(Pictured: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, stoned.)
What was the last instrumental to become a big hit? Has there been one since “Harlem Shake” in 2013? “Harlem Shake” was a streaming success as opposed to a radio hit, as I recall. Kenny G made the Top 10 around the turn of the millennium, but again, his “Auld Lang Syne (The Millennium Mix)” was a streaming hit. You have probably forgotten entirely about the Adam Clayton/Larry Mullen version of the “Mission Impossible” theme in 1996. (I know I have.) You have to go back into the 80s before you find actual radio hits, Kenny G’s “Songbird” and the Miami Vice theme and “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop and so on.
Instrumentals are another geeky niche interest of mine, but I’m not alone. A couple of years back I wrote a post about instrumentals that I didn’t think anybody would care about, only to see it generate a bunch of interesting comments and a reader-compiled Spotify list. So maybe you’ll indulge me if I dig into a couple more instrumentals I found down a rabbit hole one recent afternoon.
The group Michaelangelo (their spelling, different from that of the Renaissance sculptor) would likely not have been much different from a lot of other mildly psychedelic folk-rock outfits at the turn of the 1970s were it not for founding member and principal songwriter Angel Peterson’s preferred instrument: the autoharp. In 1971, Michaelangelo made an album, One Voice Many, produced by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind of Switched-on Bach fame. The whole One Voice Many album is up at YouTube, and it starts better than it finishes; the last couple of tracks fall into a hippy-dippy vibe that gets a little tiresome. Peterson (billed on the record as “Angel Autoharp”) sometimes takes a lead on her instrument that other bands might have given to a lead guitarist, which is a unique sound. She isn’t the strongest of singers, however; the best vocals on the album are sung by one of the two other male vocalists, Steve Bohn and Robert Gorman. I don’t know which one is which, but the better one sounds a little like Neil Diamond. He’s on the tightly rockin’ “Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)”.
For Michaelangelo, it was one album and done. One Voice Many didn’t go anywhere, allegedly due to friction between the producers and Columbia Records chief Clive Davis, who held back on promotion of it. As a result, within months of the album’s release, Michaelangelo disappeared from the pages of history. Unless you’re looking at the pages of Billboard or other music trade papers publishing record charts in the spring of 1971. The instrumental “300 Watt Music Box” rose to #18 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April.
At the same time Michaelangelo was leaving its very light mark on history, another instrumental left a somewhat deeper footprint. Spanish composer/conductor Waldo de los Rios went to #5 in Britain in the spring of 1971 with a record officially titled “Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 First Movement.” It would eventually cross the ocean and make #67 on the American Hot 100, but it was not the first version to hit over here. A group called Sovereign Collection, which I am guessing was made up of UK studio musicians, shortened the cumbersome title to “Mozart 40” and scratched onto Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April, at about the same time Michaelangelo did. The Waldo de los Rios record didn’t peak in the States until July 1971.
You will probably recognize the main theme of “Mozart 40.” It’s been frequently heard on TV and in the movies, and it was one of a handful of classical pieces that were often used as mobile phone ringtones in the 90s and early 00s.
If you need more and bigger instrumentals, friend of the blog Tom Nawrocki ran down 50 of the biggest instrumental hits at Cuepoint back in 2015, so go read.