Doug Thompson headshotThey were some of the greatest hits on the radio back in the day (and often, night).  Remember instrumentals – those catchy, memorable songs with NO words.

Those instrumentals were also a staple on the record charts and the radio.  I still have wonderful memories of turning on the radio at midnight (never on school nights – Friday and Saturday nights only) to hear all night CHUM DJ Bob Laine back in the early 60’s.

For a few months in ’61, the first song Bob played was “Apache” by Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann.  The instrumental made it to # 2 on Billboards’ Hot 100 chart and # 1 on the CHUM chart. As a teenager, I thought it was so cool that the guitar made those ‘arrow-flying-through-the-air’ sounds.

In England, a group called The Shadows covered the song…but then, they pretty much covered everything.  The influential British group charted 35 songs on the U.K. charts on their own (although they never had a single North American hit).  But in fact, they’re the United Kingdom’s third most successful charted act, behind Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard, who they backed up for close to 50 years.  The Shadows did make an impression on several members of The Beatles early on.  John Lennon and George Harrison even co-wrote a song that they recorded in Germany called “Cry For A Shadow”.

Fellow Beatle Paul McCartney ‘impersonated’ Shadows’ lead guitarist Hank Marvin (with his trademark thick black glasses) in the video for McCartney’s 1980 hit, “Coming Up”.

In the 1950’s, there were tons of hit instrumentals on the record charts.  Early ones included throwbacks to the big band era with Cuban born bandleader Perez Prado’s two # 1 hits – “Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White” in ’55 and “Patricia” in ’58.

Bandleader Billy Vaughn routinely made the singles chart with instrumentals from 1954 until ’66.  Vaughn was also the Music Director for Dot Records based in Hollywood and arranged literally hundreds of hits for performers such as Pat Boone.  Vaughn’s biggest instrumental hits were 1954’s “Melody of Love” (# 2)

The Shifting Whispering Sands (Parts 1 & 2)” in ’55 (# 5)

…and “Sail Along Silvery Moon” (# 5 in 1958).

Also in ‘58, The Champs released the instrumental classic, “Tequila” (alright, technically there is that word shouted at the end).  Future members of The Champs include (Jim) Seals & (Dash) Crofts along with Glen Campbell.  “Tequila” had a major resurgence and was introduced to an entire new generation in 1985 thanks to “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”.

Santo & Johnny Farina, brothers from Brooklyn charted six hits on Billboards’ Hot 100 chart from 1959 to 1964, but only one made the Top Ten.  “Sleep Walk” marched all the way up to # 1 in ‘59.  The Farina brothers had help writing some of their songs from their mom, Ann Farina.

The 50’s also brought us Bill Black’s Combo.  Black had been the original bass player for Elvis Presley (Elvis, Scotty & Bill) and when the Elvis gig went away, he formed his own combo and promptly charted 19 hits on Billboards’ Hot 100.  Only one, “White Silver Sands” made the Top 10 (# 9 in 1960).  The Bill Black Combo opened for The Beatles during their 1964 North American tour.  Black died in 1965, but the members of his Combo continued on into the 1970’s.

Then there was Johnny & The Hurricanes.  This group, from Toledo, Ohio charted nine Billboard hits in the late ‘50’s/early ‘60’s, including “Beatnik Fly” and “Crossfire”, but only managed to hit the Top Ten with “Red River Rock” in ‘59.

Grandma’s favorite band leader, Lawrence Welk had a # 1 hit in 1961 with an instrumental.  “Calcutta” featured that essential rock ‘n roll instrument – the harpsichord.  In actual fact, Mr. ‘a-one and a-two’ actually charted 21 hits on Billboards’ Hot 100, but only “Calcutta” made it to the top.

Hell, even The Beatles recorded an instrumental, besides the aforementioned “Cry For A Shadow” – check out “Flying” from 1967’s “Magical Mystery Tour” album, although that was never released as a single and therefore didn’t chart..

Bert Kaempfert, who saw early potential in The Beatles while they were still honing their musical chops in Hamburg, Germany and recorded them with Tony Sheridan in the early ‘60’s, took his middle-of-the-road pop sound to the top of the singles chart in 1961 with ‘Wonderland By Night”.  While Bert charted other songs, he never again reached that coveted # 1 spot, at least in North America.

One of the first songs a fledgling guitar player in the early ‘60’s learned to play was “Wheels” made famous by The String-A-Longs, a group from Plainsview, Texas.

Nashville piano wizard and ‘A’ list session player Floyd Cramer charted eleven songs on Billboards’ Hot 100 chart – three of those cracked the Top Ten.  “Last Date” in 1960 was his most successful, making it to # 2.

Floyd followed that hit with two more in ’61 – “On The Rebound” and “San Antonio Rose”, which made it to # 4 and # 8 respectively.  Of course, Cramer’s unique ‘slip note’ style of piano pickin’ can be heard on dozens of hits recorded in Nashville by artists such as Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, The Everly Brothers, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley.  Cramer played piano on Elvis’ first RCA single release “Heartbreak Hotel”.

Another ‘A’ list Nashville session cat, saxophone player Boots Randolph, never cracked the Top Ten singles chart, but his most famous hit, which only made it to # 35 in 1963, was “Yakety Sax”.  Fans of British comic Benny Hill know that as the theme song to Hill’s TV series.

Stax Studios in Memphis contributed 18 classic instrumental hits from Booker T. & The MG’s, including 1962’s “Green Onions” (#3)

Hang ‘Em High” (#9 in ’69)

…and “Time Is Tight” (#6 in ’69).

Prior to Booker T. & The MG’s, Steve Cropper (guitar) and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn (bass) were in a Memphis band called The Mar-Keys.  This group charted 4 hits on Bilobards Hot 100, including their only Top Ten hit, “Last Night” (# 3 in ’61).

Herb Alpert’s life might have taken a totally different career path if he hadn’t learned to play the trumpet.  Herb was an established writer and producer in Los Angeles by the early 1960’s, having been involved with Jan & Dean’s “Baby Talk” and co-writing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”.  Alpert’s been honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from NARAS (the Grammy organization), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as a National Medal of Arts, presented by President Barack Obama last month (July 2013) at the White House.  The legend began when Alpert and business partner Jerry Moss each contributed a couple of hundred bucks, took a song written by Sol Lake, sprinkled it with ‘Ole’s” inspired by the bullfights in Tijuana and turned it into “The Lonely Bull” with all of the trumpets from Alpert himself.  That 1962 single hit (which went to # 6) along with the other Tijuana Brass hits, became the foundation for A&M Records, the label that brought us the Carpenters, The Police, Peter Frampton, Chuck Mangione, Cat Stevens, Gino Vanelli, Joe Cocker, Bryan Adams and dozens more.  In 1987, Alpert and Moss sold A&M Records to Polygram for a reported five hundred million dollars.  Aye chihuahua, that’s a whole lot of ‘Ole’s’.

But, the most influential of the instrumental groups of the 1960’s had to be The Ventures from the U.S. Pacific Northwest.  While they never scored a number one single, The Ventures certainly had their share of hits, including “Walk, Don’t Run” (#2 in 1960), the song that inspired tens of thousands of teenage boys to pick up a guitar.

…and “Hawaii Five-O” (# 4 in ’69).

Interestingly, The Ventures founders, Bob Bogle and Don Wilson heard their signature song, “Walk, Don’t Run” on a Chet Atkins album called “Hi FI In Focus”.  Atkins was another major influence on future guitar players.  During the early phase of The Ventures career (1958 to 1963), the group used Fender guitars, but a California guitar manufacturer, Mosrite, re-designed their ‘futuristic looking’ Mark 1 guitar that The Ventures adopted and first used on their 1963 album, “The Ventures In Space”.  In fact from ’63 to ’68, their album jackets read that ‘The Ventures used Mosrite guitars exclusively’.  Turns out, The Ventures were partners with Mosrite and shared in the profits from sales.  After that contract expired, they returned to the Fender fold.

1964 saw Al Hirt’s instrumental, “Java” hit # 4.  Hirt, who’d played trumpet with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey big band in the ‘50’s, had several other instrumental hits, but “Java” was his only Top Ten hit.

The In Crowd” had an interesting history.  The song was written by Billy Page, whose brother, Gene Page, was a Hollywood ‘A-list’ arranger/composer.  Dobie Gray had the vocal hit in early ’65, with that version reaching # 13.  Ramsey Lewis dropped the words, turned it into a jazz number and that version climbed to # 5 the same year.

The Marketts, The T-Bones and The Routers (“Let’s Go”) were all 60’s groups that made the charts with instrumental hits, but only The Marketts and the T-Bones made it to the Top Ten. “Out of Limits” was a # 3 hit in early ‘64.  The T-Bones (really a group of studio musicians contracted by producer Joe Saraceno) took the advertising background track to an Alka Seltzer commercial, “No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In)” to # 3 in ‘65.

Then, there’s the interesting case of Cliff Nobles.  Nobles was a singer who, in 1968, recorded the song “Love Is All Right”.  His record company, Phil-LA of Soul, either wasn’t sure that it would be a hit or they ran out of money before they could record a ‘B’ side.  In any event, they simply put the band track to “Love Is All Right” on the flip side of the 45 single, crediting it to Cliff Nobles & Co.  Cliff by the way, did not play on the track.  Noble’s vocal version of “Love Is All Right” didn’t set the world on fire, or even smolder a little bit.  The instrumental backing track – called “The Horse” – did quite well, thank you very much, climbing to # 2 on Billboards’ Hot 100 chart in 1968.

Getting a little heavier than the average ‘pop’ instrumental of the ‘60’s was Edgar Winter Group’s  “Frankenstein”, which captured the # 1 spot in 1973.

The following year, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” chimed their way to # 7.  ‘Course, that one was helped by the fact that it was featured in the movie “The Exorcist”.

’74 was also the year MFSB (from the Gamble & Huff stable of artists) grabbed the top rung on the singles chart with their hit “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)

Mike Post has had an interesting career, composing theme songs for TV shows, then turning those themes into hit singles.  He also did it with aplomb (there, look that up in your Funk & Wagnall).  Post cracked the Top Ten exactly twice.  The first time, in 1975, was with his theme from “The Rockford Files”.

Then he did it again in 1981 with “The Theme From Hill Street Blues”.

Scottish funk and R&B band, Average White Band or AWB for short, saw their song, “Pick Up The Pieces” head straight for # 1 in 1975.

When he went to see “Star Wars” in 1977, Meco Monardo thought the music in the Cantina scene was pretty cool.  So, he ‘disco’d’ it up a bit and took “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” straight to # 1 that same year.

Long time Hollywood composer John Williams (a favourite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg) even saw his own “Star Wars Main Theme” single climb into the Top Ten in ’77.

Walter Murphy had an interesting career.  Murphy studied classic and jazz piano at the Manhattan School of Music.  He went on to arrange for Doc Severinsen and the “Tonight Show” band.  He combined classical music and ‘pop music’ and created “A Fifth of Beethoven” in 1976, a # 1 smash hit.

Most recently, Murphy created the opening title themes for Seth McFarlane’s hit TV series, “Family Guy”, “The Cleveland Show” (now cancelled) and “American Dad”.


This is by no means a complete list of instrumental hits.  There are so many more.  The ones I’ve mentioned are just a few that happened to have the ‘right sound’ at the right time, captured the attention of the record buying public and had chart success.  Some of them could be labelled ‘pop pap’, but while you can’t sing along with these instrumentals when ‘cruisin’ in your Caddy’, they’re always good for a fond memory or two.

I’m sure you have your own favourite instrumental.  Me, I still prefer “Apache”.  The Jorgen Ingmann original, of course.


Doug’s column appears here every 4th Monday.

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DBAWIS ButtonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. and has won 152 awards for his work.  He worked with Canadian actor John Candy for 17 years, writing and producing commercials, specials and several weekly radio programs.

Currently, he’s writing and producing the second season of a television program for the Hi Fi channel in Canada called “Hi Fi Salutes”, a series of short biographical documentaries on Canadian musicians, producers and record industry pioneers.  One of those programs recently won a Platinum Award at the World Film Festival in Houston.


  1. Warren Cosford Says:

    How could you forget Wipe Out

    I guess I can understand Frank Virtue

    But Duane Eddy?

    How about the instrumentals
    That became vocals

    Even Jack Scott got into it

  2. Doug Thompson Says:


    I could easily have written 10,000 words but I had to stop somewhere and as I said in my last paragraph (although I’m not sure anyone read it) “This is by no means a complete list of instrumental hits. There are so many more.”


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