(Pictured: Mark Hamill and friends at the 1978 Oscars.)
Nobody wanted Star Wars, not at first. The studio made it reluctantly; theater operators thought it was a kids’ movie; the cast was mostly unknowns, and so was George Lucas. Some of the 42 theaters that opened it in May 1977 took it only because 20th Century Fox said that if you want some other, bigger, more prestigious movie later this summer, you have to take Star Wars now.
Tracking the 1977 Star Wars box office from 2019 sources is troublesome, because some of the best ones, The Numbers and Box Office Mojo, either conflict or are incomplete. What seems clear is that the movie was popular but did not dominate the box office in May or June, trailing Smokey and the Bandit and The Deep (one of those prestige pictures). But when Star Wars went into wider release in mid-July—as one film executive characterized it, “when it broadened to the suburbs”—it became a thing. It had competition for the box-office crown throughout the summer, fall, and winter, including Disney’s The Rescuers, The Spy Who Loved Me, Kentucky Fried Movie, Oh God, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Julia, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever. But it outdid them all in terms of longevity: it played in many theaters for a full year, and although other sources disagree, Box Office Mojo says it was #1 at the box office as late as July 1978.
By September 1977, Star Wars was also high on the record charts. “Star Wars (Main Title),” performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by John Williams, charted at KYNO in Fresno, California, in June, and hit the Hot 100 on July 9. It became a Top-10 hit in a handful of large radio markets as August turned to September, and made #1 in San Diego, Honolulu, and Pittsburgh. By October, however, it dropped off the charts, hastened on its way, perhaps, by another version of the theme.
A handful of stations were on “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band,” credited to disco producer and session musician Meco Monardo, in July, although it didn’t hit the Hot 100 until August 6. It was headed toward the Top 10 in several places by then, and hit #1 in a few cities before the end of the month. By the end of September it had gone to #1 in lots of places, including both KHJ in Los Angeles and WABC in New York City (although it would stick at #2 for five weeks on Chicago’s WLS). It did two weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, October 1 and October 8, 1977, before yielding to “You Light Up My Life.”
During the week of September 17, 1977, “Star Wars (Main Title)” hit #10 on the Hot 100. “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” was at #13. The next week, Meco went to #8; the LSO fell to #36. And the next week, when Meco made his mighty leap to #1, the LSO fell out of the Top 40.
ARSA shows two other charting versions of the theme. A disco-ish version by Don Ellis and the Survival rode high at KKUA in Honolulu for five weeks in July and August. Ellis was a jazz trumpet veteran who scored several movies, including The French Connection. Maynard Ferguson did it too. (Here’s a TV piece, produced by DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow for the NBC affiliate in New York, in which we see Ferguson playing the song and talking with Morrow.)
Although no radio station ranked Meco’s record #1 for all of 1977, KKUA, WKBO in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and WKXY in Sarasota, Florida, placed it at #2; WABC, KDWB in Minneapolis, and WKBW in Buffalo were among those that had it at #3. (WLS ranked it at #7.) Billboard‘s November-to-November chart year cost Meco some credit, so his record placed at #71 on the year-end chart. Billboard ranked the LSO version at #99 for the year.
The Star Wars original soundtrack album went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Meco’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk peaked at #13. The “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” single is an edit from a 15-minute medley of Star Wars themes on the first side of his album; side two contains three unrelated disco tracks titled “Other,” “Galactic,” and “Funk.”
That the theme from the 70s’ most iconic movie would go to #1 in a disco version is just about the most 1970s thing there is. And while it seems pretty cheesy now, “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” sounded pretty good on the radio back then. The London Symphony version could be a radio momentum-killer over its full 2:20 running time, but that blast of the opening fanfare always sounded pretty great too.
(The best version of the Star Wars theme is, of course, this one.)