-- Paul B Allen III: December 21, 2019

INSTRUMENTALS - PART ONE (1950s - 1960s)

Though I have loved to sing since I was a child, I have also enjoyed listening to instrumentals. They make up a very small percentage of popular music now. But in the early days of radio, instrumentals were king. Groups like the Glen Miller Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Bennie Goodman ruled the airwaves, and the airwaves ruled what music you got to hear. But, as in all things, the only thing that will never change is that things are going to change. 

From the late 1950s forward, many of the instrumentals that made it onto the radio and into pop culture were from TV shows and movies. Indeed, the first instrumental I ever heard on the radio was the theme from the black and white TV show, Peter Gunn. I found a clip of the end of the very first episode of this show, and in the closing credits, just as in the opening credits, the “Theme from Peter Gunn” is playing. Enjoy this three-minute clip. It will show you how far TV has come, but also how dynamic this theme song, by the great Henry Mancini, really was. Mancini would go on to be nominated for eighty-four Grammy awards and he won a total of thirty-one Grammys. That’s more than Quincy Jones, Beyoncé, or Jay-Z. 

Another semi-instrumental I remember from my earliest of days was “Bang Bang” by Joe Cuba. This song was my introduction to Afro-Cuban rhythms, and the first time I ever heard the word “burrito”. At that time, I had no idea what a burrito was, but we would move to California not long after, and burritos would become something I could never again live without. 

In that same vein was the music of Mongo Santamaria, with his song “Watermelon Man.” 

Instrumentals in other genres would follow. I loved the cool groove of Booker T. & the M.G.'s with their hit, “Green Onions.” This group was unusual in that it was one of the first, if not the very first, racially integrated bands. And, it was a black man leading this group of musical virtuosos. I imagine they had some tales to tell about the venues they played or were not allowed to play because they were interracial. They deserve their spot in musical history for more than just their excellent songs and musicianship. 

Then there was Ramsey Lewis with the hits, “The In Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy.” 

After the success of "The In Crowd", drummer "Red" Holt, and bass player Eldee Young left Ramsey's trio to form a group of their own called Young-Holt Unlimited, and they quickly had an instrumental hit too. It was named “Soulful Strut.” 

If the music to "Soulful Strut" sounds hauntingly familiar, there is a good reason for that. Do you remember a song recorded by Swing Out Sister, called "Am I the Same Girl?" I have added their video directly beneath the Young-Holt video so that you can compare. Great music begets great music. 

And, speaking of interesting side notes, when drummer "Red" Holt left the trio, he was replaced in Ramsey’s band by a young drummer named Maurice White, who would go on to found Earth, Wind & Fire, and would later produce one of Ramsey's greatest albums, Maiden Voyage

Of course, I knew many jazz instrumental songs since I constantly listened to the massive collection of jazz “LPs” that my father had amassed. So, I was happy when I heard Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” playing on the radio. 

By the way, “LPs” is what the “cool cats” of that time called albums. “L” stood for long, and “P” stood for playing, ergo, “long-playing” records (typically forty-five minutes to an hour of music), as opposed to “45s,” which is what the “in crowd” called the small records that held three-minute songs, the average for that day. They were called “45s” because they spun around on your record player at 45 revolutions per minute). 

As I put together this week's Saturday Morning Song Chronicles, it hit me how very many instrumental songs have been hits. There is no way I could present them all to you in one offering, so, let’s call this Part One. 

Here are the artists that will be featured in Part Two: 

Tower of Power 

The Average White Band 

Ronnie Laws

The Edgar Winter Group 

Herbie Hancock 

Hugh Masekela 

The Crusaders 

Next week there will be more great music and some stories I hope you will find interesting. I know and have worked with some of these artists, and will be able to share some personal insights into them and their hits songs. See you for the next Saturday Morning Song Chronicles.