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Instrumentals: When no words were necessary, Pt. 2

Folk, British Invasion movements played a role in the fall of instrumentals

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

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.


The Morph Theory
What we’re suggesting here is that pure instrumentals morphed into something else that managed to keep instrumental work central to a record’s success even when there was a featured singer and the record’s title was found in the lyrics.

A little background: Back in the 1940s and early ’50s, the big-band era, band work sometimes surrounded and often overwhelmed the vocal performance. Listening to recorded big-band performances is often surprising to today’s audiences. On a nominally vocal record from that era, the singer might not show up until the final third of the record, almost as an afterthought following two minutes of the band. But into the 1950s, those long lead-ins disappeared, and the vocals became the selling point.

Much early rock ’n’ roll was not all that different. The records often featured prominent band work, such as guitar solos alternated with vocal choruses.

Listen to Dale Hawkins’ classic 1957 record of “Susie Q.” Hawkins’ eight-bar vocal lines occur in pairs and are alternated with James Burton’s thrilling guitar solos. It’s a great record, but what was its selling point? Dale’s vocal is fine, and the cowbell is a nice touch. But the vocals just set the stage for the instrumental segments. It’s teenage Mr. Burton’s playing that has fans coming back for more nearly six decades after this wonderful record hit the streets. There are plenty of listeners today who would argue that they came to hear Hawkins but stayed to listen to Burton. Burton went on to play for Bob Luman, Ricky Nelson, Elvis and others, but he has never sounded better than this.

The previous year (1956) saw another such case with Roy Orbison’s first record, “Ooby Dooby” (Sun 242). It’s easy to forget today in the wake of his 1960s operatic pop hits (e.g., “Only The Lonely”), what a fine guitarist Orbi was. “Ooby Dooby” features a healthy portion of Orbison’s stinging guitar playing alternating with the trite and almost meaningless lyrics. The guitar solos are featured so prominently on this record that they run for double length — a full 24 bars at a time. “Ooby Dooby” is actually a showcase for Roy’s flashy picking and his band’s tight rhythmic support. Technically, “Ooby Dooby” may be classified as a vocal recording, but there is little doubt today that the record was a guitar instrumental with periodic vocal interruptions. And one further point: Neither this song nor “Susie Q” has a release. Not many charted songs of the era consisted only of verses. It’s almost as though those hot instrumental breaks were integral parts of the song. They take on the function of a release.

These embedded instrumental segments weren’t confined to rock ’n’ roll. Go back a few years and listen to those exciting hit records by Les Paul & Mary Ford (“Bye Bye Blues;” “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise;” “How High The Moon”). True, Ford’s multi-tracked vocals were par for the early ’50s course and redolent of Patti Page. But Paul’s guitar breaks are what made those records memorable to many fans and inspired generations of guitar players. In all of these cases, one could make the argument that these were instrumentals with occasional vocal interludes to fill in the gaps between the real excitement.

Distinctive guitar licks sometimes served as the lead-ins to hit records. Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel” (No. 1 in 1956) was one. The Everly Brothers did it twice in 1957 on “Bye Bye Love” (No. 2) and “Wake Up Little Susie” (No. 1) and continued the practice the following year with “Bird Dog” (No. 1) and “Problems” (No. 2). Buddy Holly and the Crickets opened with a memorable guitar lick on “That’ll Be the Day” (No. 1 in 1957). The longest musical figure, and the longest-lived one, was Chuck Berry’s intro to “Roll Over Beethoven” in 1956, which he recycled for “Johnny B. Goode” in 1958 and which was reprised by the Beach Boys on “Fun, Fun, Fun” in 1964.

Another approach to making the instrumentalists important in vocal records was the use of repetitive background figures. Fats Domino did it often — think of “Ain’t It A Shame” in 1955 and “Blueberry Hill” (No. 2 in 1956). Take out those Yancey bass-inspired hooks and not much is left of either record. Background hooks showed up a lot in the 1950s. One particularly memorable one was Al Casey’s guitar figure behind Sanford Clark’s vocal on “The Fool” (1956).This record had enormous crossover success, yet remains iconic to rockabilly fans and guitar pickers alike. Why? Again, it’s not Clark’s echo-laden vocal, which certainly fit the bill. The answer is Al Casey’s spectacular guitar figure — modeled closely on Hubert Sumlin’s month-old guitar work behind Howlin’ Wolf’s vocal on “Smokestack Lightning.” Casey’s guitar becomes a second vocal line, every bit as important as Clark’s lyrics.

There were many cases of strong instrumental work in that era, including the catchy playing behind Marty Robbins’ “A White Sport Coat” (No. 2 in 1957) and post-Susie Q-James Burton’s more toned-down figure behind Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” (No. 1 in 1958). This is a different phenomenon from having fancy instrumental (mostly guitar) breaks between verses; here, the background figure runs throughout the record and is the unrelenting setting for the vocal. Half a century later, those hooks are every bit as memorable as the lyrics, if not more so.

Even in the era of Duane Eddy, “background” guitar work could become so central to a record that we can ask: Were those guitar figures part of the arrangement, or were they part of the song? It hard to imagine anyone else recording these songs without including the familiar guitar hooks. For example, when Creedence Clearwater Revival redid “Susie Q” in 1968, they retained James Burton’s guitar figure. That’s just how the song goes, after all.

In the mid-1960s, the British Invasion gave rise to an extremely popular way to construct a vocal record: Build in a recurrent instrumental figure that becomes as much a part of the record as does the vocal. The Beatles did it — “I Feel Fine” (No. 1 in 1964) and “Day Tripper” (No. 5 in 1965). The Rolling Stones did it a lot — “The Last Time” (No. 9 in 1965), “Satisfaction” (No. 1 in 1965, and a more aggressive variation on the same figure they’d used in “The Last Time”), and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (No. 3 in 1968). The Animals did it on “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” in 1965. The signature instrumental figure didn’t have to be played on a guitar. Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” (No. 5 in 1967) was most readily identified by the Bach-like organ figure composed and played by Matthew Fisher (for which he was legally awarded part of the writer’s credit for the song in 2009).

Sometimes the instrumental figure might appear only at the beginning and the end of the record but not in the middle, as with The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine” Man (No. 1 in 1965). Sometimes it might appear recurrently through the record as in The Doors’ “Light My Fire” (No. 1 in 1967), or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (the title track from the album that put Bruce on the covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report simultaneously but only made it to No. 23 on the singles charts in 1975). Another example is Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (No. 2 in 1978). But wherever they put that instrumental work, the result was that the singer shared center stage with what had previously been the backup band. This approach to making a pop record didn’t really take hold until the mid-’60s — just about the time that pure instrumentals went into their tailspin. We think those two events are connected. Much of the energy and musicianship that used to go into making pure instrumentals now went into making records with both a strong vocal performance and a strong instrumental hook.

Sometimes, remarkably, the recurrent guitar hook was also part of the song’s melody, so the vocalist could sing along with it. The Kinks’ first two Top 10 hits — “You Really Got Me” (1964) and “All Day and All of the Night” (1965) — both used that trick. The Rolling Stones adopted it in “Paint It Black” (No. 1 in 1966) and again in “Miss You” (No. 1 in 1978). And, with even less of a tune, Queen did it in “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980).

Another new phenomenon of the mid-’60s and after was the emergence of identifiable rock ’n’ roll guitar heroes. The great pickers of the ’50s were generally not famous (James Burton’s name was not well known until later). Often, the pickers on hit records were not the singers and not the same age as the young singers they backed up or the record’s audience. To this day, names of acclaimed studio sidemen, like George Barnes, Kenny Burrell, Joe Maphis, Howard Roberts, Grady Martin and Hank Garland, are all but invisible to music fans and record collectors. But just a decade later in the 1960s, George Harrison was the guitar-playing Beatle, and Brian Jones and Keith Richards were guitar-playing Rolling Stones. And everyone knew it. The year 1968 saw the emergence of Cream (the first “supergroup” that brought Eric Clapton to U.S. prominence) and Jimi Hendrix. Both of them were guitar heroes who also sang. That’s the reverse of the reputations of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly — singers who could play.

Sometimes, in fact, the musician side far outweighed the importance of the vocal. The tradition glimpsed on “Ooby Dooby” and “Susie Q” was carried on into the ’60s and ’70s, when there were records where the singing seemed like mere decoration and the instrumental parts were the point. Examples include Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” (1971) and The Allman Brothers Band’s “Ramblin’ Man” (1973).

We don’t extend this analysis into the 1980s and beyond because, frankly, we don’t know the more recent music well enough to do it. There is no shortage of such expertise among Goldmine’s readers and writers, and we welcome them to pick up the discussion where we left it off. In any case, we’ve laid out what we believe happened to pure instrumentals in the first 10 or 15 years of their decline. First, the audience was more interested in lyrics than it had been before. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the musicianship that previously had been compartmentalized in pure instrumentals was now integrated with vocals into a new and very successful record structure. Rock and roll grew up along with its players and its initial audience. So even though we, ourselves, are sad to see the old format disappear, we are glad to see what it evolved into.

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