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. Beyoncé 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