The moment rock’n’roll was born, the major labels lost their grip on the market as numerous independent labels sprang up in every corner of America vying for a piece of the action in what became a commercial free-for-all.
For every small town rockabilly following in Elvis’ shadow, there was a doo wop group hoping to emulate the Platters or Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and, for a brief, glorious moment, the music business looked to the sticks or inner city housing projects rather than to Tin Pan Alley for its raw material.
The one segment of the market where the majors were able to retain their dominance (and their dignity) was the orchestral or ‘easy’ format, populated by highly-schooled music men such as Andre Previn, Percy Faith and Billy Vaughn. These baton-wielders played a crucial role, arranging and conducting backgrounds for the era’s vocalists while often recording instrumentals in their own right. Their true metier lay in the album market which expanded rapidly with the advent of stereo recording in the late 1950s, though it was very often the kids who’d bought their hit 45s.
Here are the orchestral and ‘easy’ instrumental hits, both big and small – but mostly big – that helped define the Golden Age of Popular American Music, an era spanning, roughly, 1956-1967, when Billboard’s Hot 100 brimmed with an eclectic cornucopia of sounds and styles unlikely to be repeated in today’s age of corporate, socially engineered music production.
An element of the post-modern ironic in our approach makes “Instrumental Hits With Strings & Things” extremely pleasing on the ear while avoiding the blandness that often characterises other releases in this genre. There is surprise and delight at every turn and just as many subtle mood changes. Many of the tunes feature strings or horns (or a combination of both) with intrusions from the occasional twangy guitar (‘Flying Circle’) or an ondioline, an experimental electronic keyboard (only 2000 were ever made) heard playing the lead lines on Kai Winding’s 1963 smash ‘More’. Bill Pursell’s mystical ‘Our Winter Love’ seems to transcend time and space – it’s a dream sequence set to music spun in gossamer sound.
MOJO rated “Instrumental Hits With Strings & Things” highly enough to award it 4-stars, describing some of the US-only hits (the majority) as "pleasantly alien". Three of the tunes, ‘Lost Love’, ‘Flying Circle’ and ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ appear on CD for the first time. Every selection has been mastered from tape, mostly stereo, and the muscular steroid-enhanced 28-page booklet bulges with period ephemera. The lowdown on each hit is from Rob Finnis who once led his own ‘easy’ outfit, the Marylebone Ensemble, whose radio hit, ‘Porcelain’ was covered by Sounds Orchestral.
By Rob Finnis