(Pictured: John Williams takes a break, 1980.)
The success of the Star Wars theme on records made it a no-brainer for labels to release music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind after that film became the latest blockbuster hit in November 1977, especially considering that a musical theme—five notes the aliens use to communicate with Earthlings—is a significant part of the movie. “Theme From Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” credited to conductor John Williams, first showed up at ARSA in mid-December 1977 and made the Hot 100 on the chart dated December 24. In January it made the Top 10 in cities from Bangor, Maine, to Tacoma, Washington. Its highest placing was #2 at WKHM in Jackson, Michigan, in early March. On the Hot 100, the John Williams version spent two weeks at #13 as February turned to March 1978.
Meco’s “Theme From Close Enounters” had a similar profile, hitting local surveys in mid-December and the Hot 100 on January 7, 1978. It got somewhat fewer adds than the John Williams version, although plenty of Top 10 rankings. Its highest local placing was #5 at KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, in mid-February. But it would get only to #25 on the Hot 100 dated February 18, 1978. It tries to recycle the “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” vibe, but doesn’t really get it. The Williams version, from the original score, is much more compelling.
The original Close Encounters soundtrack album made #17 on the Billboard 200. Meco’s Encounters of Every Kind got up to #62; apart from its movie-theme single, the rest of it was made up of originals and a couple of big-band covers.
After Close Encounters, neither Meco nor John Williams was done charting. Williams followed his Close Encounters success with the iconic theme from Superman, credited like “Star Wars (Main Title)” to the London Symphony Orchestra. It spent four weeks on the Hot 100 in February 1979, making #81. Meco would return to the Top 40 three more times, with “Themes from The Wizard of Oz” (#35, November 1978), “Empire Strikes Back,” a medley of the Darth Vader and Yoda themes from the Star Wars sequel (#18, August 1980) and “Pop Goes the Movies (Part 1),” a medley of familiar themes from Gone With the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, Goldfinger, and others (#35, April 1982).
“Empire Strikes Back” had about the same number of listings at ARSA as “Theme From Close Encounters,” and it hit the Top 10 in a similar number of cities. (It gets to use real Star Wars sound effects, for which Lucasfilm gets label credit.) Nevertheless, if you remember hearing it on the radio back then, you’re ahead of me—although it’s not terrible. “Pop Goes the Movies (Part 1)” was nicely positioned in the spring of 1982 to take advantage of the medley craze. Meco also put themes from Shogun and Return of the Jedi onto the Hot 100, as well as the novelty “What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb),” credited to the Star Wars Intergalactic Droid Choir and Chorale, from the 1980 Star Wars Christmas album, which was a real thing that happened.
According to Allmusic.com, Meco retired from music in 1985 and later became a commodities broker. His Allmusic bio notes that in college, he played trombone in a trio with Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter, and he later arranged Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” He’s still with us, and will turn 80 in November.
John Williams was composing TV themes in the late 1950s before moving to film scoring. He first charted with the original soundtrack version of Jaws, which made #32 in September 1975. He scored practically every major Steven Spielberg film, the original three Star Wars films and some of the later sequels, plus Superman, The Witches of Eastwick, and other Oscar-winners. He’s still at work, scoring the next Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, which is due out in December. Not bad for a man who’s 87 years old.
Thank you for joining me on this overly deep dive into movie music radio hits of the late 70s and early 80s. If you have read this far, take $5 out of petty cash.