It’s been a long time since the “golden age” of instrumental hits, those unforgettable, hummable melodies that still endure.
What you may not remember — or ever have known —is that some of those most memorable songs actually have lyrics — some admittedly far superior to others.
Take a short time trip with me to a little-traveled land of forgotten lyrical versions of some popular instrumental hits.
Let’s start with some familiar 1960s songs, then visit the ’50s for three great pairings and wrap up with a late-’60s soul classic.
Some ’60s surprises
Here are five early-’60s instrumental hits with seldom-heard lyrics:
• Clarinetist Mr. Acker Bilk hit No. 1 in 1962 with the haunting “Stranger on the Shore,” but such singers as Roger Whittaker nicely maintain its melancholy mood.
• “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was an instrumental hit twice — the 1963 original by the Vince Guaraldi Trio (of “Peanuts” TV specials fame) and the even bigger 1965 one by Sounds Orchestral. That same year, two singers — Steve Alaimo and Shelby Flint — charted with the song, but neither was really a big hit. Their competing versions in 1965 have slightly different — but equally evocative — lyrics:
A month of nights, a year of days
Octobers drifting into Mays
You set your sail when the tide comes in
And you cast your fate to the wind . . .
• Trumpeter Al Hirt turned “Java” into a Top Five hit in 1964. I’m willing to bet, though, that you’ve never heard a version with words. We’ll correct that oversight right now with Donna Lynn’s “Java Jones,” a valiant effort that never was able to crack Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, stopping at No. 129 (though I gotta admit I bought the 45 at the time).
• And, thankfully, it’s unlikely you ever heard the vocal version of this song, either. The Tornadoes were actually the first British group to top the U.S. charts, beating the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion groups by more than a year with their unique-sounding, “techy” 1962/63 song “Telstar.” Unfortunately, Kenny Hollywood’s vocal version, renamed “Magic Star,” is utterly dreadful.
• About the same time, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd jazzed up pop music with “Desafinado.” Ella Fitzgerald caught — and kept — its distinct flavor with “Desafinado (Slightly Out of Tune).”
Then, two last ’60s biggies:
• The twin pianos of Ferrante and Teicher on the Top Five “Exodus,” the theme from the 1960 Otto Preminger film. Pat Boone wrote the words and gives a dramatic reading of “The Exodus Song (This Land Is Mine).”
• And finally, a vocal version you probably have heard. Percy Faith’s 1960 “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’ ” remains the biggest charting instrumental (nine weeks at No. 1) since “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” in 1955. The Lettermen had a hit vocal version in 1965.
• I never get tired of the music from the 1955 William Holden-Kim Novak movie “Picnic,” my second favorite film. Morris Stoloff took the medley “Moonglow and Theme From ‘Picnic’ ” up the charts in 1956, and this scene was dubbed “the most sexy dance of all cinema” by one enthusiastic YouTube film fan. (I can’t disagree.) The lyrics of the McGuire Sisters’ version fit the mood nicely, too.
• Les Baxter’s engaging “The Poor People of Paris” will make you want to jump on a jet for a quick visit. And who wouldn’t have wanted Dean Martin along for the ride?
• Both Hugo Winterhalter (with pianist Eddie Heywood) and Andy Williams had memorable hit versions of “Canadian Sunset” in 1956.
And a soulful finale
We’ll end with a classic double-dip. Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut” was the big hit in 1968-69, but Barbara Acklin on “Am I the Same Girl” used the same track, added her voice and came up with a minor hit. I actually prefer this version by Swing Out Sister.