During the past 30 to 35 years, it has been extremely rare for instrumental songs to become hits on the Billboard Hot 100. However, hit songs without singing were commonplace on Top 40 radio from 1960 through 1985. In that time span, there were 18 different instrumental songs all peaking at number one.
The biggest instrumental hit of the 60s is “The Theme from a Summer Place” by Percy Faith and the Orchestra. This monster hit spent 9 consecutive weeks at number 1 and was the biggest record of 1960 according to Billboard. Faith won a Grammy Award for “Record of the Year” in 1961 for this song.
The summer of 1968 was the pinnacle for instrumental hits on Top 40 radio. On the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week ending August 3, there are three instrumentals in the top eight positions: “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams peaked at #2, “Grazing in the Grass” from Hugh Masekela ranked #4 and “The Horse” by Cliff Noble and Co was number 8.
At the end of 1968, Billboard ranked 6 instrumental songs in their “Year-End Hot 100 Singles” chart with Paul Mauriat’s tune “Love is Blue” coming in as the second biggest record for ’68.
With this latest music blog message, I will be counting down what I consider to be the top 10 most significant instrumental singles between the years of 1965 and 1969. This time frame is considered to be part of the “Golden Age of Top 40 Radio.”
Criteria that I am using in this article:
- Tune charted during the 1965 to 1969 time period
- Single peaked at number 10 or higher on the Billboard Hot 100 chart
- Song has NO voices, speaking of words or whistling anywhere on the tune
My favorite instrumental: Soul Coaxing by Raymond Lefèvre and His Orchestra. Peaked at number 37 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the spring of 1968.
Instrumentals that are good but not eligible for my countdown because of human voices, brief singing or whistling:
- Soul Finger—The Bar-Kays
- The Good, The Bad and the Ugly—Hugo Montenegro
- No Matter What Shape—The T-Bones
- I Was Kasier Bill’s Batman—Whistling Jack Smith
- The “In” Crowd—Ramsey Lewis Trio
Instrumental songs just outside of my top 10
- Hang ‘Em High—Booker T and the MGs
- Quentin’s Theme—Charles Randolph Grean Sounde
- Keem-O-Sabe—Electric Indian
As Casey Kasem used to say on his American Top 40 show: “And now it’s on with the countdown.”
10. Midnight Cowboy—Ferrante & Teicher (1969)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #2 Easy Listening, #10 Hot 100
Musical score written by John Berry for the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy.” The Ferrante & Teicher duo were American piano players who recorded many movie soundtracks, show tunes and light classical music tunes.
9. Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet—Henry Mancini & His Orchestra (1969)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, 15th Biggest Hit of 1969
From the 1969 movie “Romeo & Juliet.” Music written by Nino Rota and rearranged by Henry Mancini, who plays the piano on the tune. Session musician Hal Blaine added drums to this track.
8. Grazing in the Grass—Hugh Masekela (1968)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, 18th Biggest Hit of 1968.
Hugh Masekela was a jazz trumpet player from South Africa. Music was composed by Philemon Hou and features a cowbell. Tune inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2018.
7. Hawaii Five-0—The Ventures (1969)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #4 Hot 100, 58th Biggest Hit of 1969
Written by Morton Stevens as the theme music for CBS TV series Hawaii Five-O. The Ventures cover version spent 14 weeks on the Billboard chart. One of the band’s biggest hits.
6. The Horse—Cliff Nobles & Co (1968)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #2, Hot 100, 21st Biggest Hit of 1968
Interesting that Cliff Nobles didn’t perform on the tune credited to him. A group of session musicians jammed in the studio to create the instrumental track. “The Horse” was released as the B-Side of the 45-rpm single “Love is All Right” and is the instrumental version of that tune.
5. Soulful Strut—Young-Holt Unlimited (1968)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #3 Hot 100, #2 Easy Listening
Young-Holt Unlimited was a jazz trio from Chicago, Illinois. The music ensemble included Eldee Young and Isaac “Redd” Holt who both left Ramsey Lewis Trio in 1966, as well as Ken Chaney who became a member in 1968.
4. Time is Tight—Booker T and the MGs (1969)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #6 Hot 100, 3rd Biggest Hit of 1969
Booker T and the MGs were a mainstay with Stax Records out of Memphis, Tennessee and the are considered the quintessential R&B instrumental band of the 60s. These musicians had seven Top 40 hits and the group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
3. Love is Blue—Paul Mauriat & His Orchestra (1968)
Peak positions on Billboard Charts: #1 Hot 100, 2nd Biggest Hit of 1968
With “Love is Blue” reaching number 1 for five weeks during February and March in 1968, Paul Mauriat became the first French artist to top the Billboard Hot 100. The tune also spent 11 weeks at number 1 on the “Easy Listening” chart and became the second best selling record in 1969 according to Billboard.
2. A Taste of Honey—Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (1965)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #1 Easy Listening, #7 Hot 100
Signature tune by Herb Alpert received four Grammy Awards, including “Record of the Year” in 1966. “A Taste of Honey” topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart for five weeks and the American trumpeter was a 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
- Classical Gas—Mason Williams (1968)
Peak Positions on Billboard Charts: #2 Hot 100, 43rd Biggest Hit of 1968
“Classical Gas” was composed by Mason Williams and features instrumental backup by the professional session musicians known as the “Wrecking Crew.” During 1969, the tune won three Grammy Awards for categories all associated with instrumental music. Without a doubt, the musical masterpiece known as “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams is my number 1 selection for the best instrumental top 40 single of the mid to late 60s.
Now that I have submitted my top 10 premier pop instrumental hits of the 60s, I am curious to find out your opinions of this topic. What are your favorite songs on my countdown?
Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts and comments below on what you consider to be the best Top 40 pop instrumental hits from the mid to late 60s. I look forward reading your responses. Rock on!
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16 thoughts on “Premier Pop Instrumental Hits of the 60s: 1965-1969”
Great topic for a list. My 3 is part of your list.
All the songs in your article were like a link between all races. These songs made life bearable and could take away your problems even if it was for a only a few moments for everyone.
All these are interchangeable, so I don’t have a clear cut #1
3. Taste of Honey – Herb Alpert- Was probably the 1st song I started listening to and remembering. Loved the drummer with the whisk sticks. Light and wonderfully put together
2. Soulful Strut – Young-Holt Another smooth tune that I remember that has warm memories for me. This a great song to groove too walking down the boardwalk on any beach.
1. The Horse – Cliff Nobles & Co – only because we played that song in our High School Band during football games. Drummers got really loose during their solos. We pepped up the crowd and people were always having a good time.
Hawaii 5-O – Steve Magarett, couple strands of hair across the forehead. Dani! Enough said!😂
Grazin in the Grass. I like the musical version but I love the record with “The Friends of Distinction” singing the song. “I can dig it, he can dig it, she can dig it, we can dig it” !!!!!
Bernard: I love your comment about how these instrumental songs were a “link to all races.” As Stevie Wonder says in his excellent song, “Sir Duke” from 1977:
Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
Music knows that it is and always will
Be one of the things that life just won’t quit
And to quote the Friends of Distinction’s lyrics with their vocal version of “Grazing in the Grass” from the summer of ’69: “I can dig it.” Rock on!
Another very interesting read. Had no idea there were that many instrumental songs out during that time period. Classical Gas, theme from Romeo and Juliet and Grazing in the Grass are my top picks. Some of the songs I was not familiar with at all!
The Sixties were great for instrumentals. I like the ten you chose as well as one you wouldn’t, “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis, and one that almost made it, “Hang ‘Em High” by Booker T & The MG’s. All the ones you mentioned were excellent choices!
I’ve got a couple of favorites to add:
1) Of course, “Flying” by the Beatles – actually a decent song all by itself, and one of the very few with composition credited to all four Beatles. (The Magical Mystery Tour album, 1967)
2) “Wild Weekend” by The Rebels – low-charted in 1960 and then came back for heavy airplay in 1962.
3) “Calcutta” by The Lawrence Welk Orchestra. Lawrence Welk? Are you kidding? But I dare you to sit still while listening to it. Plus, there’s a Beatle legend associated with this song. (For the record, I do *not* believe this legend). It is said that George Martin got the inspiration for the hand-clap rhythm in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from this song.
4) “Wheels” by the String-A-Longs. Very accomplished guitar work! I used to think it was Chet Atkins when I heard it.
5) Did anyone know that Paul Revere & the Raiders’ first hit was an instrumental? “Like Long Hair” – I was probably 30 before I realized that it was those guys and not the Ventures or someone like that.
6) “Nut Rocker” by B Bumble and the Stingers (1962) got a second wind when Emerson Lake & Palmer recorded it for their Pictures at an Exhibition album in 1971.
7) “The Disadvantages of You” was known to most everyone in 1967 not from the charts but from being the theme song for Benson & Hedges cigarette ads
8) “Music To Watch Girls By” by The Bob Crewe Generation (1966) – we all had to be told that no, this wasn’t Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. They sure were copying their style though.
9) “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” – Vince Guaraldi trip (1963). This is the song that inspired Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson to get Guaraldi to write the music for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
10) And how could we leave off “Miserlou” by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. That thing has some shelf life: “Pulp Fiction,” “Pump It”
Funnily enough, I played Classical Gas yesterday. A truly wonderful tune. I had A Taste of Honey on single when I was a young boy and also Spanish Flea.
Here’s one from 1969 possibly not known to many readers, it was by Hank B Marvin (lead guitarist of the Shadows). He is an Englishman who took an American stage name.
I love this piece, called Sacha, it got picked up by a couple of regional DJs here in New South Wales (Australia) and, as a result, got to #15 in the national charts.
Hi Dave. My favs are Love is Blue (Senior HS year), Grazing in the Grass( Soph College) , and Hawaii 50 because along with the Peter Gunn Theme and Mission Impossible Theme it is one of the most iconic TV opening songs. Also like theme for the Magnificent 7 ( Marlboro) . Maybe subject for your next blog. Thanx David. As always, Great!1!
Those 60’s instrumentals helped balance music on the radio and went on to leave its signature on the charts.
I think my favorite was “Grazing on the Grass” Hugh Masekela. Mason Williams came a long way from “Them Toadsuckers” (a K92 favorite) but it couldn’t compare to “Classical Gas” in the 60s.
Imagine not hearing the Ventures, Booker T, Herb Alpert and so many more on the radio. I’ve always thought these classics don’t need words, they’re already great.
very interesting read David. The Horse played quite often on the jukebox in the WFHS football locker room. yes, we had one in there and a dr.pepper fountain drink machine also. check out on youtube the Dutch Symphony doing the Hang em High and the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Good read, as usual. I can’t disagree with you much with your choices, Classical Gas is an excellent tune. I didn’t realize the number of instrumentals released during this period; sadly, it’s not something you hear in the current music scene.
Liked your blog this time Dave. I never thought much about instrumental songs but you sure jogged my memory. There were some good ones. What about Wipe Out?
Barbara: “Wipe Out” from the Surfaris charted twice on the Billboard Hot 100. First time in 1963, it peaked at #2. The second time it became a hit was in 1966 and peaked at #18.
Hi Dave, I did not recognize 9 and 10 on your list but the rest were great songs. The only thing I would have changed is I would have put “Time is tight” by Booker T in the number one spot.
Enjoyed the blog DW. Theme from a Summer Place was a monster. The movie did not do the song justice. I was a big Herb Alpert fan back in the day and I probably had six vinyl albums. A Taste of Honey was probably his best single but Whipped Cream was another good one. The Dating Game used that as its theme song. Time is Tight would be my #1 followed by Classical Gas and the Horse. As Bruce Bias noted in his comments the Horse was played at many WF pep assemblies because Mike Dowe our great running back’s nickname was the Horse. Grazing in the Grass musical is a classic but I preferred the Friends of Distinction vocal. I think All State uses it in one of their commercials. Another great job.
As always a wonderful and insightful blog Dave. Love being able to hear these and read the backgrounds. I had nearly forgotten all the wonderful instrumental music of those times. Thank you for all your devotion to this. I truly appreciate all you do.
Love the instrumentals. Particularly the GB & Ugly. I grew up with Summer Place and Love Is Blue. They’re still great and bring back great memories. Thanks for the text Dave.