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Instrumentals: The 10 Best Pop Instrumentals of the 50s

The magical melodies of the postwar period


Though rock came along in the middle of the decade to change pop music forever, postwar radio was often ruled by orchestras and dance bands, and therefore it was their instrumentals, lush melodies, sonic travelogues, and movie music that 50s adults ended up taking straight into their brand-new suburban dens, or just enjoying on the kitchen radio. The "beautiful music" instrumentals were emblematic of the good life in Fifties America; here are ten of the biggest and best.

1. "The Third Man Theme," Anton Karas

The theme to one of 1949's biggest and best films, this was also the hit that began the now-common practice of issuing instrumental themes as standalone singles. It's also notable as the song which introduced the string instrument known as the zither to the Western world; the film's director came across Karas playing it in a beer garden and asked him to write a theme that would match the film's Vienna location. The rest, as they say, is history.

2. "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," Perez Prado

Cuban bandleader Prado was already quite the darling of postwar America's first Latin music craze when he recorded this instrumental, actually a poplar French tune given that south-of-the-border treatment. But although Perez gained fame as the King of the Mambo, this, his biggest instrumental hit by far, was actually a cha-cha. it was also a film theme, though no one remembers the Jane Russell quickie Underwater!, where it was first heard.

3. "Quiet Village," Martin Denny

Though it was Les Baxter who first brought this moody travelogue to life, Denny kickstarted his own Exotica craze with this hit version. More jazz piano, but this time with a decidedly Polynesian flair, replete with semi-authentic instrumentation and sound effects that would become a staple of the genre. Denny came by them honestly too -- while playing this tune in a Hawaiian club, the frogs would often croak right along to the music!

4. "The Poor People of Paris," Les Baxter

Baxter eventually became famous as a godfather of Exotica, but this smash had, as the title implies, little to do with the genre's usual island/desert culture themes. It began life as an instrumental, which was unusual for its time, but when Edith Piaf's lyricist was asked to add some words for a vocal version, he mistook the words "poor Jean" for "poor gens," and wrote instead about how the poor Parisian people really embraced life. Ironically, this instrumental version was the bigger hit.

5. "Moonglow and Theme From 'Picnic'," Morris Stoloff

Coming in second in the 50s piano instro sweepstakes was this West Coast-style smooth jazz number, actually a combination of two separate themes from the classic William Holden / Kim Novak film "Picnic." Stoloff didn't write either song -- "Moonglow" was already a jazz standard, and the picnic theme was written by the film's composer to complement it -- yet he was no stranger to movie music, as his own instrumental scores made him the most nominated Oscar composer of his day, with no less than 17 noms (and three wins).

6. "Autumn Leaves," Roger Williams

"Autumn Leaves" was arguably one of the most inescapable piano instrumentals of the 50s, perhaps of all time. And it's easy to see why, what with its repeated wistful onomatopoetic glissandi. Popular to this day among jazz pianists, it had its genesis in yet another popular French song, though the original had the decidedly more gothic title, which translates as "The Dead Leaves." So popular was this hit that a movie was retitled for it, unsurprisingly a dark and chilly tale of mental decay starring Joan Crawford.

7. "Canadian Sunset," Hugo Winterhalter

This jazz piano standard, on the other hand, originated considerably closer to home, which is probably obvious from the title. It was also a hit in several versions, most notably Andy Williams' vocal take. Winterhalter had the bigger hit, however, no doubt due to his arrangement, an alternately smooth, bold, and witty dialogue of brass and strings. A fitting complement to the original lyrics, about finding love while on vacation in the Great White North!

8. "Blue Tango," Leroy Anderson

Anderson, a light-orchestral icon, is probably better known for another big hit, "The Syncopated Clock," which became the theme for many a late-night TV station during the 50s. But around the same time he scored an even bigger hit by jumping on the new Latin music craze. Covered by all the big bandleaders -- Guy Lombardo, Les Baxter, Hugo Winterhalter -- Leroy's original version nevertheless made the biggest impression.

9. "Dragnet," Ray Anthony

If you've ever seen the classic TV show of the same name, or maybe even if you haven't, you know this one, which has been called the most famous four notes since Beethoven's Fifth. Yet Anthony and his band really shook things up with their take, playing it straight at first before leaping into some pretty hot latter-day jitterbug. (Trumpeter Anthony had been an original member of Glenn Miller's band.) In the process, he more or less created the "Action Jazz" instrumentals genre, one that actually overlapped quite nicely with the rock and roll invasion.

10. "Delicado," Percy Faith

Another foreign-language song whose instrumental version outperformed its many vocal versions, this excellent example of the South American "beguine" beat was nonetheless sanitized by Percy with a decidedly European harpsichord. No doubt Faith was inspired by Rosemary Clooney's "Come On-A My House," another big hit from around the same time, and yet another foreign folk song, this time with vocals. It and "Delicado" did for the harpsichord what "Third Man Theme" had done for the zither.
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