In March 1981 a moderately successful television program premiered on ABC. “The Greatest American Hero” was a semi-spoof superhero show that ran for three seasons, neither a huge hit nor a bomb.
It starred William Katt, whose chief claim to fame (and to the envy of a nation of young men) was that he had been the male lead in a 1977 movie, “First Love,” which meant he got to traipse around, often horizontally, with Susan Dey, thereby increasing the aesthetic goodness of the world by an order of magnitude. He got to get naked with Laurie Partridge! What a Chad! But I digress.
What reminded me of “The Greatest American Hero” is that the other day I heard a television commercial whose strength comes from its use of the show’s theme song, “Believe It Or Not.” A current commercial uses a 40-year-old television theme song. Amazing.
Or not. Television and movie themes can be a very big deal. “Believe It Or Not” actually hit number two on the Billboard pop chart. That fact was unremarkable at the time. The theme to “Laverne and Shirley” had been a hit five years earlier. The opening song from “Cheers” would later be a minor hit. Other television themes would make their own standalone mark in the culture, as we’ll see.
Movie themes had long claimed popular glory on their own. Anton Karas elevated the zither with his theme song from “The Third Man.” The great westerns had magnificent opening songs and none was more so than Elmer Bernstein’s theme from “The Magnificent Seven,” which would come to be universally known as “the Marlboro song,” because it was used in that brand’s television ads for years. (As you’re reading this, I am, too, and as you’re wondering why I didn’t include a particular theme song, I’m kicking myself for having failed to mention it. If you’re reading this online, you can add it in the comments and excoriate me appropriately.)
But let’s stick to television. The first television music I remember hearing away from the show was the opening to “Peter Gunn,” written by Henry Mancini (of “Pink Panther” and other fame). You probably know it from the “Blues Brothers” movie. The opening song from “Bonanza” was a stand-alone hit, as was the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” During an especially silly time on television — shows used to get goofier as real life got more serious, and this was never more true than in the late 1960s — the theme from “Batman” was inescapable, and it has remained so ever since. But who can argue with its deep lyrics: “Batman. Batman. Batman, Batman, Batman” (repeat until weary of it, then sing some “la-la-la”s). Al Hirt’s “Green Hornet” theme, from the same era, was much better music.
The theme from the original televised “Mission Impossible” was a hit.
It would be unfair to include in the list songs from “The Partridge Family” (and I don’t think Susan Dey did her own singing, so who cares?) or “The Monkees,” because they were about being bands. Nor do I think it would be right to make much of the theme from “The Wonder Years,” by Joe Cocker, because it was already a success — I mean, he sang it at Woodstock. And I believe that the Beatles enjoyed some success with it.
Walt Disney’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was a hit in the middle-to-late 1950s, back when oodles of artists would release the same song at pretty much the same time. (I remember from among these a syrupy spoken-word thing named “The Deck of Cards,” which it seemed as if everybody was recording. It ended, “And you know, folks, that story was true because I was that soldier.” But aha! they couldn’t all have been that soldier! But I digress again.)
You might remember the song “Secret Agent Man,” sung by Johnny Rivers, but you probably don’t remember that it was the theme song for a dark British television spy series aired here on CBS. The show kind of sputtered but the song hit number three on the charts. Then there’s the theme to “Hawaii Five-O.” It is still popular for events held by Georgetown alumni to include the tipsy guests scooting around on the floor while pretending to paddle canoes to that theme. I have personally witnessed this.
Any column about television themes that were hit music in their own right, though, must include the songwriting duo of Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Not only were their theme songs almost guaranteed to be hits, I think their music did much to make the shows themselves hits, too. In the 1970s and 1980s they owned what mediocre business people would now call “the space.” Within a few bars, you’d know it was a Post & Carpenter song. What’s more, their songs were and are memorable. Remember the opening of “The Rockford Files”? Post & Carpenter, and a top-10 hit.
You’d probably recognize the “A-Team” theme. That was theirs. (So were the themes to “CHiPs,” “Magnum PI” — the original, good version — “Hunter,” and “Hardcastle & McCormick,” but they weren’t as memorable in my estimation.
One of the few shows they couldn’t save was 1980’s “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe.” It starred Broadway great Ben Vereen and a gawky newcomer named Jeff Goldblum. It was a spectacular waste of talent — I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who liked it. I watched a couple episodes recently and concluded that it hasn’t aged well. But the opening song is classic Post & Carpenter. I don’t know if it was ever released as a single.
Working individually or in collaboration with others they weren’t slouches, either. Carpenter was co-composer of the theme to “Bewitched” and “The Andy Griffith Show, among others. The 30-years-younger Post scored top-10 success with his “Hill Street Blues” theme (you can hear the Rockford Files influence there, I think). His theme to “L.A. Law” was a minor hit, though I don’t know if everyone would recognize it. I liked the show. (Susan Dey again!) And with Stephen Geyer he wrote the previously mentioned song for “The Greatest American Hero.” He also wrote the opening to “NYPD Blue,” but like the city itself it’s mostly noise.
The “Miami Vice” opening by Jan Hammer was a number one hit back when MTV played music videos. (Yes, children, MTV was once all music videos.)
It’s likely that most everyone remembers the song that for 10 long years opened the hit series “Friends,” the lone hit by a band called The Rembrandts, “I’ll Be There For You,” but I’d guess that practically no one knows that the final song played at the end of the last episode was an instrumental, “Embryonic Journey,” written and performed by a local man named Jorma Kaukonen.
Television’s opening (and occasionally closing) songs used to be a big part of our cultural scene. Some of them have become standards, the songs you know you know but can’t remember from where.
It’s not as much the case anymore, and at some level that’s a pity. And we never see Susan Dey anymore.