We all love it when our favorite song comes on the radio. Music can affect our mood in ways that no other art can, and part of that response is often the impulse to sing along. Singing the words to our favorite song is a way to interact with the art we love, a way to feel like we are part of it. Sometimes the feeling we get from singing are better than the song itself, thus causing us to sing along to songs we don’t even like.
But some songs are so good that we love them even if they have no lyrics. Some songs are able to communicate a full range of human emotion without a single word. Here are five of those songs, and the story behind what makes them so iconic.
“Green Onions” – Booker T & The MG’s
“Green Onions” is an absolute jam from start to finish. Recorded in 1962 by Booker T and the MG’s, it was originally released on Stax Records as a B-side. The song’s popularity was immediate, so Stax quickly re-released it as an A-side, and radio stations across the country gobbled it up. The bass and drums play the same repetitive 12-bar blues riff for the whole song, but that simple, solid foundation leaves room for the guitars and organ to lay down some of the best melodies and solos in modern recording history.
“Green Onions” helped popularize the Memphis soul sound that Stax Records became known for. It was a young, 17-year old Booker T. Jones who wrote the main hook of the song. Although he already had a steady job in music as the house keyboard player for Stax Records, “Green Onions” launched his career as a stand-alone musician. If you live in the United States, then you’ve heard “Green Onions.” There’s a reason I’m starting with this song; it’s just that good. It’s the only instrumental song on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
“Sleep Walk” – Santo & Johnny
Most songs take their title from the lyrics, so how do you title a song with no words? Does the song “Green Onions” conjure up thoughts of green onions? Not for me, it doesn’t. That being said, “Sleep Walk,” by Santo & Johnny, feels about as sleepy as a song could be. It’s a lovely, steel guitar dream that just lullabies along for two and a half minutes. Santo & Johnny are two Italian-American brothers who grew up in Brooklyn, and supposedly one of them woke up at 2am with an idea for a song, and the two of them strapped on guitars in the middle of the night and wrote this gem.
“Misirlou” – Dick Dale
Anyone who has seen the movie Pulp Fiction will recognize this one, but the origins of the song go back about a hundred years. The original author of “Miserlou” is unknown, but it was an old folk song from the Ottoman Empire, and throughout the 1920s it was performed by Greek, Jewish, and Arabic musicians. Oh, and the original version had lyrics!
But that’s not the version we know and love. The version we know and love was recorded by the legendary surf-rock guitarist, Dick Dale, a musician so prolific that I could easily write an entire article on his work alone. Released in 1962, Dick Dale’s version of “Miserlou” was already quite popular for some 30 years before Pulp Fiction ever came along. What a perfect song for a movie soundtrack; any time I hear it I instantly begin to think of myself as the main character in some action flick. Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” makes me want to rob banks and go surfing. What other song can make a person feel so cool?
“Dueling Banjos” – Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell
American pop culture created an eternal link between “Miserlou” and Pulp Fiction, just as it did with “Dueling Banjos” and the movie Deliverance. The 1972 movie follows a group of city-dwelling friends who venture into the mountains for a canoe trip. What is supposed to be a relaxing retreat into nature is anything but. Not only are certain moments of the film terrifying, but even the “normal” scenes feel just a bit uncomfortable, which is exactly how these city-boys feel out in the woods.
There are two or three iconic scenes from this movie, including the famous “Dueling Banjos” scene. One of the city-slickers strums away on guitar as an awkward and inbred young boy sits on a porch-swing picking his banjo. What should have been a moment of true connection is tainted by the city-slickers’ condescending attitudes, thus leaving the audience feeling uneasy as this amazing music rips through the speakers.
This song was written and recorded by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell specifically for this movie, and it is their recording we hear in the movie. (The actors did not actually play their instruments, and in fact the left hand of the young banjo-plucking boy is an entirely different hand from an entirely different person, hidden out of sight. Ahh, movie magic.) Although Weissberg and Mandell’s version is a new arrangement, it is based off of a song called “Feudin’ Banjos,” which was written by Arthur Smith. When Deliverance came out, Smith sued for copyright infringement and won, since no one had ever credited him or paid for the rights of the song.
At any rate, both versions of the song rock. You can’t help but tap your foot, or maybe even dance a jig. This song always brings a smile to my face, even as I try not to think about the ending of Deliverance.
“Peter Gunn Theme” – Henry Mancini
From movies to television! Many of us (including me) are too young to remember the television series Peter Gunn, but it was on TV from 1958-1961. The show’s main character, Peter Gunn, was a sophisticated and hard-working private detective. His job was dangerous and thrilling, but Detective Gunn always managed to solve the case, and looked good doing so.
The theme song for the show was composed by the distinguished Henry Mancini. Just as I’m sure I could pick five great instrumentals by Dick Dale, the same is true of Mancini. (“Pink Panther Theme Song” and “Baby Elephant Walk,” just to name a couple.) But we’ll focus on the “Peter Gunn Theme.”
The “Peter Gunn Theme” uses a technic called ostinato, which is fancy-talk for a recurring melody. Being familiar with the TV show puts the whole song into perspective. That repetitive bassline sounds the way a detective walking the streets should look. All the horns talking back and forth might as well be informants dropping clues or criminals making confessions. This song was written for this show, and they go together perfectly. The only other people with enough street cred to claim this beauty were The Blues Brothers, who also used the theme in their movie. Classic.
“Walk, Don’t Run” – The Ventures
Written by Johnny Smith, then re-arranged by Chet Atkins, it was The Ventures who really turned “Walk, Don’t Run” into a danceable and lovable instrumental. Their 1960 version of “Walk, Don’t Run” flows from surf-rock into smooth jazz and back again. It made it all the way to #2 on Billboard’s Top 100, coming in second to The King himself, Elvis Presley. The Ventures, who were always a 100% instrumental band, became pretty well known for this song, and others, and managed to have a good career here in the U.S. for many years. Although they aren’t as popular here as they used to be, they still kill it in Japan, where they tour to this day.
Okay, that’s my top five instrumentals! There were about 10 others I wanted to include, but ya know how it is. What did I miss? What would did I get right or wrong? Let me know in the comments!