(Pictured: a silvery moon, sailing along.)
From the earliest days of recording, instrumental music was always popular. During the 30s and early 40s, jazz was America’s favorite form of popular music. But as the big-band era faded and jazz evolved in ways that some fans couldn’t follow, the instrumental acts that were left standing, by 1950 or so, were largely pop acts.
While these acts still released singles, the 10-inch and later the 12-inch long-playing album were an even-better format for them. The coming of consumer stereo in 1958 created a market for them that hadn’t existed before. Early adopters wanted to buy records that would sound good on their new systems. They weren’t the kids buying 78s or 45s by Elvis, Pat Boone, and the Everly Brothers; they were their adult siblings, or their uncles and fathers. For those older consumers, the content of the records was secondary to the sonic experience they created, but if the tunes were familiar, so much the better. Thus the market for instrumental music exploded. (What’s known as “space-age pop,” a genre with several offshoots, developed during this period.)
There are any number of bandleaders one might write about in this period: some had been sidemen in big bands, others had been arrangers or composers. One of the most prolific was involved with a lot of other people’s hits and released dozens of albums and singles under his own name: Billy Vaughn.
During the first half of the 50s, Vaughn had been a singer. He later became an A&R man, arranger, and conductor at Dot Records, where he was responsible for a boatload of cover recordings, often the white versions of R&B hits, including many of the most famous by Pat Boone. (If it was on Dot in the 50s and it wasn’t by Lawrence Welk, chances are Vaughn was involved.) At the same time, he was releasing records under his own name. He charted a remarkable 36 albums on the Billboard album chart between 1958 and 1970. He also charted 28 singles between 1954 and 1966.
Here is your Billy Vaughn Top Five:
5. “A Swingin’ Safari” (1962). I have written quite a bit in recent months about songs I heard before I knew it, songs that played on my parents’ radio and lodged in my head, so that when I heard them years later, they came with a set of pre-loaded associations. “A Swingin’ Safari” likely came to me from both the radio and the TV: it was the theme song for the original Match Game, which ran from 1962 to 1969.
4. “Raunchy” (1957). The cover versions Vaughn arranged and produced at Dot sanded the edges off the originals, and his “Raunchy” is no exception. It tones down both the guitar twang of the Bill Justis original and the rock beat of the Ernie Freeman version. But there was room on the radio for all three to make the Top 10, all in December 1957.
3. “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (1956). The most unusual record in Vaughn’s catalog is “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a two-part, six-minute tale of Western adventure and existential philosophy narrated by voice artist Ken Nordine. Nordine would later be famed for the creation of what he called “word jazz.” In the 70s he narrated a series of iconic commercials for Levis, and he died this past February at age 98.
2. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” (1958). If you didn’t recognize “A Swingin’ Safari,” maybe you know “Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” an alto-saxophone duet performed to a medium-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. The “duet” is actually one guy, Los Angeles studio musician Justin Gordon, overdubbing himself. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” was the original B-side of “Raunchy” and followed it up the Billboard chart in early 1958.
1. “Melody of Love” (1955). This old-fashioned, sentimental tune was first heard in 1903. Vaughn’s recording of “Melody of Love” was the biggest of five versions that hit simultaneously in early 1955; the Four Aces and Frank Sinatra cut vocal versions.
Bonus Track: “Wheels” (1961). Although other Vaughn singles charted higher than “Wheels,” I suspect it’s better known today (to the extent that Vaughn is remembered at all) than all but “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” and “A Swingin’ Safari.”
In any period of music history, there are always records that escape the generalizations we make when narrating that history. The pop instrumentals of the 50s and 60s—by the Billy Vaughns of the world—are among the most frequent escapees.