Nostalgia Cafe – “Instrumentals of the Fifties” Author: Frederick Ross

Nostalgia Cafe

Instrumentals of the Fifties

By Frederick Ross

On a recent visit to the famous Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix Arizona I was impressed with a display featuring the fifties guitarist Duane Eddy who grew up in Tucson and who has been immortalised with his song “Rebel Rouser” written in 1958. Back then recording instrumental rock music was new to the music industry and to obtain the reverberating twang with a depth of sound, a 2100 gallon water tank in a Phoenix studio was used as a resonance chamber for this song and the rest is history. Eddy went on to record other instrumental rock like ‘Because They’re Young” and Henry Mancini’s theme from “Peter Gunn” (1959). One of my favourites was Eddy’s version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.

After easy listening instrumentals or ‘light music’ as it was known in the fifties from the likes of Mantovani, Percy Faith and his orchestra, and Martin Denny (with his exotic piece “Quiet Village”), the development of instrumental rock was just a matter of time. Emerging from jazz instrumental music, the genre of ‘instrumental rock’ became popular in the fifties with musicians like Duane Eddy and others like Santo and Johnny with “Sleep Walk” using a Hawaiian guitar and Dave “Baby” Cortez with piano/organ duet playing “Happy Organ”. Songs like “Tequila” by the Champs (1958) and “Wipeout” by the Sarfaris (1963) were picked up later by the Ventures who improved on the original versions by their unique guitar playing. And who can forget “Walk Don’t Run” or “Perfidia” and “Telstar” also by the Ventures? The theme from “Hawaii Five O” is still popular but one of their most beloved hits was “Apache”, a remake of Jerry Lordan’s original from 1960. Whenever I hear that piece I can’t help but visualize Geronimo looking down from a craggy desert outcropping at sunset somewhere in southern Arizona scouting for his pursuing adversaries -the U.S. Cavalry. (It’s interesting that a Brit wrote that piece after watching a movie about Apaches).

The Ventures eventually sold over 100 million records worldwide, 40 million in Japan alone where they became very popular even outselling the Beatles two to one playing 56 tours there. Perhaps the absence of lyrics with pure guitar virtuosity contributed to their immense popularity in Japan and because you could dance to most of their songs. Another well known instrumental “Pipeline” by the Chantays produced in 1962 was later picked up by the Ventures as well.

Anther great fifties instrumental was “Red River Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes on the Warwick label and soon followed by “Reveille Rock” and “Crossfire”. “Teen Beat” (1959) and “Let There Be Drums” (1961) by the compelling percussionist Sandy Nelson would get your toes tapping every time. The Rockateens produced “Woo Hoo” in 1959 (Tarentino used this song in his movie ‘Kill Bill”) and Booker T. and the MGs released “Green Onions” in 1962 when he was only seventeen years old. The song hit number one selling over a million copies. The point is you didn’t need lyrics to make a great rock and roll piece and sometimes the themes stimulated our imaginations beyond what lyrics could do. Take for example “Rumble” by Link Wray, a rock instrumental classic that was actually banned by some radio stations because it was felt it might incite gang violence. This song was featured in the Tarentino movie “Pulp Fiction” so there may have been some truth to that. (He seemed to have liked fifties instrumental rock).

Certain songs can evoke memories of where we were when we first heard them. I clearly remember in the early sixties dancing with a very attractive girl at a community centre dance to Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore”. This young lady was beyond her years and she danced rather sensuously thereby immediately imprinting once and forever the magical and alluring nature of this wonderful instrumental (played by a base clarinet) on my fragile adolescent cortex. (They should have called it “Stranger on the Floor” as far as I was concerned- I never did get her name). So instrumental rock music in the fifties and early sixties played a big role not just in dance but in romance for those of us fortunate enough to grow up in this wonderful era. And we keep going back for more.