My Top 13 Favorite Pop Instrumentals of the 1970s
This 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 pop instrumentals. Got me thinking about what would be mine, and realizing this genre in particular had a great affect on my musical tastes as a young person and on for many a decade, thereafter. These entire songs specifically arranged just for instruments, hence the name.
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 Five. The expected and unexpected marched up and down the radio playlists the next few decades on the Pop charts. Coming into its own during the 1960s onward and reflected in the buying habits of young and old churning up at record stores.
The Seventies followed this pattern, but contrary to the revolutionary ’60s, this turbulent decade had a different affect on listeners. The music we turned to became an escape for some of The Sixties wrought (the Vietnam War for one), but more to the turmoil this volatile time caused — the economic recession, Oil crises (note the plural), the rise of terrorism, among other things. The result was a rise creativity by artists in the realm of cinema and music.
So, as is my penchant for such things, I began to compile a list of the instrumentals, which ranged to some ridiculous length. So naturally, I had to cut it down to my favorite number, listed them by decade, and oh, limited this to one per artist each.
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.
- Angela (Taxi Theme) – Bob James
- Nadia’s Theme (The Young & The Restless) – Barry Devorzon & Perry Botkin Jr.
- Star Wars Cantina Song – Meco
- A Fifth of Beethoven – Walter Murphy
- Pick Up The Pieces – The Average White Band
- Manhattan Spiritual – Mike Post
- Space Race – Billy Preston
- Hocus Pocus – Focus
- Express – B.T. Express
- Frankenstein – Edgar Winter Group
- Joy – Apollo 100
- Breezin’ – Gabor Szabo & Bobby Womack
- Scorpio – Denis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band
- Theme from S.W.A.T. – Rhythm Heritage
- Summer Place ’76 – Percy Faith
Songwriter: Giorgio Moroder
Label: Casablanca Records — NB 943
(The) Chase – this electronic instrumental also signified a few trends of the ’70s with this genre. Italian composer Giorgio Moroder had adapted1 this from his award winning score for Midnight Express (1978). And it’s “disco”, one of biggest music styles of the ’70s, but it also employed the hottest instrument of the decade — the synthesizer2. It’s now considered the pioneering intro to the hi-NRG genre, which eventually gained prominence in the early ’80s.
Released: February 1974
Songwriters: Gamble and Huff
Label: Philadelphia International Records — ZS8 3756
TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) – a beloved instrumental of the era that’s also associated with one of the key American musical television programs of a generation: Soul Train. Written specifically for the show, which featured African-American musical artists, by the famed songwriting duo of Gamble and Huff3, it powered many a TV viewing and dance party for the rest of the decade. And instantly recognized by those of a certain age.
Released: December 1971
Songwriter: Billy Preston, Joe Greene
Label: A&M Records
Outa Space – in the same vein as the previous was to dance music of a generation, this another infectious instrumental that got everyone on to the dance floor. Whether at a club like Maverick’s Flat (where anybody could be somebody in L.A.), to some house party down the block, Billy Preston’s song grooved like few others. Even The Lads appreciated his talent on piano, organ, clavinet, the now ever-present synth, and his judgement4.
Released: December 1973
Songwriter: Dickey Betts
Label: Capricorn — CPR 0036
Jessica – can’t say I’m a big country rock fan, but this one by the Allman Brothers claimed me unexpectedly5. No doubt, it was guitarist Dickey Betts’ inspiration and tribute to Gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who’d I’d later sample. Either way, the melody and riffs, via guitar and later on piano, were just plain galvanizing to this listener.
Released: December 1972
Songwriter: Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, Don Reno
Label: Warner Bros. Records – WB 7659
Dueling Banjos – this care of one of the most thrilling and traumatizing movies of the decade, Deliverance (1972). The film released in August, but someone thought its lone musical segment would make a good pop single, and it did, strangely. From my Duo Post review, “Spotting the same child they played “Dueling Banjos” with earlier, as their canoes glide under the bridge. One of the most foreboding sequences I’ve seen, and yet a crafty distillation of its source novel.”
Released: January 1973
Songwriter: Richard Strauss
Label: CTI — OJ-12
Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) – after 1968, with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, everybody and their mother recognized this Richard Strauss classical composition that became the film’s theme. So, when the Brazilian music artist, Eumir Deodato, gave it a distinct Jazz Funk cover rendition, it heralded what the ’70s could achieve with the genre. Would go on to win the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental and mark my discovery of Jazz Fusion.
Released: February 1983
Songwriter: Jay Beckenstein
Label: Infinity Records — INF 50 011
Morning Dance – if the previous was one that introduced Jazz Infusion to my listening psyche, then this by the Spyro Gyra band began my slide into what it would morph into — Smooth Jazz. The crossover of Jazz Fusion with Easy Listening that’d take off this decade and on through to the ’90s. Purist would grow to despise it, but my palette was more accepting. Still seems fresh to me with its rhythmic riffs and Jamaican influence.
Songwriter: Mike Post, Pete Carpenter
Label: MGM Records — M 14772
The Rockford Files – for all the upheaval and downturn we’d experience, The Seventies still brought a number of my all-time favorite TV shows6 to the fore. Among them, The Rockford Files and its theme song. Written by Mike Post (who’d go on and do a number of others), its catchy melody featured a blues harmonica solo, dobro guitar, an electric guitar, and once again the ever present synthesizer — Minimoog this time. And a joy it all remains.
Released: July 1979
Songwriter: Andy Armer, Randy Alpert
Label: A&M Records — 2151-S
Rise – given Herb Alpert’s successful pop instrumentals with the Tijuana Brass the previous decade, then successful transition to music label executive at the famed A&M Records, never thought to see him front and center on the charts again. Man, was I wrong. Rise‘s funk/disco influence on the classic TJB horns and rhythms7 revitalized the Pop Instrumental legend, who’d go on to the win the Grammy for Pop Instrumental that year, too.
Songwriter: Chuck Mangione
Label: A&M Records — 2001-S
Feels So Good – right from the song’s opening, with Grant Geissman’s electric guitar intro and the beat James Bradley Jr. was laying down, my introduction to Chuck Mangione and the flugelhorn sounded and felt like nothing that had come before. This (and two of the three next songs remaining) part of that grand period of when Jazz Fusion crossed over to the mainstream and left a distinct mark on the instrumental genre and its listeners.
Songwriter: Bob James
Label: CTI Records — OJ 31
Westchester Lady – by the country’s bicentennial, was hired as a projectionist at the Huntington Park Warner Theatre and well into Jazz Fusion. So when I heard the single version of Westchester Lady being played on both AM and FM radio, by an artist I was already appreciating greatly, Bob James, was more than thrilled. Even he considered it as a signature piece for his work, and from my all-time favorite LP of his, it’s a Jazz Funk classic8.
Songwriter: Barry White
Label: 20th Century Records — TC 2069
Love’s Theme– Like Theme From a Summer Place, this the rare purely orchestral instrumental that reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Its striking mix of rhythm and strings played off another signature effect that came into its own this decade, the wah-wah pedal. It recalled Percy Faith’s influential classic, but Barry White’s piece struck new ground and made the ’70s his own9 as it crossed Pop, Soul/R&B, and Adult Contemporary charts. It’s still great today.
Released: September 1974
Songwriter: Kool & the Gang, Alton Taylor
Label: De-Lite Records – DEP-1567
Summer Madness – with influences in Brubeck’s Take Five (as mentioned here), “Summer Madness‘ distinct jazz roots, much like what was impacting the fusion rock of the time, were clear. No doubt assisted by the fact Kool & the Gang was originally formed as a jazz ensemble, before staking claim on soul and funk in the 70s.” To say nothing of the song’s use of the synthesizer, which truly distinguished the song and decade. With its unmistakable bass line and gentle guitar, this instrumental epitomized the era like few others.
Next up: the ’80s — and the entire series can be found here.
- Alan Parker, the director of the film, explicitly asked Moroder for a song in the style of “I Feel Love”, which Moroder composed for Donna Summer; the track not only released as Pop 7″ single 45, but also in new the extended single-sided 12″ format, which ran 13:06 and used in discotheques. ↩
- An electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals. Synthesizers typically create sounds by generating waveforms through methods including subtractive synthesis, additive synthesis and frequency modulation synthesis. Synthesizers are typically played with keyboards or controlled by sequencers, software or other instruments, and may be synchronized to other equipment via MIDI. The song’s main melody was played on a Roland SH-2000 synthesizer, while the bass lines were played on a Minimoog synthesizer. ↩
- “Don Cornelius, the creator and host of Soul Train, refused to allow any references to the name of the television series when the single was released, leading Gamble and Huff to adopt the alternate title for the release. Cornelius would later admit that not allowing the single to be named Soul Train was a major mistake on his part.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- “While he thought it would be a hit, A&M was skeptical and issued it as the B-side of “I Wrote a Simple Song” in December 1971. However, radio DJs began flipping the single and, while “I Wrote a Simple Song” only reached #77 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Outa-Space” peaked at #2, showing that Preston’s feelings about it were correct.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- As would their next single, Ramblin’ Man. ↩
- To include not only The Rockford Files, but Columbo, Barney Miller, McMillan and Wife, Maude, MAS*H, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Bob Newhart Show and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. ↩
- Care of Herb Alpert’s nephew Randy, in collaboration with Andy Armer. ↩
- Bob James’ Three LP’s Westchester Lady track is 7:23 in length but the released single (titled with Part 1 tag) was 3:20; the “B” side tagged “Part 2” was 4:03 long, so the instrumental was just split up on the 45 vinyl. It’s also been used in various mixes ever since. ↩
- Barry White was an American singer and songwriter and two-time Grammy Award winner known for his bass voice and romantic image. His songs dominated dance floors and make-out mix tapes during the ’70s. Little wonder one of his best was used in the sex scene for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012) remake. ↩
8 Responses to “My Top 13 Favorite Pop Instrumentals of the 1970s”
[…] up: the ’70s — and the entire series can be found […]
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Terrific list! Helps keep this music alive!
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Many thanks for the read and comment, John. 🙂
It was great fun listening to these. Hope you don’t take too much heat :-). A lot of people don’t have time for the likes of Spyro Gyra and Mangione but they are nice to re-visit. A favorite of mine that wasn’t on your list is “Cool Aid” by Paul Humphrey from 1971.
Wow, glad you mentioned that one, Rick. Totally forgot about it. Hadn’t heard it in decades. Good one to add to the conversation.
Many thanks, Rick. 🙂
One of my first 45s!
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Love the Billy Preston track, new to me. A number of these would make it into a Top 13 for me too. Jessica, Feels So Good, and Deodato’s Richard Strauss would all be jostling for high placings. Pick Up The Pieces. Morning Dance too. Those first two Spyra Gyra LPs are lovely. For all its pomp, I have a soft spot for Fanfare For The Common Man and also love the moody ambience of the lead track from the Ultravox Vienna album, Astrodyne. Great stuff.
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Oh, those are some great tracks you mention to add, Bruce. Glad to hear you enjoyed the Billy Preston single, too. Many thanks, my friend. 🙂
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