Labor Day 2018
September Songs: Instrumental Gems
As a singer, I can not easily avow that there are some songs that sound much better as instrumental than as voiced performances. And yet, that reality is undeniably so. Music is a universal language, but it can sometimes communicate better in one form than in another.
“Ebb Tide” was a monster hit by Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers. His solo is spellbindingly beautiful, forcefully moving, with lush dynamics that go the gamut from touchingly soft and tender to dramatically strong and spine-tingling. The climactic ending by tenor Hatfield is like that huge wave crashing on the beach and surging on that shore.
The instrumental version by English musician Frank Chacksfield evokes exquisite tranquillity. The wave doesn’t rush to the shore. It gradually, but inexorably, overtakes those sands of time, much like a perfect love that demands time to grow to its fullest dimension and depth.
At times, I prefer the Chacksfield interpretation of this song, which was written in 1953 by composer Robert Maxwell and lyricist Carl Sigman. There are — in the lyric-less “Ebb Tide” — unspoken, unbidden emotions that the listener fills in, thereby rendering the musical experience more personal, more private, highly ethereal, even eternal. The steepened wave, with all of its power, hits the beach and breaks, but does not fully ebb.
“Moon River”, the dreamlike composition by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, falls, or flows, into this same category. The lyrics might present a distraction from the music.
It’s a curious, though perhaps necessary, quandary for any composer, this tension between lyrics and music, the unintended competition between words and sound. Ideally, they blend; there is no overt rivalry. The “perfect” song might be one that can superlatively be performed as an instrumental and as a vocal. If so, “Moon River” is unquestionably perfect.
In the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn finally gets to use her own voice to sing this charmingly touching tune. She intones the melody in a romantic, enchanting way. Her limited vocal range worked to the advantage of the lyrics and the music as she infuses both elements with a soft, poignant yearning that comes from the heart. Hers is a loving heart that flows with simplicity toward a life she’s not yet lived, a life she’s not yet found the courage to live. The understated drama of that plot line resonates within that voice.
The human voice is the most complex of instruments. It can shade a note in ways that no other instrument can; it can touch the heart in ways that a violin tries but comes up wanting. And yet, with certain melodies, and with particular harmonies and chord progressions, the absence of words offers an auditory chalice into which the listener pours her own emotions.
It’s gratifying for the listener to play this part in the musical experience of instrumental sounds. I’m no fan of Yanni, but the concept of instrumental music is based upon the innate desire of the ear, heart, mind and soul of the listener to fill in the “empty spaces” of unsung lyrics for himself.
Billy Vaughan’s “Melody of Love” captivates me with the wish to waltz, across the lonely floor, with my beloved, candles lit just enough for us to see as we gaze into each other’s eyes. It is not coincidental that this song was composed by Hans Engelmann in 1903, more than a century ago, before the incessant marketing of intrusion by uber-visual entertainment into the every-day and all-night lives of people.
The lyrics, which I do not know and do not intend to learn, were added in 1954 by Tom Glazer. The smash hit version of “Melody of Love” was nonetheless the 1955 recording by Mr. Vaughan in a sweetly tender instrumental arrangement.
Conversely, there are instrumentals that perform sacrilege to the vocal version. The Righteous Brothers’s “Unchained Melody” is bound up in instrumental chains during the orchestral rendition by Les Baxter and his Orchestra. Boringly cloying, the song begins with a small chorus chanting “Unchain me” and I hasten to do it!
“Release Me” is another entreaty that requires the human voice to ask for the freedom to skedaddle from a love-gone-wrong/sour/bad/empty/ suffocatingly flat. When requesting a favor from a no-longer-favored amour, it’s best to do it in your own voice. Strings only add to the bound-up feeling, and bring more regrets, ineffective ones at that.
I’d long enjoyed the piano solo by Roger Williams of “Autumn Leaves” until I heard this song sung by Doris Day. Even more sublime are the mournfully smooth and beautiful sonorities of Yves Montand lamenting “Les Feuilles Mortes” (The Dead Leaves). I much prefer the English lyrics to this song, but Montand provides as much muted anguish as any Frenchman can conjure up in this romantic elegy. Whether the love is merely lost or dead, the French excel, avec excellence, in musical mourning.
The song “Moonglow”, also known as “Moonglow and Love”, claims a long history and many tempos. The first recording took place in 1933, by Joe Venuti and his Orchestra. Benny Goodman and his Orchestra followed, in a version that became definitive. A jazz standard, “Moonglow” is, for me, its most captivating in the 1955 Hollywood film Picnic.
Lit by sky lanterns and stepping one step short of sensuous love, the dance scene between Kim Novak and William Holden smolders for many reasons. One mesmerizing factor is this instrumental gem. Fully dressed, these two dancers exude a barely controlled passion while this song nurtures, as well as entices, a playful attraction that will not be denied. Man, woman, audience feel this allure long after the scene ends. Rarely has Technicolor looked so enduringly intimate!
Santo and Johnny Farina, along with Uncle Mike Dee, created the phenomenal and timeless “Sleep Walk” in 1959, a #1 hit. The soothing but haunting sound of the steel guitar reverberates the laconic, laid-back wake-up call to relax and enjoy life because life is a beach, a sublimely smooth stretch of glistening sand.
The instrumental beach theme continued with “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith and his Orchestra. This #1 hit garnered Mr. Faith a Grammy Award for Record of the Year 1960. This instrumental theme song for the film of the same name was composed by the brilliant Max Steiner, a veteran Hollywood film composer. The Percy Faith version of “A Summer Place” spent 9 weeks at #1 on the US Billboard singles chart in 1960. This ubiquitous song on the radio became the personal love song for millions.
Serene, majestic, and uplifting, this romantically beautiful melody touches the heart with memories of a place and a time and a special someone that live forever with simple magnificence in the heart. Is that not what splendidly unforgettable music is meant to do? It’s when music becomes the moment.
The era of the mid-1950s through the early 1970s was the hey-day of the instrumental hits, mostly because Big-Band musicians and their songs benevolently lingered long after the World War II years. Those compositions were one-of-a-kind creations which were, more accurately, re-creations, re-formulations, and re-arrangements of songs that had been vocal as well as orchestral recordings of the first half of the 20th century.
The sky was the limit for those innovative musicians who took on the daunting task of making new sounds for an era that was fated to be transitional — post-WWII and pre-Baby Boomer-“Adolescence”, the growth phase that truly never ended for too many Boomers. This blissful melodic interlude occurred before the onslaught of sound machines that put a lot of good music out of business while it was also putting out a lot of acoustic clunkers.
Those tawdry tunes and psychedelic sounds sold like mind-blowing mushrooms to the spoiled brats of a new generation. Worldwide, those jackanapes religiously listened to this soundtrack of their freaky dis-chord with the world, well into their geriatric years.
The world of today spins with elegant rapture when it is accompanied by these instrumental gems. Those songs glisten while they hearken back to a time of pure melody, of tunes that can be hummed, or whistled, or even sung! That music ain’t heavy; it’s a light load to carry, as Gaetano Lombardo advised his oldest child, Guy, sometime around 1919. It’s not so rare these days to find these sweet-sounding beauties this side of Heaven. From his sweet side of Heaven, Mr. Jimmy Dorsey harmoniously and wailingly agrees.
For a truly fantastic flight through instrumental skies, spread your wings and listen to the instrumental gems of bands and orchestras of yore. The moonlight will serenade you into a time of wonderment and fascination. Your ears sure won’t be sorry, as long as the song is tuned for sounds that were created, crafted, and calculated for an instrument other than the human voice.