It Took A Frenchman . . .

At the end of 1965, 1966 and again 1967, when Billboard magazine calculated which records had earned places in each of those years’ annual Top 40, there was something missing: An instrumental.

And that was a rarity. Joel Whitburn’s book, A Century of Pop Music, lists the top records of each year from 1900 through 1999 (a Top 30 in 1900 and a Top 40 from then on), and during the sixty-five years from 1900 through 1964, there were only six years when the year’s top records had not included at least one instrumental, and none of those years were consecutive.

But then came those three years in a row: 1965 through 1967. And that stretch without a big instrumental hit actually covered most of 1964, too. In December 1963, a surf rock band from Hollywood called the Marketts got their single “Out of Limits” into the Billboard Hot 100. It moved up the chart and peaked during the first week of February 1964 at No. 3. Its performance made it the No. 37 single for 1964, and it was the last instrumental single to do well enough to make the year-end Top 40 for four years.

So what might have happened in February 1964 that altered the character of the music business here in the United States?  Silly question, right?

Now, I can’t trace a straight line between the success of the Beatles and the two waves of the British Invasion from February 1964 onward to the dearth of instrumentals in the year-end charts, but there was certainly less room in those year-end charts – reflecting less time available on radio stations as well as less attention from retail outlets and record buyers – for American music of all types. What I mean is that I can’t cite causation, but it’s one hell of a correlation.

For example, the Top 40 for 1964 in A Century of Pop Music lists thirteen records by British groups while the Top 40 for 1963 in the same book lists none (although one artist each from Belgium and Japan is listed: The Singing Nun for “Dominique” and Kyu Sakamoto for “Sukiyaki”).

And it’s not like the earlier top-selling instrumentals were all middle-of-the-road stuff that would have been crowded out by newer genres: Yes, “Washington Square” by the Village Stompers, the No. 28 record of 1963, had been folksy and decidedly unedgy, but right behind it, at No. 29, had been the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out.”  I imagine it’s fair to say that most pre-Beatles instrumental hits were decidedly MOR, but some were not. I think of Booker T & the MG’s “Green Onions,” No. 38 for the year of 1962, and of the Tornadoes’ “Telstar,” which was the No. 6 single that year. (And I also think of David Rose’s “The Stripper,” which wasn’t rock or R&B, of course, but certainly shook its stuff someplace other than the middle of the road and wound up as the No. 18 record for the year.)

Whatever the reason, for those three years – 1965, 1966 and 1967 – instrumentals failed to crack the list of the top records of the year. And it took a Frenchman to end the drought, with the first bit of instrumental rain falling during the first week of 1968, when Paul Mauriat’s “Love is Blue” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 99. By the second week of February, the record was at No. 1, and it stayed there for five weeks. By the time 1968 closed its books, “Love is Blue” was the No. 3 record of the year (trailing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”).

And forty-five years later, it’s still a beautiful record:

Afternote: I should note that four other instrumentals did well enough in the charts in 1968 to make the Billboard Top 40 for the year. “Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela went to No. 1 and wound up at No. 13 for the year. Three other instrumentals peaked at No. 2 and made the Top 40 for 1968:  “The Horse” by Cliff Nobles and Co. was No. 19 for the year; “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams wound up at No. 24 for the year; and “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” by the Hugo Montenegro Orchestra ended up at No. 27 for the year.

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2 Responses to “It Took A Frenchman . . .”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    I could put “Love Is Blue” and Raymond Lefevre’s “Ame Caline” together on an endless loop and never tire of either all day.

  2. JohnnyC says:

    And don’t forget Francis Lai who composed the theme for “A Man and a Woman” and the softcore classic, “Bilitis.” The French had a talent for lightly swinging pop orchestration in the late ’60s that they pretty much lost rather quickly.

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