To my parents and their parents the radio was a central part of life. As a child of the 60s and 70s, the central part of my daily routine was television.
I loved to read as much as any child (more, actually – my mother recalls seeing me at the kitchen table before anyone else was up, immersed in the World Book Encyclopedia) but the television was a good friend. It was full of information every kid needed to know like how to guard against Moe’s two-finger eye shot to Larry, Curly, or Shemp, how Batman and Robin so cleverly solved the crimes of the day in Gotham City, how not to make the Hulk angry.
Not only were the shows themselves important so was the opening theme. Critical to so many programs from the 50s through the 80’s were the music and words that set the stage for the magic to follow.
As close to perfect as a show’s music can get is Henry Mancini’s iconic theme to “Peter Gunn.” Evoking danger, suspense and ultimate triumph, it became part of American pop culture history, winning Emmy and Grammy awards and covered numerous times (yes, it’s a boss piece of music). Along with the witty dialogue, the music theme was an integral part of the show, drawing you in with its opening air of mystery, keeping a steady pace and then building to a crescendo, ending with a blare of horns. It mirrors the demeanor of the cool twentieth-century crime fighting sophisticate (played by Craig Stevens) who hangs out at a bar called Mother’s, listening to the songs sung by his best gal Edie (played by actress and singer Lola Albright) until beckoned into (highly paid) service. Then he’s on the move – an unflappable private investigator in a big American city, working quickly to get clients out of jams, bringing the dastardly guys (or gals) to justice – BAM! And he does it all with a flawless haircut, in a snappy suit, with an unequally no fuss, no muss attitude.
For every great theme like “Peter Gunn,” which displays its magic without the benefit of words, there are those that have done so with words. Many have left an indelible imprint like these from “Gilligan’s Island”:
Just sit right back
And you’ll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful trip,
That started from this tropic port,
Aboard this tiny ship.
The mate was a mighty sailin’ man,
The Skipper brave and sure,
Five passengers set sail that day,
For a three hour tour,
A three hour tour.
The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The Minnow would be lost.
The Minnow would be lost.
The ship set ground on the shore
Of this unchartered desert isle
The Skipper too
And his wife,
The movie star,
The professor and Mary Ann,
Here on Gilligan’s Isle.
Word and music by Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle.
For those of you versed in 60’s TV history, or who watched the show as religiously as I did, you’ll know that the lyrics in the last stanza originally read “the movie star, and the rest.” It wasn’t until the second season that “The professor and Mary Ann” were deemed important enough to the show to be included in the lyrics. There’s a closing theme from “Gilligan’s Island” as well which you may know, but there’s no need printing them here …you’ll be singing it in your head for the rest of the day (and you can thank me for that later).
At times producers may hear the words and have second thoughts, possibly saying to the writers, I really don’t believe we’ll need those lyrics, but thanks anyway. That can happen to even the best of songwriters – like Jay Livingston and Ray Evans who gave us a number of songs in the Great American Songbook that we treasure: “Que Sera Sera,” “Mona Lisa,” “Silver Bells,” “Dear Heart.” They also wrote the theme to the long running TV series “Bonanza.” Yes, you read correctly – “Bonanza.” The music is a celebratory western-styled romp of the Cartwright clan and their hundreds of thousands of acres located in the West. The lyrics, however, were judged pretty awful by network executives and were only used in the pilot episode – which never aired on network TV. But, as a service to you, here’s a link to the original theme sung by the Cartwrights themselves:
Through the years the TV theme song was plentiful and left us with classics: “I Love Lucy,” “Batman,” “ The Love Boat,” “Mission Impossible,” “Cheers,” “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” “The Muppet Show,” and on and on. These were songs you could sing, hum, and whistle along to and your friends and family knew them as well. Were they written to win awards? I doubt it, but they were written with one common thread in mind; to become memorable and to bring the viewer in to their mythical television world, keeping them solidly in place until show’s end.
It seems today the TV theme song has become almost obsolete – or the opening theme time truncated to a mere handful of seconds that allows the network more advertising buying time. Every once in a while a theme will come along, albeit ever so brief, that manages to capture our imagination, and one of these that I enjoy – as well as the program itself – is the theme to “Big Bang Theory.” The show revolves around a band of lovable geeks, their love interests – including science, of course – and place in the world. The title song by Canadian rockers The Barenaked Ladies is incredibly clever, allowing us our own glimpses into the universe, its origins, and possible demise from what? Of course…the big bang.
I’m not certain what place if any the TV theme song will hold in our future, but on the one hand we can be thankful for cable and syndication where it’s possible to glimpse back into the past and hear some of the great music that gave us the openings – and sometimes closings – to a world of enjoyment. By the way, I still have the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” running around in my head. I’ll try and offset that later with the theme from “Kojak” or “The Streets of San Francisco”- and that should get me off of that island once and for all.
– Bill Quinn