Instrumental Pop Songs
For genre that are generally considered to be outside of the Pop music world some may exist for the most part without any singing, the obvious being some Classical music and another choice would be various types of Jazz. The song “Caravan” was first released in 1937 by Barney Bigard and His Jazzopators, it was composed by Juan Tizol and arranged by Duke Ellington. Recorded by over 750 artists it may be the most covered instrumental work of all time (excluding some Christmas songs). Jazz vocals are a regular part of many great instrumentalists, some perhaps are more well known for what they play rather than how they sing. Jazz Trumpet player Chet Baker comes to mind and banjo and fiddle fenom Rhiannon Giddens moves seamlessly from the instrumentals to vocals. The legendary Miles Davis, who was not a vocalist, sometimes moved out of his ‘instrumental’ world by providing backup music for singers from time to time. While we are the topic of Jazz, the genres biggest selling single of all time is still Dave Brubeck’s 1959 release of “Take Five” (composed in 5/4 time by Paul Desmond). Originally just a filler song to complete their million selling album Time Out it became a huge hit when re released 1961, they shortened it a bit to make it more suitable for Jukeboxes and Radio airplay, it sold a million copies that year and two million by 1967. Thinking it was what they referred to as a “throw away” song, Desmond had apparently joked after they completed the album that he’d be able to “buy an electric razor” with the royalties, I venture he added a nice home as well to store that razor.
I know I’ve talked about Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith in previous posts but there is more to the story. He wrote “Feudin’ Banjos” in 1954 and in 1955 recorded it with Don Reno. Smith played a four string and Reno a five string banjo. Not a big hit, and the song was first covered four years later by Earl Taylor and His Stoney Mountain Boys in 1959 and it was renamed “Dueling Banjos”. The song went somewhat unnoticed until it was recorded by The Dillards who appeared in an episode of the huge TV hit, the Andy Griffith Show in 1963.
The song could be given a third name, “Feudin’ Song Credits”. When it was used in the disturbing movie Deliverance in 1973, the soundtrack and record release only credited Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandel who were also the musicians on the track. Apparently, the mostly synthesised movie soundtrack with the exception of the re-recorded “Dueling Banjos’ used snippets from a previously made album, New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass by the same Eric Weissberg with a guy named Marshall Brickman back in 1963. So poor Marshall was lost in the shuffle as the all the rest of the music went uncredited in the movie. Interestingly Brickman had played in a band with John and Michelle Phillips before they formed The Mamas and The Papas. Even more interestingly he dropped the music business and went on to write movie screenplays, winning a Academy Award for co-writing Annie in 1977.
Ok, back to the song credits, legitimately Eric Weissberg had written a different arrangement and they used a guitar and banjo in the movie but still it was mostly Smith’s “Feudin’ Banjos”. So, Arthur Smith requested to be added to the song credits for “Dueling Banjos”. The record company who I guess hoped everyone had forgotten about the song oddly refused, and subsequently Smith won a lawsuit and got his co-writing credit as well as damages for copyright infringement. However he did not want his name on the credit line of what he called a “disgusting movie”. Steve Mandel and Eric Weissberg claimed innocence on the whole fiasco, but apparently it was the two of them that went to a lawyer to have their names credited to begin with.
Guitar Based Songs
Most know this song was composed and performed by Mason Williams. What you may not know is that he was a 22 year old Comedy writer working on the Smothers Brothers show. He is also an accomplished singer and had obtained a recording contract with Warner Brothers Records. He later got the help of soon to be legendary TV show theme composer Mike Post (Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I., Law and Order). After a demo and several months of plucking away the song was completed and ready to record. During his music career Williams combined his guitar playing and writing skills to compose over 250 songs, but Classical Gas was in a stratosphere of its own.
Released in February of 1968 it’s unique 12 parts was a departure from the traditional four part structure of most songs. Fueled by a classic art pictorial presentation on the Smothers Brothers show the song hit #1 on the Easy Listening chart and the Cash Box Top 100, #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and in Canada, #9 in the UK. At the 1969 Grammy Awards it would take home the award for; Best Contemporary – Pop Performance, Best Instrumental Composition, and Mike Post won for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
For such a popular song one might think by 2021 it would have been covered hundreds of times, and like Greensleeves (covered over 1400 times) likely every guitarist on the planet knows this song. Yet, unlike Greensleeves it only has about 60 documented cover versions, but hey Greensleeves has been around for over 400 years! One reason is that it’s much more than a guitar piece. As mentioned, it has 12 parts and includes orchestration and a complex arrangement. Often covered as a solo guitar song, following Williams own version from his 1970 album Handmade.
Dave Edmunds, who is no slouch on the guitar recorded a version of “Classical Gas” on his 2015 instrumental album Rags to Classics. In an interview with Carl Wiser Edmunds explains “it’s going from 5/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 – it’s all over the place” and it requires some considerable thumb picking ability as well. Edmunds had made his own mark on the guitar instrumental with his adaptation of music from the final act of Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane” first performed by the Kirov Ballet in 1942. Titled “Sabre Dance” the piece had been covered (mostly by orchestras) a couple dozen times before the 1968 release by his then band, Love Sculpture. Writing his own arrangement, none of these versions contained the blistering electric guitar solo’s that’s become an iconic part of the Edmunds brand.
As I mentioned it’s been several years since a memorable song without vocals has come along but many of these songs are still easily recognized and often appear in movies, T.V. commercials and are sampled by contemporary artists; “Walk Don’t Run” a cover of Johnny Smith by The Ventures was a #1 hit, “Green Onions” Booker T and the M.G.’s, the theme from “Hawaii Five O”, “Grazing in the Grass”, “A Summer Place”, theme from “The Good The Bad and The Ugly”, and adopted as the theme for The Benny Hill Show the Randy (Boots) Randolph song, “Yakety Sax” originally as you may guess not a guitar song but it was covered by legendary guitarist Chet Atkins and titled “Yakety Axe“. “Telstar” was about the Satellite, the Surfaris hit big with (the mostly instrumental) “Wipeout”, “A Taste of Honey”, “A Time for Us”, and more TV theme songs such as “Green Hornet”, “Batman”, “Peter Gunn” and “Rawhide”.
Then there’s “Tequila”, “Black Mountain Slide”, “Soul Sacrifice”, “Jessica”, “Eruption” and a childhood favorite of mine “The Happy Moog” from electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey. Also “The Happy Organ” which preceded the Happy Moog by ten years and features Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez on the organ, “Rise,” by Herb Alpert in 1979, “Chariots of Fire,” by Vangelis in 1982, and the Miami Vice Theme,” by Jan Hammer in 1985.
In 1955 Billboard Magazine’s #1 song of the year was a cover of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Perez “Prez” Prado and His Orchestra and the #4 song was a Roger Williams instrumental cover version of the Joseph Kosma composition “Autumn Leaves“. It had previously been recorded many times with original lyrics by Jacques Prévert, later translated from French to English by Johnny Mercer. Others of a similar vein; “Music Box Dancer“, “The Entertainer” and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” hit #1 in the US in 1961 and #2 in the UK.
How about the funky song, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”, “Pick Up the Pieces“, “A Fifth of Beethoven,” by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band. There’s more; “Bongo Rock”, “Bumble Boogie“, even some serious rock with Beck, “Beck’s Bolero” written by Jimmy Page (1967), Pink Floyd, “Interstellar Overdrive” (1967), “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer and “I Robot” from Alan Parsons, “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter or maybe some Rush with “YYZ“, inspired by the Morse Code version of the letter identifier for the Toronto Pearson Airport.
I have already mentioned a couple movie themes and while I was researching these (almost always instrumentals) it seems they have a way of sticking around in popular culture. While not many of them hit the pop charts they have become some of the most recognizable songs, having a staying power like few other compositions. In a way these more recent movie’s main theme songs are the new pop instrumentals. I ran across this one from Composer John Murphy “Adagio in D Minor“, that was so good apparently it got used in two movies, originally from Sunshine in 1997 it was used in Wonder Woman 1984. Also, a nod to the past, the great Ennio Morricone who’s responsible for the theme songs in all those Westerns like Fistful of Dollars, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Guy Ritchie films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If you don’t know Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey you recognize the music, the main theme was a tone poem titled “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) composed by Richard Strauss in 1896. Interestingly this piece was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel of the same name from 1885.
I won’t get into listing all the great movies scores but the the masterpiece(s) belongs to the body of work from John Williams. I think the theme from Jurassic Park may be his best work, it is such a beautiful and evocative composition. You will know he has composed many of the most iconic movie scores of all time. Williams has won numerous awards including 25 Grammys. Many will disagree with me and say that the original Star Wars (1977) theme is the best of all time and they may be right, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranks it as their number one, albeit a bit dated as the list was compiled in 2005. Most likely every orchestra and school band around the globe can play that piece. Apart from all of the Star Wars saga Williams is responsible (as mentioned) for Jurassic Park and other renowned movies such as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Home Alone, the first three Harry Potter films, Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List.
That’s it on instrumentals for now and remember, mum’s the word 😉