Wordless Wonders – Rock’n’Roll Instrumentals
By Vintage Rock | June 7, 2022
From Nut Rocker and Telstar to Wonderful Land and Green Onions, 1962 was the last great year for instrumentals. Now 60 years on, we put the spotlight on the groups that left singers in the, um, shadows… By Douglas McPherson
Chuck Berry may have told Beethoven to roll over, but B. Bumble And The Stingers invited Ludvig’s mate Tchaikovsky to the party and rocked up his March Of The Wooden Soldiers from the Nutcracker Suite, turning it into the piano-pounding rock’n’roll instrumental Nut Rocker.
The record was the brainchild of novelty specialist Kim Fowley who had previously co-produced The Hollywood Argyles No.1, Alley Oop in 1960. It was recorded in an improvised studio in the office of Rendezvous Records boss Rod Pierce, where pianist Al Hazan played the single take with such gusto that he cut his finger, sweeping it up the keys in a final flourish.
“Every time I listen to Nut Rocker, I wince at that final moment of the record, remembering the pain of my bleeding finger and the blood we had to wipe off the white ivories afterwards,” recalled Hazan, who died in 2019.
The name B. Bumble And The Stingers was first adopted by the Rendezvous house band, primarily including drummer Earl Palmer and guitarist René Hall, on the 1961 hit Bumble Boogie, a similarly rocked-up rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumble Bee, on which the piano player was Ernie Freeman.
Both cuts stopped just outside the Top 20 in the United States, but Nut Rocker shot all the way to the top of the UK chart. It recharted a decade later and became a classic also covered by prog rockers Emerson Lake & Palmer.
The success of Nut Rocker, coupled with further chart-toppers from The Tornados, with Telstar, and The Shadows with Wonderful Land, helped make 1962 a golden year for instrumentals in the UK.
In the US, meanwhile, an explosion of lyric-free rock’n’roll peaked in 1959 with hits by artists including Duane Eddy, The Virtues, Johnny And The Hurricanes, Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, Preston Epps, Sandy Nelson, Santo & Johnny and more.
Instrumental music has always been around, from the classical orchestral canon to the jigs and reels of traditional folk. Dancers don’t need words, whether they’re waltzing to Johann Strauss or jitterbugging to the wartime big band music of Glenn Miller.
However, the roots of the rock’n’roll instrumental stretch back to the boogie-woogie pianists of the 1920s.
In the early 50s, instrumentals were a mainstay of R&B dance bands, with hit examples including The Huckle-Buck by Paul Williams in 1949 and Bill Doggett’s 1956 smash Honky Tonk.
The first true rock’n’roll instrumental hit was Raunchy by Bill Justis, a sax player from Birmingham, Alabama, who arranged many of the records at Sun, including those by Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich. Produced by Sam Phillips, Raunchy came out on Sun’s sister label Phillips International in September 1957.
The track hit No.2 on the Hot 100, No.1 on the R&B chart and No.6 on the country parade. It inspired a piano-led cover by Ernie Freeman (backed by later Rendezvous Records bandmates Plas Johnson on sax and Earl Palmer on drums) that did almost as well, reaching No.4. In Britain, a version by Ken MacKintosh And His Orchestra reached No.23, where Justis made No.11.
One of the tune’s British fans was George Harrison who played it on guitar to Paul McCartney on the upper deck of a Liverpool bus and so impressed him that Harrison was invited to join The Quarrymen – the precursor, of course, to The Beatles.
Justis played the sax on Raunchy, but it was the underlying twangy guitar of co-writer Sid Manker that had a profound influence on Duane Eddy as well as his producer Lee Hazlewood.
With an echo chamber made from a 2,000-gallon water tank, Eddy debuted his booming guitar sound on Movin’ n’ Groovin’ a couple of months later. The track borrowed Chuck Berry’s opening riff from Brown Eyed Handsome Man and, in the style of Raunchy, complemented Eddy’s guitar with a sax to create a lasting signature sound.
The track reached No.72 on the chart, but Eddy’s breakthrough came with the following year’s Rebel-’Rouser, replete with yells and handclaps by doo-wop group The Rivingtons.
Many instrumental smashes were one-hit wonders, but Eddy was the genre’s first consistent star, turning out a string of successful songs that stretched into the 70s, including Peter Gunn, Shazam and Because They’re Young, albeit that later hits (Dance With The) Guitar Man and Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar were songs rather than instrumentals, with female vocal group The Rebelettes augmenting the twang.
The first rock’n’roll instrumental No.1 was Tequila by The Champs. Released in January 1958, the track came together by happy accident when a group of session men at Challenge Records gathered to lay down another instrumental called Train To Nowhere, composed by guitarist Dave Burgess. In search of a B-side, they turned to the sax and handclap-driven Tequila by the saxophonist Danny Flores, who was listed on the release as Chuck Rio because he was contracted to another label at the time. Flores also voiced the single word “Tequila!” which punctuates his sax work throughout the tune.
Challenge was founded by singing cowboy Gene Autry and the impromptu group decided to call themselves The Champions after Autry’s big screen horse, Champion, eventually shortening the name to the Champs.
Train To Nowhere initially looked bound for the destination in its title, until a DJ in Cleveland decided to flip the disc and play Tequila, which subsequently went on to sell six million copies.
Guitars, organs and drums
Many instrumental hits were contemporary reworkings of older material, such as The Virtues’ sole success
with Guitar Boogie Shuffle, which added a rockabilly twang, click and echo to Arthur Smith’s 1945 country smash, Guitar Boogie.
Italian American brothers Santo & Johnny (Farina), meanwhile, serenaded the nation with the dreamy lullaby Sleep Walk. Its hypnotic Hawaiian steel guitar flourishes were a timely nod to the fact that Hawaii joined the union that year (1959) and their one big hit became the last instrumental chart-topper of the 50s.
It wasn’t just guitarists that were making the charts, however. Instrumental hits often owed their success to a unique sound that nobody had heard before. Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez stumbled on such a gimmick when he spied a Hammond B3 organ sitting unused in the corner of a studio and decided to play an instrumental version of a song he’d intended to sing. The result, The Happy Organ, was one of the first records to use an electric organ as lead instrument outside of jazz and shot to the top of the hit parade.
Cortez wasn’t the first artist to use a Hammond in rock’n’roll, though. Another frontrunner was Lord Rockingham’s XI, the house band of TV show Oh Boy!, which had one on UK No.1 with the song Hoots Mon in 1958.
If any record matched the thunderous intensity of Link Wray’s guitar classic Rumble it was Sandy Nelson’s tour de force on the drum kit, Teen Beat. Having gone to school with later surf duo Jan And Dean, and producer Kim Fowley, Nelson began his career as a session drummer, playing on Alley Oop by The Hollywood Argyles and To Know Him Is To Love Him by The Teddy Bears. After drumming his way to No.4 with Teen Beat in 1959, he beat a path back to the Top 10 with Let There Be Drums in 1961.
Another percussionist who scored big in 1959 was Preston Epps, whose exhilarating Bongo Rock provided the blueprint for The Surfaris’ surf classic Wipe Out.
Not every instrumental became the hit it deserved to be. Among the misses was In The Mood by The Hawk. It was actually a scandal-bound Jerry Lee Lewis trying to dodge an airtime ban, but the pseudonym didn’t fool anyone who heard his inimitable ivory work. Another big name vocalist who deserved an instrumental hit was Chuck Berry, but his cracking Liverpool Drive remained an album cut.
In Britain, the sound of the early 60s was defined by The Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backing group, who emerged as a record-selling force in their own right with Apache, a ringing guitar instrumental that hit the No.1 spot in the summer of 1960 and stayed there for five weeks.
Led by the sublime vibrato of Hank Marvin’s Fender Stratocaster guitar, the group landed another dozen instrumentals in the Top 10 in the next couple of years, including the chart-toppers Kon-Tiki, Wonderful Land, Dance On and Foot Tapper, becoming one of the UK’s most successful singles acts.
While The Shadows’ fame failed to cross the Atlantic, Britain also gave the world one of the era’s most iconic instrumental hits, Telstar by The Tornados.
Propelled by the reedy space age atmospherics of a clavioline, an early electronic keyboard played by Geoff Goddard, and layered with sci-fi sound effects by its composer and producer Joe Meek, Telstar was a tribute to the recently launched communications satellite of the same name and a record that perfectly captured the mood of its time.
Spending five weeks atop the UK chart and selling five million copies, the futuristic single was the second British instrumental to top the US chart in ’62, after the far-from-rock’n’roll Stranger On The Shore by clarinettist Acker Bilk. It was the first US No.1 by a British group, however, and in a sense the first shot in the ‘British Invasion’ that eventually killed off the golden age of rock’n’roll instrumentals.
Sadly for Meek, a lawsuit claiming that he’d copied the tune from La Marche d’Austerlitz, from the 1960 film Austerlitz, meant that he never saw any royalties. The dispute was resolved in his favour three weeks after his suicide in 1967.
Although American interest in instrumentals waned in the early 60s, former Sun rockabilly Billy Lee Riley can take credit for one of the period’s most atmospheric tunes. He didn’t write or play on it. He simply failed to show up for a recording session at Stax Records, leaving the house band of keyboardist Booker T Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Lewie Steinberg to fill in the time with a jam session.
They came up with a blues number called Behave Yourself which Stax owner Jim Stewart decided to release, with the group name Booker T & the MG’s. In need of a B-side, they swiftly assembled the organ-powered Green Onions at the same session and, as has happened so often in rock history, the B-side became the hit, reaching No.3 and selling a million. Following its use in the film Quadrophenia, it belatedly cracked the UK Top 10 in 1979.
The arrival of The Beatles and Bob Dylan helped to push instrumentals off the charts. To have credibility in the mid-60s, an artist had to write lyrics. But before rock groups like The Rolling Stones and The Kinks took over completely, the surf craze of the early 60s gave instrumental groups one last hurrah.
The biggest surf band, The Beach Boys, may have been a vocal group, but there was something about hypnotic guitar instrumentals like Pipeline by The Chantays, Penetration by The Pyramids and Walk Don’t Run by The Ventures that perfectly evoked the unearthly exhilaration of riding a wave.
According to surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale, who sadly missed out on a national hit with his best-known track, Misirlou, “Real surfing music is instrumental.”
As musical fashion moved on, instrumentals eventually came back into vogue. Fleetwood Mac topped the British chart with Albatross in 1968, while the 70s brought a flurry of funky instrumental hits including Dennis Coffey’s Scorpio and the Edgar Winter Group’s Frankenstein, plus the early disco No.1, Love’s Theme by The Love Unlimited Orchestra.
The timeless appeal of the late 50s and early 60s rock’n’roll instrumental lives on, however, with classics like Rumble, Wipe Out and Nut Rocker regularly featured in movie soundtracks, while Duane Eddy teamed with Art Of Noise for a Top 10 revival of Peter Gunn in 1986.
In 2004, the Japanese girl group The 184.108.40.206’s transcended language barriers and made the UK Top 30 with their cover of The Rock-A-Teens’ mostly instrumental number from 1959, Woo Hoo, after it was featured in the Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill Volume 1.