Classic TV theme: Happy Days
Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel
Goodbye grey sky, hello blue
There's nothing can hold me when I hold you
Happy Days ran from 1974-1984, but for the first two seasons, the era-appropriate "Rock Around The Clock" was the opening theme, while "Happy Days," which Charles Fox wrote with lyricist Norman Gimbel, played as the closing theme. In season 3, "Happy Days" took over as the open.
Charles Fox, who wrote the music for at least 100 classic and not-so-classic (The Joe Namath Hour) TV shows, studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who also taught composition to Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. He told us:
You always want to capture what you think is the essence of the show and you want to make something that's bright and interesting and attractive. So if someone's in the other room doing something and hears the theme, they say, "Oh, I know that show, I like that show," and they come running in. And the other thing is you want to make it so that you can have elements from the theme that you can score within the body of the show, and then hopefully someday it could go on and be a hit record, also, and sound fresh all the time.Think back to Happy Days: When you hear the theme and get the thumbs up from Fonzie, it feels so good, it can't be wrong. It was so good that the theme was made into a full-length song, charting at #5 in the US and even cracking the UK Top 40.
Quincy Jones, who also studied with Nadia Boulanger, wrote the theme song to Sanford and Son, which is called "The Streetbeater."
Gimbel and Fox also wrote the theme to the Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley, called "Making Our Dreams Come True." They wrote the song as "Hoping Our Dreams Will Come True," but changed it when the producers told them that these independent women don't "Hope," they go out and make things happen. Additional credits for the songwriters include "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "I Got A Name."
Other famous theme songs from the '70s:
- "Suicide Is Painless" from M*A*S*H - The complete song, with lyrics, appears in the 1970 movie that gave rise to the show.
- "Movin' On Up" from The Jeffersons - This was sung by Ja'net DuBois, who played Willona Woods on Good Times.
- "Welcome Back" from Welcome Back, Kotter - John Sebastian's song about returning to where you came from caught on and became a #1 hit.
Classic TV theme: Cheers
Written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
The song is called "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" and it was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, who got the attention of the Cheers producers for their work scoring a musical called Preppies. Gary came up with the idea when he got in the mindset of a late-night bar patron, and in the process created one of the great TV theme songs, and a piano bar mainstay. The producers thought about having someone famous sing it, but when they heard Gary's demo, it captured the feel of Cheers - a bunch of regular guys in a home away from home. They chose intimate over polished, and the voice you hear is Gary's.
We wondered if writing a TV theme would be difficult because so many previously-written theme songs would be dancing in your head, making it impossible to write something original, so we asked Gary how he handles this. Said Gary:
Cheers was the first TV theme I ever co-wrote. Coming from a background as a pop songwriter - as opposed to say, a jingle writer - I approached the Cheers theme - and all that followed - as 'songs' rather than 'themes.' I was never that cognizant of how long they ran until we were done with the writing. Most were born as full length songs that were than edited down to a minute. I never had to clear my head of past TV themes because I was never really thinking in that vein while we were working.Cheers ran from 1982-1993, anchoring NBC's "Must See TV" Thursday night lineup. But it almost didn't make it past the first season, since it was one of the worst-rated shows that year. The theme song, however, caught on, and NBC got plenty of requests for the sheet music and recording. They brought Portnoy back to record a full version of the song, which was released as a single. He had some fun with that one, including lyrics like, "And your husband wants to be a girl..."
Other famous theme songs from the '80s:
- "With A Little Help From My Friends" from The Wonder Years - Joe Cocker's version of the Beatles classic was used in this one.
- "Paint It Black" from Tour of Duty - Long before The Who sold out to CSI, this Rolling Stones song fit perfectly with a show about the Vietnam War.
- "Miami Vice Theme" from Miami Vice - Jan Hammer's keyboard-driven instrumental was a #1 hit, and gave Crockett and Tubbs their sound.
Classic TV theme: Friends
Written by Allee Willis and Michael Skloff
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
Well, it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year
It was radio that needed the songs, and the biggest radio song of 1995 was the theme to Friends, recorded by The Rembrandts. Desperate for an identifiable pop song that could catch on in the post-grunge landscape, radio stations put "I'll Be There For You" in heavy rotation. But first they had to get the song - it was never released as a single. Allee Willis, who wrote it with Michael Skloff, told us:
It was just DJs who made a cassette of the song and just started playing it. And it became the #1 airplay record of the year, but the Rembrandts never wanted it out as a single because they didn't write the song. So they kind of bit off their nose to spite their face. At that point, the only way they could get the Rembrandts to do the record was if they got songwriting credit. So the song needed a bridge, and it needed a second verse lyric, and they wrote that. They don't have credit on the theme, but they have it on the record.So to recap: a semi-famous rock group records a poppy theme song that they didn't write for a TV show that becomes a huge hit. Popularity led to interest in a full length version of the song, but the group had no intention of recording a full version unless they could get a writing credit and make lots of money in exchange for the loss of their musical souls, which they give up in the deal, as they will forever be identified by this pop platitude and not for their art.
Allee wasn't thrilled with the song either, but she took the assignment and overdelivered, coming up with a song about those who care for you no matter how screwed up you are. It was fed into the corporate machine: Warner Brothers owned the show, their publishing division had Allee, and their record label had The Rembrandts. Allee wrote the song very quickly and didn't think much of it. This was around the time when the music industry started digging in their heels, refusing to embrace new technology like the internet, and Allee was already forming online social networks, partnering with Mark Cuban and figuring out how to move music forward. She ended up creating one of the last huge hits using the old - and doomed - business model she hated.
Willis, who died in 2019, wrote "Boogie Wonderland" and "September" with Earth, Wind & Fire. She had a museum of kitsch, threw fabulous parties, and made interesting videos, like this one with Pomplamoose.
Other famous theme songs from the '90s:
- "Woke Up This Morning" from The Sopranos - Written by A3 after their lead singer heard a story about a wife who shot her abusive husband.
- "Bad Boys" from COPS - A Reggae song that set the tone for a real-life cop show. It let us know that we were allowed to laugh at these idiots getting arrested.
- "Cleveland Rocks" from The Drew Carey Show - The song was written by an Englishman: Ian Hunter. The version used on the show was by the Presidents Of The United States Of America.
Classic TV theme: Phineas and Ferb
Written by the show's writers
There's a hundred and four days of summer vacation
Then school comes along just to end it
The show's creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff "Swampy" Marsh wrote the theme with head writer Martin Olson, and had Radio Disney mainstay Bowling For Soup record the song. Lead singer Jaret Reddick wrote some additional lyrics, and they recorded a full-length version called "Today is Gonna Be a Great Day."
As Phineas and Ferb matured, music became a bigger part of the show, with Bowling For Soup performing some of the numbers and Jaret appearing as the lead singer of an '80s band called Love Händel, which Phineas and Ferb reunited. Just about every episode features a musical number, which often turns into a Shrek-like production appealing to both kids and adults. The Phineas and Ferb empire has expanded to include a Christmas album, and more musical guests - their "Summer Belongs To You" special featured Clay Aiken and Chaka Khan.
Our live show changed a little bit in that it wasn't rated R or NC17 anymore. Our big thing is, look, we can do PG13. And if it's a fair or something like that, we can do PG. But it's impossible for Bowling for Soup to do a G-rated show, because lyrically you just can't get around it. We've only done one G-rated show ever, and it was for Radio Disney's tenth anniversary. And I had to sing all of the edited lyrics. That was a great challenge for me, trying to sing the songs the way they don't go.The '00s saw TV theme songs become even more scarce, but the music didn't die. More and more shows play songs during the action - not just theme music, but songs that might be on your iPod. Getting a song in a show is now seen as a promotional vehicle, and record companies will offer the songs for free if they think it will get some exposure. You'll often hear these songs in a touching montage or during a poignant bit of dialogue deep into an episode, and many times it's clear that the producers are trying a little too hard to create a mood. A new thing for the '00s was allowing a song's lyrics to play while the actors were talking - something a generation of multitaskers can handle.
Other famous theme songs from the '00s:
- "Boss Of Me" from Malcolm In The Middle - Written specifically for the show by They Might Be Giants.
- "One Of Us" from Joan Of Arcadia - A perfect fit for a show about a girl who encounters God in the form of everyday people.
- "I Don't Want To Be" from One Tree Hill - Gavin DeGraw's song wasn't written for the show, but became a hit when it was chosen as the theme song.
Classic TV theme: Orange Is The New Black
Written by Regina Spektor
The animals, the animals
Trap, trap, trap 'til the cage is full
Spektor was tapped by series creator Jenji Kohan to write the theme song for the drama series about a group of inmates at a women's prison. While the first season was still in production, Spektor watched unfinished episodes for inspiration. "I got to really experience the world of the show and got to see what the characters were really like and it kind of helped me finish the song," she told Rolling Stone. Set to the flashing faces of female prisoners, the tune compares them to animals trapped in a cage for their misdeeds but offers them hope for redemption.
"You've Got Time" earned Regina Spektor her first Grammy nomination (category: Best Song Written For Visual Media).
Within a couple years, Amazon Prime and Hulu followed suit with their own skip intro tags, putting nearly every streamable TV show theme at risk with the click of a button.
Other famous theme songs from the '10s:
- "Greenback Boogie" from Suits - The legal dramedy about a cocky corporate lawyer and his fraudulent protégé borrowed its money-loving theme song from an Ima Robot B-side.
- "The Americans Theme" from The Americans - Nathan Barr's evocative instrumental cued the tension for the drama about Soviet spies living in America during the Cold War.
- "Secret" from Pretty Little Liars - PLL star Ashley Benson thought The Pierces' song was perfect to introduce the story of a group of teen girls who are tormented by an anonymous source who knows all their secrets.
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