(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.