of guitar players, whether they knew Butler’s name or not. There’s also a pretty clear connection between the sound of Scott’s honking saxophone and King Curtis, who left an indelible stamp on a series of hit records by The Coasters between 1957 and 1959, including such titles as “Yakety Yak” (1958) and “Charlie Brown” (1959).

Combining a sax with a lower-register guitar figure turned out to be a very successful idea. It gave us Bill Justis’ 1957 record of “Raunchy” (No. 2), which had Sid Manker’s guitar figure selling the song and Justis’ alto sax carrying the nominal lead. Also successful with the guitar-sax combination were The Champs’ “Tequila” (No. 1 in 1958); Johnny & the Hurricanes’ “Red River Rock” (No. 5 in 1959); and the Rockin’ Rebels’ “Wild Weekend” (No. 8 in 1963). But most successful was Duane Eddy. Unlike the other sax and guitar combos, Eddy’s “twangy guitar” hits kept the saxophone as a secondary instrument; his guitar was the star of the show. The tremolo setting heard on Eddy’s amplifier became must-have equipment for emerging teen guitar players. Eddy’s 15 Top 40 hits ran from “Rebel Rouser” (No. 6 in 1958) through “Boss Guitar” (No. 28 in 1963) and included the movie theme “Because They’re Young” (No. 4 in 1960. Eddy appeared in the movie, but this record didn’t).

Pure guitar work was featured on Link Wray’s now-classic “Rumble,” which only made it to No. 16 in 1958 but is mentioned as an important influence by Jimmy Page, The Kinks, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and other artists. Wray took Eddy’s tremolo style and ran with it. Where Eddy had adorned only melody lines on the low E and A strings, Wray played entire chords through the tremolo setting. By the end of “Rumble,” the effect has become surreal. The entire guitar sound vibrates so strongly, there’s no way to tell where one chord stops and the next one begins. Power chords start here.

Among other successful guitar-up-front bands were The Ventures (No. 2 in 1960 with “Walk Don’t Run”) and The Virtues (No. 5 in 1959 with “Guitar Boogie Shuffle”).

Unlike most guitar-led instrumental groups, The Ventures and The Virtues were made up of “real” musicians, as opposed to three-chord high school bands having fun on weekends. Both had hits reworking songs from an earlier era by a guy named Smith. “Walk Don’t Run” was a 1954 composition by NBC studio guitarist Johnny Smith. “Guitar Boogie Shuffle” was adapted from Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s 1948 “Guitar Boogie” (Virtues’ lead guitarist Frank Virtue had served in the Navy with Arthur Smith). Both Smiths must have sat back in delighted shock as their songs shot to the top of the pop charts. The Surfaris went to No. 2 with “Wipeout in 1963.” Lonnie Mack’s brilliant record of Chuck Berry’s song, “Memphis,” went to No. 5 in 1964. Mack’s hit record is noteworthy, because it pushed a new generation of white kid guitarists in the unaccustomed direction of soul music. If anyone doubted Mack’s proclivity for soul, they needed look no further than the album spawned by his unexpected hit (Fraternity LP 1014).

There were several two-sided instrumentals (Part 1 on one side, Part 2 on the other). In addition to “Honky Tonk” there was “Topsy Part 2” (No. 3 in 1958) by jazz drummer Cozy Cole, and Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2” (No. 1 in 1963, and his first record; he does sing a little on it, though). Somehow, Part 2 was more likely to be the hit side. Nobody knows why. That also happened with Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say Part 2.” The vocal side went to No. 6 in 1959, getting far more attention from radio listeners than the instrumental Part 1. (The instrumental side, though, had a far more lasting influence on musicians. It was the first time that most people had ever heard a Wurlitzer electric piano; it soon became the signature sound of The Zombies.) Musicians and arrangers listened to Part 2 of Charles’ record closely. Echoes of the riff in the second “verse” showed up in The Drifters’ 1962 record of “When My Little Girl is Smiling,” Eydie Gorme’s 1963 hit “Blame It On The Bossa Nova,” The Searchers’ “Needles and Pins” in 1964, and The Turtles’ “Happy Together” in 1967, and many others.

Some established vocal stars made instrumentals. After “What’d I Say,” Ray Charles had a No. 9 instrumental hit with his no-lyrics recording of the old Clovers song, “One Mint Julep” in 1961. Although Chuck Berry never had hit singles with his instrumentals, two of them (“Deep Feeling” and “Blue Feeling”) came out as the B-sides of “School Days” and “Rock and Roll Music,” respectively, in 1957. And in case you missed it, “Low Feeling” was a slowed-down version (the tape was literally played at half-speed during mastering) of “Blue Feeling,” which appeared as filler on Berry’s early LP “One Dozen Berries” (Chess 1432.)

Arrangers and leaders of record companies’ orchestras could get their names front and center on record labels with hit instrumentals. We’ve already mentioned Hugo Winterhalter, who’d backed up lots of vocal hits at RCA, and Nelson Riddle, who, eventually became famous for his backing of Frank Sinatra recordings in the mid-’50s and for being Linda Ronstadt’s arranger of choice on her albums of standards in the 1980s). Billy Vaughn, the main man at Dot, went to No. 2 with “Melody of Love” in 1954/55 and to No. 5 with “Sail Along Silvery Moon” in 1958. But at least arrangers sometimes got their names printed somewhere on the labels of the vocal records they backed up. (For example, Ray Ellis’ name appeared on Clyde McPhatter records in the late ’50s.) Sidemen almost never got a label credit, although two exceptions stand out. Bob Moore, the bass-player on a huge number of vocal hits recorded in Nashville and a member of the legendary Nashville A-team, was the credited artist on “Mexico,” which reached No. 7 in 1961. Don Robertson, Nashville session player and inventor of the popular “slip-note” piano style made famous by Floyd Cramer, had an instrumental hit credited to him called “The Happy Whistler” (No. 6 in 1956).

LONNIE MACK inspired a new generation of guitarists, including the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

LONNIE MACK inspired a new generation of guitarists, including the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Many instrumentals were oddities. For example, suddenly drummers had hit records — the aforementioned Cozy Cole and Sandy Nelson (who had the No. 4 “Teen Beat” in 1959 and the No. 7 “Let There Be Drums” in 1961). The organ was featured on Dave “Baby” Cortez’ (previously a singer with The Pearls) “The Happy Organ” (No. 1 in 1959) and Booker T. & the M.G.s’ more memorable “Green Onions” (No. 3 in 1962.) Steel guitar was featured on Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” (No. 1 in 1959). Exotic sounds appeared on Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village” (No. 4 in 1959, written by Les Baxter), and a clarinet was out front on Chris Barber’s recording of the Sidney Bechet composition “Petite Fleur” (No. 5 in 1959). Country piano player Floyd Cramer introduced his (or Don Robertson’s) distinctive “slip note” playing (derived from pedal-steel guitar playing) behind Hank Locklin’s vocal on “Please Help Me I’m Falling” in mid-1960. It got popular, so Cramer soon cut some instrumentals using it. “Last Date” went to No. 2 in 1960, and two follow-ups went Top 10, as well. And there was the singular-sounding “Telstar” by the British group The Tornadoes, that hit No. 1 in 1962. It featured obviously synthesized sounds produced by an electronic clavioline, a descendant of the Musitron that appeared in the solo on Del Shannon’s 1959 vocal hit, “Runaway.” Successful bands whose names can confuse us now were the Mar-Keys (“Last Night” was No. 3 in 1961) and the Marketts (“Out of Limits” was No. 3 in 1964).

Latin-themed dances were popular instrumental subjects. We’ve already mentioned “Blue Tango.” Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” hit No. 1 in 1955. Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra reached No. 7 with “Tea for Two Cha Cha” in 1958. Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” (No. 6 in 1962) and Mongo Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” (No. 10 in 1963) and Los Indios Tabajaras’ “Maria Elena” were Hispanic-themed, though not dances. And the Stan Getz-Charlie Byrd record of “Desafinado” (which only made it to No. 15 in 1962, but was drawn from the No. 1 album “Jazz Samba”) started the bossa nova craze, as well as a wider interest in Brazilian music.

Even during the rock era, there were plenty of hits that were pre-1956-style music, aimed at an older audience. Jimmy Dorsey’s “So Rare (No. 2 in 1957) and brother Tommy Dorsey’s “Tea for Two Cha Cha” (No. 7 in 1958) were reworked songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Perez Prado returned to No. 1 with “Patricia” in 1958. Both Percy Faith’s record of the movie theme from “A Summer Place” and Bert Kaempfert’s “Wonderland by Night” were No. 1 in 1960. The next year saw “Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk go to No. 1. David Rose’s record, “The Stripper” and Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” were No. 1 in 1962. Dixieland scored big in The Village Stompers’ “Washington Square” (No. 2 in 1963).

Although we’ve described a lot of the variety of the instrumental hits of the 10 years from 1955 through 1964, we haven’t named all of the Top 10 instrumental hits of that era. And, of course there were many more on the charts that didn’t make it to the Top 10. Instrumentals were simply a staple of the record business; some were more successful than others, but they were never in short supply.

So now we come to the No. 1 question: Why did a genre that was not only successful, but also an established part of popular music, simply slip into oblivion over a relatively brief period of time? In the years 1950 to 1964, instrumentals were a constant presence in the Top 10. And then it all stopped.

In Part 2 of this Feature (just like in the old instrumental hits such as “Topsy” or “Honky Tonk”) we’ll tell you why we think it happened, and why we believe there was and is no turning back to the way it used to be.

Bear Family Records (the award-winning German reissue label) has released 6-CD + book boxed sets by Duane Eddy (BCD 16271) and Billy Vaughn (BCD 15970), as well as two CDs by Latin instrumental stylist Perez Prado (BCD 15462 and 15463).

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