All I need is a TV show, that and the radio

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, the tale of a fateful trip…”

Of all the TV theme songs that have come and gone over the decades, probably none has been so ingrained into our minds as the theme to “Gilligan’s Island.”  The show lasted only three seasons (1964-1967), but the combined music and lyrics created an insidious “ear worm” that burrowed its way permanently into the subconscious of anyone who grew up in the ’60s, and even some in the ’70s and ’80s as well.

And there were others.  The ’60s and ’70s were full of programs with theme songs with Vintage TV - Addams Family - blue screenlyrics that basically explained the shows’ premise in a catchy, sing-songy way:  “Petticoat Junction” (1963-1970), “The Patty Duke Show” (1963-1966), “Green Acres” (1965-1971), “Flipper” (1964-1967), “The Brady Bunch” (1969-1974), “Mister Ed” (1961-1966), “The Addams Family” (1964-1966), “F Troop” (1965-1967), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977), “All in the Family” (1971-1979), “The Jeffersons” (1975-1985).

Yet none of these songs ever proved popular enough to be played ad infinitum on the radio, but then again, they weren’t really meant for that.  Other theme songs, on the other hand, turned out to be far more suitable as Top 40 hits, sometimes because they were intended as such, more often not.

Most involved lyrics, but a select few instrumental pieces also made the charts.  I’ve chosen 15 TV theme songs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that I found either appealing to me or noteworthy enough to examine in more detail.  As I often do, I add a list of “honorable mentions at the end, followed by a Spotify playlist.

If you watched as much TV as I did back then, you I think you’ll find this musical trip very entertaining.

And here we go:

“Happy Days”

Happy-daysWhen the “Happy Days” sitcom debuted in early 1974 as TV’s answer to the film “American Graffiti,” the show used Bill Haley and The Comets’ 1955 classic “Rock Around the Clock” as its opening theme song.  Over the closing credits was an early version of “Happy Days,” written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, and sung by Jim Haas.  By Season 3, the song was re-recorded with different lyrics by the team of Pratt & McClain, and used in both the opening and closing credits for the remaining seven seasons of the show’s run.  When it was released as a single in 1976, it reached #5 on the Top 40 charts.

“Secret Agent”

268x0w-1P.F. Sloan, a successful pop songwriter who wrote more than 20 hits for various ’60s artists like The Turtles (“You Baby”) and Barry McGuire (“Eve of Destruction”), came up with the iconic guitar lick that was selected for use on the American broadcast of the British spy show “Danger Man,” retitled “Secret Agent” by CBS.  Initially, the producers wanted just a 20-second snippet for use in the show’s opening, but eventually Sloan and partner Steve Barri wrote the full length song entitled “Secret Agent Man.”  Famed producer Lou Adler brought in Johnny Rivers, who’d already had four Top Ten hits by then, to record the song (with extra verses) live at the Whiskey A Go Go club on the Sunset Strip.  That recording went to #3 on the Top 40 charts in 1966.

“Welcome Back, Kotter”

MI0000742688When producer Alan Sachs was putting together a Gabe Kaplan sitcom in 1975 to be titled “Kotter,” he wanted a theme song that sounded like one of his favorite ’60s pop groups, The Lovin’ Spoonful.  As luck would have it, Sachs’s agent also represented former Lovin’ Spoonful singer-songwriter John Sebastian, and he brought the two together.  Initially, Sebastian struggled trying to write lyrics that included the Kotter name, so instead he focused on the idea of the series’ premise of a teacher returning to the high school where he’d grown up.  Sachs was so pleased with Sebastian’s song “Welcome Back” that he changed the show’s title to “Welcome Back, Kotter.”  A scaled down version was used for the opening credits, but Sebastian’s full-length recording included two verses, a chorus, and a harmonica interlude, and that version reached #1 on the charts in May 1976 and eventually sold a million copies.

“The Monkees”

Single Spain RCA 3-10357 Monkees Theme pwIn 1966, producer Don Kirshner was tasked with the job of coming up with a TV series that mimicked the zaniness of The Beatles’ 1964 film “A Hard Day’s Night.”  He held auditions and signed one true musician (guitarist Mike Nesmith), one struggling musician (bassist Peter Tork) and two actors who could sing (Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz) to become The Monkees (derisively known as “the Prefab Four”).  Kirshner employed staff songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to write not only the group’s infectious debut single “Last Train to Clarksville” but also “Theme From The Monkees,” which introduced each episode of the show, which ran for two seasons (1966-1968).  Released as a single in early 1967, “Theme From The Monkees” reached the Top Ten in Mexico, Australia and Japan, but curiously, it didn’t chart in the US, pushed aside in favor of the enormous hit “I’m a Believer” and its follow-up, “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.”  Still, it gets a fair amount of radio play on oldies stations even today.

“Dr. Kildare”

R-1526198-1392323700-4638.jpegThe fictional character Dr. James Kildare was created in the 1930s for a literary magazine, then made into a series of theatrical films in the 1940s, a radio program in the 1950s before becoming a Top Ten-rated TV show in the early 1960s.  The instrumental theme music used for the series was written by Jerry Goldsmith.  Although it was never heard as part of any “Dr. Kildare” episode, the theme music had lyrics and the parenthetical title “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight.”  Actor Richard Chamberlain, who had a decent singing voice as well, took a shot at recording the full version and releasing it as a single, and lo and behold, it peaked at #10 on the Top 40 charts in 1962.

“Laverne & Shirley”

maxresdefault-22“Happy Days” proved to be so wildly popular that it successfully spun off another sitcom starring two supporting characters, Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney, who became stars in their own right on “Laverne & Shirley.”  A young lady named Cyndi Grecco was tapped to sing the theme song, “Making Our Dreams Come True,” written again by Normal Gimbel and Charles Fox, the same songwriting team behind the “Happy Days” hit tune.  Grecco’s rendition reached #25 on the Top 40 charts in 1976.

“Miami Vice”

R-160921-1408974527-7861.jpegJazz-rock keyboard virtuoso Jan Hammer came up with a catchy synthesized instrumental piece that swayed the producers of Miami Vice to make it their theme song beginning in autumn 1984. The show, which used a lot of rock music in its soundtrack, was conceived by NBC honcho Brendon Tartikoff in two words he wrote on a napkin one evening:  “MTV Cops.”  The original “Miami Vice” soundtrack LP, which included Glenn Frey’s #2 hit “You Belong to the City” as well as “Smuggler’s Blues,” was the #1 album in the country for six weeks in November/December of 1985.  Hammer’s “Theme From Miami Vice” also topped the singles charts that year.

“Peter Gunn”

MI0002958720The original “night in the city” music, written by the great Henry Mancini.  He said he was trying to evoke a mysterious “danger lurking” feeling that has been imitated hundreds of times since, most notably by John Barry when he wrote the James Bond Theme three years later that has been used in every Bond film since.  Meanwhile, Ray Anthony and His Orchestra recorded a full-length version of the 45-second theme music used in the show (which ran from 1958-1961), and it ended up #8 on the Top 40 charts in 1959.  Mancini’s original soundtrack album “The Music from Peter Gunn” won an Emmy for Album of the Year in 1959.


R-1171786-1266736043.jpegThe punchy dialog and sexual chemistry between David Addison (Bruce Willis) and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) made “Moonlighting” one of the most popular shows of the 1980s, although it lasted only four seasons (1985-1989).  The Los Angeles locale required a jazzy, jet-setting theme song, and who better suited than singer Al Jarreau to co-write and perform it?  His recording of “Moonlighting” reached #23 on the Top 40 charts in 1987.

“Hawaii Five-0”

H50-Retro-Cover_100510It’s no surprise the the producers of a detective show called “Hawaii Five-0” would want to use surf music as the basis for its theme song.  Morton Stevens, a successful film and television score composer, wrote the instrumental music in 1968 for the show’s first season, played by the CBS Orchestra.  It became so popular that it was soon re-recorded by the California pop group The Ventures and released as a single.  It reached #4 on the Top 40 charts in early 1969.  “Hawaii Five-0” lasted another 11 years (and was recently revived in a new prime-time version), so the theme music has become a dominant soundtrack in popular culture.


118321The theme song to the campy TV version of the Caped Crusader story was basically an infectious guitar riff that was part spy movie score and part surf music, with “Batman!” shouted ten times by a female chorus.  Neal Hefti wrote the three-chord blues structure and gave it to The Marketts, a popular Hollywood-based surf music combo of the mid-’60s, who had already scored a #3 hit with “Out of Limits,” based on the “Outer Limits” TV series.  The “Batman!” song ended up reaching #17 on the Top 40 charts upon its single release in the fall of 1966.


220px-Theme_from_S.W.A.T._-_Rhythm_HeritageComposer Barry DeVorzon, who also wrote “Nadia’s Theme” for “The Young and the Restless and “Bless the Beasts and the Children” for The Carpenters, wrote “Theme From S.W.A.T.,” a disco song used in the short lived “S.W.A.T.” series in 1976.  DeVorzon’s orchestra recorded the short version used during each episode’s opening, but the full length version, recorded by Rhythm Heritage, had a dance arrangement and catapulted to #1 on the Billboard Top 40 chart in late 1976.  The song is remembered far more than the series that inspired it.

“The Rockford Files,” “Hill Street Blues,” “The Greatest American Hero,” “Magnum P.I.”

281738874500Mike Post is one of the most successful writers of television theme songs, winning multiple Emmys and Grammys for his work over four decades.  It’s Mike Post’s music you heard on each episode of “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: SVU,” “NYPD Blue,” “L.A. Law,” “Quantum Leap,” “The A-Team,” “Murder One” and “CHiPs,” among many others.  His breakthrough came in 1974 with his “Theme From The Rockford Files,” an instrumental piece that ended up reaching #10 on the Top 40 charts in 1975.  In 1981, the music he co-wrote with jazz guitarist Larry Carlton as “Theme From Hill Street Blues” also reached #10 on the Top 40 charts.  One of Post’s few theme songs which had lyrics was “Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not),” co-written by Stephen Geyer, which became a #2 hit single in 1981 for one-hit wonder Joey Scarbury (although he later had success as a songwriter on the country music chart).  Finally, in 1982, Post’s “Theme from Magnum P.I.” charted at #25 on the Billboard Top 40.

“Makin’ It”

220px-David_Naughton_Makin'_It_singleDon’t recognize this TV show?  You’re not alone.  If you blinked in 1979, you missed it, because it aired for only eight episodes.  Created to capitalize on the popularity of the “Saturday Night Fever” film and the disco craze, the show was a victim of poor timing, debuting as the public’s love affair with disco was dissipating.  The show starred actor David Naughton, who later starred in the 1981 film “An American Werewolf in London,” and it was also Naughton who sang the show’s disco-based theme song, written by Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren.  Naughton’s recording of “Makin’ It” reached #5 on the Top 40 charts in May 1979, two months after the show’s cancellation.



R-1015660-1426612606-2484.jpegFrom 1994 to 2004, there was “Friends,” and then there were all the other shows.  Wildly popular, the show about six friends based in Manhattan still pulls in a billion bucks a year in syndication residuals.  Danny Wilde and Phil Solem, savvy music veterans who had been writing and touring as a duo called The Rembrandts, were signed to write and record a theme song for this new sitcom.  In 1995, a Nashville DJ looped the one-minute theme into a longer version and put it on the radio, where it proved so popular that The Rembrandts had to go back into the studio and re-record it as a proper single.  “I’ll Be There For You” reached #1 in Canada and #3 in England, and it reached #17 on the US Top 40 that year.


“The Beverly Hillbillies

886444229869_1080W_1080HPaul Henning, who also wrote the “Green Acres” theme song, wrote “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song that tells the story of how Tennessee hillbillies came to live in a Beverly Hills mansion.  Bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded the song, with two verses, for the show opening, with Flatt handling the vocals, then recorded the third verse as a separate bit for the show closing.  The single version released to radio, merging the opening and closing lyrics, ended up at #1 for three weeks on the Top Country Hits.


Other notable “honorable mention” theme songs that got radio play:

Theme from Taxi (Angela),” Bob James, 1978

Theme From Bonanza,” (1959-1973) Al Caiola & Orchestra, 1961

Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless),” Johnny Mandel and The Mash, 1972

Theme From Cheers (Where Everybody Knows Your Name),” Gary Portnoy, 1982




I must be strong, and carry on

Ever since I was about 14, I’ve felt a strong bond with Eric Clapton, and that kinship has only increased over the years since.

EricClapton 1968When I heard him play those amazing electric guitar passages on the great songs by Cream, I knew I wanted to learn guitar.  I persuaded my parents to buy me a hollow body electric, and I took lessons in the hope that I could someday play like him.  Alas, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have the dexterity to be a lead guitarist, so I revised my dreams and started strumming a 12-string acoustic instead, and that suited me fine.

But I kept listening in awe as Clapton continued churning out incredible recordings as part of Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, and then throughout a solo career that has spanned nearly 50 years and included 25 studio albums, a dozen live LPs and numerous collaborations.

He and I also share a heartfelt appreciation for blues music.  Clearly, his passions have run far deeper, pushing him on to become one of the premier blues guitarists of his time, while I am merely a devoted follower.  As Clapton himself put it, “It’s difficult to explain the effect that the first blues record I heard had on me, except to say that I recognized it immediately.  It was as if I were being reintroduced to something that I already knew, maybe from another earlier life. For me, there is something primitively soothing about the blues.”

Bluesbreakers_John_Mayall_with_Eric_ClaptonIt was Clapton’s early recordings that got me hooked on the blues.  His performance on Freddy King’s “Hideaway” on “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” (1966) still floors me to this day.  And that’s only one of probably a hundred tracks on which he shows unparalleled chops on smokin’ fast blues and smoldering slow blues alike.

Mayall, regarded as The Godfather of the British Blues revival, described Clapton this way:  “When it came to blues, there was nobody like him. He knew the history of it, the background of it, had the emotional feel for it, and the technique to express it.  And my band gave him the freedom to let loose.  And it’s truly incredible what he has accomplished since those days.”

In 2007, Clapton released his autobiography, entitled simply “Clapton,” and I bought it right away.  I was profoundly moved by it because he laid bare so much of his personal life, which has been riddled with traumatic, life-changing events and inner demons with which he has struggled mightily.

In particular, his addiction to heroin in the early ’70s and then alcohol for many years after that came close numerous times to making him another rock music casualty.  Instead, in the late ’80s he successfully recovered and, in the process, became a positive role model for countless others.  In 1998, he established the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, which quickly evolved into an internationally renowned addiction rehabilitation facility.  To increase awareness of the potential for recovery, and to directly aid those who needed treatment, Clapton initiated the Crossroads Guitar Festival, a series of benefit concerts featuring some of the finest musicians in the business.  Festivals in 1999, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013 were all recorded for CD and DVD packages, all as fundraising efforts for the Antigua center.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I have learned a great deal from Clapton’s example, and I now look up to him for his inner strength and humility, in addition to his musicianship.

This month, Showtime premiered an extraordinary documentary called “Eric Clapton:  Life in 12 Bars,” which builds on the revelations of his autobiography, offering 0_0_3452596_00h_1280x640previously unreleased archival footage and new interviews of key people in his life, much of it narrated by Clapton himself.  Even for casual fans, this is fascinating and moving, and I strongly recommend you check it out.

He speaks very candidly about the unspeakable tragedy he endured in 1990, when his ftw-940x-tears_in_heaven1four-year-old son Conor accidentally fell 50 stories to his death from his Manhattan apartment building.  Incredibly, Clapton found a way to turn this anguish into the Grammy award-winning song, “Tears in Heaven,” with its tender melody and heartbreaking lyrics:  “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?  Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?  I must be strong, and carry on…”

He also shares his thoughts on the difficult developments that occurred in his early childhood.  He was raised in a loving, stable household with doting parents, but at age six, he learned that the couple he thought were his parents were in fact his grandparents.  Clapton’s real mother had been only 15 when she gave birth to Eric, and at 17, she moved away to Canada, leaving the boy to be raised by her parents.  If that wasn’t c43deb3e2733ea3484d4dbab402a677c--eric-clapton-rockstarsdisturbing enough for Eric to discover, he then had to endure, at age nine, the return of his mother to England for a lengthy visit, during which she cruelly withheld her affection and dismissed his pleas. “Can I call you Mummy now?” he asked, to which she replied, “I think it’s best, after all they’ve done for you, that you go on calling your grandparents Mum and Dad.”

The enormity of that rejection quickly turned to hatred, anger and resentment that Clapton carried with him for decades afterward.  It negatively affected his schoolwork, his self-esteem, his general attitude, and his ability to maintain any lasting relationships with women.  It also no doubt contributed to his near-fatal immersion in drugs and alcohol.

On a positive note, this terrific angst was what drove him to seriously explore his infatuation with blues music, isolating himself in his room for months on end, listening to, and trying to copy, the works of blues masters like B.B. King, Big Bill Broonzy, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.  Clearly, we are all beneficiaries of the single-minded zeal with which he pursued his craft.

The documentary also spends time addressing the well-known story of how Clapton fell 57971_uxb5mSomdCgyq-FF_31873madly in love with Pattie Boyd, who happened to be the wife of his friend George Harrison.  This unrequited love for an unavailable woman agonized and tortured him, spurring him to write what became his signature song, “Layla,” with its poignant lyrics of frustration and longing:  “I tried to give you consolation when your old man had let you down, like a fool, I fell in love with you, turned my whole world upside down, Layla, you’ve got me on my knees, Layla, I’m begging, darling please, Layla, darling won’t you ease my worried mind…”

A few years after he emerged as a brilliant virtuoso of the electric guitar, Clapton was persuaded by producers, managers and peers to cultivate his singing voice, and to start writing songs as well.  “I was reluctant because I didn’t fancy myself much of a singer,” he said.  “There were much better vocalists in the groups I was in, guys like Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood.  On one of the first songs I wrote, ‘Presence of the Lord’ from the ‘Blind Faith’ album, Steve felt I should sing it, but I just wasn’t ready, so I insisted he do it instead.  But slowly I started giving it a go, and I found I enjoyed it, especially when I was singing songs I had written myself.”

On classics like “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power,” “Let It Grow,” “Bell Bottom Blues” and “Layla,” all songs he wrote or co-wrote, his plaintive vocals add such emotional depth to the recordings that it’s nearly impossible to imagine them sung by anyone else.

EricClaptonThere’s no denying that the music Clapton made in the ’70s and early ’80s, both in the studio and in concert, was often sloppy and uninspired, due to his raging alcohol abuse at that time.  He freely admits this in the Showtime documentary:  “I used to do crazy things that people would bail me out of, and I’m just grateful that I survived.  But the music got very lost.  I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t really care. I was more into just having a good time, and I think it showed…  I would say I also deliberately sold out a couple of times by agreeing to record songs that the record label thought would do well, even though I didn’t like them very much.”

In the years since he got clean in the late ’80s, Clapton’s love for the blues never wavered.  f7e2c3b44db14a9a90bd4f2927e4e2beHis multi-platinum, Grammy-winning “Unplugged” album in 1992 is dominated by acoustic versions of blues tunes like “Before You Accuse Me,” “Old Love,” “Hey Hey” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”  In 1994, he released “From the Cradle,” an album of nothing but electric covers of hard-core blues numbers.  In the 2000s, Clapton offered “Me and Mr. Johnson,” a collection of covers of Delta blues giant Robert Johnson’s repertoire, and “Riding With the King,” a Grammy-winning traditional blues collaboration with the late great B.B. King.  Indeed, every album he has released in the last 20 years has included at least a handful of blues tunes.

But as he has aged, Clapton has often chosen a mellower path, writing and singing lovely Clapton2010Coveracoustic guitar-based songs like “Change the World” (from the 1996 film soundtrack for “Phenomenon”), “My Father’s Eyes” (from 1998’s “Pilgrim”), R&B-flavored tunes like “One Track Mind” (from 2005’s “Back Home”) and gospel tracks such as “Diamonds From the Rain” (from 2010’s “Clapton”).  Even as far back as his popular “461 Ocean Boulevard” LP in 1974 (which included his only #1 single, a cover of Bob Marley’s reggae hit “I Shot the Sheriff”), Clapton began dialing back the incendiary guitar solos in favor of a more nuanced technique.  Although this sometimes alienated his longtime fans, it gained him a new audience that embraced the lighter touch and the forays into non-blues genres.

Most recently, he has even taken to covering creaky old standards from the 1930s and 1940s like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day” and “Goodnight Irene.”  As you might expect, you’ll find both charming successes and embarrassing failures among these selections.

eric-clapton-story-rolling-stone-fricke-207343e1-9728-499f-8868-ca85db26c081The older I get, I too find myself preferring calmer, more melodious music, so I enjoy his more recent recordings perhaps more than most Clapton fans.  I’ve been playing his solo records continually over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve discovered some great tracks I guess I overlooked the first time around which are worthy of your attention:  “Spiral” from “I Still Do” (2016);  “Angel” from “Old Sock” (2013);  “Everything Will Be Alright” from “Clapton” (2010);  “Danger” from “The Road to Escondido,” his 2006 collaboration with J. J. Cale; and the title track to “Back Home” (2005).

clapton-bigBut I must confess I still return again and again to Clapton’s brilliant ’60s catalog.  There’s simply nothing like the mind-blowing, improvisational live performances of “Crossroads” and “Spoonful” or the studio recordings of “White Room” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” from Cream’s #1 “Wheels of Fire” LP.  I’m also a sucker for the amazing 2005 Cream reunion package “Live at Royal Albert Hall,” where the famed trio offer impressive remakes of their anthems, and 2009’s “Live at Madison Square Garden,” which captures Clapton and Winwood’s reworking of classic rock material on their successful 2009 tour.

In short, I never tire of Clapton.  He has achieved so much on so many records for so many years, and he has soldiered on in the face of so much personal adversity.  His songs, his vocals, and especially his scintillating guitar work have always kept me coming back for more, and he rarely disappoints.  He is an inspiration and a true blues rock legend.  But you probably already knew that.


Here’s a Spotify playlist of the Clapton songs I’ve mentioned above, along with others I think you’ll enjoy.  There are some rare gems like “She Rides,” which is the same song as “Let It Rain” but with a different set of lyrics, and a hard-to-find live version of The Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad.”

Rock on!