The 10 Best Pop Instrumentals of the 60s

The Establishment Melodies of the Swinging '60s

midsection of man playing saxophone

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The best pop instrumentals of the Sixties went big, in part, because they filled a niche—as rock and soul and their variants took over the charts entirely in the '60s, instrumentals became one of the last holdouts for what would soon be called "adult contemporary" music. The decade may have started with jazz noodlings and big band tunes, but by the end, its pop instrumentals had taken on a decidedly European flavor. Still hip, but strictly for that over-30 crowd that was not to be trusted.

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"Theme from A Summer Place," Percy Faith

Theme From a Summer Place 45 cover


The pop instrumental hit of the decade came early on, though it wasn't Percy Faith's baby originally; light orchestral maven Hugo Winterhalter, of "A Walk in the Black Forest" fame, had actually recorded it for 1959's teen romance A Summer Place. But Faith's twee yet abnormally loud string section soon became the standard for what was later vilified as "elevator music," in the process turning one of the film's secondary themes into a huge pop smash—nine weeks at #1, becoming the first such "Love Theme" from a film to crack the Top 40.

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"A Taste of Honey," Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass

"Taste of Honey" record

AM Records 

Not many popular songs already covered by the Beatles have turned into hits all over again, especially not as instrumentals. But Alpert's cover, which radically redesigned this ballad from the hit British play of the same name, converted it to his famous Tijuana sound. It won a Grammy, and Herb soon became the instrumental act of the decade—at one point, ironically, moving more albums than the Beatles themselves.

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"Theme from Exodus," Ferrante & Teicher

"Exodus" record

United Artists

This piano duo were already superstars of the instrumental LP and had been ever since they were both students at Julliard, releasing whole themed albums where they filtered popular soundtracks like through their unique "beautiful music" approach. But it was their take on this Ernest Gold score for the hit Paul Newman film that was their biggest success: it sported a certain mix of wistfulness and majesty that captured their aesthetic perfectly.

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"Theme from Romeo and Juliet," Henry Mancini

Romeo and Juliet theme record


Director Franco Zeffirelli's sexy generation-gap remake of the classic Shakespeare tale introduced this saga of doomed lovers to an entirely new generation in the late '60s, and Henry Mancini's achingly sad score was a big part of the reason. So enduring was this theme that the film adaptation of the novel The Hunger Games—which dealt with possible lovers pitted against each other, supposedly to the death—pointedly used the iconic first four notes as the theme of its heroine, Katniss.

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"Love is Blue," Paul Mauriat

"Love Is Blue" album


This was that rare Eurovision Song Contest winner that became a big hit in the US, though not in its original French chanteuse form, or any of its many English versions—which, as you might imagine, all described love's emotions as a series of literally colorful metaphors. French orchestral leader Paul Mauriat found just the right mix of chamber-pop elegance and Europop brass to shoot this one straight to the top.

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"Classical Gas," Mason Williams

"Classical Gas" record

Warner Bros. - Seven Arts Records

Classical acoustic guitar wasn't exactly a mainstay on the US pop charts in the rock era, but Williams was a folkie anyway, and he had an in—he also wrote comedy, and with that combo it was only natural that the Smothers Brothers would meet him and hire him to write their game-changer of a CBS show. While there, he came up with this instrumental and performed it on the program. Several times, in fact, and once using one of the industry's first non-performance music videos. "Classical Gas" couldn't help but make the charts.

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"The Stripper," David Rose

"The Stripper" record

MGM Records

Still used as performance music by burlesque queens everywhere, "The Stripper" wasn't even meant to see the light of day originally; Columbia needed a b-side for Rose's version of "Ebb Tide," and they dug this out of the archives without his knowledge. Brassy and sassy to the point of parody, it captures the sound of a number of combos who sidelined behind strippers when burlesque bawdies began replacing the standard jazz club. Noxzema even used it for an iconic shaving cream commercial where a sexy young lady instead instructed men to "Take it off! Take it all off!" The beards, that is.

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"Java," Al Hirt

"Java" record

RCA Victor

As "Al Tousan," famed New Orleans producer/songwriter/pianist Allen Toussaint came up with this little jam while recording a session for RCA. NOLA trumpeter Al Hirt, looking to move away from the jazz label he'd been tagged with, covered it in 1965, and it became a surprise hit—especially to Toussaint, who was serving an army stint by then and couldn't convince his fellow soldiers that was his song they were hearing on the barracks radio!

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"Wonderland by Night," Bert Kaempfert

"Wonderland by Night" record


Bert Kaempfert did indeed have the mad hits, as the Barenaked Ladies once asserted—this German trumpeter and bandleader, who actually served in the fatherland's navy during WWII, ironically kept the sound of the era alive for US veterans with his super smooth arrangements. This throwback was the last of the big band classics to make it into the top 40.

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"Stranger on the Shore," Mr. Acker Bilk

"Stranger on the Shore" record

ATCO Records

The Beatles, believe it or not, weren't the first British act to hit the American charts in the 60s. That honor went to this trad-jazz clarinetist, who'd had some success in his home country as a member of several bands until he penned this gorgeous melody for his daughter, Jenny. When the BBC decided to use it as the theme for a new soap opera they were creating, titled Stranger on the Shore, they asked him to back it with some appropriately relaxing strings and name it after their program. The rest is transcontinental history.