Looking back (somewhat nostaglically), the AM airwaves were once home to instrumental hits from surf-guitar to funk and rock as well as vocal pop tunes. In 1963 alone, there were 10 instrumentals that crashed the Top 10! Sadly, it seems these days instrumental hit tunes are rare if at all...
Below are a few instrumental hit selections replete with Billboard statistics and a bit of historical detail about each tune. Whenever available, a live version is chosen.
Late 1950s | Early 1960s | Mid to Late 1960s | The 1970s
Billboard: 2/19/1955 | #1 (10 wks.)
LIve at at Ballroom
Billboard: 8/6/1955 | #1 (4 wks.)
Live Piano and Orchestra
Roger Williams' version of Autumn Leaves went to #1 on October 29, 1955 on the Billboard Top 100 and stayed on top for four weeks. The song was written by Joseph Kosma a Hungarian-French composer.
The song is now considered a jazz standard. Sure this is a schmaltzy version but its a good representative of the time period and an interesting starting point to hear the evolution of musical styles as the years progressed.
Billboard: 2/10/1958 | #1 (5 wks.)
Live! Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show. May 03, 1958
Billboard: 12/28/1959 | #1 (9 wks.)
Live Orchestra in the studio
Theme from A Summer Place was a song written for the 1959 film A Summer Place. It was recorded for the film as an instrumental by Hugo Winterhalter as secondary love theme.
Following its initial film appearance, the theme has been recorded by many artists in both instrumental and vocal versions. The best-known cover version of the theme is an instrumental version by Percy Faith and his Orchestra that was a Number One hit for nine weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1960. Percy Faith won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1961 for his recording. This was the first movie theme and the first instrumental to win a Record of the Year Grammy.
Billboard: 7/4/1960 | #2 (1 wk.)
Live! Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show.
(Note - everyone’s chewing gum in the audience)
Billboard: 10/17/1960 | #15 (1 wk.)
Soon after their huge hit "Walk - Don't Run”, The Ventures had a second hit on the same year with this tune.
"Perfidia" is a song about love and betrayal written by Alberto Domínguez (1911–1975), a Mexican composer and arranger. Perfidia is the Spanish word for "perfidy", as in faithlessness, treachery or betrayal. The song was published in 1939 and became a hit for Xavier Cugat in 1940.
Billboard: 7/28/1962 | #3 (1 wk.)
Live in Europe 1967
Green Onions is twelve-bar blues with a prominent Hammond M3 organ played by Booker T. Jones. Booker wrote this song when he was just 17. The song was ranked No. 181 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time and is the only instrumental on the list.
Billboard: 9/15/1962 | #15 (2 wks.)
Desafinado, is a a bossa nova composed by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The version by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (from the album Jazz Samba) was a major hit in 1962, reaching number 15 and number 4 on Billboard′s pop and easy-listening charts.
It won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist or Small Group (Instrumental) "Desafinado," in 1962 and was nominated for Record of the Year.
Billboard: 2/16/1963 | #4 (2 wks.)
Live on the Lawrence Welk Show! 5/18/63
Billboard: 6/8/1963 | #2 (1 wk.) and again 7/16/1966 | #16 (1 wk.)
- See/Hear The Ventures doing "Wipe Out" live
Watch two Drummers compete (Guest / Max Weinberg)
Billboard: 12/24/1966 | #11 (2 wks.)
Joe Zawinul's tune played by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Slideshow.
Cannonball says a beautiful intro…
Mercy Mercy Mercy was written by Joe Zawinul for Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and recorded in 1966. It became a surprise mainstream hit reaching #11 on the Billboard charts by 1967.
The original recording was supposedly taped in the Club DeLisa in Chicago, but the band was just trying to give the owner of the DeLisa some free publicity because he was a friend. It was actually recorded in Capitol's Hollywood studio. The audience was invited and there was apparently an open bar.
Be sure to also check out The Buckinghams vocal version done in 1967. The Buckinghams were a band that heavily influenced Chicago (the great horn band).
Billboard: 2/3/1968 | #2 (1 wk.)
- The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly LIVE!
This is a pisser!
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the theme song to the 1966 spaghetti western film of the same name. The instrumental piece was composed by Ennio Morricone, with Bruno Nicolai conducting the orchestra. A cover version by Hugo Montenegro in 1968 was a pop hit in both the U.S. and the U.K.. The opening two note segment was played on an ocarina by Art Smith and Muzzy Marcellino did the famous whistling.
I opted to post the Ukulele Orchestra version cuz... well cuz its great!!
Billboard: 5/25/1968 | #1 (2 wks.)
Live at the Kuumbwa, March 24th, 2014
Grazing in the Grass was an instrumental composed by Philemon Hou and first recorded by the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Released in the United States as a single in 1968, it reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
A vocal remake by the Friends Of Distinction was huge hit in 1969.
Billboard: 6/8/1968 | #2 (2 wks.)
Williams’ day job was as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour!
Classical Gas was an instrumental musical piece composed and originally performed by Mason Williams with instrumental backing by members of the Wrecking Crew. Williams was the head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at the time of the piece's release and premiered the composition on the show.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, many television stations used the composition as their news theme. Further Info on Mason Williams' website: The Story of Classical Gas.
Awards and Honors
In 1969, the piece won three Grammy Awards: Best Instrumental Composition, Best Contemporary-Pop Performance, Instrumental, and Best Instrumental Arrangement.
In 1998, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) awarded Williams a special Citation of Achievement. The piece has logged over five million broadcast performances to become BMI's all-time number-one instrumental composition for radio air play.
Billboard: 11/16/1968 | #3 (1 wk.)
Who doesn’t remember this one!
Drummer Isaac "Redd" Holt and bassist Eldee Young, formerly members of Ramsey Lewis' jazz trio, formed a new outfit called the Young-Holt Trio with pianist Don Walker in 1966. In 1968, the group renamed itself Young-Holt Unlimited, and replaced Walker with Ken Chaney. Their tune Soulful Strut sold a million copies with the gold record awarded by the RIAA in January 1969, less than 3 months after the track's release.
Swing Out Sister Did a vocal remake “Am I the same girl?
Billboard: 2/22/1969 | #4 (1 wk.)
Live The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA Thursday April 05, 2012
Billboard: 4/8/1972 | #2 (1 wk.)
Serious funky clavinet!
Outa-Space was an instrumental recorded by Billy Preston on his 1971 A&M Records-debut album. Preston created the sound of "Outa-Space" by running the sound from a clavinet through a wah wah pedal and then improvising a groove while spontaneously calling out chord changes to the backing-band. He later added organ and hand claps to the track.
"Outa-Space" climbed all the way to the number two spot. The single was certified gold by the RIAA for sales of one million copies. "Outa-Space" also won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance of 1972. Billboard ranked it as the No. 22 song for 1972.
Outa Space Billy Preston: Keyboard Tutorial
Billboard: 6/24/1972 | #9 (1 wk.)
This was the epitome of an "ear worm"!
Popcorn was an early synth-pop instrumental, composed by Gershon Kingsley in 1969. In 1971 the song was re-recorded by Kingsley's band First Moog Quartet (see photo). Stan Free, a member of the First Moog Quartet, re-recorded the instrumental with his band Hot Butter in 1972 which subsequently became a huge international hit.
The record was one of a rash of Moog synthesizer-based releases that followed the 1968 Billboard pop Top 40 chart success of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach and the tune has since been covered by a great number of artists. Check out: Popcorn in 13 versions (chronological evolution).
Billboard: 1/20/1973 | #2 (1 wk.)
Live @ ARONA MUSIC FESTIVAL 2011
Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) was an instrumental by Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato. It is a heavily jazz-funk styled rendition of the introduction from the Richard Strauss composition Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Released as the album's first single in early 1973, Deodato’s rendition peaked at #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on March 31st,1973 and it went on to win the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Billboard: 2/17/1973 | #9 (2 wks.)
Live 1973 NBC´s Midnight Special
Thijs van Leer - Vox, Flute, Organ | Yikes - too much caffeine!!!!!!
Hocus Pocus is actually a "rondo" consisting of alternation between a heavy metal rock chord riff with short drum solos and then varied solo "verses" which include Thijs van Leer yodeling, organ playing, accordion, scat singing, flute riffs, and whistling. The single version was significantly edited from the album version.
This "over the top" energetic version features Thijs van Leerlive, taking the house down with his super talented music antics :-).
Billboard: 2/24/1973 | #1 (1 wk.)
Live in New York City
Note: ARP 2600 - Cwazy Edgar is over the top!
Frankenstein was an instrumental by The Edgar Winter Group from their album They Only Come Out at Night. The song topped the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for one week in May 1973.
The song's title, coined by the band's drummer Chuck Ruff, derives from the fact that the original recording of the song was much longer than the final version. The track required numerous edits to shorten it. The end result was pieced together from many sections of recording tape using a razor blade and splicing tape.
It was originally released as the B-side to "Hangin' Around", but the two were soon reversed by the label when disc jockeys nationwide in the United States, as well as in Canada, were inundated with phone calls and realized this was the hit.
Billboard: 2/22/1975 | #1 (1 wk.)
Good live version - LA Concert at House Of Blues
(but alas... only 1 saxophone!)
Billboard: 5/15/1976 | #1 (1 wk.)
Live - TV Midnight Special
A Fifth of Beethoven was a disco instrumental recorded by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band, adapted from the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The "Fifth" in the song's title is a pun, referencing a liquid measure approximately equal to one-fifth of a gallon, a popular size for bottles containing hard liquor, as well as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony from which the song was adapted.
Released as a single by Private Stock Records in 1976, the song debuted at number 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and climbed to number 1 within 19 weeks, remaining there for one week. The single sold two million copies, while the album sold about 750,000 copies. It is considered one of the most popular pieces of music from the disco era.
Billboard: 1/28/1978 | #4 (1 wk.)
Performed live in Cannes, 1989
Feels So Good is the title of a 1978 instrumental by the American flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione. It was both written and produced by Mangione and is the title track from his 1977 album. The album version of Feels So Good runs almost ten minutes, but an editted form reached No. 4 on the U.S. charts.
Mangione re-recorded the tune (as a slow ballad, and with lyrics sung by Don Potter) for his 1982 album 70 Miles Young. The version posted begins with Chuck Mangione playing a rubato version of the tune in a lower key. Rob Mathes provides the vocal.