The Ventures and Duane Eddy helped define instrumental rock, so much so that both have been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But Eddy was from the 1950s and early 1960s, and The Ventures were at their peak in the ’60s. There are few, if any, instrumental rock groups or solo acts thriving today.
Since Bill Haley and His Comets ushered in the rock era when “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” reached number one in July 1955, there have been over two dozen instrumental songs that reached number one on the Billboard singles chart. Many of these were theme songs from movies or TV shows, or show tunes, and not rock and roll songs. But still there was a prominent place for them on the charts.
However, as the decades have passed, it has become exceedingly difficult for songs that lack lyrics to reach the upper echelon of the charts, or even to chart at all. A look at the number one instrumental songs by decade will show this pattern.
1950s, total of six number one instrumental songs in half a decade
“Autumn Leaves” by Roger Williams
“Lisbon Antigua” by Nelson Riddle
“Poor People Of Paris” by Les Baxter
“The Happy Organ” by Dave “Baby” Cortez
“Tequila” by The Champs
“Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny
1960s, total of nine
“Theme From ‘A Summer Place'” by Percy Faith (number one for nine weeks)
“Wonderland By Night” by Bert Kaempfert
“Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk
“Stranger On The Shore” by Mr. Acker Bilk
“The Stripper” by David Rose
“Telstar” by The Tornados
“Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat
“Grazing In The Grass” by Hugh Masekela
“Love Theme From ‘Romeo And Juliet'” by Henry Mancini
1970s, total of 10
“Frankenstein” by The Edgar Winter Group
“Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra
“TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)” by MSFB and The Three Degrees
“Pick Up The Pieces” by Average White Band
“The Hustle” by Van McCoy
“Theme From S.W.A.T.” by Rhythm Heritage
“A Fifth Of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme From ‘Rocky’)” by Bill Conti
“Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” by Meco
“Rise” by Herb Alpert
1980s, total of two
“Chariots Of Fire” by Vangelis
“Miami Vice Theme” by Jan Hammer
2010s, total of one
“Harlem Shake” by Baauer
Songs like “Tequila,” “TSOP,” “Pick Up The Pieces,” “The Hustle,” and “Harlem Shake” are not instrumentals in the purist sense because they do have spoken words, usually the shouting out or mentioning of the title itself. But they have no real lyrics to them, so we will be generous and count them as instrumentals. In the case of “TSOP,” the Three Degrees chime in at the very end with “let’s get it on, it’s time to get down.” A song like “Fly, Robin, Fly” is a close call, but we won’t count it because it says “Fly, Robin, Fly, up, up to the sky” repeatedly throughout the song. That leaves us with six instrumentals from the 1950s, which is covering only the last half of that Eisenhower decade; nine from the 1960s; 10 from the 1970s; two from the 1980s, and just one since 1985.
During the 1960s and ’70s, despite having the British Invasion and the introspective singer-songwriter period, there was still room for 19 number one instrumental songs. At one point at the end of January 1961, there were three instrumental songs in the Top Five: “Calcutta” at number two, “Exodus” by Ferrante & Teicher at number three, and “Wonderland By Night” at number four. That would be unheard of today.
The struggles of instrumental songs may indicate Americans don’t have the musical appreciation they should. Everything has become so visual that a video can often sell a song more than the lyrics or the music can.
“Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits,” Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 1995
“The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 9th Edition,” Joel Whitburn, Billboard Books, 2010
“The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition,” Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 2003