Best Oldies Rock Instrumentals of the 50s


The best rock instrumentals of the ’50s happened because rock and roll evolved in part out of the larger “dance band” trend when advances in audio technology made it easier for small combos to energize a party or club. So it was only natural that oldies instrumental hits, already a ’50s staple in jazz with classics like Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” and Ray Anthony’s “Peter Gunn Theme,” would evolve into a rock-based form. Here are the groundbreaking instrumental rock oldies hits of the 1950s, songs which seemed like novelties at the time but which went on to lay the cornerstone for soul, surf, the British Invasion, and more!  

You don’t need to explain the success of this classic instrumental to anyone who’s ever heard it: few songs are so universally and instantly successful at creating a dreamy atmosphere. It probably didn’t hurt, however, that Hawaiian culture was just starting to explode into the American consciousness in 1959― after all, this strategically important Pacific island had just become America’s 50th state. Santo Farina, the soloing half of this brother duo, played a steel guitar tuned in a Hawaiian “slack key” variant since his guitar teacher was well versed in the island style. The song itself was based on a jazz standard called “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise.” The rest is instrumental rock history.

Doggett wanted nothing to do with rock and roll, or even R&B―a former Louis Jordan sideman, he considered himself a jazz organist, first and foremost. But in assembling the first-rate band with a triple guitar-organ-sax threat, he was probably asking for a pop-culture crossroads, and he got one with this incredibly sexy shuffle, in which saxophonist Clifford Scott and guitarist Billy Butler run through as many jazz, R&B, blues, and even country licks as they can think of in two smoking sides. This is one of those jams that blows so hot you can hear the members shouting in agreement between the cracks. (This crew soon came up with two more instrumental R&B smashes — “Slow Walk,” later a pop hit for Sil Austin, and “Ram-Bunk-Shush,” brought into the Top 40 by The Ventures.)

The “King of Twang,” Duane Eddy was one of a handful of guitar pioneers around the turn of the decade looking to use acoustics and new electronic breakthroughs to bring new voices to their instrument. For his part, Eddy got that deep, endlessly reverberating twang by focusing on the bass strings of his Gretsch and feeding his solos into an empty 2,000-gallon water tank to be picked up by a microphone. The result was a major influence on rock guitar to come, especially the rising wave of surf bands. (That’s the Rivingtons of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” fame egging him on vocally, and future Nancy Sinatra cohort Lee Hazelwood behind the boards; a few of the band members here went on to be session musicians in Los Angeles’ famed “Wrecking Crew” of the ’60s.) 

As anyone who’s ever seen the movie Pulp Fiction knows, this instrumental classic creates an air of menace so thick you can cut it with a knife. In fact, that atmosphere led Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers to suggest the song’s title, and it led to a song with no words being banned from many radio stations across America just on the outside chance that it might stir up gangs who “rumbled” (i.e., fought) in the inner cities. The first rock song to introduce the “power chord” and guitar distortion, both later mainstays of hard rock, its influence was so profound it caused many members of the British Invasion, most notably the Who’s Pete Townshend, to pick up a guitar for the first time. 

By far the biggest hit on this list, “Tequila” was also a product of newfound multiculturalism making its way to US radio: in this case, the Latin craze, which led to the popularity of calypso and the mambo, and also this fun little number, which crossed a straight rock beat with a Latin-flavored rhythm on guitar and cymbal. Cultural exploitation? Nope―the saxophonist, who wrote his own classic riff, was one Danny Flores, who yelled “Tequila!” only because he couldn’t think of anything else to say when the music stopped. And that’s how this song, written and recorded in ten minutes for a b-side, became one of the most popular instrumentals of all time.

This prime example of vintage Sun rockabilly featured a guitar riff so tasty that it also inspired the formation of a British Invasion band―George Harrison used it to audition for John Lennon. So popular was this, the first instrumental hit rock ever had, that it was taken back into the Top 40 that same year by Billy Vaughn and Ernie Freeman, and was the direct inspiration for Duane Eddy’s “Rebel-‘Rouser.” Justis never duplicated its success himself, however, possibly because he didn’t play the guitar. He was the one taking the saxophone solos.

Sandy was one of rock’s first great drummers (you can hear him on some classic Gene Vincent sides as well as “Alley-Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles), and he picked up on a great tradition from the jazz world: extended drum solos, which had already resulted in a classic jazz instrumental called “Topsy,” a hit for Cozy Cole. Nelson transferred that to rock, and the result was not just this smash, but a whole career of albums where Nelson took whatever was popular on the radio and put his own personal stamp, or should we say stomp, on it. In fact, losing a foot in a motorcycle accident in 1963 barely slowed him down. Take that, Def Leppard!

Cortez wasn’t really his last name, and he wasn’t really an organist: in the same way that he used his middle name as a surname, Mr. David Clowney was a pianist who decided, quite on the spur of the moment, to play a Hammond B-3 on his very first single after spying it in the studio. In fact, “The Happy Organ” wasn’t even supposed to be an instrumental, but when his vocals didn’t thrill him, he improvised yet again. The result was not only a hit, but the first rock hit to feature an organ, which had long been the purview of jazz bands, ballparks, and roller rinks. As if to acknowledge this, the less-successful followup was called “Rinky Dink.”

The idea of taking standards from other areas of popular music and putting a rock spin on them was still a new one in 1959, and Johnny Paris had his work cut out for him with “Red River Valley,” a century-old folk song so ancient its author was lost to history. But the familiar also sells, and the Hurricanes had major success with “Rock,” the second hit of its kind to be based around an organ melody. Johnny didn’t play the organ, either; he was the saxman. And that dinky, cheesy, but irresistibly fun sound you hear doesn’t come from the kind of Hammond you’d expect…it’s band member Paul Tesluk noodling on one of the brand’s first home organs.

When is an instrumental not an instrumental? Listen close, and you’ll hear that the “Woo hoo”s which serve as the big fat hook for this hit are actually only there to balance out the drum and guitar solos. That discrepancy gets passed over a lot these days, ironically because of a major resurgence in the song’s popularity: what was once considered a strange novelty number was unearthed by director John Waters for his film Pecker, which led to its inclusion in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, which led to its ubiquitous use, in a re-recorded form, in snippets during a Vonage ad campaign. However, it is still technically an instrumental, like “Tequila,” or “Fly Robin Fly,” or “The Hustle.” But that is for another day.

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