Having come to the end of an era last week, with the slow crumbling of the TV theme song in the 2000s, we felt the obligation to end this mini-series with a bang by going back to what was surely the golden age of the form — before the ‘90s, before the ‘80s, all the way back to the 1970s. Back then they knew how to make a theme song, for goodness’ sake — those songs told stories, set a mood, and were often downright funky (and the best ones did all three).
Again, our criteria for the list is not necessarily the best show or even the best song, but the ones that stick in your head, every word and/or instrumental break at the ready for mass sing-alongs and quiet moments alone. (We’ve all been there.) For the first time, we expanded the list to twelve entries—and even doing that, we had to make painful judgment calls and leave off such classics as Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, The White Shadow, S.W.A.T., The Electric Company, Happy Days, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Fat Albert, Starsky and Hutch, and The Six Million Dollar Man. Check out what made the cut after the jump:
Okay, so maybe that opening is a little hard to sing along with (“Hasenpfeffer Incorporated”? What the hell are these women saying?), but once that’s over with, “Making Our Dreams Come True” is an irresistibly catchy, and indisputably cheesy (and those often go hand in hand) mini-anthem. Performed by Cyndi Grecco and written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox — who also composed the themes for Happy Days, Angie, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, as well as (no kidding) “Killing Me Softly With His Song” — the opening sequence’s mixture of sitcom hijinks and Milwaukee sight-seeing became a pop culture artifact of its own (witness its parody in Wayne’s World).
“Those Were the Days,” composed by the team of Lee Adams and Charles Strouse (whose credits included the Broadway musicals Bye Bye Birdie and Applause), was the centerpiece of All in the Family’s disarmingly simple opening sequence: series protagonists Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and Edith (Jean Stapleton) Bunker sit at the piano in their Astoria, Queens living room and sing the song of years past, with occasional cutaways to the New York skyline, their neighborhood, and their home. The song, which was recorded several times over the course of the show’s run, became part of the television landscape; it was memorably parodied on The Simpsons and served as a clear inspiration for the opening of Family Guy.
The most successful of All in the Family’s many spin-offs was The Jeffersons, which took Bunker neighbors George and Louise Jefferson and moved them on up to the East side for eleven seasons, starting in 1975. Its theme song, the rollicking, gospel-tinged “Movin’ On Up,” was composed by Jeff Barry (who co-wrote several of the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” hits, such as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Be My Baby,” as well as the themes to One Day at a Time and Family Ties) and Ja’net Dubois, who also sang it. And beans don’t burn in the kitchen, and so on.
Dubois co-starred as Willona Woods on Good Times, but was surprisingly not involved in that show’s famous theme; it was the work of jazzman Dave Grusin and songwriting team Alan and Marilyn Bergman (“The Windmills of Your Mind,” “The Way We Were” — a mighty white trio for a song that Dave Chappelle memorably pinpointed as a key indicator of black culture knowledge. Peppy and upbeat in spite of the downbeat subject matter, incredibly catchy if not entirely decipherable (per the Bergmans, it’s “hanging in and jiving,” not “hangin’ in a chow line”), the Good Times theme was performed by Blinky Williams and Stevie Wonder backing vocalist Jim Gilstrap. (The credit sequence is inexplicably missing from YouTube; watch it here.)
Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian got a #1 Billboard hit out of “Wecome Back,” his theme to the Gabe Kaplan vehicle, which the show’s producers liked so much that they changed the title from Kotter to Welcome Back, Kotter. Co-creator Alan Sachs got connected to Sebastian via their shared agent; the singer/songwriter had trouble finding rhymes for “Kotter” and ended up going with the more general “welcome back” theme. As with the Lear sitcoms, the opening credit sequence was heavy with on-location footage, this time of Brooklyn, where the series was set.
Waylon Jennings was a natural choice to croon the opening song for The Dukes of Hazzard; not only was his noted outlaw image an easy fit for the tune, but he narrated the show every week (credited as “The Balladeer”). He also wrote “Theme from The Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol’ Boys),” and when the show got popular, he went back into the studio to record a new, longer version to release as a single. When it was released in August 1980, it made it all the way to the #1 slot on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. The tune’s laid-back charm was all of a piece with the show — as was the opening credit sequence, which centered on car chases, dopey cops, and Catherine Bach’s legs.
Hugh Wilson’s acclaimed (if ratings-challenged) radio station sitcom had not one, but two memorable theme songs: the opening number above (the “Main Theme”), a catchy if corny slice of ‘70s easy listening, and the hard-rockin’ closing credits tune below (the “End Credits”). Series creator Wilson wrote the lyrics to the former, with music by Tom Wells; it was performed by Steve Carlile and charted on both the Pop and Adult Contemporary charts. The latter was written and performed by Atlanta session musician Jim Ellis, who sang the gibberish words as placeholders for lyrics he hadn’t yet written, but Wilson liked the song as is. Both tunes remained a part of the show through its syndication and DVD release. But the multitude of period rock cues, which had only been granted limited licenses, weren’t so lucky — most were replaced with generic sound-alike tunes.
We’ve mostly avoided instrumental songs on these lists, under the assumption that you’ve got to have lyrics to sing along to. But in the ’70s, the instrumentation on these songs was so funky and distinctive, you can easily “sing” a few bars and your companions (or the people you work with, or the other people on your bus, or whatever) tend to know exactly what you’re up to; as a result, the remaining five songs on our list are all fabulous instrumental numbers. Taxi‘s theme was written and performed by smooth jazz keyboardist Bob James, who titled the tune “Angela.” The simple opening credit sequence eschewed any cast shots in favor of the image of a taxicab crossing the Queensboro Bridge; if you ever drive across that bridge (as your author did just a couple of weeks back), good luck not humming the tune.
Titled “Suicide is Painless,” the M*A*S*H theme song was a carry-over from the Robert Altman film that inspired the series; the music was by prolific composer and arranger Johnny Mandel, but when Altman decided he wanted lyrics for the tune, he turned to his 14-year-old son Mike. That lyrical version opens the Altman film, but the rendition which opens TV show is instrumental-only. However, the younger Altman still received royalties for its weekly use on the long-running series. In later years, Robert Altman — who was not involved with the TV version in any way — claimed that while he’d only been paid $70,000 (with no percentages or series royalties) for directing the film, his son made over a million bucks from the show.
How’s about a funky ’70s bass line? The unforgettable groove of the long-running cop show’s opening theme was the work of composers Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson, who also wrote the themes to Charlie’s Angels and (this won’t surprise you) Night Court. The song was performed by studio musicians, led by double bass players Jim Hughart and Chuck Berghofer; the arrangement changed slightly over the years, as did the credit sequence’s assemblage of rotating players and New York skyline shots.
The great Mike Post popped up more than once on our ’80s list, but his single finest piece of work may very well have been the opening song (written with Pete Carpenter) to Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell’s seriocomic mystery series starring James Garner. The theme, which followed the show’s weekly rotating “answering machine gag,” is a jazzy treat, given a distinctive look by the credit sequence’s use of still photos rather than moving images. The track spent 44 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at #10), and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
When we put Redd Foxx on our list of the best stand-ups-turned-sitcom stars, we forgot to mention one of the reasons we love Sanford and Son: because it has the best theme song of the 1970s (perhaps, dare we say it, in all of television). The great Quincy Jones composed this first-class slab of gut-bucket blues funk, also known as “The Streetbeater”; though it was released as a single, it surprisingly did not dent the charts. However, it’s an inventive and energetic number with a charmingly off-the-cuff quality, the oddball instrumentation almost seeming assembled from pieces found lying around at Sanford and Son Salvage.