Instrumental Songs – Highest Charting and Faves

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Instrumental songs – songs with no lyrics – have been part of the music scene forever. Though…the popularity of instrumental songs is much less prevalent today than it was in the 60s and 70s.

Here are some interesting facts and figures on instrumentals, and also comments on some of my personal favorites.

Instrumentals are defined as songs where essentially all of the music is just that – music, without vocalized lyrics. I am making the bold statement that instrumentals can have some words – for example, the 1958 classic Tequila is an instrumental song that has only one lyric: the word “Tequila” shouted several times at different places in the song by the performers (and millions of party-goers over the years since the song was released).

There were 17 instrumentals that reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1965 and today. Theme songs from TV and movies made up 7 of them – Miami Vice Theme by Jon Hammer, Chariots of Fire by Vangelis, Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band by Meco (technically not from the film, Meco watched the original Star Wars five times, and then produced a disco version of the theme. The original Star Wars from the movie, by John Williams & His Orchestra, made it to #10), Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky) by Bill Conti & His Orchestra, Theme From S.W.A.T. by Rhythm Heritage, Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet by Henry Mancini & His Orchestra, and TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) by MFSB (“Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), which was the theme song to TV’s Soul Train. 

Four more disco hits also reached #1. A Fifth of Beethoven by Walter Murphy was a 3 minute disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Hustle by Van McCoy was inspired by the dance of the same name that was popular at discos in the mid 70s. Pick Up The Pieces by The Average White Band was a jazz-funk song that was border-line disco from 1974 (bet you didn’t know that AWB is from Scotland). Love’s Theme by the Love Unlimited Orchestra (Barry White’s back up band) was used for many years as the opening theme music for ABC Sports’ golf coverage.

The most recent instrumental to make it to the Hot 100, and also peaking at #1, was in 2013 – Harlem Shake by Baauer. It’s not going to make my list of favorites – the “song” is electronic dance music that is mostly a bunch of noises and growls. It was obscure for 9 months after its release, until someone posted a video on YouTube that developed into a meme, which led to 38 million views of the video. Since Billboard now includes streaming in its calculation of sales, the song stayed at #1 for 5 weeks.

I’m not ready to rank my personal favorites, but here are some instrumentals that I grew up loving:

Frankenstein by The Edgar Winter Group – it was originally released as the ‘B’ side to another song, but DJs throughout North America were inundated with phone calls to play it instead. It went to #1 in May 1973. It’s one of the first big hits that prominently used a synthesizer as an instrument. The coolest thing was that I had a friend who owned a synthesizer and showed me how to play the famous “high-to-low” synth-sound at the 3:15 mark in the song – just a single note on the keyboard, with a sliding device to change the pitch of the note.

Classical Gas by Mason Williams – Williams was the head writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968, and he performed it on the popular TV show. It made it to #2 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Easy Listening chart. The song primarily features Williams playing classical guitar, with support later in the song drums, trombones, tubas, French Horns, woodwinds and strings. It won 3 Grammy awards in 1969.

Hocus Pocus by Focus – one of the oddest songs ever, this rock anthem by the Dutch rock group Focus made it to #9 on the Hot 100 in 1973. It does contain “vocals”, which consists of yodeling, eefing, scat singing and whistling.

Great Gig In The Sky by Pink Floyd – the fifth track on their Dark Side of the Moon album, I’m calling it an instrumental even though the vocals are what makes this song incredible. Clare Torry was contracted by the band to improvise a vocal to Richard Wright’s beautiful, ethereal song, since no lyrics had been written. After struggling a bit, she took the approach of just pretending to be an instrument. She did 2½ takes, then apologized to the band and left. What was recorded became legendary – a readers poll in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012 picked it as the second greatest vocal performance in Rock history (behind Bohemian Rhapsody). 

Here are each of these songs on YouTube. I hope you listen to them. Note – the version of Great Gig is from 1994, featuring vocalists Sam Brown, Durga McBroom and Claudia Fontaine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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