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


  1. Great picks with M:I, ROUTE 66, and HAWAII FIVE-O. For some of the others, I'd substitute SECRET AGENT, THE AVENGERS, and MR. ED. Also, I'd have to include MAN IN A SUITCASE and T.H.E. CAT.

  2. "Secret Agent" is a great choice. The '60s really were the golden age of great theme music.

    1. BOTH themes for this iconic show should have a place on your list, if you could fudge the number system. While I like "Secret Agent Man" (The American title of this show) High Wire was also great (I really like the Bob Leaper version).

  3. Great choices, David - I like them a lot. I'd have to include my favorite of the era, though - "The FBI." Listening to that theme and watching the graphics for the first two seasons made me want to run out and join the Bureau - and I was only six at the time...

  4. I can't imagine making a list like this! This would be difficult and it takes courage. And all the responses you're gonna get are going to be complaints. So let me join the party. Give both themes from "Lost in Space" another listen. John Williams knows how to craft sci-fi themes. But my REAL disappointment is in overlooking the theme from "The Jetsons." That tune is so complex and the orchestration is mind-blowing.
    There. Those are my two cents. I admire your good work and creating thoughtful posts that inspiring comments from loyal readers!

  5. "Lost in Space" was sooooo close, Joanna. Part of my criteria was whether the music in question would be something one would enjoy listening to independent of the series, while also taking into account how well it complements the show. Williams' theme is perfect accompaniment with those wonderfully creative LIS opening credit sequences, and the same could be said for Mitchell's suggestion of "The FBI." But I don't think I'd listen to either piece on my iPod.

    1. Fair enough. I'm one of those weirdos that actually still has the complete multi-volume CD collection of Television's Greatest Hits, that started in the 1980s. So I'm quite familiar with listening to the TV theme songs independently of the series. Your project here is a tough one! Good on you. I apparently have no shame confessing about my musical taste (or lack thereof.)

  6. McHale's Navy theme was written by Axel Stordahl, not Jerry Fielding.