(Pictured: Donny Most, Ron Howard, and Henry Winkler on Happy Days, 1974.)
It’s well-known that Happy Days started in 1972 as an unsold pilot that was broadcast as an episode of Love American Style. Ron Howard was cast in American Graffiti as a result of the pilot, and after the success of the movie, ABC decided to pick up the show after all. It premiered on January 15, 1974, at a moment in American pop culture when the kids who had grown up in the hot car/jukebox/drive-in world of the late 50s and early 60s were pushing 30, and thereby ripe for a show that capitalized on their fond memories of those days.
Happy Days was not the same show at the beginning that it was at the end. Although it was always a sitcom and never a dramedy, it was at first intended to be an character-oriented portrayal of the trials Richie Cunningham and his high-school friends faced growing up. The first season of 16 episodes was fairly successful, placing at #16 in the ratings for the entire year. But in the fall of 1974, in the same timeslot and with the same approach, the show fell out of the Top 30 and was in danger of cancellation. It survived, however, finishing at #46 for the season, after executive producer Garry Marshall made some mid-season changes. The show started filming in front of a live audience. and a raucous episode about Fonzie accidentally marrying a stripper pointed the way forward. In the third season, with a greater focus on Fonzie, Happy Days became broader, louder—more “sitcommy”—and one of the most popular shows of the 70s. It made #1 in the weekly ratings for the first time during March 1976 and ended at #11 for the year.
During its first two seasons, Happy Days used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme song, and as the first season ended, the song returned to the Top 40 for a single week (May 25, 1974). Starting in the fall of 1975, the show got a new theme song, written by prolific TV and movie composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and recorded by the duo of Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain. Pratt and McClain had a band called Brother Love, which had recorded one album, although most of their work lately had been making commercial jingles. They got the gig through producer Michael Omartian, who had been in a band with McClain a decade before.
As Happy Days was rising in the ratings during the spring of 1976, the new theme—a much better version of the song than the one used on TV—was released as a single. The first listing for “Happy Days” at ARSA was at KHJ in Los Angeles in March, and it hit the Hot 100 on April 3. Before April was out, it was on the air everywhere. While it recorded only a single local #1, at WRAW in Reading, Pennsylvania (in mid-May), it became a Top-10 hit in dozens of cities between April and July. It spent the weeks of June 5 and June 12, 1976, at #5 on the Hot 100; in Cash Box, it peaked at #6. It would place at #76 on the Cash Box Top 100 of 1976; oddly, it didn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of the year, thanks to a relatively short chart run.
Although Happy Days didn’t win the weekly ratings race even once during the summer 1976 rerun season, having its theme song on the radio all summer could not have hurt it one bit. And when the new TV season began in September, Happy Days was unstoppable. For the 1976-77 season, Happy Days and its spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, would finish #1 and #2 in the season-long ratings while airing back-to-back on Tuesday nights. For the ’77-’78 season, they would swap places at the top, still airing back-to-back, each drawing better than a 30-percent share of the audience, between 20 and 25 million viewers each week. (Between October 1977 and March 1978, one show or the other was #1 in the ratings every week but two: Christmas week, when reruns lost out to The Bob Hope All Star Christmas Comedy Special, and two weeks later, when Super Bowl XII beat all comers, as Super Bowls do.)
On the radio in the summer of 1976, “Happy Days” was both nostalgic and right on time. Decades later, it’s purely nostalgic, and for more than one reason. There’s just nothing like it anymore. It’s not just that nobody pays attention to TV themes nowadays. The major-key joyfulness of “Happy Days” is out of style, too. But on a sunny spring day, on the highway with the car windows down, you can hardly do better.