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                           Muses on The Music

Were They Instrumental to the Music?

June 23, 2016

            Recently, the music of a commercial — don’t remember what they were selling, so maybe not the most effective advertising — caught my ear. Wasn’t that an instrumental hit back in the 1960s, I asked myself?

            It was, but it took me awhile, and several Google searches, to figure out what the name of the song was, and the movie it came from. We’ll get to that later, but I’ll give you a clue: it was about elephants.

            More importantly, it caused me to Muse about a time when The Music often didn’t have words. But were instrumentals instrumental to its development?

            There were a lot of them in the early- to mid-60s. From 1961 to ’63, an average of 12 of the year-end Billboard Hot 100 songs were instrumentals. In 1960, the year’s top song was Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place.’”

            The high point of the music-without-words thing was 1961, when 14 of the Hot 100 were instrumentals. That included six of the Top 40 songs, the highest-charting of those being “Wheels” by the String-Alongs, which was No. 8; Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta” wasn’t far behind, at No. 11.

            Those two numbers illustrate a theme in the ’60s instrumentals — most tended to be more middle-of-the-road, rather than pop, much less rock. And 1961 was more MOR than the previous year, which had six instrumentals in the Hot 100, but those included Duane Eddy’s twangy-guitar-infused “Because They’re Young” and the Ventures’ classic “Walk Don’t Run.”

            The decade’s second year, and its instrumental high point, were not totally in the middle of the road. The hits-without-words that year included Floyd Cramer’s take on the Western Swing classic “San Antonio Rose,” as well as his off-beat “On the Rebound” (which four decades later ended up in a soundtrack), and Dave Brubeck’s jazz classic “Take Five.”

            Eddy’s 1960 No. 37 underlined a theme of the ’60s instrumentals: movie “themes,” and soundtrack tunes. “Because They’re Young” was the title tune from a film starring Dick Clark; Faith’s No. 1 was a movie “theme,” as was Ferrante and Teicher’s No. 53 that year, and Henry Mancini had several hits from soundtracks during the decade. (Although one of his most popular singles, “Moon River,” had a chorus later in the song.)

            Mancini and the piano duo were among the artists who had repeat success with instrumentals during the ’60s. Ferrante and Teicher had a Top 40 with another movie number, “Exodus,” during the instrumental-intensive 1961; Al Hirt had two Top 100 numbers in 1964, Bert Kaempfert also doubled up. The prize, though, had to go to Booker T and the MGs, who charted with four songs later in the decade — appropriate for a group that had an immense influence on rock and soul.

            The first of those four hits from Booker T et al — mostly, the house band for Stax Records, and the musical muscle behind many ’60s hits — came in 1962, which was only slightly less instrumental than the preceding year. “Green Onions” was a classic, but the year’s offerings also included another prototypical rock instrumental, “Rinky Dink” by Dave “Baby” Cortez.

            That year’s music-without-words also was produced by people with interesting names — Bent Fabric, Mr. Acker Bilk — and included a burlesque number (“The Stripper” by David Rose), and a song (“Midnight in Moscow” by Kenny Ball) based on a musical piece formerly used as a time signal for a government radio station in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

            And there were a couple tips of the hat to the then-current Twist craze: one pretty sexy (sexaphonist King Curtis) and one kind of bizarre (“Percolator,” check it out). And another instrumental, “Telstar” by the U.K. band the Tornados, actually hit No. 1 for one week that year. (That was doubly cool for those of us who were into the space program, since the name of the song came from the first communications satellite.)

            The next year, 1963, instrumental popularity was on the decline. The best-selling song-without-words, “Fingertips II,” was by an artist, (then Little) Stevie Wonder, who later would make a career out of singing words and writing wonderful lyrics. There were a couple hits that caught the wave of surf music — the classics “Pipeline” and “Wipeout” (although the latter is perhaps not strictly an instrumental, since its starts with words — the title).

            Then came 1964, when the Hot 100 instrumentals consisted of the two hits by Hirt, “Out of Limits” (which I always thought was “Outer Limits,” as in the TV show), and some guy and his harp and his orchestra. Oh, and a reprise of “Walk Don’t Run.” Mancini’s Grammy-winning “The Pink Panther Theme” was in the Top 10 for a while that year.

            In 1965, the number of instrumentals in the Hot 100 fell to four. Ramsey Lewis had the highest-charting of those, “The ‘In’ Crowd,” a worthy outcome for an artist who had a lot of influence on popular music

            Music-only held its own in ’66, but with the help of a reissue of “Wipe Out” and a number (the T-Bones’ “No Matter What Shape”) that perhaps was better known as a commercial soundtrack. The highest-charting instrumental that year was by piano virtuoso Roger Williams, who had had a big pop hit a decade earlier, in what some consider to be the first year of rock and roll, 1955.

            Also in ’66, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass made their Hot 100 debut — barely, at No. 98 — with a number that had been part of a movie soundtrack the year before, “Zorba the Greek.” (Alpert, who had a lot of success with instrumentals, had his first No. 1 with a vocal number, 1968’s “This Guy’s in Love with You”; he never had a chart-topping instrumental until 1979.)

            The year of the Summer of Love, 1967, saw only two instrumentals make the Billboard chart, one of those being another Booker T number. The other ’67 music-only hit also needs an asterisk, and had a sad backstory.

            The Bar-Kays’ “Soulfinger” includes repeated shouts of the title, “performed” by random children who were hanging around near the studio and were compensated with Coca-Cola. The first single release by an ensemble that had been created earlier that year as the backing band for the legendary Otis Redding, it was recorded eight months before Redding and four members of the group were killed in a light plane crash in Madison, Wis. The surviving members reformed the band and went on to have several R&B hits in the ’70s.

            The instrumental thing picked up a bit in 1968, with five songs charting — one of them, Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue,” making No. 2. That year’s output included a couple classics: Hugh Masekela’s amazing “Grazing in the Grass,” and “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams.

            The following year, 1969, saw four instrumentals chart: another Henry Mancini soundtrack number, a TV show theme song (“Hawaii Five-O” by the Ventures) and two more Booker T songs. But during ’70 and ’71, there were no music-only hits in the Hot 100.

            That’s not surprising, considering that the ’70s was the era of the singer/songwriter, and the decade saw albums predominate over singles as the creative musical format. There were still occasional instrumentals — the Allman Brothers’ wonderful “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” for example — but the format didn’t fit the concept of the concept album.

            The commercial jingle that triggered this musing? Most of you know it — and know that if it gets in your brain, it will eat your mind. I knew it had something to do with elephants, and after several tries found the right search terms — Internet searches are wonderful for people with agglomerative, but slightly fading, memories — to track it down.

            It’s another Mancini number, called “Baby Elephant Walk,” and came from the 1962 action/adventure romantic drama “Hatari!” starring John Wayne. It earned Mancini a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement, but not a spot on the Hot 100; the song that infected your brain via AM radio, and charted as high as No. 48, was more Champagne Music from Lawrence Welk.

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