Friday, May 3, 2013

Instrumental Hits

Instrumental Hits: Part 1 of 2

We're not finished with our Wrecking Crew Series, but because I'm thinking of my Marine husband who is currently in Afghanistan, we're doing a jam-packed post featuring the biggest instrumental hits of the 1960s. So yes, my hubby loves this stuff, and yes, we were both born in the wrong generation!

One of the most successful instrumental groups of the decade was Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass from L.A.  As trumpeter, music producer, and record executive, Alpert first found success in 1962 with his Latin-styled hit "The Lonely Bull, however, The Tijuana Brass was just Alpert overdubbing his own trumpet slightly out of sync. By the end of 1964, because of a growing demand for live performances by the Tijuana Brass, Alpert auditioned and hired a team of top session musicians (including members of The Wrecking Crew of course!). The band debuted in 1965 and became one of the highest-paid acts then performing, having put together a complete revue that included choreographed moves and comic routines. An instrumental track originally written for the 1960 Broadway show of the same name (and 1961 film), Alpert's version of "A Taste of Honey" was the most popular, spending five weeks at #1 on the Easy Listening chart, reaching #7 on the Hot 100, and won three awards including Record of the Year at the 1966 Grammy Awards. My husband has a ton of their records!

Canadian bandleader, orchestrator, composer and conductor Percy Faith was known for his lush arrangements of pop and Christmas standards, and is often credited for popularizing the "easy listening" or "mood music" format. One of his most memorable recordings is "Theme from A Summer Place" (1960), which earned him the Record of the Year Grammy Award in 1961, and is the longest-running #1 instrumental in the history of the Billboard chart (9 weeks). Faith remains the only artist to have a best-selling single of the year during both the pop singer era ("Song from Moulin Rouge") and the rock era ("Theme from A Summer Place"), and he is one of only three artists (with Elvis and The Beatles) to have the best-selling single of the year twice. Here's a fantastic live performance of Percy Faith conducting his  musical magic.

American guitarist and composer Mason Williams was a comedy writer for Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and Saturday Night Live, however, he was best-known for his guitar instrumental hit, "Classical Gas." Composed and originally performed by Mason in 1968, this record earned three Grammy Awards including Best Musical Composition, Best Comtemporary-Pop Performance - Instrumental, and Best Instrumental Orchestra Arrangement (for arranger Mike Post, who went on to write dozens of TV shows themes including Law & Order and Magnum P.I.). Selling over a million copies and earning a gold disc, it peaked at #2 on the charts for two weeks. My husband loves this one (although we think the rest of the LP is odd) and even made his own successful arrangement for symphonic band back in high school. Here's Mason Williams with a good-lookin' orchestra (miming the studio recording) on the Ed Sullivan Show in March of '68.

The Tornados were an English instrumental group that acted as a backing band for many of record producer Joe Meek's productions and also for singer Billy Fury. Enjoying several chart hits in their own right, their biggest success was the instrumental single "Telstar." Released in August of 1962, this surf rock-sounding record was named after the Telstar communications satellite that was launched into space just a month prior, and reached #1 in both the UK and US (the first US #1 single by a British group). Featuring a clavioline (a keyboard instrument with a distinctive electronic sound), it became a precursor to space rock intending to evoke the dawn of the space age. Unfortunately, pop instrumentals lost popularity with British audiences when the "Mersey Sound" (i.e. The Beatles) became more and more popular in 1963.

French orchestra leader Paul Mauriat specialized in the easy listening genre, and is best known in the US for his million-selling remake of Andre' Popp's "Love is Blue." In February of 1968, this version hit #1 on the US pop charts, becoming the only performance by a French artist ever to top the Billboard Hot 100. Its five-week run at the top was the second longest of any instrumental on the pop chart era next to "Theme from A Summer Place," of course. It also spent 11 weeks at #1 on the easy listening charts, and peaked at #12 on the UK Singles chart. In case you're curious about the original version, you can see Greek singer Vicky Leandros singing the original French lyrics in the Eurovision Song Contest of 1967 here. This instrumental beauty still crops up on film and TV, including most recently on an episode of the popular '60s-based drama Mad Men. Here's a live performance from a few decades after its success.
The Brass Ring was a group of American studio musicians led by saxophonist and arranger Phil Bodner. They were based in New York City and were stylistically similar to Herb Alpert and other "Now Sound" instrumental pop groups from the 1960s, although the twin-sax sound more closely resembled Billy Vaughn, who had big hits in the '50s (I even have some of my grandparents' Billy Vaughn records!). The group had two hit singles, including "The Dis-Advantages of You," which was used in a commercial for Henson & Hodges (cigarettes) and hit #36 on the Billboard chart in 1966. I can't explain it but my hubby just loves this stuff, and we own at least three Brass Ring albums. We're so weird!   
I'll conclude this fabulously full post with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, an American jazz group considered to be one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz. Their best-remembered piece is the enduring jazz classic, "Take Five," composed by the quartet's saxophonist Paul Desmond. While its not the first jazz composition to use quintuple meter (5/4 time), it was the first in the US to achieve mainstream significance, reaching #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #5 on the easy listening chart in 1961, two years after its initial release. For several years in the early '60s, it was the theme music for NBC "Today" program, and has been included in countless movie and TV soundtracks. With the distinctive, catchy saxophone melody, here's an excellent live performance of "Take Five" by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

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