The 10 Best Pop Instrumentals of the 70s

The Last Gasp of Postwar Pop in the Age of Classic Rock and Disco

Lush postwar pop had already started to pass out of vogue by the time the '70s started, but it lingered on in old-fashioned haunts such as movie soundtracks, TV themes, classical and traditional folk music. At the same time, jazz fusion and mainstream funk were getting lighter and airier, becoming the perfect metaphorical soundtrack for aging boomers who found that rock has just gotten too wild. The last great spate of pop instrumentals nevertheless produced some amazing hits—it's just that vocalists were being groomed for newer and bigger things. Here are ten of the decade's best pop instrumentals.

of 10

"Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)," Bill Conti

American actor Sylvester Stallone strikes at a punching bag
American actor Sylvester Stallone strikes at a punching bag while his coach, Burgess Meredith (1908 - 1997), watches during training at a gymnasium in a still from the film, 'Rocky,' directed by John G. Avildsen, 1976. United Artists / Getty Images

The song that more or less invented the musical montage, "Gonna Fly Now" also blurred the line, once and for all, between the pop movie soundtrack and the very specific jazz-based brand of "action funk" that had defined the '70s. Featuring a male-female duo of vocalists on only a few crucial, almost haiku-like lines ("Trying hard now! Getting strong now!") it also defined strength training fantasies until a slew of cheesy sequels and knockoffs rendered the very concept hopelessly dated. It's still more or less Philadelphia's unofficial theme song, thanks to Sly's low-budget cinematic triumph.

of 10

"Love Theme from the Godfather," Nino Rota

The Godfather
Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

For many years, anyone hearing the opening strains of this sad Neopolitan-flavored ballad got the impression that someone was about to attempt a Marlon Brando parody, or at least make a sly nod to the Mafia itself. The vocal version (called "Speak Softly Love") was also on the movie soundtrack album and also pulled as a single, performed by Andy Williams in his inimitable style. In fact, his version was a bigger hit at the time, but it's the weepy accordions (!) that best transmit the pathos of this cinematic landmark, and it's the instrumental version folks recognize most today.

of 10

"Nadia's Theme (The Young and the Restless)," Barry De Vorzon & Perry Botkin

Nadia Comaneci
Frank Barratt / Getty Images

It's instantly recognizable to this day as the theme to the long-running ABC soap The Young and the Restless, although it started life as an instrumental called "Cotton's Dream," composed for the movie soundtrack of the 1971 nature drama Bless the Beasts and Children. It didn't hit the charts, however, until ABC Sports decided to use it as montage music for the famous "perfect 10" performance of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the '76 Olympics. Both she and her theme were so effortlessly graceful, yet somehow pensive, that they put Romanian gymnasts and Y&R on the map for good.

of 10

"Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)," Deodato

"Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)," Deodato
Image courtesy of Amazon

Strauss' spacey magnum opus also helped define the first decade of space exploration ever since its inclusion in the movie soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's landmark 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and eventual adaption into the equally bizarre and grandiose '70s stage show of one Elvis Presley. Keyboardist and producer Eumir Deodato, who usually went by his last name, was wise enough to leave the grandiosity in his lite-funk masterpiece among all the extended jazz noodling. If his sound seems somewhat familiar, it's because he helped turn funk fiends Kool and the Gang into smooth pop stars a few years later with hits like "Ladies Night."

of 10

"Dueling Banjos," Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell

Deliverance movie poster
Movie Poster Image Art / Contributor / Getty Images

Not many popular songs are immediately identified with rape. This instant classic guitar/banjo head-cutting contest has unfortunately been just that ever since the hit 1972 movie Deliverance redefined the rural South as a place where vicious rednecks lurked in every forest. It did, however, have the additional effect of bringing traditional bluegrass instrumentals to top 40 audiences who'd never heard it before. And yet composer Arthur Smith, who helped invent rock guitar with 1948's hit "Guitar Boogie," didn't get credit for his original—not until he sued the producers, anyway.

of 10

"Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band," Meco

"Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band," by Meco on 45
Image courtesy of Amazon

The most inevitable song on this list. Star Wars and disco were the defining cultural events of the late '70s, and so it was natural that someone combine the two; that someone turned out to be a versatile jazz trombonist, arranger, and producer who went by the name of Meco. And his attempt went over big, in part because he was smart enough to get it rolling within days of the film's premiere, also because of that "Cantina band" breakdown, complete with sped-up Mos Eisley swing. The simulated R2D2 cameo probably didn't hurt, either. Same goes for those rock guitar harmonies.

of 10

"Music Box Dancer," Frank Mills

"Music Box Dancer" by Frank Mills on 45
Image courtesy of Amazon

This piano instrumental, at turns delicate and sprightly, was a real oddball in the disco-saturated world of the late-'70s airwaves, but that may have been part of its charm. Or it may have been pure chance: Actually recorded by Mills, former pianist for The Bells of "Stay Awhile" fame, four years earlier, it was reissued as a b-side and then accidentally sent to a powerful Ottawa Top 40 station anyway. Good thing the station got confused and flipped it over!

of 10

"The Entertainer," Marvin Hamlisch

The Sting
Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

Sweet, funny, sassy, sad, and sentimental all at once, the theme to Redford and Newman's classic buddy grift film The Sting owed most of its efficacy to ragtime pianist Scott Joplin, who composed the hit original a full 70 years earlier. Mixing the classic (received) Americana of Stephen Foster with the beginnings of Black jazz, Joplin's compositions more or less invented American pop; they still had enough of the fundamentals to make Hamlisch himself a star in the next century over, although the song's inclusion in the movie soundtrack created the false impression that ragtime was a product of the Great Depression era it was set in.

of 10

"Amazing Grace," Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Band
David Cairns / Getty Images

It took a few decades, but America's finally come to love the bagpipes, especially when applied to this spiritual standard. But it was the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards—who are indeed that, the pipe-and-drum brigade of the premier Scots regiment of the British army—who were the first to put it on wax and get it out to US radio. Even so, the decision to beef the sound up with a more standard military brass band caused something of a kerfuffle among traditionalists. Turns out there's a reason the pipes are always heard alone.

of 10

"Morning Dance," Spyro Gyra

"Morning Dance" by Spyro Gyra
Image courtesy of Amazon

Seems like hardly one public-access talk show or radio newsbreak got aired in the '80s without flying in on the ultra-tasteful breeze of this adult contemporary standard, as much a progenitor of the burgeoning "smooth jazz" movement as Chuck Mangione's decidedly funkier smash "Feels So Good." Featuring a marimba-based version of Spyro's signature tropical obsession, it sounded the way Carnival Cruises once felt; no wonder suburban Reaganites ate it up. Not bad, considering the band was actually birthed in the bars of a snowy Buffalo, NY!