My Top 13 Favorite Pop Instrumentals of the 1960s
The other day, I came across a 2015 blog post by Tom Nawrocki of his favorite pop instrumentals, which I also recommend reading. Still, it got me thinking about what would be mine, but then realizing this one music genre had a great affect on my tastes as a young person. To say it had a noticeable impact for the various music I’d glom on to in later years would be an understatement. And it’s been a distinct category of popular music for many a decade.
Normally, most popular songs are sung by someone lending their voice to the piece, even if there’s a instrumental interlude written in. But there is no interregnum here as the entire song is specifically arranged just for instruments. Hence the name.
Most of the time, instrumentals are conceived as an original piece of music without vocals, though sometimes they are renderings or remixes of a vocal song, or a theme from a popular movie. Opposite of an a cappella, a song meant just for voice alone. This music form can be traced back to the 1940s, but arguably its popularity began to take off in the mid/late Fifties with releases like Poor People of Paris, Tequila, and the Jazz classic, Take Five1.
The latter two began to pique my interest as a five-year-old, as heard from the radios or phonographs within earshot of the neighborhoods where my mother and grandmother lived. Each greeted the listener with the sounds of popular music. In fact, the two important women in my life back then always had a “hi-fi” and records in their domiciles, and moi always took notice what they had in the record cabinet or spinning on the Victrola2.
The expected and unexpected marched up and down the radio playlists back then, of which Take Five, released as a ’59 promotional single, surprised when it crossed over to the Pop charts.
It’s during the 1960s that the instrumentals really came into their own, as was reflected in the buying habits of young and old churning up at record stores. Gaining popularity right along with the extraordinary revolution of pop music the decade would be known for. The kid in me couldn’t imagine being without instrumentals or pop vocals in my listening habits. As is my penchant for such things, I began to compile a list, which ranged to some ridiculous length.
So naturally, I had to cut it down to my favorite number, segment it by decade, and oh, limit this to one per artist each3.
Honorable mentions: Well, there are always going to be tough decisions in a roll call like this, resulting in those left by the wayside. Have to draw the line somewhere. So, in no particular order, the merits of the following just couldn’t fit into the imaginative pot of the time. And yeah, I know I’ll get grief for the more than a few here.
- Peter Gunn Theme – Henry Mancini
- Java – Al Hirt
- Green Hornet Theme – Al Hirt
- A Taste of Honey – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
- Spanish Flea – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
- The Lonely Bull – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
- Casino Royale – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
- Music Box Dancer – Frank Mills
- Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet – Henry Mancini
- Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures
- Wipe Out – The Surfaris
- A Swingin’ Safari– Bert Kaempfert And His Orchestra
- Caste Your Fate to the Wind – Sound Orchestral
- Hang ‘Em High – Booker T & the M.G.s
- Green Onions – Booker T & the M.G.s
Released: December 1965
Songwriter: Granville Sascha Burland
Label: Liberty — 55836
No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In) – to start us off, it has to be this catchy little ditty. Based on a TV commercial, Alka-Seltzer of all things, that I couldn’t play enough of, which likely drove mi Abuelita nuts. American jazz saxophonist, bandleader and record producer, Dave Pell, went into the studio with the famed Wrecking Crew (aka The T-Bones) to quickly turn around a splendidly nifty little instrumental that’s still remembered fondly by us old-timers.
Songwriters: Monty Norman
Label: Capitol– 72064
James Bond Theme – admittedly, this single released only in the UK/Canada, but I played the theme song over and over from my uncle’s OO7 soundtrack LPs he’d gathered after I was “exposed” to the character in ’64. And yes, it’s forever associated with the first actor in that suave character role I saw first-run that day, Sean Connery. Conducted by John Barry, the intriguing melody, with a hint of danger in its notes, has held me steadfast every since.
Songwriter: Billy Page
Label: Argo — 5506
The “In” Crowd – with the aforementioned, Take Five, this jazz instrumental cemented my early appreciation of this thoroughly American music genre, which originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, at a young age. The “cool” factor, no doubt, was what drove it. The Ramsey Lewis Trio recording reached #5 on the Hot 100 on 9 October 1965, as well as peaking at #2 for three weeks on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart.
Released: January 1968
Songwriter: André Popp, Pierre Cour
Label: Philips — 40495
Love is Blue (L’amour est bleu) – The “easy listening” cover of a French song that would top the American Pop charts for five whole weeks. The only French song to do that till 2017. And Paul Mauriat, who only chose it because of his label, didn’t even much like it. Built around a beautiful melody primarily by a string section, and punched up with horns and the hot instrument of the time (Harpsichord), it was an ear charmer that earned its acclaim.
Released: June 1960
Songwriter: Johnny Smith
Label: Blue Horizon — 101-1
Walk Don’t Run – The first song cover on my list, and with jazz roots. Originally written and performed in 1957 by Johnny Smith4, but here given new urgency by The Ventures. Heralding the new soundtrack for the burgeoning sport of surfing. It’s a great tune that has an athletic vibrancy via the group’s energetic guitar, bass, and drum riffs. That’s the reason the track rose above the original, which is still wonderful, and made a name for itself.
Songwriter: Art Neville, Zigaboo Modeliste, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter, Jr.
Label: Julbilee — 45-100B
Cissy Strut – the absolutely funkiest instrumental on this list that continues to be played, remixed, and remembered well past The Sixties. My friends then and even now, when this is played, will just get a move on (even the ancient ones). The finger snappin’, toe-tappin’, head bobbin’, or any combination of, variety. It’s that kind of song. With linear drumming, killer bassline, and distinct guitar and organ riffs by The Meters, made it one for the ages.
Released: May 1968
Songwriter: Philemon Hou
Label: UNI — 55066
Grazing in the Grass – another jazz-based gem that unexpectedly exploded on to the pop charts5 care of the world’s and America’s introduction to the South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. The single’s horn and rhythm arrangement, to say nothing of the song’s distinct cowbell use — a full eight years before Don’t Fear the Reaper‘s — and it’s little wonder the instrumental was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2018.
Released: November 1968
Songwriter: Eugene Record, Sonny Sanders
Label: Brunswick — 55391
Soulful Strut – all on the list are unique melodies, except the five that are covers of other works. The second is this, and it’s an instrumental of a song sung by Barbara Acklin6, which was released months later7. Regardless of the controversy of who actually did it first, or who did the instrumental (not Young-Holt Unlimited), it’s still a glorious track and dynamic arrangement of horns, piano, and bass. Can transport me back in time even now.
Released: January 1963
Songwriter: Johnny Cowell
Label: Columbia — 4-42619
Our Winter Love – as mentioned awhile back: “”Our Winter Love” is a piano instrumental remake by Bill Pursell of a song written by Canadian songwriter Johnny Cowell. The song ultimately became one of the biggest selling recordings of 1963 and has carved out a small but meaningful niche for itself in the annals of pop history.” So, “Sit back, turn up the volume, and get caught up in the simplicity and emotional solitude of the song’s haunting melody.”.8
Songwriter: Mikis Theodorakis
Label: A&M Records — 787
Zorba the Greek – the second cover here is of an instrumental by Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. As mentioned prior: “…I daresay this remains an energetic and infectious tune, even now. If you listen to how the instrumental begins, the perceived Greek folk song tempo is there, followed by the pulse of intermixed mariachi horns.” Herb Alpert & TJB dominated the decade with its instrumentals, but this remains my all-time favorite among their hits.
Released: August 1968
Songwriter: Ennio Morricone
Label: RCA — 47-9423
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – the fourth cover on the list, but from a movie. My introduction to the third “Man With No Name” movie came way before I ever saw it in theaters, and it was via Pop AM radio. I’d later glom on to Ennio Morricone’s superb soundtrack theme, but this one, as interpreted by Hugo Montenegro9, set the hook initially and made the biggest impression of this distinct and superlative theme song.
Released: April 1968
Songwriter: Mason Williams
Label: Warner Bros. — 7190
Classical Gas– As covered here and here: “It’s a no-brainer I’d return to this instrumental, a song that rocketed up the charts. No less so because it was introduced to the world on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which my grandmother and I never missed.” “In essence, Classical Gas became the archetypical musical backing to the tempestuous leap year of 1968 by virtue of its newfangled instrumentality, perhaps offering a befitting preview for the tumultuous “Seventies” that followed.
Released: November 1959
Songwriter: Max Steiner (later lyrics by Mac Discant)
Label: Columbia Records — 4-41490
Theme from A Summer Place – No surprise, previously mentioned here and here. All of this had to have a beginning, and it was one song (the last cover, and again from a movie) in particular that started it all. I was in the middle of five going on six when Percy Faith and his orchestra sealed the deal with his insanely popular instrumental. The tune reverberated at home and in the neighborhoods I scampered. From AM radio sets at home and in cars, and/or 45 rpm record players throughout the early part of 1960. And it’s been stuck in my head ever since.
Next up: the ’70s — and the entire series can be found here.
- “…in May 1961, that year reaching No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 (October 9),[l] No. 5 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart (October 23) and No. 6 on the UK Record Retailer chart (November 16). In 1962, it peaked at No. 8 both in the New Zealand Lever Hit Parade (January 11) and the Dutch Single Top 100 (February 17). The single is a different recording from the LP version and omits most of the drum solo. It became the first jazz single to surpass a million in sales, reaching two million by the time Brubeck disbanded his ‘classic’ quartet in December 1967.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- Originally, a phonograph from the Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, NJ, but it eventually became more of a generic term for any brand of phonograph. ↩
- If I didn’t, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass would have been overly represented by the sheer volume of instrumental hits they tossed up the Pop charts this decade; but that’s a compliment to them. ↩
- Covered also by another great, Chet Atkins, and given a Country & Western spin in 1957. ↩
- Peaking at #3 on Billboard’s HOT 100 and the #5 single on their Soul/R&B side. ↩
- Although Barbara Acklin recorded the song first, producer Carl Davis removed her voice from the track, replaced it with a piano solo by Floyd Morris, and released the resultant track in November 1968 as “Soulful Strut” credited to Young-Holt Unlimited; it became a #3 hit in the United States and went to #1 in Canada. It became a gold record. Neither Eldee Young nor Red Holt is believed to have played on the track, which was the work of session musicians identified only as the Brunswick Studio Band. ~ Wikipedia ↩
- Dusty Springfield would cover the song later in 1969, and Swing Out Sister would remake it in 1992. ↩
- I was overjoyed when Bill Pursell commented on this post back in September 2016. And just as sad when I learned of his passing from COVID-19 this year . May he rest in peace. ↩
- Hugo would release another instrumental theme cover from a Clint Eastwood film, Hang ‘Em High, which did not do nearly as good; besides, Booker T & the M.G.s did it better, anyway (see Honorable Mentions). ↩
7 Responses to “My Top 13 Favorite Pop Instrumentals of the 1960s”
So enjoyed listening to all these. All great, some I haven’t heard in many years!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Yeah, this was a lot of fun going down memory lane for what was heard back then. Thanks for the read and comment, Rick. Much appreciated. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
[…] is the continuance of the series I began a couple of weeks ago, following an idea sparked by the Tom Nawrocki post of his favorite […]
[…] is the continuance of the series began a few weeks back following an idea sparked by the Tom Nawrocki post of his favorite pop […]
A really fun playlist.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you very kindly, Bruce. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
[…] is the final installment of a series that began in September, which was sparked by the Tom Nawrocki post of his favorite pop […]