Monday, October 13, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1980s

As with last year’s series of blogs on essential television series by decade, this series on theme songs will also conclude with the 1980s. Not only is this the last decade that qualifies as Comfort TV, it’s also the last one where a theme song was an essential part of the viewing experience. It might be an interesting challenge to try and find 20 great songs form the 1990s, but I fear the selections would be pretty scarce after Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files.

The 1980s doesn’t seem like that long ago – to me, anyway – yet think about how times have changed. Back then an ode to a bar as heartening as “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was actually commended, and not condemned for encouraging alcoholism. 

Hill Street Blues
Another outstanding (and Grammy-winning) theme from Mike Post, the genre’s most prolific and successful composer. Good thing he came up with something this appealing for Hill Street Blues, since it would have to play long enough to introduce what seemed like 30 or 40 regulars in every episode. 

The Golden Girls
“Thank you for Being a Friend” was written and recorded by Andrew Gold in 1978, and then revived (with new vocals by Cynthia Fee) for this beloved sitcom. It’s a perfect fit.

Miami Vice
If any television theme screams 1980s, it’s this electronic musical assault from Jan Hammer. Probably not the sort of piece you listen to very often anymore, but then not everything that seemed cool 30 years ago has managed to retain that status.

And while some compositions like the Miami Vice theme have their moment in the sun and then fade into history, others endure for hundreds of years. The Wings theme is actually the Rondo movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A, written in 1828. Sadly, it only lasted through the series’ first season and half of season two. 

The Greatest American Hero
The Joey Scarbury hit “Believe it or Not” is one of those songs that are kind of awesome and kind of terrible at the same time. But who didn’t love the pop culture boost it received from George Costanza’s answering machine on Seinfeld?

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors
‘80s kids grew up with cartoons created primarily to sell toys. The themes were mostly generic, but the intro to Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors had an over-the-top hair metal vibe that still sounds great. And the toys were underrated too.

Twin Peaks
Perhaps no other series used music to establish tone and atmosphere as effectively as Twin Peaks. The extraordinary theme and score by Angelo Badalamenti created a sense of foreboding that hung over every scene. It’s impossible to think of the show without it. 

It’s a Living
With its full orchestra and soaring vocal arrangements, this lively theme sounds like something written for a classic 1940s Broadway musical. 

St. Elsewhere
Dave Grusin’s lilting jazz theme for this always excellent (and always low-rated) drama was the best of his many television works, which also include the themes for Maude, Good Times and It Takes a Thief

Bob Newhart’s second successful sitcom had a subversive streak that belied its bucolic setting. But its simple, beautiful theme had no such undertones. It’s just a really sweet and cozy piece of music from Henry Mancini, a composer who also contributed to my list of top 20 themes from the 1950s.

The Winds of War
Technically this was a miniseries, but there were 14 episodes between The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, and that’s more than some shows manage. The magnificent theme was created by Robert Cobert, whose work with series producer Dan Curtis dates back to their days on Dark Shadows

If you look back over TV history, you find that all of the coolest shows have music that complements this admirable quality. Do the songs become cooler by association, or do they succeed on their own merits? With Moonlighting the answer is obvious. One can groove to Al Jarreau’s jazzy theme without ever meeting David Addison, Maddie Hayes or Miss DiPesto.

My Sister Sam
Not a lot of happy memories associated with this situation comedy, given the tragic murder of costar Rebecca Schaeffer. But it was a good show with much potential, and a theme in Kim Carnes’ “Room Enough for Two,” that under different circumstances would be much better known. 

This soothing piece by W.G. Snuffy Walden always reminds me of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Here is the first theme song to send up the very concept of the theme song. Shandling’s self-aware series was a forerunner to the kind of meta-television we take for granted now. 

Highway to Heaven
David Rose wrote music for three shows starring Michael Landon ­– Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. And each time it set the appropriate mood for the stories that followed. I like the trumpet on this theme better than the one on Dynasty

The A-Team
A rousing march and one last curtain call for Mike Post, who (with long-time partner Pete Carpenter) scored a big part of our classic TV heritage.

Beauty and the Beast
One of television’s most beloved cult series was graced by a theme (by Lee Holdridge) with all the romance and gravitas of a classic film score. Check out the beautiful rendition by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Duck Tales
Those infectious “Woo-hoos” have stuck with Generation X the same way that “Watch out for that tree!” can still make a Baby Boomer smile after all these years. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1970s

I haven’t perceived a significant change in approach to TV themes from the 1960s into the 1970s, beyond a more prevalent use of pop songs to encourage crossover promotion. There are still plenty of outstanding contenders to choose from, and several worthy examples that fell just short (my apologies to One Day at a Time, The Waltons and Land of the Lost, among others).

We begin, however, with what is arguably the best television theme song of all time.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The season one version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme is more than just a catchy tune or a means to introduce characters; it told the story of a generation of women breaking free from traditional stereotypes (“How will you make it on your own?”), and encapsulated a transitional moment in the culture. In subsequent seasons the lyrics changed to a celebration of the charms of Mary Richards, thus rendering the theme less substantive but still memorable. 

The Incredible Hulk
We are currently awash in superhero films and TV shows, all scored with some variation on a bold, John Williams-like orchestral fanfare. So it’s surprising that one of the first successful transitions of a Marvel character into television, particularly one as powerful as the Hulk, would rely instead on a poignant piano piece called “The Lonely Man,” which focused more on the misfortune of the scientist inside the monster, so affectingly played by Bill Bixby. 

Makin’ It
As I wrote in an earlier piece on TV theme songs that were better than the shows they introduced, “Makin’ It” was a Saturday Night Fever homage rip-off that debuted in February of 1979, and was canceled one month later. But the theme, performed by series star David Naughton, deservedly reached #5 on the Billboard chart. 

The Rockford Files
This is the first classic TV theme written by Mike Post (with Pete Carpenter). Post would go on to create equally memorable songs for several other series, including Hill Street Blues and Magnum P.I. While the song itself is distinctive, it’s really the jarring hodgepodge arrangement that puts it over. I’d wager that before this no one had written anything for blues harmonica, dobro, electric guitar, synthesizer, flute, French horn and trombone. 

Welcome Back, Kotter
Gabe Kaplan’s sitcom already had a theme selected, when former Lovin’ Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian submitted his effort. Producers quickly made a switch and the theme, Sebastian’s only solo hit, topped the Billboard chart in May of 1976.

The Love Boat
Is it cheesy? Sure it is. But this Paul Williams-Charles Fox composition set the right tone for a series that delivered breezy (and cheesy) romantic stories. The Jack Jones vocal adds an extra touch of Vegas schmaltz. Has anyone boarded a cruise ship in the last 30 years and not had this playing in their head?

As with The Incredible Hulk, Taxi has a theme that offers a counterpoint to the series it introduces. The show featured loud, outlandish characters, a seedy setting and crass (at least for its time) punch lines, but it opened with “Angela,” a gentle, melancholy wisp of electronic jazz composed by Bob James.

Every cop show should open with this blistering theme. Every single one. It would even make the lousy shows better. 

The Odd Couple
Neal Hefti’s theme has that instant earworm quality of the best TV theme songs, and once it gets inside it doesn’t go away easily, as illustrated in the most perfect Friends cold open in that series’ history. 

The Young and the Restless
A haunting, graceful piece of music with a complicated history. It was introduced in the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and Children as “Cotton’s Dream.” A new arrangement by cowriter Perry Botkin, Jr. was first heard on The Young and the Restless in 1973. But after ABC’s Wide World of Sports used “Cotton’s Dream” to score a compilation of gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s routines from the 1976 Olympics, the music became forever known as “Nadia’s Theme.”

The jubilant “Different Worlds” made the top 20, and you can still hear it performed live if you happen to catch the amazing Maureen McGovern in concert. Since Angie has been out of circulation for so long, there’s still a freshness to the tune that is unachievable by themes from more popular shows. 

The NBC Mystery Movie
Here we see an example of the exceptional craftsmanship we used to take for granted in television. Rather than a simple voiceover and teaser clips from each week’s mystery movie, NBC created a brief but unforgettable segment with a shadowy figure brandishing a flashlight, a cloud-filled orange sky, and an eerie whistling theme composed by Henry Mancini. 

“Suicide is Painless” was first heard in the film version of M*A*S*H, but worked equally well as an introduction to the long-running series. Mike Altman, the 14 year-old son of the film’s director, Robert Altman, wrote the lyric, which was never heard on the show. The song was so successful that it earned the teenager more than $1 million, more than ten times what Altman received to direct the movie.

The Bob Newhart Show
Classic TV fans may best know Lorenzo Music as Carlton the unseen doorman on Rhoda. He should be best known for co-creating The Bob Newhart Show and writing its theme, “Home to Emily.” Multiple arrangements were tried during the series’ 6 seasons, but it’s the longer version, with that soaring trumpet that plays as Bob indeed arrives home to Emily, that makes the track unforgettable. 

The Dukes of Hazzard
The saga of two good ol’ boys never meanin’ no harm, as performed by balladeer Waylon Jennings, was the fulfillment of what Dukes creator Gy Waldron told me he wanted from his show, back when I interviewed him for my book on the series. He wished for episodes to unfold like a great country song. That didn’t always happen, but the song that opened every show was a keeper.

Barney Miller
In the beginning there was that bass line. And then there were drums, and an electric guitar, and by the time the horn section had its say you were primed and ready for another visit to the 12th Precinct. 

The Partridge Family
I think almost everyone prefers the “Come on get happy” version that played in seasons 2-4, over the “When we’re singing” theme from the first season. Either way it’s certainly one of the songs that epitomizes 1970s pop culture. 

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters
All of the Sid & Marty Krofft shows have memorable themes – H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, Land of the Lost, Lidsville, etc.  I’ve selected “Friends” from Sigmund and the Sea Monsters as the pick of the litter, fully cognizant that the rendition by series star Johnny Whitaker does not bolster my case. 

The Jeffersons
Obviously a great song, with its spirited lead vocal (by Good Times star Ja’net Dubois) backed by a gospel chorus, but this is also a theme that resonated more deeply with African American communities, as a sign of long-overdue changing times. BeyoncĂ© covered it on her 2013 tour.

Westerns had all but disappeared on television by the 1970s.  Dallas is rarely classified that way, but its dynamic theme certainly recalls the glory days of the genre.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1980s

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1960s

By the 1960s, producers and networks recognized the value of a memorable theme song, ushering in the golden age of this singular musical genre.

The resulting embarrassment of riches means that some truly wonderful themes, from Bobby Sherman’s “Seattle” (Here Come the Brides) to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy intro to Mr. Broadway will not make the cut. I also couldn’t find room for Man in a Suitcase, Lost in Space, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, I Dream of Jeannie, T.H.E. Cat or many others that deserve recognition.

Some may argue that a few of my top 20 qualified not by musical merit, but on the enduring popularity of their respective series. I won’t completely dismiss the point. But consider that since these are also the shows rerun most frequently in the past 50 years, we should by all rights be weary of their songs by now. And still, before yet another encore presentation, I don’t hit the fast-forward button on the DVD player. That should count for something.

Mission: Impossible
Here’s the first of many inescapable selections. Lalo Schifrin’s propulsive theme provides the perfect introduction to the breakneck pace of this tension-filled espionage series. 

The Brady Bunch
Written by series creator Sherwood Schwartz, the song and its accompanying opening credits sequence has been embedded into the DNA of American baby boomers.

This is the one TV western theme that most closely captures the magic and majesty of a great western film score. Thankfully, the version with lyrics performed by the cast and shot for the series’ pilot was pulled before the episode aired. But it’s a fun curio now. 

The Munsters
Why would anyone think a surf rock theme would be appropriate for a sitcom about a family of horror movie monsters? Sometimes, genius ideas turn up in the strangest places. 

Route 66
The series shares its name with a 1940s song that was a hit for Nat King Cole and The Manhattan Transfer. But it didn’t have the right vibe for this portrayal of restless youth hitting the open road. Enter the famed composer and arranger Nelson Riddle, who delivered a smooth, jazzy instrumental that earned a Grammy nomination. 

How many generations of kids grew up running around a playground with Neal Hefti’s famous “na na na na na na na na” riff running through their heads? Another classic that is indivisible from the series it introduced.

The Beverly Hillbillies
Just once, try not to focus on the lyric with its famous “swimmin’ pools, movie stars” references, and instead savor the first class bluegrass picking of Country Music Hall of Fame inductees Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. 

Jonny Quest
There is not an abundance of melody in Hoyt Curtain’s percussion-driven theme, but it sets the perfect tone for this sophisticated action series. The heavy drums evoke the primitive settings of many Quest adventures. Curtin allegedly wrote the trombone parts in a way that were impossible to play correctly, to get back at musicians who chided him for the simplicity of his previous compositions.

The Monkees
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote the first Monkees #1 hit (“Last Train to Clarksville”) also composed the show’s theme song that, nearly 50 years later, is still being played on tour by the band’s surviving members. Micky sings lead, but it’s just not the same without Davy Jones. 

The Wild Wild West
Hopefully I’m not the only one who hears shades of Aaron Copland in the heroic strains of the Wild Wild West theme, composed by Richard Markowitz. The less said about the rap version attached to the movie remake, the better. 

Room 222
In the 1960s, it will still acceptable for a television series to take a few moments to introduce itself, rather than plunging right into the first scene. The opening credits sequence to Room 222 runs 1:30, during which 4 cast members are credited, and we watch dozens of students walk to and from school to the gentle strains of a theme composed by the great Jerry Goldsmith. I always thought a flute carried the melody, but I’ve now read several opinions that it was a recorder. 

The Banana Splits
Saturday mornings in the late ‘60s and early 1970s were a time of cartoons and frenetic, psychedelic live-action shows created for kids already hyped up on sugarcoated cereals. The energetic “Tra la las” of the Banana Splits theme were the perfect fix for our habit. 

Hogan’s Heroes
Jerry Fielding wrote several exceptional TV themes, including those for McHale’s Navy and The Bionic Woman, but none more enduring that this rousing military march.

Star Trek
A heroic theme, written by a man appropriately named Alexander Courage, that gave the original adventures of the Starship Enterprise a grandeur that the show’s special effects could not match. Series creator Gene Roddenberry added a completely unnecessary lyric that even many hardcore Trekkers have never heard, in order to fleece Courage out of half his royalties.

Gilligan’s Island
Sherwood Schwartz’s other great theme for his other great (in popularity if not creativity) situation comedy was a whimsical sea shanty that introduced seven stranded castaways. Actually, just five in the first season – The Professor and Mary Ann were dismissed with “and the rest” until a season 2 addendum gave them equal credit. Bonus points for its underrated additional verse that plays over the closing credits.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
Harry Nilsson had 8 top 40 hits. “Best Friend,” his joyful theme to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, was not one of them. It should have been. The song was never released as a single, perhaps because it was adapted from an earlier Nilsson composition called “Girlfriend.” 

The Addams Family
With respect to composer Vic Mizzy, this one probably works better as an instrumental. Surely people more fondly recall the harpsichord and the finger snaps than the “altogether ooky” words.

Hawaii Five-O
When networks remake TV shows, they always think they know better than the artists that created the original series. So it’s a testament to the quality of Morton Stevens' Hawaii Five-O theme that CBS found no way to improve upon it when McGarrett and Dan-O were rebooted in 2010. 

The arrangement behind those wonderful animated opening credits has an ethereal quality appropriate for a classy supernatural sitcom. But this is one case where the lyrics actually work even though they are never heard in the series. 

The Andy Griffith Show
A few whistled measures of Earle Hagen’s “The Fishin’ Hole” is all some of us need to be transported back to the idyllic town of Mayberry, where there’s always an apple pie cooling on a window sill, and chicken and dumplings for Sunday dinner.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1970s

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1950s

I must still be in a musical mood after getting reacquainted with all those singing TV stars, so let’s spend the next few weeks on theme songs.

Last year I did a series of pieces on the essential shows of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I’ll take the same approach with theme songs by decade. I think twenty is a good number, because it’s enough to cover the essentials but will still force some dreadful choices about which tunes to omit.

Of the four pieces, this first one on the 1950s was the most challenging; my knowledge of the TV of this decade is not as deep, and many of the themes from this era are obscured by voiceover narration and lengthy sponsor plugs. A lack of diversity resulted in countless shows featuring generic orchestral melodies and brass fanfares, so as a result I’ve been force to cheat with a couple of the choices (which will be acknowledged in those respective entries).

Ready? Here we go.

The Twilight Zone
It’s the most unique and progressive composition on this list, so even though the entries are not ranked in order The Twilight Zone still deserves the top spot. Composer Marius Constant’s dissonant, avant-garde mix of guitars, bongos, saxophone and French horn doesn’t sound like any other 1950s music on TV or anywhere else. 

The Lone Ranger
Yes, this is my first cheat. The theme is Rossini’s stirring William Tell Overture, but no other classical music piece is more closely associated with a TV show than this one.

As with The Twilight Zone, most TV fans can still name this tune in four notes. Composed by Walter Schumann, the somber theme was actually titled “Badge 714” and was first heard on the Dragnet radio series.

Western shows dominated television in the latter half of the 1950s. It’s debatable whether  Rawhide was the best of them, but it certainly had the best theme, especially with those memorable whip-crack punctuations. It was recorded by Frankie Laine, and revived for a new generation by the Blues Brothers in 1980.

American Bandstand
TV’s most prominent early rock-n-roll showcase had a boogie theme that was not as rebellious as the new music genre it helped to popularize. But it endured for more than 30 years, and enjoyed a 1970s revival after Barry Manilow added a lyric.

The Jackie Gleason Show
“Melancholy Serenade” was not created for the comedian’s classic variety show, but it was composed by Jackie Gleason himself and performed by his orchestra, which recorded several best-selling instrumental albums in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Peter Gunn
Henry Mancini’s jazzy theme, played by guitarist Duane Eddy, is another of the most instantly recognizable ‘50s themes, and set the perfect tone for this hard-boiled crime series. It’s been covered dozens of times by jazz and blues musicians and, like the theme from Rawhide, was also featured in the Blues Brothers movie.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents
It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate introduction to this macabre anthology series than “Funeral March for a Marionette,” by the French composer Charles Gounod. 

The Mickey Mouse Club
“The Mickey Mouse Club March,” composed by genial head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd, is one of the great singalong tunes of TV’s golden age. If you were a kid at the time you probably still remember all the words.

Johnny Staccato
Here’s a case where both the series, a Greenwich Village crime drama starring John Cassavettes, and the jazzy music (by Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein) should be much better known and celebrated than they are. The show lasted only one season but is available on DVD. 

The Donna Reed Show
Multiple versions of the same theme were heard throughout the series’ eight seasons, but the best one was the first, with its slower tempo and refined, string quartet arrangement, which builds to a lovely harp glissando as Donna Stone cheerfully sends her family out into the world.

The Rifleman
You don’t get to hear as much as you might like of Herschel Gilbert’s theme at the start of each episode, best remembered by Chuck Connor’s rapid rifle fire. But the longer version played over the closing credits and was better than anything in series costar Johnny Crawford’s discography.

M Squad
The brassy swing of Ernie Wilkins’ theme was popular enough to be covered by both Harry James and Count Basie. It was also the inspiration for the music heard in the Naked Gun movies and Police Squad! TV series, which I guess was meant as a compliment. 

The Lawrence Welk Show
Your grandmother’s favorite appointment TV was all about the bright, shining sounds of champagne music, exemplified in its opening theme, “Bubbles in the Wine.” What once seemed corny now sounds sweetly nostalgic and reassuring.

A lot of 1950s themes tried to tell the entire story of the show in a few measures of music. Bronco offered one of the better examples of this. In just 90 seconds you’ll hear three verses and a chorus that provide a thorough introduction to Ty Hardin’s cowboy hero, Bronco Layne. 

Here’s another cheat – the theme to this TV adaptation of the movie I Remember Mama was adapted from the Holberg Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Leave it To Beaver
While I confess it’s not one of my personal favorites, the Leave it to Beaver theme is certainly one of the quintessential TV tunes of its era, and instantly conjures images of the family sitcom at its most wholesome.

The other heroic masked rider of 1950s TV didn’t have Rossini in his corner like the Lone Ranger, but he did have the expert tunesmiths at Disney, who created a stirring theme that became a top 20 hit for The Chordettes. 

I Love Lucy
For more than 60 years the I Love Lucy theme has been one of the medium’s most familiar melodies. The composer is Eliot Daniel, who wrote it as a favor for his friend, series producer Joss Oppenheimer – as long as Oppenheimer agreed to keep his name off the show. At the time Daniel didn’t think much of television and figured I Love Lucy would never last. He changed his mind by the second season (and happily collected royalties for the next 40 years). Lyrics (by Harold Adamson) were added for a memorable third season episode. 

The Deputy
Who would have guessed that an uncommon theme would be the most interesting part of a TV western starring Henry Fonda? The show was fairly typical of its time and genre despite Fonda’s gravitas, but the sound of that electric guitar was something no one would associate with westerns until Ennio Morricone began scoring the Sergio Leone films.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1960s

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Peace, Love, and Laughter: The Jimmy Stewart Show

You never know what you’re going to get with a blind buy, but The Jimmy Stewart Show seemed like a safe investment. 

It is difficult to imagine any TV series starring Jimmy Stewart failing to validate one’s attention. This is The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Also Winchester ’73 and Rear Window and Vertigo. Maybe his situation comedy would never approach such lofty heights, but when an actor from the highest echelon of cinema royalty headlines a television show, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Jimmy Stewart Show debuted in the fall of 1971 on NBC, flanked by two established top 20 hits, The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza. Even now that seems like odd scheduling, to drop a 30-minute sitcom into an 8:30 time slot between Tinkerbell and Hoss Cartwright. Perhaps that contributed to its early demise, or perhaps viewers simply preferred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in The F.B.I. on ABC, or the CBS Sunday Night Movie.

Set in the small and bucolic northern California town of Easy Valley, the series introduced viewers to James K. Howard (Stewart), anthropology professor at Josiah Kessel College. Kessel was Howard’s grandfather, occasionally seen in flashbacks and also played by Jimmy Stewart. 


The family consists of James, his wife Martha (Julie Adams), their grown son P.J. (Jonathan Daly), their 8 year-old son, Jake (Kirby Furlong), P.J.’s wife Wendy (Ellen Geer), and their 8 year-old son Theodore (Dennis Larson). The two families live together in Howard’s Victorian-style residence, after Peter’s house is destroyed in a fire.

Stewart was 63 at the time, and he looked it. Julie Adams was a youthful 45. So while the actor’s innate dignity and decency defused any cradle-robbing overtones, it still made for a perplexing family unit, particularly with the couple having a son and grandson of the same age. Series creator Hal Kanter may have been over-reaching here, trying to fashion a quirky and unique blended family when something more traditional would have sufficed.  

It’s hardly surprising that Jimmy Stewart is the most agreeable aspect of The Jimmy Stewart Show. James K. Howard, humble, laid-back, gracious, was everything audiences thought Stewart was really like, and I’ve never read anything to contradict that assessment.

One of Kanter’s best ideas (besides the absence of a laugh track) was to take advantage of that audience affection by having the actor start and finish each episode speaking directly to the viewers. 

“I’m just on my way to begin an episode we call ‘Jim’s Decision,’ Stewart says in a typical intro, as he walks past the dressing rooms on the set. “I’m Jim…Stewart, that is, and I hope it’s your decision to stay with us and enjoy the next half hour.” And in the closing moments, he again steps out of character to tell the viewers, “My family and I wish you peace, and love, and laughter.”

It’s hard not to appreciate a show like that, despite its shortcomings.

Alas, even Jimmy Stewart needs a little help to make a show click, and here not much help was forthcoming. The family roles were poorly cast around its venerable patriarch; in a part that would benefit from the feistiness of a Suzanne Pleshette, Julie Adams comes off as merely pleasant. Reedy-voiced Jonathan Daly always seems bothered about something, and rarely registers any genuine warmth as Howard’s oldest son. Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer (who appears in one episode) is blandness personified. 

Even the Howard home is not especially welcoming, a reminder of the role set design can play in the success of a family sitcom. Audiences prefer a familiar, comfortable place to visit, but the floor plan here is all sharp corners and odd angles. Even after half a dozen episodes I had no idea how the different rooms connected.

Thankfully, The Jimmy Stewart Show had one other saving grace besides its top-billed star. John McGiver, who I’ve previously praised on this blog, livens things up whenever he appears as Howard’s professorial colleague, Dr. Luther Quince. It’s a stretch to imagine the two characters as friends outside a scripted world – Quince drives a Rolls Royce and fancies himself a connoisseur of life’s more sophisticated pleasures, while Howard plays the accordion and rides a bicycle to his classes. But McGiver is the only actor in the show playing at Stewart’s level, and several episodes are saved by their scenes together.

Looking at the final balance sheet, I wish this family sitcom had a more interesting family, and I wish a show about a college professor would have spent more time in the classroom, as I’ve always liked shows about teachers. But I very much enjoyed Stewart and McGiver, the guest appearances from such reliable character actors as Mary Wickes and Jack Soo, and the bit parts in two episodes played by an impossibly young Kate Jackson.

If you’re inspired to follow me in this blind buy, you’ll get 24 episodes of which many are good but none are great, plus a few that probably made Stewart grumble the way he surely did when he got roped into a turkey like Airport ’77, though he would be too much of a gentleman to do so outside the privacy of his dressing room. I’m happy to have The Jimmy Stewart Show in my DVD collection, even if I don’t revisit it as often as I once anticipated. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

When TV Stars Sing, Part Two

Welcome back, culture lovers, to Comfort TV’s tribute to (and occasional roasting of) classic TV stars that tried to be singers. As with the previous installment we’ll dig out some long-hidden diamonds, and dig up a few other relics to mock them without mercy. If you’re late to the party, you can read Part One here.

Hogan’s Heroes
I would surmise that most of you will expect Hogan’s Heroes Sing the Best of World War II to be classified in the “what were they thinking?” file. I’d have guessed that too until I first listened to it back in 1995. But once you get past the group rendition of the series’ theme, which is not improved by a lyric (“We’re all heroes, up to our ear-oes”) this is a marvelous album, with impressive solo turns by Ivan Dixon, Robert Clary and Larry Hovis.

Dixon’s jazzy cover of “Shoo-Shoo Baby” merits stylistic comparisons to Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman. Clary puts a jubilant, Mel Torme spin on “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and Hovis shows off an unexpectedly rich baritone on “Lili Marlene.” Richard Dawson opted for a dramatic reading, entitled “This is Worth Fighting For.” Only drawback – no Werner Klemperer-John Banner duet on “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” 

Star Trek
Here’s where it gets scary. Three original crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise boldly went into a recording studio, and two of them should have been beamed out immediately. No form of Romulan torture could be worse than The Transformed Man, a now-legendary trainwreck of a concept album recorded by William Shatner in 1968. Not content with a simple cash-in-on-Kirk record, Shatner unleashes an astonishingly pretentious treatise on man’s place in the universe, with stops along the way for bizarre covers of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” among others. Once heard, they are never forgotten.

At least Shatner learned his lesson after one attempt. Leonard Nimoy made the highly illogical decision to record five albums of his Vulcan vocalese, rarely with the same label twice, which should have told him something. His covers of “Proud Mary” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” from The New World of Leonard Nimoy, sound like 45 rpm recordings played at 33 1/3. And yet, I must admit a perverse desire to hear his single “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” added to Peter Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy, if only to wake up the audience. 

Nichelle Nichols is the only Star Trek alumnus (until Brent Spiner from Next Generation) with any legitimate right to sing into a microphone. She shared a stage with Duke Ellington at the age of 16, and made numerous nightclub appearances before, during and after her time as Lt. Uhura.

Get Smart
The Get Smart soundtrack album, like those released for Mr. Ed, Flipper, Dennis the Menace and several other shows, consisted primarily of dialog snippets from the series and instrumental music. That would not merit inclusion here, were it not for Barbara Feldon’s performance of “99” and “Max.” Her speaking voice is deep and very sexy. But when she sings, it sounds like an off-key Mae West impersonator at a Vegas lounge show where they’ll waive the two-drink minimum if you promise not to leave early. 

The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple Sings, released in 1968, featured Tony Randall and Jack Klugman backed by, believe it or not, the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Randall’s turn-of-the-century music hall style has a certain goofball charm, but the same cannot be said of Klugman’s take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” “Ya prob’ly tink dis sawng is about ya,” growls Oscar to Felix, while the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus suppress a collective chuckle.

Medical Center
Apparently, the law compelling any hunky young star of a medical show to cut a record (see Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare) had not expired by the 1970s. Chad Everett took time out from making patients swoon on Medical Center to record two albums, one of which features his wooden take on the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway.” Nurse, AutoTune, stat! 

The Brady Bunch
There were four Brady Bunch albums that achieved moderate sales before landing in the cut-out bin. But the series’ evolution into a cultural touchstone for the baby boomer generation prompted a “Best of” CD compilation that sold in the hundreds of thousands. Yes, I bought one. Performances range from competent (“Merry Go Round,” “Time to Change”) to dreadful (“American Pie”), but the songs that were featured in the show, especially “It’s a Sunshine Day,” will always make me smile. 

Starsky and Hutch
David Soul’s #1 hit “Don’t Give Up on Us” is one of my favorite ’70s songs. It was his only US hit, though Hutch was big business in England, where he landed 4 more songs in the top 20 including a second #1 with “Silver Lady.” Previously, he had been an unheralded opening act for bands like The Doors and The Byrds, and made several appearances on The Merv Griffin Show as “The Covered Man,” singing with a ski mask over his head to hide his identity. The gimmick didn’t get him a recording contract, but it got him a meeting with the casting director who launched his TV career on Here Come the Brides

Wonder Woman
“Toto I get the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”
Sound familiar? It does if you were watching TV in the ‘70s. Lynda Carter did everything she could to make her first single, “Toto (Don’t it Feel Like Paradise)” a hit. She performed it on the third season Wonder Woman episode “Amazon Hot Wax,” on her 1978 television special, and on every talk show that would have her. It didn’t work. But Carter can sing – you can see her live this October at Lincoln Center. 

The Waltons
I had never listened to (or even known about) Walton Christmas – Together Again until a few years ago, when a friend bought it on eBay. His high bid was one penny. The album was released in 1999, 18 years after the end of the series, and reunited most of the cast members and Waltons creator Earl Hamner, who once again provides a gentle voiceover introduction. Jon Walmsley (Jason) was always the most musical of the cast, and is prominently featured, but you’ll also hear songs and stories from the rest of the brood and their parents (Michael Learned and Ralph Waite). Even those with a high tolerance for corny sentiment might find it all a bit much, but during the holiday season I have caught myself humming the chorus to “Snowman Land.”

The Dukes of Hazzard
Released in 1982, the Dukes of Hazzard album has Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) narrating a song cycle that chronicles events surrounding a Hazzard road race. John Schneider, already in the midst of a successful country music career, performed “In the Driver’s Seat,” and Tom Wopat covered The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” Both of the Duke boys were and are first-rate singers – I’ve seen them both on Broadway, Schneider in Grand Hotel and Wopat in Annie Get Your Gun. Catherine Bach’s version of “Downhome American Girl” isn’t quite as polished, though our men in uniform didn’t have any complaints when she performed the song on USO tours.

Laverne & Shirley
This was just not a good idea. Laverne & Shirley Sing (1976) was the album title, and truth in advertising would have demanded a question mark at the end of that phrase. Appropriately, series stars Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams cover 1950s and ‘60s pop hits like “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “I’m Walkin’.” The first single was “Sixteen Reasons,” which pales next to the Connie Stevens version (and that’s not exactly setting the bar high). Promos proclaimed that “this is the album that 50,00,000 fans have been waiting for.” Sales, however, were so disappointing that it’s unlikely even the Big Ragu bought one. 

Charlie’s Angels
After singing on the Josie and the Pussycats record, Cheryl Ladd parlayed her Charlie’s Angels fame into a brief recording career that was bigger in Japan than it was here. “Think it Over” from her first album barely scratched the top 40 (it peaked at #34 in 1978). But just look at that album cover.