Thursday, January 10, 2013

Television's 25 Most Memorable Theme Songs

This post was a labor of love, inspired entirely by my pal Matt over at Boy Culture. His breathless "History's 150 Best TV Theme Songs: My Personal List" is a MUST READ, but I opted to narrow mine down to the 25 that really, uh, sing to me after all these years. Not surprisingly, most of them are from shows I adored. Nothing stimulates the part of the brain that stores fond memories better than a song, after all. But a few of them are more objective picks, loved merely because they were great television theme songs. So have at it -- and please leave me your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

"Love Is All Around" by Sonny Curtis, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970—1977)

Not only is this the perfect song for heroine Mary Richards, the lyrics changed from Season 1 to Season 2 and on to reflect her new-found self-confidence. It's difficult to "rank" things like this, but this one is definitely Number 1!

"Theme from Green Acres" by Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, Green Acres (1965—1971)

One of the funnest themes ever, and a song every young queen in the country (or 'burbs) could relate to dreaming of life in the big city. (I may not have been trans, but Lisa Douglas and I were definitely the same person!)

"Those Were the Days" by Carroll O'Connor and  Jean Stapleton, All in the Family (1971—1979)

Having Archie and Edith do something as loving as sitting at the piano singing a song together was the perfect way to help balance out a show based on a relationship that wasn't entirely kind. Loved the way they have the live audience laughing hysterically at Edith's off-pitch vocals in the early seasons ("And you knew who you WEEERRE then"), but then treated it more reverently later on. P.S. It took me nearly 30 years to figure out Edith was saying, "Gee, our old LaSalle ran great"!!!!

"This Is It" by Polly Cutter, One Day at a Time (1975—1984)

Why this song -- and Linda Lavin's theme from "Alice" -- made me feel like an empowered divorcee when I was 10 is anybody's guess, but boy did I love it. My brother incorporated "This Is It" into my mom and stepfather's wedding video to hilarious effect (skip to 3:25).

"Without Us" by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams, Family Ties (1982—1989)

One breath of this sweet song and I'm a 9th grader at Rhodes Junior High again, lusting after that dreamy Alex boy, who wears a shirt and tie every day to high school!

"Welcome Back," by John Sebastian, Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979)

This is one of the first shows I can remember watching with the whole family -- an event around our house, and everybody else's too based on the reaction at Hiller Elementary the following day. The opening credits scared me because I knew I wanted to live in New York City -- but not THAT New York City. (See below!) The song was especially great because it was also on the radio 24 hours a day, having been written and performed by former Lovin' Spoonful frontman John Sebastian and becoming a major hit in 1976.

"Sanford and Son Theme (The Streetbeater)" by Quincy Jones, Sandford and Son  (1972-1977)

For me, there's simply not a more iconic or recognizable instrumental in the world than this one, which manages to sound like the junkyard Fred Sanford all but lived in. If you're wondering what my brothers and I did every morning with our mom during the summer of 1978, it involved watching "Sanford and Son" reruns, "The Gong Show," "$25,000 Pyramid" and then going to the pool in our condominium complex in Madison Heights, Michigan.

"Different Worlds" by Maureen McGovern, Angie (1979—1980)

Being from one of Oakland County's less affluent suburbs, I knew I'd better take notes on how to act when I finally met my own Bradley Benson ... from Birmingham.

"Eight is Enough" by Grant Goodeve, Eight is Enough (1979—1981)

That it was sung by hunky big brother David only added to the sentimentality of the song, which was bittersweet given the death of the Bradfords' mother  "There's a plate of homemade wishes ... on the kitchen windowsill" may be a bit much, but it was just right when I was 11 -- as was Tommy Bradford's hot bod!

"Theme from Charles in Charge" by Shandi Sinnamon, Charles in Charge (1984—1985; 1987—1990)

This song has spawned more one-liners than any theme in TV history ... 'cause you KNOW I want Charles in charge of me-- and I'll bet you felt the same way.

"Home to My Emily" by Lorenzo and Henrietta Music, The Bob Newhart Show (1972—1978)

This one may be a case of my love of the show making the song evoke great memories. But it was both epic and intimate -- the tone changes as the train gets closer to home -- which was a perfect introduction to big city life, even if it was the Second City. (I could only find a link to a later season, where it's done in reverse.)

"Theme From Rhoda" by William Leon "Billy" Goldenberg (which may or may not be inspired by "The Yama Yama Man," written by Karl L. Hoschna in 1908), Rhoda (1974-1978)

Like "Arrested Development" did 30 years later, "Rhoda" used its opening to introduce the audience to the main character, as if Rhoda Morgenstern needed introduction after four award-winning years on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The "la la la la la" part is entirely contagious, as was the show around my house:
"My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, New York in December, 1941. I've always felt responsible for World War II. The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food. I had a bad puberty; it lasted 17 years. I'm a high school graduate. I went to art school. My entrance exam was on a book of matches. I decided to move out of the house when I was 24; my mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home. Eventually I ran to Minneapolis, where it's cold, and I figured I'd keep better. Now I'm back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance!"

"As Long as We Got Each Other" by B.J. Thomas (solo, and in duets with Jennifer Warnes and Dusty Springfield), Growing Pains (1985—1992)

Although most of my picks are from my favorite shows, I never even watched "Growing Pains" yet still loved this song. All three versions were great, but the link is to the one with Dusty Springfield, of course.

"Best Friend" by Harry Nilsson, The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969—1972)

Reruns of this show much have been in heavy rotation when I was a kid, because there's no way I remember it when it was on. But the theme song -- with its sentimental lyrics and kooky brass section -- plays in my head like it aired new this week. (Had no recollection of the show being set in Santa Monica, though!)

"And Then There's Maude" by Donny Hathaway, Maude (1972—1978)

The song -- all blaring Farfisa organs -- and lyrics -- all brash and outspoken ("Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her ... She was a sister who really cooked") -- let you knew exactly who you were dealing with. I could never accept Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan on "The Golden Girls" because I so identified them with Maude and Viv.

"Theme from Family Affair" by Frank De Vol, Family Affair (1966—1971)

Another childhood fantasy show -- little kids living in a high rise apartment in Manhattan? Sign me Up! Season 5 featured Buffy and Jody "introducing" the show before the iconic De Vol theme played. (YouTube calls the song the "U.S. version." Anyone know what the non-U.S. version was?)

"Three's Company, Too" by Ray Charles and Julia Rinker,Three's Company (1977—1984)

Like the theme from "Maude," this bawdy little number set the tone for what was coming up in the next 30 minutes. It was one of the few times in my childhood I can remember considering L.A. over New York, which I did try for a few years right out of college. (Miss you, guys!)

"Happy Days Theme" by Jimmy Haas, Happy Days (1975—1984)

Matt nailed it when he said you know this one was really good when it replaced Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" as the show's theme!

"Making Our Dreams Come True" by Cyndi Grecco, Laverne & Shirley (1976—1983)

After buying the "Laverne and Shirley Sing" LP -- only to find they didn't sing and it didn't include my favorite theme song of the day -- I finally got Cyndi Grecco's 45 somewhere. I'm more than sure my endless singalongs did not impress my family, or my gender.Fun fact: Garry Marshall asked his kid sister what that phrase was she and her girlfriends used to chant outside their apartment building growing up in the Bronx. It was "Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!" -- which became an indelible part of TV history.

"The Facts of Life" by Gloria Loring, The Facts of Life (1979—1988)

I only watched this one during its "good" years -- post-Molly Ringwald, pre-Mackenzie Astin -- but the theme song (and Blair's hair) are what I remember most fondly.

"Theme from The Brady Bunch" by The Peppermint Trolley Company (pilot)/ Paul Parish, John Beland and Lois Fletcher (1970), The Brady Kids (1971-1974) The Brady Bunch (1969—1974)

Once I heard the Brady kids sing the phrase "Riding down the highway in a makeshift Model T.A. / Ooh Yeah (ooh)," their version of the theme became my favorite. (Click the title to hear all versions.)

"Chico and the Man" by Jose Feliciano, Chico and the Man (1974—1978)

Hard to hear this and not to think of my friend Mark's (Mexican) pal Oscar, who called everyone "Chico." Jose Feliciano made a memorable guest appearance as Chico's womanizing cousin Pepe Fernando -- a famous singer! Once the reruns began, the whole "Chico don't get discouraged" always made me think of Freddie Prinze's struggle with depression, and how bad it must have been to take his life at just 22.

"Theme from That Girl" by Earle Hagen, That Girl (1966—1971)

The (admittedly far superior) "Mary Tyler Moore Show" gets a lot of credit for breaking ground on single women on television, but Marlo Thomas' "That Girl" pushed boundaries a handful of years before, including dating Ted Bessell! The theme song's lyrics were as bright and cheery as the underemployed actress Ann Marie:
Diamonds, Daisies, Snowflakes, That Girl / Chestnuts, Rainbows, Springtime... Is That Girl / She's tinsel on a tree... She's everything that every girl should be! Sable, Popcorn, White Wine, That Girl / Gingham, Bluebirds, Broadway... Is That Girl / She's mine alone, but luckily for you... If you find a girl to love, Only one girl to love, Then she'll be That Girl too... That Girl! 

"The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle" by The Wellingtons (1964)/The Eligibles (1965—1966), Gilligan's Island (1964—1966)

This one's an obvious classic, but it's the dismissive "and the rest" (referring to the Professor and Mary Ann) in the first season version that always makes me smile!

"Theme From Phyllis" by Stan Daniels, Phyllis (1975-1977)

Basing a sitcom around an immensely unlikable character -- and a woman, to boot -- was a tough sell. But my family turned in every week to watch the self-absorbed foibles of Phyllis Lindstrom, who returned to her (apparent) hometown of San Francisco after husband Lars died. Bess was growing up now, but Phyllis' main antagonist was her stepfather-in-law's cranky mom, the outspoken Mother Dexter (played Judith Lowry). I remember how excited I was when Mother Dexter married her beau (played by Burt Mustin) -- imagine how cute it was to see two people in their 90s tying the knot! -- and how sad I was when both actors died within a month of the episode's airing. (That's usually what happens when two people in their 90s tie the knot.) The opening credits were a parody of MTM's -- with Phyllis walking around various locations of the city, as Rhoda had also done in hers -- only the world wassn't exactly turned on by anything the pretentious and narcissistic Phyllis has to offer, as demonstrated by the song's lyrics:
Who makes the fog surrounding the Golden Gate simply disappear? Phyllis... Phyllis... Who makes the warning bells on the cable cars play, "The Gang's All Here"? Phyllis... Phyllis... Who charms the crabs on Fisherman's Wharf right out of their shells? Who lights the lamps of Chinatown just by walking in view? Who? Phyllis! Phyllis! Phyllis... sure isn't you.


"Square Pegs" by The Waitresses, Square Pegs (1982—1983)

Having played this song on my Waitresses albums for decades, I don't really even think of it as an actual theme song anymore, but it certainly is. Even people who don't remember anything about the show remember the lyrics to this one ("One size does NOT fit all"!). That the Waitresses were already one of my favorite bands at the time made it all the cooler when Anne Beatts got the band to perform the show "live" at the school dance.


Donny said...

Love, American Style.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the theme from Cheers?!?!?!

dkm said...

Does it mean anything that they're ALL sitcoms?

Kenneth M. Walsh said...

"Eight Is Enough" wasn't a sitcom!

Don said...

The final season acapella version of the "Growing Pains" theme is really wistful because it's accompanied by photos of everyone getting older.

Which reminds me...according to Rhoda's monologue, she'd be 71 today. Wow.

MikeMB said...

OMG, even as a kid I thought it was so unfair that Mary Ann and the Professor were just "the rest". Hilarious.

Anonymous said...

C'mon. The theme to The Nanny is sublime, by Ann Hampton Calloway. It's such great exposition for the show's set up and the word play is terrific.

Anonymous said...

First you leave Agassi off the hot tennis players list and now you have left "The Greatest American Hero" off the theme song list. There must be something wrong with you.

Frank Anthony Polito said...

Kudos! One of your BEST -- and most enjoyable -- posts ever. I agree with you on 98% of these. Never enjoyed the "Sanford & Son" theme too much, and I'm sure there are others I would have included on MY list... Though I can't think of them right now. Maybe the theme to ALF? Just Kidding!

Alan S. said...

Agassi is not remotely hot (not with hair, not with pretend hair, and not bald) and was deservedly left off that list.

A couple of TV themes that make my list are:

Paul Williams & Crystal Gayle singing the theme to "It Takes Two."

It was a shortlived Patty Duke/Richard Crenna/Helen Hunt/Anthony Edwards show. The theme was sappy enough that I used it to serenade a girl I was 'dating' at the time. This was before it clicked that I should be dating boys. Anyway...

The Ann Jillian show "It's A Living" has a very memorable and fun theme song that gets stuck in my head like an earworm.

And I'll always be a fan of the dance club ready theme from Knight Rider - even though I can't stand Hasselhoff.

greg said...

An awesome list. Brings back a LOT of memories. :-)

Lynn said...

This is before your time, but how about "Rawhide"?

Anonymous said...

"Get a bra!", "Hippies!", "Where's your husband?!!"

My partner and I have a game in which we must come up with a line for the mature lady in the scarf staring down Mary when she throws her hat.

Alan S. said...

I've been obsessing over this topic since reading the post earlier this evening (and already commenting once), but I'm going to give it a rest...after this.

I finally read the Boy Culture list and it's pretty darn comprehensive. A key song that I think he's missing is the now classic theme from "Dr. Who." Who doesn't love some variation of that song?

So my final input will be three songs from shows that are probably considered children's programming, but kid shows have some of the most fun themes.

"The Bugaloos"

"Sweet Valley High"

"Animaniacs" (complete with ever changing lyrics)

OK, that's all. Thanks for your posts, Kenneth!

Lynn said...

Here's another, also before your time: "Peter Gunn."

(And it's not a sitcom.)

Mark said...

I’m on a mission to be Donna Pescow’s #1 53yo gay fan. Please find her and do an entire post just on her! :b