1960 Popular Music: Guitar Instrumentals

After covering jazz, film scores and classical music produced and released in 1960, we shift our attention to a lighter fare and focus on popular music. 1960 was a great year for music that dominated the airwaves and the singles chart on both sides of the Atlantic. Over the next articles we will cover various artists who were very popular that year with songs that became classics in their respective styles. We start with one of the hottest genres of that time – the guitar instrumentals.

The popularity of the electric guitar as a main instrument in rock n’ roll brought the instrument to the front of many bands who did not have a natural singer. Teenage groups fronted by an electric guitar were in constant demand to perform dance music at schools and small town functions. Bands who were able to leap from the local to the national stage generated a new genre in the late 1950s and exploded in 1960. They became known as guitar bands and were among the first to shift the focus from a sole front man to a band identity.

In 1956 guitarist George Tomsco caught the rock n’ roll bug and together with his high school friends started a group. They played at talent shows and school functions in their home town of Raton, New Mexico. They learned to play one song well, Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ The song won them an award at one of these shows, and gave them the idea for a band name – The Fireballs. Focusing on covers, their menu included songs by Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. A friend clued in George Tomsco to the existence of a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico, run by Norman Petty. Tomsco: “I called. Norma Jean (long time studio associate of Petty) answered and I said, ‘We wanted to find out how to cut a record.’ And she said, ‘Well here, why don’t you talk to Mr. Petty?’ So Mr. Petty got on the phone. He said, ‘Why don’t you send me a tape of your band?” We didn’t have a tape recorder. I said, ‘Well, we’re gonna be down there in a couple of weeks playing around the area.’” No gig was in the band’s horizon, Clovis or anywhere else for that matter. But Tomsco’s hutzpah paid off.

With one original tune to their name (titled ‘Fireball’, of course), the teenagers showed up at Petty’s studio, only to realize that this is where Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded all their hits. Things got busy really quick for the Fireballs, recording a few minor hits in 1959 including ‘Torquay’ and signing to a record label. In 1960 they scored another hit with the instrumental ‘Bulldog’. This was the period when guitar instrumentals by Duane Eddy and others were suddenly the thing all over the radio. The Fireballs were able to ride that wave with clever creative interplay between instruments — the chordal strums of rhythm guitarist Dan Trammell along with Tomsco’s plucky lead.

The band changed direction in the following years, adding a vocalist and moving away from instrumental tunes. However Bulldog remains their greatest hit from that early period, climbing to no. 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in February 1960.

Two other bands were able to accomplish in 1960 what the Fireballs could not – score #2 and #1 hits with a guitar instrumental. Each did it on their side of the pond. We start in the US and one of the most iconic guitar instrumentals of all time. But first a quick history lesson.

In 1954 jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, a versatile musician who could play a gig at Birdland jazz club one night and sight-read a Schoenberg score with the New York Philharmonic the following night, decided to create a contrafact. For those not familiar with this musical term, a contrafact is a new melody line played over a standard set of chords, usually borrowed from a well-known tune and often re-harmonized. This was a common practice for jazz musicians in the 1940s and 1950s, prevalent in the circles of modern jazz and be-bop. Record label owners loved this trend, which allowed them to release songs that sounded familiar without paying publishing royalties on the source material.

Johnny Smith

Smith’s pick was the chords of ‘Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise’, a lovely song from the 1928 operetta The New Moon. Like many songs from musicals of the 1920s and 1930s, the tune became a jazz standard and Smith put a new melody to it. Naming it after a sign he noticed in the New York City subway, it became ‘Walk, Don’t Run!’.

Fast forward a few years and Johnny Smith is playing a gig at the esteemed Birdland jazz club in NYC, when another fine guitarist pays him a visit. Smith: “He asked if he could record this song. I said, ‘Well sure, go ahead.’ He said, ‘No, I’m not gonna do it unless I can show you how I’m going to do it in my style.’ So, we went back to a little dressing room there at Birdland and guys were shootin’ up and lightin’ up and Chet was in a state of shock.” You guessed it – this was none other than Chet Atkins. Another guitar legend, different music style and recreational habits.

Chet Atkins

Atkins recorded the tune as part of his 1957 RCA Victor album ‘Hi-Fi in Focus’, dropping the exclamation point from the title: ‘Walk, Don’t Run’. He gave it a light swing feel, with a walking bass line and drums played with brushes.

Fast forward three more years and we are in the city of Seattle, where construction worker Bob Bogle goes into a car dealership and meets sales man Don Wilson in an attempt to buy a car. No car nor money changed hands that day, but a mutual interest is guitar playing sparked the birth of a legendary guitar instrumental band – The Ventures. One day Bob Bogle brought an album to rehearsal, none other than Hi-Fi in Focus by Chet Atkins. The two immediately zoomed in on Walk, Don’t Run. Don Wilson: “He played it in a classical jazzy style and we couldn’t play it like that. We weren’t good enough. So we decided to make our own arrangement of it and simplify it.”

They saved $300, recorded the tune and released it on the fledgling Blue Horizon label, a partnership between the two and Don Wilson’s mom. Talk about DIY. The familial entrepreneurship got them as far as distributing a handful of singles to friends and local radio stations. But – a few months later Seattle DJ Pat O’Day used Walk Don’t Run as his news theme. That was the break they needed. Seattle-based record Label Dolton Records picked up the tune and with proper regional and later national distribution the single started climbing the charts, reaching #2 on Billboard’s Top 100 in August 1960.

Walk Don’t Run at no. 2 on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart, August 1960

The song later appeared on the band’s debut LP titled, of course, ‘Walk, Don’t Run’. The back cover includes this paragraph: “The name of their hit is Walk – Don’t Run, but for them it is a matter of Run – Don’t Walk up the stairway for stardom.” That was certainly true in 1960.

Here are the Ventures playing the hit on Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show with Dick Clark, August 1960:

The no. 1 spot proved out of reach for the Ventures, but it did not elude the next group, who was able to climb that far with another instrumental in 1960, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic.

We are in England in the late 1950s, and one Harry Webb became lead singer of a rock and roll group named the Drifters (not the R&B US group signed to Atlantic). Later that year he changed his name to Cliff Richard and in 1959 released the successful single Living Doll. His band also went through a name change after they found that their name clashed with that Atlantic R&B band, preventing them from using the name in the US. They became The Shadows and in parallel to their work with Cliff Richard started an independent career of their own. During that process they went through a complete lineup change, with Jet Harris, Tony Meehan, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch joining the ranks. They did not know it then, but between 1960 and 1963 they would play on no less than ten (!) no. 1 chart toppers under their own name or as part of Cliff Richard and the Shadows. And it all started with the next tune. Time for another history lesson.

Cliff Richard and the Shadows

In the late 1950s Jerry Lordan started a career as a singer, but quickly found that his talents lay in songwriting. A couple of his songs became hits for other singers, and he tried his hands with an instrumental inspired by a 1954 Western movie starring Burt Lancaster. Not veering far from the movie title, he used the exact same name for his tune – ‘Apache’. His publishing company sent the tune to guitarist Bert Weedon, who had an instrumental hit called ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle’ in 1959. Weedon recorded the song, but months passed by without his label releasing it. In the meantime The Shadows are on tour with Cliff Richard and who opens for them but Jerry Lordan, who was not enamored by Weedon’s performance of his song and proceeded to peddle it to The Shadows. Legendary Shadows guitar player Hank Marvin picks up the story: “He played us this tune. He used to write using a ukulele as his harmonic instrument, and he got the ukulele and he strummed and he sang the melody, and Jet Harris [The Shadows’ bass player] and I had a listen and thought; ‘This is sensational! What a great tune; its perfect, what an atmosphere to it’. We got Bruce [Welch, guitarist] and Tony [Meehan, drummer] to have a listen, and they loved it too, so we learned it. I just learned to play it roughly, and thereafter decided exactly how I was going to play it. We worked out an arrangement, and I worked out the introduction, which we didn’t have – we only had the tune – and that was it.”

Had it been left to their record producer Norrie Paramor, Apache might have sank to the abyss of forgotten B-sides. After the Shadows recorded the fabulous tune, Paramor wanted to release it behind ‘The Quartermaster’s Stores’ as the A-side. Marvin recalls: “To us that was a bit like a guitar version of a Johnny and The Hurricanes number; a bit of fluff, really, whereas ‘Apache’ just had something magical about it. It just stood out as something really different. We almost pleaded with him, and he played it around to a few people including his daughters who were teenagers then, and they went potty over ‘Apache’, and a lot of other people went, ’That is a hit!’, so he came back and said, ‘Okay guys, we’ll release ‘Apache.’”

Apache was released in the UK in July 1960 and climbed to number one in August, staying at the top for five weeks. It was voted Top Record of 1960 in the New Musical Express Readers’ Poll. Scores of young guitar players, among them Brian May, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Andy Summers, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Andy Powell and Tony Iommi, cited the Shadows and Hank Marvin as an early influence. Surely Apache was a major attraction for them.

One cannot write a credible article about 1960 instrumental guitar tunes without discussing Duane Eddy. We already mentioned how influential the Ventures and Hank Marvin were on younger guitar players, but how about them being influenced by Duane Eddy?

Duane Eddy

Duane Eddy established the guitar instrumental as a pop genre with a string of hits in the late 1950s. It helped, of course, to have Lee Hazlewood as songwriter and producer. The two met in Arizona when Eddy was an aspiring teenage guitar player and Hazlewood was a radio DJ who dabbled in songwriting and production. The unique sound of the hits the two created was a result of two factors. The first was the guitar. Duane Eddy: “When I was about 15 or 16 in Arizona, I went down to Ziggy’s Music Store one day and he put a Chet Atkins Gretsch into my hands, a 6120. It felt so good, played just so sweetly. I fell in love! He wanted $65 for it, but I said I couldn’t sign for that – my dad was away and I was underage for signing up big money – but he just let me have it, and Dad signed later. So that has always been my favorite guitar.” That guitar can be heard on hits such as ‘Movin’ ’N’ Groovin’ and ‘Peter Gunn’.

Duane Eddy with a Gretsch 6120

No less important to that twangy sound of Eddy’s guitar is the echo effect that made it stand out in the early days of hi fi and portable radios. Lee Hazlewood: “I had to have an echo. We just went out driving around, ‘cause there’s a lot of places around Phoenix with small grain elevators. So we just went out and yelled in ‘em all day. I yelled, and yelled, and yelled ‘til I found one. There was no room for it in our little studio so we set it up outside the studio. The only problem that we ever had with it is that birds would sit and chirp on it. It wasn’t a problem on the heavy stuff, but on the ballads the birds would like to sing along. So we had to have someone out there to shoo the birds away.” Recording engineer Jack Miller also remembers that unique echo chamber: “Two thousand one hundred gallons was the size of it. It was round, tall, cylindrical. It had a port on the side, so they laid it down on its back so the port was sticking up. It looked like a submarine. It was a Lee Hazlewood thing. They walked around these yards and yelled into tanks. They told me that the guy that was walking with them said, ‘Are you guys crazy?’” Maybe they were, but they came up with one of the most distinct sounds in popular music history. Wired up with a speaker at one end and a mic at the other, the sound would go through the speaker, swirl around in the tank echo and then picked up at the other end by the mic. Genius.

Record label executive Lester Sill, Duane Eddy and Lee Hazlewood, 1958

In 1960 Duane Eddy scored his biggest chart success in the US with the theme tune from the movie ‘Because They’re Young’. This time he opted for another classic instrument: “In 1959 I discovered a Danelectro baritone 6-string bass, which is an octave lower than a regular guitar. I thought, ‘This was made for me.’ I used it on one of my bigger hits called Because They’re Young.”

The movie told the story of a high school teacher (Dick Clark, host of the very popular TV show American Bandstand) who tries to help his troubled students. Lee Hazlewood, who wrote the theme song that played over the opening credits, said about the tune: “I really wanted the theme. I fought and fought for it, raised a temper tantrum. The producers had this song they kept trying to push on me. I kept insisting on my song. Finally, I listened to their song and took my demo and threw it across the room. That was it. When we went to record it, the other guitarists on the date were Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel, which made Duane nervous as shit because they were his heroes.”

Playing the theme song on a film starring Dick Clark had its benefits. On May 12th, 1960, Duane Eddy performed ‘Because They’re Young’ on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Two weeks later the song entered Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, peaking at #4 a few more weeks later.

Duane Eddy also made an appearance in the movie, playing another tune that became a hit in 1960. ‘Shazam’ features another signature melody, played on that legendary Gretsch guitar. Talking about playing melodies on the low strings of the guitar, Eddy said: “I had done sessions as a sideman in Phoenix, where I played on the high strings. One day I played something on the low strings and noticed it was a lot more powerful. I went to the studio one morning with this idea for a melody, which was Rebel Rouser.” Shazam also features a wild sax solo by Jim Horn. Eddy about featuring the instrument in his tunes: “There’s not too many instruments that make a good foil to my guitar sound, yet are powerful enough to stand up to it, if you know what I mean.”

1960 was a good year for instrumentals, especially in England. In September that year you could find ‘Because They’re Young’ By Duane Eddy peaking at #2 on the United Kingdom’s Singles chart, second only to ‘Apache’ by the Shadows. Also in the Top 20 at the time there were two versions of the instrumental ‘Walk Don’t Run’, the Ventures were at #17 and the John Barry Seven’s version was at #24. And if that wasn’t enough, New Musical Express readers voted Duane Eddy as the World’s Number 1 Musical Personality, ousting Elvis Presley.

But don’t discount the king. 1960 was a good year for Elvis as well, to be covered in the next article …

Categories: A Year in Music

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