Music History

Remembering when instrumentals ruled the charts

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]

I remember the exact moment I became fascinated with instrumental singles. As I got ready for school one morning in the early 1970s, Red Alix, the longtime morning host on CJOB/Winnipeg, came off the back of a wild-sounding new record by Billy Preston called Outa-Space. “Not sure what that’s all about,” he sniffed.

I immediately bought the 7-inch with my allowance money and played the thing to death on my portable Silvertone record player. It sounded nothing like I’d ever heard before with keyboards (a clavinet, I later learned), electric guitar, and a crazy groove often punctuated by the heaviest ride cymbal I’d ever heard. So much was conveyed without so much as a single word. Brilliant.

Once I started looking, I realized that the Top 40 charts were very friendly to instrumentals. Another early purchase for me was Apollo 100’s Joy (1971), a modern rendition of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Man’s Desiring, the big hit of 1732. Bandleader Tom Parker sped it up, gave it a beat, and brought in guitar bits supplied by Vic Flick, the guy who put the twang in the James Bond theme.

Updates to classical compositions were quite the thing. In 973, Brazilian Eumir Deodato had a number three hit in Canada with his Fender Rhodes piano version of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (1886).

A few years later, Walter Murphy, now known as the composer of the themes for Family Guy and American Dad, scored by taking Beethoven’s Fifth and turning it into an early disco hit called A Fifth of Beethoven.

TV shows supplied many hit instrumentals. The theme from The Rockford Files by Mike Post in May 1975. The Theme from S.W.AT., released in November of the same year and credited to Rhythm Heritage but was actually the work of composer Barry De Vorzon. He’d have another massive hit with Cotton’s Theme (1973), better known as the title music for The Young and the Restless. When Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci captured the world’s attention at the Montreal Olympics, the piece was retitled Nadia’s Theme and became a top 10 hit in Canada and the U.S.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37850 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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