An Autobiography With No Words

(Pictured: Henry Mancini in the studio, circa 1970.)

(Before we begin: this seemed like a great idea when I thought of it. Now that it’s finished, I’m not so sure anymore.)

Fifty years ago this week, three instrumentals were in the Billboard Top 10: “Grazin’ in the Grass,” “The Horse,” and “Classical Gas.” After digging into my own instrumental music stash, I discovered that I can tell my life story to approximately age 20 entirely in instrumentals.

“Theme From A Summer Place”/Percy Faith. The #1 song on the Hot 100 on the day I was born, and the definitive easy-listening hit. Also on the radio that same week: “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross, less monumental but more significant in the mythology of this blog, for I imagine it as one of the first songs I ever heard, lying on the little bassinet in the kitchen, as Mother went about her daily routine with the radio on.

“Alley Cat”/Bent Fabric. When I was two, I apparently had a little dance I would do whenever “Alley Cat” came on the radio. Kids dancing to “Alley Cat” is now an Internet genre all to itself, so I was clearly ahead of my time—possibly for the only time.

“A Walk in the Black Forest”/Horst Jankowski. This is the first song I can remember thinking of as a favorite, having heard it on our hometown radio station, presumably when it hit in 1965 and for years thereafter, “taking us up to news time.” See also “Last Date” by Floyd Cramer.

“Summer Samba”/Walter Wanderley. I have written before of certain long afternoons during which my brother and I would amuse ourselves with toys in the living room while my mother did household chores with the radio on. Certain instrumentals popular in the mid 60s conjure up this image when I hear them today, and “Summer Samba” is one of the most reliable.

“Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet”/Henry Mancini. When I was in fourth grade, a reporter from the school newspaper (a sixth grader) asked me some questions for a student profile. To “what’s your favorite song,” I responded with “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet,” which may have been the last thing I heard on the radio before I went to school that morning. But it also confirmed me as one of the world’s biggest nerds, which remains accurate.

“Time Is Tight”/Booker T. and the MG’s. This struck me differently than “Summer Samba” and the rest of the instrumentals popular just a couple of years earlier. It activated some strand of DNA that had lain dormant for the first nine years of my life—or maybe it’s truer to say it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

“Scorpio”/Dennis Coffey. I’d been buying 45s for about a year when I bought this. To be added to my collection over the next couple of years: Coffey’s “Taurus,” “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter, “Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and “TSOP” by MFSB. I found—and still find—all of them to be equally crankable.

“Pick Up the Pieces”/Average White Band. On the radio the night of my first kiss. See also “The Hustle,” learning to do it in gym class, and the socially sanctioned—even academically necessary—touching of girls.

“A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy. Bridges the summer and fall of 1976. See also “Nadia’s Theme (The Young and the Restless)” for a further significant text from the fall of 1976.

“Star Wars Theme-Cantina Band”/Meco. I resisted my peer group’s mania for all things Star Wars in the summer of 1977 (except for this), mostly because that was how I rolled back then. Eventually, the iconoclasm of never having seen the movie became a thing. A few years ago, my nephews put in the DVD and I quietly fled the room, mostly so I could still tell people I’ve never seen it.

“Music Box Dancer”/Frank Mills. A hit during my first spring getting paid to be on the radio. On those rare occasions when I hear it today, it takes me back to that studio and makes me into the kid I was. He acted like he knew what he was doing, but in fact he did not know the most important thing: that he really had very little idea what he was doing.

We’ll end the story there. If you care to name an instrumental significant to part of your life story, add it in the comments.

15 responses

  1. Around the same time as the chart run of Frank Mills’ “Music Box Dancer” (i.e. early ’79) Elton John’s then-current album (called “A Single Man”) contained two instrumentals (“Reverie” & “Song For Guy”). These were the months that I first got my driver’s license and the portable Llyod’s tape recorder that sat next to me whenever I drove was always playing Elton’s new album. Coincidently, “Song For Guy” was released as a single all over the world. In America MCA didn’t promote it for two reasons.
    1. “Music Box Dancer” was already on the charts and MCA didn’t think there would be enough demand for two instrumentals at the same time.
    2. Elton’s standing in America had plummeted since the publication of the interview he gave to Rolling Stone in the Fall of ’76.
    The doomed single peaked at #110 in America. In the UK it peaked at #4.

  2. I fondly remember two all-instrumental mix tapes I used to have — logically labeled “Damn Near No Words” and “Damn Near No Words, Vol. 2.”
    What was on them? A sampling:
    – A couple of King Crimson songs, most notably “Sailor’s Tale,” which has a looooooong, slooooooow midsection over which Robert Fripp shreds his heart out
    – the Stones’ “2120 S. Michigan Avenue,” the song that later drove Bill Wyman to complain about Mick Jagger getting a writing credit – and a share of the royalties – even though it has no words
    – Booker T’s “Hip Hug-Her”
    – Tower of Power’s “Squib Cakes,” which peaks in a Hammond-and-drums boogie that will raise the hairs on your arms
    – “Promenade,” the ultra-grandiloquent pipe-organ introduction to Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s version of “Pictures at an Exhibition”
    – the John Mayall Bluesbreakers version of the evergreen blues instrumental “Hideaway”
    – “What A Shame,” a loose, raunchy jam from Fleetwood Mac’s Future Games album

    Plus lots of tossed-off album-filler-type stuff from the likes of Rufus, Rod Stewart and Todd Rundgren.

  3. Clarinetist Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” – October, 1961. Heard the tune on my Emerson transistor radio and it stuck in my head. I was 12 years old and just discovering I had talent for music. I was taking piano lessons, but my friend’s dad was the high school band director, and my friend let me noodle around on his trumpet. I was able to play “Stranger on the Shore” on the trumpet just “by ear”. The wide intervallic leaps (Bilk was a jazz player) and tonal range were a real challenge for my young embouchure, but I usually was able to play the tune flawlessly.

  4. I’m about four years older than you, JB. My dad died when I was eight. “A Walk in the Black Forest” was the first song I can remember that made me feel happy after that—about six weeks later.

  5. Wonderful post. So many great instrumentals over the years. “Grazin’ in the Grass” is an all-time favorite. And my mind always seems to pair “Classical Gas” with Paul Mauriat’s “Love is Blue.” To this wonderful list evolving here in the comments, let me add “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis, “Soulful Strut” by Young-Holt Unlimited, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Cannonball Adderley, “Watermelon Man” by Mongo Santamaria, and “Rise” by Herb Alpert.

    What do you think the last Top 40 instrumental was? I’m thinking maybe U2’s butchering of the Mission Impossible theme (1996), but I’ve got no idea.

  6. David C Armillei | Reply

    Below are a couple that affected me and remind me of my youth (though not often connected to any specific memory). I might be cheating a bit here, since some of this is movie/tv theme music:

    – Chuck Mangione’s “Feel So Good” — Popular right around the time I was born, and my dad had the album. Hearing it always makes me imagine those early days when my parents were a young happy couple (and my mom was still alive) and had deep rust-colored carpeting.

    – Vangelis “Chariots of Fire” — Inevitably, any piano student would bust into this at the sight of an unoccupied piano in the early/mid-1980s. Brings to mind Music class in 2nd grade, when hearing it would make me happy we weren’t playing the glockenspiel or listening to “We Are the World” yet again.

    – David Foster’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” — In retrospect, it’s a pretty lousy movie, and the Emilio Estevez stalking parts have not aged well at all. That said, does hearing Foster’s autumnal piece make me imagine being young in DC and finding your way? Does it make me remember my time in DC during and after school a decade+ later? Do I love it unconditionally since it hit me at the right time? A big “yes” to all three.

    – Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” and “Top Gun Anthem” — I’ll take glorious, synthed-out 1980s movie theme songs for $500, Alex.

    – Led Zeppelin’s “Bron-Yr-Aur” — Spy Magazine once ranked the 100 worst things about rock n’ roll. “Drum solos” were #1, and “Robert Plant” was #2. I happen to agree. But this solo acoustic piece from Jimmy Page is marvelous, and its inner peacefulness brings the quite English countryside to mind in a vivid way.

    – Van Halen “Eruption” — I still remember the first time I heard this, and couldn’t imagine that anyone could simultaneously channel Bach and hard rock with swooping dive bombs intersecting the solo.

    – Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice” theme song and “Crockett’s Theme” — Yes, I went through period when, late at night driving, I would crank these on the highway and imagine that I was a burned-out cop going through an existential crisis caused by my undercover identity while still being committed to my partner and profession.

    – Brian Eno’s “Big Ship” — Absolute perfection and still sounds cutting edge. Always reminds me of one of my closest friends from high school whom I haven’t seen in 20 years.

  7. Kept hoping someone would mention these wordless wonders as we shared but the honor falls upon me. Maybe you like ’em, maybe you don’t.

    Apollo 100 — “Joy”

    Eagles — “Journey Of The Sorcerer”

    Billy Preston — “Space Race”
    Kool & the Gang — “Summer Madness”
    Herbie Hancock — “Rockit”

    Electric Light Orchestra — “Fire On High”

    various surf instrumentals
    “Pipeline”
    “Wipeout”
    “Walk Don’t Run”
    “Out Of Limits” to name a few

    Def Leppard — “Switch 625”

    Funkadelic — “Maggot Brain”

    Rhythm Heritage — “Theme from S.W.A.T.”

    Joe Satriani — “Surfing With The Alien” and “Satch Boogie”

    Love Unlimited Orchestra — “Love’s Theme”
    MFSB — “TSOP”

    New Order – “Elegia”

  8. Just three days ago, I decided it was time to put together a couple of compilations of the instrumentals from my college radio years. There are far too many to list, but these are a few highlights:
    Mystic Moods – “Cosmic Sea”
    Seatrain – “Flute Thing” (single, not the bogged-down album version)
    Tim Weisberg – “Do Dah” (reissued as “Streak-Out” when streaking became a thing)
    Ventures – “Skylab (Passport To The Future)”
    Gabor Szabo/Bobby Womack – “Breezin'”
    Matthew Fisher – “Interlude”
    Ramsey Lewis – “Kufanya Mapenzi (Making Love)”
    ELO – “Daybreaker” and “Fire On High”
    Michealangelo – “300 Watt Music Box” and “Half A Tap”
    Allman Brothers – “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and “Jessica”
    Jr. Walker & The All Stars – “Walk In The Night” (not entirely wordless; close enough)

    The first two records I picked out on my own (sans sibling consensus) were instrumentals:

    Perez Prado – “Patricia”. Bought it at the House Of Hits, Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1958.
    Jorgen Ingmann – “Anna”. Purchased at Bud’s Music Center, Hopkins, MN in 1961.

    1963 brought two all-time faves:
    Kai WInding – “More”
    Lawrence Welk – “Scarlett O’Hara” (bettered the Jet & Tony original, IMO)

    1964: a “More” knock-off, of sorts:
    Egyptian Combo – “Gale Winds”

    Which brings me to 1965 and “A Walk In The Black Forest.” I could never figure out why the Mercury 45 I bought wore out so quickly, turning into “A Walk In The Black Snake Pit.” Decades later, while discussing music with my Mom, she mentioned that AWITBF had been one of my late Dad’s favorite songs. They’d been to an Army reunion of his sometime in the early ’80s, and Dad had gone up to the band and requested it. None of the players had ever heard of it.

    Mom then told me, “Your Dad used to play your record of it all the time.” I was stunned. It never would have occurred to me that either of my parents would have been the least bit interested in their teenage son’s record collection, let alone play any of it when I wasn’t around. I liked the song enough to buy it in ’65, but ever since that revelation, it’s had a extra-special place in my heart.

  9. There are so many instrumentals that had an impact on me growing up that to list them all would be unwieldy. I will say that it’s another thing lost in today’s musical world that I’m sorry others cannot experience except on rare smartly programmed stations.

    Instrumentals were perfect for Top 40 deejays to use to ease into the top of the hour before the national and/or local newscasts. They added spice to the lineup of what you heard, as did the occasional insertion of country and novelty songs that have now been banned by corporate whizzes who claim to know better than the listeners about what the latter want.

    There was a brilliance in the best of them too that could not be matched by adding words. Indeed, doing so often harmed them, like when the Lettermen made “Theme from a Summer Place” saccharine rather than enchanting by contributing syrupy lyrics nowhere near as majestic as the music accompanying them. They are able to transport you to another world all their own. I miss them greatly.

    If you still have your doubts, this was a great idea for a blog entry. Thanks for sharing.

  10. For me, it was:
    1) Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village” … setting the tone for the “Exotica” music movement. And inspiring at least the first eight to 12 bars of Pee Wee Herman’s TV show theme.
    2) Bert Kaempfert’s “That Happy Feeling” … known around the 1960s New York kiddie-show scene as “The Sandy Becker Theme”.

    Damn, I’m old … Good Times!

  11. Good grief, where do I start? I guess with Al Hirt’s version of “I Can’t Get Started” from 1963, which I heard a year later when I was learning to play cornet. That tune and quite a few more from the two of his albums that I got in those years turned out to be my introduction to what is now called the Great American Songbook. Then there’s John Barry’s instrumental of the theme to “Goldfinger,” the best of the James Bond movies, which triggered a love of soundtracks that still drives me today. “Love Theme from ‘Romeo & Juliet’” is in there, because I learned to play it on my horn, and I played it one summer night in the stillness of a Boy Scout camp only to hear applause from distant campsites when I finished. “T.S.O.P. (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” by MFSB throws me back to fine times during my college days. And that gets me to the mid-Seventies, which is kind of where a good part of me lives, so we’ll stop it there, even though I could probably go on for a bit.

    By the way, this was a very good idea and post.

    1. Technically, Hirt’s “I Can’t Get Started” isn’t entirely instrumental, since the Anita Kerr Singers chime in on some parts, but Hirt’s playing makes one forget about those minimal vocals.

  12. David C Armillei | Reply

    Inspired by this post and in honor of the above comments, I’ve created a Spotify playlist collecting virtually all of the aforementioned instrumentals + numerous others (“Damn Near No Words — The 150 Best Instrumentals of the Past 50+ Years”). It’s pretty 1970s-heavy, though it does feature a decent amount of more recent stuff; I draw the line at prog rock, however. I’ve also tried to break up styles, at least somewhat, so the mix isn’t too repetitive.

    If anyone thinks I’ve missed anything compelling, please let me know. I’m probably the only one in the world who likes ALL of these, but I’m always willing to try new things musically.

  13. For me, one of Joe Walsh’s monumental achievements is the instrumental “B” side to Life’s Been Good, The Theme from Boat Weirdos.

    Don’t let the typically facetious Walsh title fool you; the song is uncommonly moody and unexpectedly affecting.

  14. Last week I solved a four-decade mystery when I discovered the identity of the tune our NBC affiliate used to open its 5 PM news broadcast. It was also used by ABC for promos and the game show Funny You Should Ask…and me for a talk bed on tomorrow’s Sound Awake. (The news theme edit started at the “hey!” six seconds in. Got my attention.)

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