Rewind The Biggest Instrumental Hits of the Past 50 Years
What do the Harlem Shake, Gary Glitter, Star Wars, Hawaii Five-O and Barry White have in common?
Until “Harlem Shake” came along in 2013, it had been more than 10 years since there was an instrumental in the Billboard Top 10.
The instrumental was once a mainstay of the pop charts. In 1963 alone, there were 10 instrumentals that crashed the Top 10, from the Chantays’ surf -guitar classic “Pipeline” to the easy listening sounds of “More” by Kai Winding and His Orchestra. But in recent years, the form has pretty much disappeared from the airwaves.
But instrumentals sure were a lot of fun, partly because half the time you had no idea what the song was called. Do you know “Soulful Strut”? Sure you do, and you’ll recognize it as soon as you click the link halfway down this list, but it’s hard to place with just that title.
It’s also difficult to describe what exactly makes an instrumental, since many of these songs do have a bit of vocalizing to them. As my friend and Rolling Stone contributor Gavin Edwards points out, there are a lot of instrumentals whose only lyric is the title: “Tequila” by the Champs, for instance, which hit No. 1 back in 1958 and is arguably the first rock & roll instrumental to top the charts. Billboard says it’s an instrumental, though, and who am I to disagree?
This list contains every instrumental, as classified by Billboard, that has made it to the Top 10 over the past 50 years. It’s a remarkable journey through musical eras — disco, funk, jazz, TV and movie themes galore. There are bold orchestral compositions, hard rockin’ guitars, groovy interludes… and probably a bit too much Kenny G.
Listen, read and enjoy… who needs vocals?
“Harlem Shake” by Baauer peaked at No. 1, reached Top 40 in February 2013
Billboard revamped its charting methodology to include streaming data, in part because of the viral success of this song, allowing it to debut at No. 1. Although the song blew up on YouTube, Baauer himself never made a “Harlem Shake” video.
“Auld Lang Syne (The Millenium Mix)” by Kenny G No. 7, January 2000
Talk about a short shelf life. Despite bouncing all the way up into the Top 10, this very much of-the-moment record spent just two weeks on the charts.
“Theme from Mission: Impossible” by Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen
No. 7, June 1996
U2’s rhythm section dumbed it down from the original, changing the time signature from 5/4 to a more pop-friendly 4/4.
“Songbird” by Kenny G No. 4, May 1987
Then-candidate Bill Clinton named G as one of his favorite fellow saxophonists back in 1992, and they have now become golfing buddies.
“Miami Vice Theme” by Jan Hammer No. 1, September 1985
The first TV theme song to top the charts since John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” in 1976. The original Miami Vice album was the best-selling TV soundtrack of all time — until Disney’s High School Musical came along.
“Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer No. 3, April 1985
Although this was Faltermeyer’s only solo hit, he co-wrote Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.”
“Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis No. 1, February 1982
Vangelis himself wasn’t impressed: “I think of my soundtrack for Mutiny on the Bounty as endlessly more interesting than Chariots of Fire,” he said in 1991.
“Hooked On Classics” by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
No. 10, November 1981
The last dying gasp of 1981’s medley craze, which had been kicked off in May by Stars on 45. This was successful enough to spawn the sequel Hooked on Classics 2 — Can’t Stop the Classics.
“The Theme from ‘Hill Street Blues’” by Mike Post No. 10, October 1981
Post says he watched the pilot episode, went home, and pounded out the theme on his piano in half an hour. Series creator Steven Bochco heard it and said, “Do that. Exactly that.”
“Rise” by Herb Alpert No. 1, August 1979
Alpert went into the studio to record a disco version of his 1962 hit “The Lonely Bull,” and when that sounded predictably awful, the band turned to “Rise.” Alpert hadn’t even had a Top 40 hit since 1968’s “This Guy’s in Love With You,” which also went all the way to No. 1. Sampled by Notorious B.I.G. for “Hypnotize.”
“Music Box Dancer” by Frank Mills No. 3, March 1979
Intended for the easy-listening market, Mills’ label mistakenly sent the record to a pop station in Ottawa, which liked it enough to turn it into a Top 40 hit.
“Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione No. 4, March 1978
Chuck’s one regret about the song was that he wished he had written it in a different key, so he wouldn’t have to hit that high D night after night.
“Star Wars (Main Title)” by John Williams & the London Symphony Orchestra No. 10, August 1977
For five weeks in the late summer of 1977, there were two version of the Star Wars theme in the Top 40.
“Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” by Meco No. 1, August 1977
Meco watched Star Wars five times in the first two days the film was out, then went and produced his disco version of the title theme. He went on to play the trombone solo in Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.”
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from ‘Rocky’)” by Bill Conti & His Orchestra No. 1, May 1977
Although Conti composed the music, there are also two writers credited for the lyrics, which consist of “Trying hard now/It’s so hard now/Getting strong now/Won’t be long now/Gonna fly now/Flying high now.” Two writers.
“Nadia’s Theme (‘The Young & the Restless’)” by Barry DeVorzon & Perry Botkin, Jr. No. 8, October 1976
Nadia Comaneci, the 14-year-old Romanian darling of the 1976 Olympics, never actually did a routine to this song; it became identified with her when ABC produced a highlight reel of her gymnastics performances with this as the background music. It had been the theme to the soap opera The Young and the Restless since 1973.
“A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band
No. 1, July 1976
The follow-up was a disco version of “Flight of the Bumblebee.” More recently, Murphy has become the house composer for Seth MacFarlane, writing music for Family Guy, The Cleveland Show and American Dad.
“Theme from ‘S.W.A.T.’” by Rhythm Heritage No. 1, January 1976
Written by Barry De Vorzon, the instrumental king of 1976. Adding Sammy Davis Jr. on vocals, Rhythm Heritage also did “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” the theme from Baretta, which peaked at No. 20 in spring of ’76.
“The Rockford Files” by Mike Post No. 10, June 1975
Post described his approach to composing TV theme songs as “Let’s make one-minute hit records.” The single version of The Rockford Files was stretched out to 3:06.
“Dynomite (Part 1)” by Tony Camillo’s Bazuka No. 10, June 1975
Inspired by Jimmie “J.J.” Walker’s catchphrase from the sitcom Good Times, which had debuted a year earlier. Camillo was also the producer of such hits as Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
“The Hustle” by Van McCoy No. 1, May 1975
McCoy had written “Baby I’m Yours” for Barbara Lewis in 1965 and put together the R&B duo of Peaches and Herb in 1966 before finally finding a hit of his own. He would be dead of a heart attack within five years.
“Express” by B.T. Express No. 4, February 1975
The last big hit for the legendary Scepter Records, home to such acts as the Shirelles, the Isley Brothers and Dionne Warwick before closing up shop in 1976.
“Pick Up the Pieces” by the Average White Band N0. 1, December 1974
James Brown’s band recorded an answer song, “Pick Up the Pieces One by One,” under the name Above Average Black Band.
“Love’s Theme” by the Love Unlimited Orchestra No. 1, December 1973
Originally intended to be nothing more than a backing group for his female vocal trio Love Unlimited, Barry White’s 40-piece orchestra featured such future pop stalwarts as Kenny G., Lee Ritenour, and Ray Parker Jr.
“Space Race” by Billy Preston No. 4, October 1973
Became the commercial intro music on American Bandstand for the last 15 years of that venerable show’s run.
“Hocus Pocus” by Focus No. 9, April 1973
According to the “Big Country” rule, it’s never a good sign when your first hit plays off your band’s name.
“Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group No. 1, April 1973
Named by Edgar’s drummer, after the band stitched together parts of several different jams to create one massive, lumbering song.
“Also Sprach Zarathustra (Theme from ‘2001’)” by Deodato
No. 2, February 1973
Inspired by the use of Strauss’s composition in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but otherwise unrelated to that 1968 film.
“TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB featuring the Three Degrees No. 1, March 1974
The house band for Gamble & Huff’s Philly soul operations, MFSB also backed up the Stylistics, the Spinners, the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
“The Entertainer” by Marvin Hamlisch No. 3, April 1974
The theme song from The Sting, which was set in the late 1930s — 35 years after “The Entertainer” was written, and 20 years after ragtime had died out.
“Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weissberg & Steve Mandell No. 2, February 1973
Long before its appearance in Deliverance, this song made its TV debut on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, as performed by the hillbilly jug band the Darlings.
“Rock and Roll (Part 2)” by Gary Glitter No. 7, August 1972
The rarely heard “Rock and Roll (Part 1)” features such lyrics as “Can you still recall in the jukebox hall when the music played?”
“Popcorn” by Hot Butter No. 9, August 1972
This naggingly infectious synth ditty has since been covered by artists ranging from Muse to Aphex Twin to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.
“Outa-Space” by Billy Preston No. 2, May 1972
Originally the B-side to the title track from Preston’s debut album, I Wrote a Simple Song.
“Jungle Fever” by the Chakachas No. 8, February 1972
Possibly the only Belgian funk record to ever hit the charts. The heavy-breathing vocals were done by Kari Kenton, also known as Mrs. Tito Puente.
“Joy” by Apollo 100 No. 6, January 1972
The songwriting was credited to one “J.S. Bach.” The band Jigsaw — best known for their 1975 hit “Sky High” — had put out a similar version of the same composition two years earlier.
“Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band
No. 6, November 1971
Coffey was a Motown sessionman who contributed wah-wah guitar to such tracks as the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” and Edwin Starr’s “War.”
“Midnight Cowboy” by Ferrante & Teicher No. 10, November 1969
Ferrante & Teichner’s easy-listening piano style seemed out of step with the X-rated Cowboy; they hadn’t had a Top 40 hit since “Tonight” from West Side Story. Another song from the Cowboy soundtrack, Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” went to No. 6.
“Love Theme from ‘Romeo & Juliet’” by Henry Mancini & His Orchestra No. 1, May 1969
Not just his only No. 1 but his only Top 10 hit, and one of the rare Mancini records that he didn’t compose himself. Mancini graduated from the same high school as Mike Ditka.
“Time Is Tight” by Booker T. & the MG’s No. 6, April 1969
The B-side, “Johnny, I Love You,” features a rare vocal turn from Booker T.
“Hawaii Five-O” by the Ventures No. 4, April 1969
The original series used a capital O in the title; the 2010 reboot used a zero.
“Soulful Strut” by Young-Holt Unlimited No. 3, December 1968
Originally called “Am I the Same Girl,” until a producer erased the vocals and reissued it as “Soulful Strut.” In 1992, Swing Out Sister had a modest hit with the resurrected “Am I the Same Girl.”
“Hang ‘Em High” by Booker T. & The MG’s No. 9, December 1968
The first song on this list that was the theme from a Clint Eastwood movie, but not the last. The G’s also took an instrumental version of “Mrs. Robinson” into the Top 40 in 1969.
“Classical Gas” by Mason Williams No. 2, July 1968
Williams’ day job was as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Mike Post — who has shown up a lot on this list — not only arranged and produced the record but wrote, uncredited, the fluttering-horn bridge.
“Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela No. 1, June 1968
The last song recorded for Masekela’s album Promise of a Future: “The record took us about half an hour to make and it was just a filler,” Masekela said. A cover by the Friends of Distinction, complete with lyrics, went to No. 3 in 1969.
“The Horse” by Cliff Nobles & Co. No. 2, June 1968
Originally the B-side to a solo single by Nobles, a vocalist who doesn’t actually appear on the track at all.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” by Hugo Montenegro & His Orchestra No. 2, April 1968
The wordless grunting in the background is mostly provided by Montenegro himself; the “wah-wah-wah” sound isn’t sung, but played on a harmonica.
“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat and His Orchestra No. 1, January 1968
The only song to top the American charts that was recorded in France. Mauriat also composed (under the pseudonym “Del Roma”) Little Peggy March’s 1963 hit “I Will Follow Him.”
“No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach’s In)” by the T-Bones
No. 3, December 1965
The tune was taken from an Alka-Seltzer commercial. The same band later recorded, with a good deal of success (and with vocals), as Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds.
“A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass No. 7, October 1965
The Beatles had recorded this song — much more slowly, and with lyrics — on their British debut LP, Please Please Me, two years earlier.
“The ‘In’ Crowd” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio No. 5, August 1965
In addition to Ramsey Lewis, the other members of the trio were Redd Holt and Eldee Young, who went on to form Young-Holt Unlimited and record “Soulful Strut,” which you just read about.
“Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Sounds Orchestral No. 10, April 1965
A jazzy piano tune originally written and recorded by Vince Guaraldi, whose soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas would blow up later that same year.
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