What Happened to the Great TV Theme Songs?
This writer ranks his Top 15 television tunes from the '60s, '70s and '80s
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale. ... Come and listen to a story. ... Come and knock on our door. ... Come ride the little train that is rolling down the tracks. ... Here we come. ... Here’s the story. ... Hello, world, there’s a song that we’re singin’.
I miss TV theme songs. They were our welcome mat. Or Welcome back in the case of Kotter. They were open invitations, no RSVP required, only a TV with just the right amount of aluminum foil for the rabbit ears.
TV theme songs were catchy, contagious. Viral, they call it today. Yesterday, viral meant the doctor ... and a shot in the arm ... or that ah-stick shoved down my throat ... and, “Mom, why can’t I go to Dr. Marcus Welby?”
Do you remember that theme song? Me, neither. A show needed a great theme song for immortality. Words weren’t even necessary. Just a tune that stayed with you. You whistled it or hummed it, and suddenly you would head to the Mayberry fishin’ hole. Or get Smart into CONTROL.
Theme songs today often are afterthoughts. With 22 non-commercial minutes per half-hour, theme songs might be a few notes. If that. One show can meld into another, closing credits speed-racing on part of the screen while the next show is beginning.
Give me the 1960s, 1970s and even the early 1980s instead. That was the Golden Age of TV theme songs.
What are the best recent TV theme songs? The ones you know by heart? Um ... uh ... well. The Friends theme was pretty good. Only that came out 21 years ago.
From 1988, l loved Joe Cocker’s A Little Help From My Friends on The Wonder Years. And the Supremes’ Reflections on China Beach. Of course, those were reconstituted songs for nostalgic shows.
When it comes to picking the top TV themes of all time, I like to think of songs written for the shows. Or at least best associated with them. I want songs that were iconic. I want songs that can stay with me for decades — and in a good way (unlike When Things Were Rotten, which keeps coming back to me for some reason, like a bad brisket).
Here are my Top 15:
Why it’s so good: The phenomenon all started with that great intro. Once you heard it, you had to repeat it. Again. And again. It was kitschy, catchy. Da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da, Batman! Perfect for giving supervillains the SOCK! POW! ZOK! treatment.
The show: Batman (1966-1968) took the dark out of the knight and went to camp. With good in their hearts and tongues in their cheeks, The Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder preached Holy Bat Logic twice weekly. Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel.
Factoid: In 1966, three recordings of the theme song occupied Billboard’s Hot 100 at once, and Neal Hefti's composition won the Grammy for best instrumental theme.
Why it’s so good: We go new school with this one. If you can call a show that debuted 25 years ago new. This is a throwback with a rap twist. Will Smith tells the back story in the quotable theme, just like the good old days.
The show: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) took our guy Will out of his West Philly neighborhood and into the safety and luxury of his relatives’ Bel Air, Calif. home. And it helped launch Smith into superstardom.
Factoid: Why The Fresh Prince? Because that was his rap name, half of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
Why it’s so good: The 77 Sunset Strip theme made it cool to start snapping your fingers, but The Addams Family opening made it a scream. (Or “scree- um”?) Everything about it, from the sound effects to the lyrics to Vic Mizzy’s triple-dubbed voice is wonderfully goofy, unforgettably quirky — and delightfully Lurch.
The show: The Addams Family (1964-1966) didn’t last long as a first-run TV series, but it lived on well after death (as a cartoon, a TV remake, movies and a Broadway show), which somehow seems appropriate.
Factoid: Songwriter/singer Mizzy gave us the theme to Green Acres and a lot more, but once told CBS Sunday Morning he didn’t mind if his Addams Family finger snapping overshadowed all that. “Two finger snaps, and you live in Bel Air,” he said.
Why it’s so good: It’s Archie. It’s Edith. It’s all in character. It’s the sound of their generation, in more ways than one. At first, you listened every week just to try to figure out what the hell they were saying while enjoying the ride.
The show: All in the Family (1971-1979) forced us to stare at our stereotypes and laugh at — and with — bigot-in-residence Archie Bunker. It was the one show you had to watch in the 1970s. (Except, of course, Hello, Larry.)
Factoid: The song Those Were the Days was re-recorded at one point to make it easier to understand the words. Particularly “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great."
Why it’s so good: It has that 1980s easy feel to it. Like curling up with a Care Bear while hearing the quasi-fairy tale. Believe it or not, Believe it or Not reached No. 2 on Billboard.
The show: The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983) is your typical teacher-gets-a-costume-from-aliens-but-struggles-to-master-its-superpowers-while-fighting-crime story. It’s based on a true story. Believe it? Not.
Factoid: Seinfeld character George Costanza recorded a version of this song for his answering machine (“Believe it or not, George isn’t at home ...”) Which makes me laugh. Every. Single. Time.
Why it’s so good: The first notes set up the tension, and then the DUM, DUM, DUM-DUM does me in. Lalo Schifrin’s classic is the first all-instrumental theme on my list and a Grammy winner for best original score for a TV show or movie. Plus, it’s a boss ringtone.
The show: Mission Impossible (1966-1973) was Cold War era cool. The show dragged sometimes, but I loved watching our good-guy spies rip off those masks that made them look like anyone. I wished I could do that.
Factoid: The song made Billboard’s Hot 100 twice, the original version reaching No. 41 in 1967 and the movie version reaching No. 7 in 1996.
Why it’s so good: Lovin’ Spoonful founder John Sebastian started out so mellow (“Welcome back...”), telling us a story, then threw in some attitude. Loved the hand clapping and the background voices.
The show: Welcome Back Kotter (1975-1979) focused on an ex-high school “Sweathog” returning to teach the current slackers — including John Travolta. The show was based on star Gabe Kaplan’s comedy and produced such memorable lines as “Up your nose with a rubber hose” and other disses served in high schools across America.
Factoid: The song Welcome Back reached No. 1 on Billboard in May 1976.
Why it’s so good: What about it ISN’T good? Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dah, dun-dun-dun-dun-dah. The Ventures’ version of it reached No. 4 on Billboard. Tell me a decent marching band that doesn’t play this.
The show: The original Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980) introduced us to Steve McGarrett, “Book 'em, Dano” and “Be there. Aloha.” Jack Lord brought his button-down wardrobe and surf’s-up hair to the McGarrett character, whose crack team would hunt down bad guys while the rest of us got a taste of Hawaii.
Factoid: There actually are lyrics to the theme song. Don Ho sang a version called You Can Come with Me, and Sammy Davis Jr. sang You Can Count on Me.
7. The Beverly Hillbillies
Why it’s so good: Take the legendary bluegrass duo of Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. Add Jerry Scoggins' voice to series creator Paul Henning’s lyrics. Boom! The Ballad of Jed Clampett. Love or hate the show, the theme song told the story in a lasting way. “Oil that is. Black gold. Texas tea.” Country-fried poetry.
The show: The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) followed millionaire Jed and his family trying to act like accidental tourists despite the Cee-ment pond. Yeah, it was silly. It also was No. 1 in the ratings its first two seasons.
Factoid: The Flatt and Scruggs version of The Ballad of Jed Clampett, with Flatt singing, became the first bluegrass song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and hit No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Why it’s so good: Lauren Bacall made whistling sexy by instructing Bogie, “You just put your lips together and blow,” but this song made whistling a happy pastime.
The show: The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) takes us to the small town of Mayberry, where Andy is the wise and widower sheriff, a really young Ron Howard is son Opie, Don Knotts is wacky deputy Barney and a host of other characters combined in this American phenomenon.
Factoid: The theme song is titled The Fishin’ Hole and does have words. Fortunately, the words were dumped in favor of co-composer Earle Hagen whistling.
Why it’s so good: The song is as inviting as the bar stools inside. Who wouldn’t want to keep coming back to a place where everybody knows your name? And they’re always glad you came?
The show: Cheers (1982-1993) featured ballplayer-turned-bar owner Sam Malone pursuing Diane Chambers while Norm, Cliff, Carla, Frazier, Woody and Coach ate up the scenery.
Factoid: The song Where Everybody Knows Your Name reached No. 83 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983.
Why it’s so good: Two words: identical cousins. You can lose your mind. This theme song somehow manages to introduce the two main characters, with rock ‘n’ roll music for Brooklyn Heights teen Patty Lane and a more refined tone for British counterpart Cathy Lane (both played by Patty Duke).
The show: The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966) also can be summed up easily. Identical cousins. I just love writing that. Anyway, Cathy comes to live with Patty, Patty always has some typical harebrained teen scheme in mind that involves Cathy, and the rest is I Love Lucy Lite.
Factoid: In Mr. Saturday Night, Billy Crystal as aging borscht-belt comic Buddy Young Jr. tells his brother: “I tell you, this Patty Duke’s sexy. Remember the theme song? ‘Patty likes to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control.’ There’s a date I want. ‘Bartender, I’ll have a vodka and tonic, and a Hebrew National for the young lady and keep them comin’.”
Why it’s so good: We all know the words. And the story. Of a lovely lady. Etc. The tic-tac-toe board doesn’t hurt. Also, who talked about blended families on TV back then? This song did. Making it kind of groovy.
The show: The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) melded Carol and her three daughters with Mike and his three sons. It wasn’t always a Sunshine Day (who didn’t cringe when Marcia’s nose swelled from the errant football?), but somehow it all worked out in the end. Awwwwww.
Factoid: The Brady kids didn’t sing the theme until Season 2. The Peppermint Trolley Company sang it first. Band member Danny Faragher wrote on dannyfaragher.com, “I remember thinking, ‘This is the dumbest idea in the world for a TV show. Nobody will buy this.’"
Why it’s so good: No matter how many times I heard it, I wanted to hear it again. So what if the sea shanty went a little overboard on the “facts.” The mate was a mighty sailing man? Ha. A three-hour tour? Then why did the Howells bring all those clothes? Stop me in the mall today, and ask me to recite the lyrics, and I still can do it — even if I can’t remember where I parked my car.
The show: Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) chronicled the foibles of the skipper, first mate, professor, movie star, girl next door and millionaire couple. Would they escape the uncharted desert isle?
Factoid: The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle songwriter and show creator Sherwood Schwarz didn’t add The Professor and Mary Ann to the opening theme song until the second season. In the first season, they were simply “and the rest.” As if you didn’t know.
1. Secret Agent
Why it’s so good: Nobody else picks this song (except for karaoke), but it’s my favorite TV theme. The DJ even played it at my wedding reception. Why? Let’s start with the outta-sight opening guitar riff. And Johnny Rivers on that killer chorus: Secret ... Agent Man. Secret ... Agent Man. They’ve given you a number and taken away your name. And that riff again. Nothing turns a party into a shindig faster than this tune.
The show: Secret Agent (1964-1966) actually was British show Danger Man, a middling spy series compared to the likes of The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. When it came to the States, the title was changed. And so was the song. And the magic ensued.
Factoid: Steve Barri (who played the opening guitar riff) and P.F. Sloan co-wrote the song as Secret Agent Man, which reached No. 3 on Billboard. Barri and Sloan also recorded and performed as The Grass Roots and collaborated on another of my all-time favorite songs, Eve of Destruction sung by Barry McGuire.
Mike Bass is an adjunct journalism instructor at Northwestern University and freelance writer based in the Chicago area. The former sports editor has written two books and limits his singing of TV theme songs to the shower for the sake of his wife's sanity.