In the continuing story of The Top 1,000 Hits of the 1960s, today I present one of the decade’s more popular instrumentals.
One thing I definitely miss — and it’s been true for a long time, too — is that there is no room for a great instrumental on the charts any more. As I mention in the below piece, six different instrumentals or near-instrumentals peaked at #1 or #2 on the Hot 100 in 1968. I can’t remember the last time an instrumental made a significant dent on the pop chart; perhaps it was “Children” by Robert Miles in 1996, which peaked at #21.
Classical Gas / Mason Williams / Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 7190
(Total points: 1,308 / Chart debut: 6/22/1968 / Chart peak: 2 / Weeks on chart: 14)
One of six instrumentals or near-instrumentals to peak at #1 or #2 in 1968, “Classical Gas” had a long gestational period before becoming the first and biggest hit of Mason Williams’ recording career.
Williams, whose first appearance on a record was as a member of the Wayfarers Trio on Mercury in 1960, recorded as both a guitar and banjo virtuoso, usually on anthology albums or anonymously through the early and mid-1960s. He did an album for Vee-Jay in its waning days; he was part of the studio group The Hootenairs on the low-budget Crown label; and eventually, he earned a gig as a sideman on a couple albums by the Smothers Brothers, which led to his first 45 as a solo artist on the Mercury label, “Love Are Wine” in 1966.
When Tom and Dick Smothers received their own television variety show as a mid-season replacement in January 1967, they brought Williams along as a writer and as musical director. The show was a success and was renewed for a second season starting in September. During the usual summer hiatus that variety shows took in that era, Williams worked on several art projects and joined a two-week gig with the Smothers Brothers in Las Vegas. After returning to Los Angeles, Williams returned to the guitar for the first time in months and decided to write a new song. At first, he called it “Thing for Guitar,” but he quickly decided that his new work was, in his words, “fuel for the classical guitar,” so he called it “Classical Gasoline.”
Late in 1967, after the second season of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour had begun, Tom Smothers suggested to Warner Bros., which was actively seeking new talent, that it sign his show’s musical director. Warner Bros. agreed, and soon, Williams was in the studio working on his first LP, which would be issued as The Mason Williams Phonograph Record in March 1968. Mike Post, who would go on to greater fame in the 1970s and 1980s as the writer of numerous TV theme songs, arranged Williams’ guitar exercise for the band and orchestra. The music copyist inadvertently transcribed the title of the song in shortened form as “Classical Gas,” and the name stuck.
Released in April 1968, “Classical Gas” took some time to break. It made the Easy Listening chart in the May 25 issue and, finally, the Hot 100 on June 22. But once on the pop chart, it zoomed into the top 10 in its fifth week and eventually to #2, where it remained for two weeks behind “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors. The following year, Williams won two Grammy Awards for his hit, one for Best Instrumental Composition and one for Best Instrumental Performance; Post took home a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
Williams continued to record for Warner Bros. until 1971. In the years following, he recorded as the mood struck: for the Flying Fish label; for the American Gramaphone label (with Mannheim Steamroller); for the Real Music label (a Christmas album); and for the Skookum label. He has also done a couple new versions of his biggest hit along the way.
Collector’s notes: Original copies of “Classical Gas” have the number 7190 and the flip side “Long Time Blues.” Because of Warner Bros.’ peculiar numbering system in the era – in 1967 it set aside 51 numbers, from 7100 through 7150, for its “Back to Back Hits Series,” but didn’t use all of them right away – the 45 with “Baroque-a-Nova,” Warner Bros. 7127, is sometimes listed as having appeared before 7190. That combination wasn’t issued until 1969.
Fast fact: Williams’ first re-recording of “Classical Gas” was for a 1970 album called Homemade. That recording was used in the 1999 film The Story of Us, which otherwise featured a soundtrack by Mark Shaiman with two songs by Eric Clapton. As the movie soundtrack was released during the height of Napster, where songs were routinely tagged with the wrong artist, some people have the misconception that “Classical Gas” is actually a Clapton song (he has never recorded it).