(Pictured: the original cast of Hill Street Blues.)
A while back reader Wesley suggested I rank some of the most successful TV themes on the pop charts. But there are lot of rankings like that to be found on the Internet, and many of them are more interesting than anything I might write. Those lists contain lots of familiar suspects: themes from Hawaii Five-O, SWAT, Welcome Back Kotter, Happy Days, Friends, Greatest American Hero, Miami Vice, Laverne and Shirley, and so on. (One especially comprehensive list is here, with not just pop-chart hits but other iconic themes.) So I decided to cruise through the database at ARSA and find some other TV themes that strike me interesting.
—Henry Mancini wrote famous TV themes from Peter Gunn (although his recording didn’t chart) and Mr. Lucky in the 50s to Newhart in the 80s. In the 70s, he released singles featuring themes from Charlie’s Angels and the Glenn Ford western series Cade’s County, as well as “Bumper’s Theme” from The Blue Knight, a cop show starring George Kennedy. He also wrote and recorded the theme for the NBC Mystery Movie. If you watched Columbo, McMillan and Wife, or any of the other detective shows under that umbrella title, that music is likely to take you back to your parents’ living room on a Sunday night. Or maybe that’s just me.
—Mike Post turned three TV themes into hit singles: “The Rockford Files” (#10 in 1975), “Theme From Hill Street Blues” (#10 in 1981), and “Theme From Magnum P.I.” (#25 in 1982). He co-wrote “Theme From the Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not),” which went to #2 for Joey Scarbury in 1981. “Theme From L.A. Law” ran to #13 on the adult-contemporary chart in 1987 without making the Hot 100. (The latter is best heard in its TV configuration; the record that got played on the radio loses something in translation. I think it’s the slamming of the car trunk. Seriously.) Lalo Schifrin is best known for “Mission Impossible” in 1967, but his “Theme From Medical Center” got a tiny bit of airplay in 1971. Dave Grusin scored a number of TV shows and movies, but his only TV theme to became a radio hit was “Theme From St. Elsewhere,” which went to #15 on the AC chart in 1984.
—Two versions of the Batman theme were big hits in the spring of 1966: the Marketts went to #17 nationally (and #1 at WNDR in Syracuse, New York), and bandleader Neal Hefti, who wrote the theme, took it to #35. The producers of Batman put a spinoff on the air that fall, The Green Hornet (which famously starred Bruce Lee as Kato). Versions of its theme by Al Hirt, the Ventures, and B. Bumble and the Stingers all got a bit of airplay, but none made the Hot 100.
Some of the themes mentioned at ARSA are a bit unusual:
—In 1960, bandleader Al Nevins released “Blues for G String.” In 1962, RCA reissued it as “Night Theme,” after it became a “TV late movie theme song,” as Billboard put it in a capsule review that February. I have seen at least one source that says it was the theme for NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies, and I’m inclined to think that may be true. Saturday Night at the Movies premiered in the fall of 1961. It was the first network series to show relatively recent theatrical movies in color, and it became a big ratings hit.
—In 1966, there came an album called Bob Crane, His Drums, and His Orchestra Play the Funny Side of TV: Themes From Television’s Great Comedy Shows. The album features Crane’s Hogan’s Heroes co-stars Werner Klemperer and John Banner on the cover, and includes not just the Hogan’s Heroes theme (which was released as a single backed by the F Troop theme), but themes from Get Smart, My Three Sons, The Green Hornet, Candid Camera, and others. None of it charted, but you can probably understand why Epic Records took a chance on it.
—“Lou’s Blues (Theme from Lou Grant)” by Patrick Williams charted for two weeks at WBLK in Buffalo at the end of 1982.
—“Score,” the original theme for ABC’s Monday Night Football, written by Charles Fox, was released as a single in 1972, but it doesn’t seem to have charted anywhere.
I have more TV themes on my list, so stay tuned for a future installment along this line.
4 thoughts on “Blues of Different Hues”
I know since I suggested this idea to JB that I’m partial to this blog, but even so, I really think it’s fantastic. Let’s start with Mancini. “Theme from Cade’s County” made the UK chart and should’ve rumbled some in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 as well. One of his best, it manages to sound both like a Western and contemporary tune (for 1971). And oh my gosh, the NBC Mystery Movie Theme is a work of beauty. I still remember the majestic sound coming through the TV speaker as the images on the screen finally stopped on a mysterious figure walking from the horizon with a flashlight spotlighting the series in rotation (always Columbo, usually McMillan and Wife and McCloud and something else). The full version is even more deserving of hit single status, in my opinion.
Schifrin’s “Theme from Medical Center” was miles more exciting than Leonard Rosenman’s humdrum theme on Marcus Welby, M.D. at the same time. And Grusin’s “Theme from St. Elsewhere” was so intricate that it put to shame the rest of the instrumentals that were on the AC chart in the mid-1980s (and yes, that includes the Miami Vice Theme, which in my opinion hasn’t aged as well–nor has the show, for that matter).
Finally, the appeal of Hogan’s Heroes was still strong enough in 1967 that Sunset Records issued Hogan’s Heroes Sings the Best of World War II, only without Bob Crane, Werner Klemperer and John Banner. Instead, along with the Hogan’s Heroes March (with lyrics sung along with the familiar theme), we got to hear to the rest of the supporting cast lending their vocals, including Richard Dawson, Larry Hovis, Robert Clary and Ivan Dixon. As for the themes on the Bob Crane album, it seems odd to report that the only one to make the Hot 100 was the one for My Three Sons, and that was in a version by Lawrence Welk that peaked at #55 in 1961. Maybe following up his freak #1 hit “Calcutta” had something to do with it.
In his long and illustrious career, the best thing Quincy Jones ever did was “The Streetbeater,” better known as the theme from Sanford & Son.
“The Rockford Files”, as simply a song, divorced from its role as a show theme, is the best of the bunch.
Cosigned on the Quincy Jones “Sanford and Son” theme, which was released as a single but didn’t chart anywhere, at least not in the ARSA database. Sax man Boots Randolph (of “Yakety Sax” fame) did a version of it which is pretty faithful and actually brings a bit of the funk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwE1MTG53f8
“Rockford Files” was always a favorite. Back in ’75 the stations I listened to didn’t play it enough for me. I have always enjoyed “Hill Street Blues” also, but after completing a rewatch of the show recently, I’m not sure it was the best possible theme. I hadn’t heard “Magnum PI” in a while before researching this post and I don’t think I ever played it on the radio, but it sounds like the distilled essence of 1982 to me.