Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Top Instrumentals of the Rock Era, Part 10

You will find several lists of the top instrumentals so this one is far from being the only one.  It is, however, unique in that I tried to base it on what the public thinks, leaving my personal bias out of it.  For it doesn't matter what a so-called "expert" or professional in the music business thinks.  History will always record what the public believes.

So I base a good deal of this list on chart performance at the time, single and album sales to this point in history, and how the song holds up today.  I have put a considerable amount of time and effort into coming up with this list.  Although I believe it contains the Top 100 Instrumentals of the Rock Era*, it doesn't start getting great until the top 85 or so.  

What is great about instrumentals is that the songwriter is free to focus solely on the music.  Artists today have gotten away from that--when you strip the song from its jive and 21st century sound effects, all you have is the music.  By listening to these instrumentals, hopefully we'll get back to what matters when composing a song. 

 Of course, I do realize that beginning in the 1980's, we as a society began cutting music programs to the bone so really we have only ourselves to blame for the poor quality of "music" these days.  I know my own knowledge of music (I play the saxophone, clarinet and have played piano since age 5 and was in a group of 12 that was selected to sing at our church's world conference in Portland, Oregon and then toured throughout the country...) would not have been as great were it not for music education in the schools.  I hope we can get back to providing more funds for that, to stimulate our children's interest in music.

Getting back to the other "lists" you may see on the web.  They are great, but what is a music site without music?!  Thus, you actually get to hear the songs that are in the list.  Many I was not familiar with until I started researching for this special.

For navigation, the song titles are below the embedded YouTube video.  For ease of use, I have separated the list into 10 segments of 10 songs each.  I strongly recommend playing each song in order--with any luck (if I've done my homework (and I have!)), each one should sound better than the last.  At least that's the goal.

For the past month, we have honored the Top 100 Instrumentals of the Rock Era, 10 songs at a time.  It's time now to reveal the Top 10.

Here they are--enjoy!

10.  "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams

Mason Williams said that he wrote this song as "fuel", or standby, in case anyone wanted to hear him play something on the guitar, so he called it "Classical Gasoline".  During recording, the music copyist inadvertently abbreviated it to "Gas".    Mike Post, whom we have already heard in The Top Instruments of the Rock Era* with "The Rockford Files" at #55, wrote the middle section of the song, conducted the orchestra and produced the song.

"Classical Gas" reached #2 for two weeks in 1968 on the popular chart and #1 for three weeks on the Easy Listening chart.  The single sold over a million copies.  "Classical Gas" captured three Grammy Awards, one of the highest totals for any song in The Top 100 Instrumentals*.  It captured the statue for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Contemporary Pop Performance, Instrumental and Best Instrumental Arrangement.

Williams' piece "Symphonic Bluegrass" has been performed by over 40 orchestras.  He has written songs for the Kingston Trio, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, Petula Clark, Dinah Shore and Roger Miller.  Williams is also a comedy writer, known for his work on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" (for which he won an Emmy), "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" and "Saturday Night Live". While serving as the head writer at Saturday Night Live", Williams helped launch the career of comedian Steve Martin, hiring Martin and paying him out of his own pocket. Williams is also a poet and lyricist who has published several books.  

9.  "Time Is Tight" by Booker T. & the MG's

"Time is Tight" was originally written for the 1968 filmDuffy, which starred James Mason, James Coburn and James Fox, Coburn loved the group's music and wanted it included in the film. The group first wanted to call the song "Uptight" but that title had already been taken by Stevie Wonder. "Time is Tight" was never used in the film, because the movie's producers wanted rights to the song and that is where negotiations broke down. It did, however, make it on screen that same year in the movie "Up Tight!".

The song reached #9 on the Easy Listening chart, #7 on the R&B chart and #6 on the popular chart and has now topped a million in sales.

Isaac Hayes would often step in and join the group in its session work. Cropper went on to become a prolific songwriter, penning "Knock on Wood" for Eddie Floyd (which later became a #1 smash for Amii Stewart in 1978), "In the Midnight Hour" for Wilson Pickett and "(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay", the classic by Otis Redding.

This great influential band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2002, Steve Cropper and Hayes were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2004, Eric Clapton chose Booker T., Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn of the group as the backing band for his first "Crossroads Guitar Festival" at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. In 2007, Booker T. & the MG'sGrammys.

8.  "Sleepwalk" by Santo & Johnny

"Sleepwalk" has been used in countless commercials, television shows and movies and has been covered by hundreds of artists including the Stray Cats, Larry Carlton and even Modest Mouse.  The song peaked at #4 on the R&B chart, reached #1 for two weeks on the popular chart in 1959 and remained on the chart for 18 weeks, a considerable time back then, and sold over a million copies.  

Santo, the oldest of the brothers, was composing songs by age 14 and formed an instrumental trio. When Johnny reached the age of twelve, he began to play accompaniment to Santo on electric guitar and the brothers soon formed a duo. They became popular and their work eventually led to a recording contract. Santo & Johnny recorded the theme song to "The Godfather" in 1973 were inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 2002.

7.  "Telstar" by the Tornadoes

"Telstar" was named after the famous Telstar satellite designed by AT&T communications and sent into orbit in July of 1962.  The Tornadoes released the song five weeks later .  "Telstar" was the first song by a British band to reach #1 in the United States; it also topped the U.K. chart for five weeks and remained a best-seller for 25 weeks. It stayed at #1 for three weeks in the United States and also hit #5 on the R&B chart.  "Telstar" won an Ivor Novello Award and is estimated to have sold at least five million copies worldwide.

In addition to topping the American and British charts, "Telstar" was #1 in Belgium, Ireland and South Africa.  It has been covered by dozens of artists, including the Eagles, the Ventures, Billy Vaughan and the Shadows. ""Telstar" was the first song by a British band to reach #1 in the United States; it also topped the U.K. chart for five weeks and remained a best-seller for 25 weeks. 

The Tornadoes were the backing band for producer Joe Meek, who wrote "Telstar", and for singer Billy Fury. Drummer Clem Cattini went on to become a prolific session musician, working with hundreds of artists as diverse as Donovan ("Hurdy Gurdy Man'), Roy Orbison, Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdinck and Lou Reed. Cattini holds the record for appearing on the most #1 songs in the U.K. (44) and was on Jimmy Page's shortlist of drummers to hire for Led Zeppelin before they chose John Bonham. Rhythm guitarist George Bellamy is the father of Matthew Bellamy, leader of the group Muse.    

6.  "Autumn Leaves" by Roger Williams

"Autumn Leaves" has the unique distinction of becoming both a pop and jazz standard, both as an instrumental and with vocals, in both English and French.  It is still the only piano instrumental to reach #1--it not only achieved that but remained #1 for four weeks in 1955, spent 25 weeks on the chart and sold over two million copies.

Like all of the greats, Williams began playing the piano at age three.  In high school, he became interested in boxing and only returned to music when he broke his nose several times!  Williams joined the Navy and served in World War II.  While still serving, Williams earned his bachelor's degree from Idaho State College (now Idaho State University), his master's from Drake University, and studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City.    

Williams is known as the "Pianist to the Presidents", a title earned for playing for nine U.S. Presidents, beginning with President Harry Truman.  He invites the audience to visit him backstage after all his concerts and doesn't leave until he has greeted everyone.  Williams has played 12-hour piano marathons, in which the entire time is taken playing requests.

5.  "Love's Theme" by Love Unlimited Orchestra

The song is believed to have influenced the disco era, which essentially had its beginning the following year.  It reached #1 in 1974, interrupting a three-week stay at the top for "The Way We Were".  It hit #1 for two weeks on the Adult Contemporary chart, was a #10 R&B song and sold over a million copies.  "Love's Theme" was used by ABC Sports for many years as the opening theme to its golf coverage.

Barry White was one of the most successful soul singers of the 70's.  He grew up in a crime-ridden area of Galveston, Texas and became involved in gang activity.  While in prison for stealing $30,000 worth of Cadillac tires, White listened to "It's Now or Never" by Elvis Presley.  He credits that music with turning around his life.  He was soon writing songs for Bobby Fuller and later began his great solo career.  White organized the Love Unlimited Orchestra, which was a 40-piece full orchestra dominated by strings.  They originally were intended to back up the girl group Love Unlimited that White wrote for and produced.  But White wrote this song with the orchestra in mind, which they play beautifully.

4. "Tequila" by the Champs

As is often the case, disc jockeys know better than record companies.  A DJ in Cleveland, Ohio gets credit for flipping this one over and discovering a classic.  This song was released as the B-side to "Train to Nowhere".  I can't tell you much about the single other than that, well, it went nowhere, but this song will live on as an all-time classic for generations to come.  Danny Flores of the Champs played the famous "dirty sax" solo and hollers "Tequila" three times during the song.

"Tequila" was a #1 smash for five weeks in 1958 and #1 for four weeks on the R&B chart.  It won a Grammy Award in 1959 for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance and sold over a million copies.  The song has been covered by countless artists and appeared in numerous movies.

The Champs were an instrumental band from Los Angeles that were named after Gene Autry's horse, Champ.  Autry owned Challenge Records, the company that hired the group.  The Champs underwent many personnel changes.  Future members would include Glen Campbell and Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts (who would form the duo Seals & Crofts in the 1970's).

3.  "Frankenstein" by the Edgar Winter Group

"Frankenstein" got its peculiar name after the song had been recorded.  In those days, when you edited, you had to physically cut the tape and splice it all together.  According to Winter: "The tape was all over the control room, draped over the backs of chairs and the couch.  We were making fun of it, saying 'Here's the main body; the leg bone's connected to the thigh bone...etc.'  Then Chuck (drummer Chuck Ruff) said 'Wow, it's like Frankenstein!"  And the title stuck.

This is yet another B-side that was flipped over when disc jockeys discovered it was the hit and not the single ("Hangin' Around").  "Frankenstein" was the first hit to use a synthesizer as the lead instrument.  It reached #1 in one of the greatest years of the Rock Era (1973) and sold over a million copies.

Edgar Winter revolutionized the synthesizer by becoming the first person to strap keyboards around his neck.  He is a famous multi-instrumentalist, being talented at keyboards, saxophone and percussion, although he can play every instrument.  Rick Derringer produced "Frankenstein" and played guitar.  Derringer was in the group the McCoys ("Hang On Sloopy") and had a solo hit "Rock and Roll, Hootchie Koo".  Dan Hartman played bass for Edgar Winter and also had a solo hit "I Can Dream About You".

2.  "Theme From 'A Summer Place'" by Percy Faith

"A Summer Place" was written by Austrian film composer Max Steiner, who also wrote the score for Casablanca.  It is featured in the 1959 movie A Summer Place, which stared Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee.  Hugo Winterhalter produced the music for the movie but Percy Faith and his orchestra were the ones that had the gigantic hit.  

"The Theme From 'A Summer Place" reached #1 and stayed there for nine weeks.  It was not only the top-selling single for 1960 (over a million copies sold) but spent the longest time at #1 for any instrumental of the Rock Era ("Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" was #1 for 10 weeks in 1955 but before the Rock Era officially began.)  The song won the Grammy for Record of the Year, becoming the first instrumental to do so.  

Faith played violin and piano as a child.  He became a staple of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and, after becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States, made many recordings for the Voice of America.  Faith arranged songs for many of the greats, including Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Guy Mitchell and Johnny Mathis.  "Theme from 'A Summer Place' along with "The Song from Moulin Rouge" made Faith the only artist to have the best-selling single of the year from the pop era and the rock era.  Faith is one of three artists (the Beatles and Elvis Presley are the others) to have the best-selling single of the year twice.

1.  "Love Is Blue" by Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra

We've arrived at #1 and, while on the surface the great song from Percy Faith was bigger, this one is the one that winds up #1.  When comparing anything, you can never look at raw statistics but rather have to consider the competition.  That is the most important factor be it songs, movies, books, etc.  When you look at the fact that this song reached #1 for five weeks in 1968, a vastly more competitive year than 1960, "Love Is Blue" wins hands down.

The song was released during a time of "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers, "Spooky" by the Classics IV', "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding, "Hello Goodbye" by the Beatles", "Daydream Believer by the Monkees" and "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro.  Several of those are classics in their own right, and to dominate the #1 position in that lineup is highly impressive.  The song was an across-the-board smash, also dominating the Easy Listening chart for 11 weeks and selling well over a million copies.

Mauriat was born and grew up in Marseilles, France. In the 1950's, he was the music director for Charles Aznavour and Maurice Chevalier. Mauriat wrote the 1958 song "Chariot" which was recorded in America as "I Will Follow Him", a #1 song for Little Peggy March. Mauriat recorded over 1,000 songs just from his era at Polygram Records (1965-1993). He was awarded the Grand Prix (Grand Prize) from the French recording industry, a MIDEN trophy and in 1997, Mauriat was honored with the prestigious Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture.

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