Doc’s Top 25 TV Show Theme Songs

Last month’s post was a list of some of my favorite TV shows which seemed a natural progression leading into TV show theme songs.  Often those songs reflect an era and may sound dated unless you long for a style of a certain year – the “Shaft” guitar (SWAT), early synths (The Rockford Files), etc.  As a child of the ’50s and ’60s, I tend to prefer a memorable tune or just one of those dopey mind-worming songs that tell the whole premise of the show in a minute.  This was even harder than the list of fave series as frankly the theme songs have held up better than the shows have over time for me.  It was incredibly painful to leave off certain songs, but this post would be over 50 deep if I used my first list.  The only 2 criteria I decided to adhere to were that the show actually had to be a true stand-alone TV series (which painfully eliminated the incredibly influential theme from Davy Crockett) and the song had to be originally written expressly for that series.  That last issue caused the loss of great songs like “Rawhide”, Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (The Lone Ranger), “The Toy Parade” from Leave It To Beaver, Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” (Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and Gounod’s “Funeral March Of A Marionette” (Alfred Hitchcock Presents).  Using that criterion how can I include a sentimental fave like Howdy Doody when the words were set to an over 100 year old song “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”?  What do I do with iconic cartoons like Woody Woodpecker and Casper, The Friendly Ghost since these were originally movie shorts so the songs derive from that.?  Let’s not forget too that there were incredibly memorable spoken word intros to shows that turn out not to have theme songs that would make this list.  Star Trek, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, for instance, had non-musical beginnings that guaranteed goose bumps before the music ever came in.  If people my age hear “faster than a speeding bullet – more powerful than a locomotive  – able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”, they know it will lead to “look up in the sky – it’s a bird – it’s a plane – it’s Superman!”  As I mentioned last month, these are not meant to be the best theme songs or the biggest hits (though some did chart).  The composers of the theme will be given credit if that info is available.  I welcome any and all personal favorite responses as my readers always seem to come up with some goodies I forgot.

1.Hawaii 5-0 – Morton Stevens

This song was smartly used in the original 1968 series plus in a shorter but similar sound in the 2010 remake.  It charting at #4 in ’68 for the Ventures as a cover version.  Stevens passed away at age 62 in 1991 having worked composing for movies and TV plus arranging and conducting for the like of Sammy Davis, Jr and Jerry Lewis.  The original cop procedural show with Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett ran for 12 years while the remake is up to nine seasons which has given this song plenty of chance to embed in viewers’ neurons.

2.Bonanza – Ray Evans, Jay Livingston

Westerns were huge in my childhood and seemed to spawn memorably heroic theme songs (“Wyatt Earp” and “The Ballad Of Paladin” come to mind).  The story of the Cartwright clan ran for 14 years on NBC starting in 1959 and survived cast changes and even the death of a popular star (Dan Blocker).  Guitarist Al Caiola took his version of the theme to #19 on the charts in 1961, but it was also recorded by artists like Johnny Cash and even the show’s Canadian star Lorne Greene.  Evans and Livingston had written many songs for movies including “Buttons And Bows” “Que Sera Sera” and “Mona Lisa”.  It was incredibly painful to leave off another of their TV themes (sung by Livingston himself) – Mr. Ed.

3.The Monkees – Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart

As influential as these four actor/musicians have been over the years, it is hard to believe that their series was only popular from 1966 till 1968.  Boyce and Hart’s song feels like the Dave Clark Five’s “Catch Us If You Can” in structure which fits with the series trying to bring a British Invasion style to TV – especially the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night.  The intro to the show used a short version of the song while a longer version was on their first album and was released in some countries as a single.  Boyce and Hart originally sang the song, but they were replaced by Micky Dolenz when it was released.  They also wrote “Last Train To Clarksville” in addition to having careers as artists in their own right (“Out And About”, “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight”).

4.Secret Agent Man – Steve Barri, P.F. Sloan

Well here is an example of a great theme song to a show I never actually remember watching.  Reading about it, the British title for this show was Danger Man and starred Patrick McGoohan as a James Bond-like spy, but it was re-titled for the US and other territories.  Apparently when it was licensed to air here, several songwriters were asked to come up with a new theme with this one winning out.  Sloan and Barri were prolific songwriters supplying hits to acts like the Turtles, Hermans Hermits, Barry McGuire, etc.  A lengthened version was a #3 hit in 1966 for Johnny Rivers who recorded the shorter original for the show itself.  Back in the day, I preferred and purchased the Ventures’ instrumental version on 45 which only managed a #54 chart placement.

5.The Munsters – Jack Marshall

The series only ran from 1964 till 1966 but once again seems like it has had more influence than that short span belies.  Composer Marshall was mainly known as a producer for Capitol records in the ’50s and ’60s.  I never much liked the Fred Gwynn/Yvonne DeCarlo series as it seemed silly as opposed to the more adult feeling The Addams Family, but the theme is great – a driving macabre rocker.   The Addams Family theme song almost made the list as well due to finger snaps and harpsichord, but the verses just aren’t spooky enough.

6.Simon & Simon – Barry De Vorzon, Michael Towers

This driving theme song was used starting in the second season (1982) about two brothers running a detective agency.  Co-star Gerald McRaney (the one with the moustache) seems to always have a new project on the air to this day.  De Vorzon’s credits go back to the early days of rock being involved with hits like “Dreamin'” and “Hey Little One”.  He founded Valiant records and his group Barry And The Tamerlanes had a hit with “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” (not the Boyce & Hart song).  He is best known for “Bless The Beasts And The Children” and “Nadia’s Theme”, but he also co-wrote (with Joe Walsh) the Eagles song “In The City”.

7.Friends – Phil Solem, Danny Wilde, David Crane, Marta Kauffman, Michael Skloff, Allee Willis

Your Rock and Roll Dentist is a huge fan of power pop music (Cheap Trick, Badfinger, Raspberries) and was already a big Rembrandts follower when their song “I’ll Be There For You” was used as the theme to Friends – a show I have never seen.  In it’s ten year run from 1994 till 2004, the sitcom was a smash hit with the finale being the biggest show of the 2000’s decade at 52.5 million people.  Solem and Wilde were definitely going against the tide of music in 1995 (Coolio, Shaggy, U2) when their lengthened single went to #17 in the US showing the power of TV to push pop culture.

8.The X Files – Mark Snow

If this isn’t my wife’s favorite show, it is one of them.  The Chris Carter created sci-fi series seemingly has never left the air since it began in 1993 (though alot of that has been in syndication).  FBI agents Mulder and Scully investigate paranormal and alien activities.  The very distinctive and eerie whistle-like theme was created by the prolific composer Mark Snow (TJ Hooker, Hart To HartPee-Wee’s Playhouse, etc.).   To some extent it reminds me of the spooky theme to the horror soap opera of the late ’60s Dark Shadows which was a painful no-show on this list.  I know Snow better by his given name Martin Fulterman as I was a big fan of his group the New York Rock (And Roll) Ensemble back in the late ’60s-early ’70s.  Being an oboe player myself back then, I was drawn to rock and roll with a classical bent and really enjoyed the NYRE since they featured three Juilliard music students.  Fulterman with Michael Kamen played the oboe while Dorian Rudnytsky played cello and they managed to work that into a rock context with their Roll Over album being a classic.

9.Mickey Mouse Club – Jimmie Dodd

Boy does this song bring back memories.  This is one of my oldest original records in my collection getting the 78 as a little boy and playing over and over again.  This faster version was used at the beginning of the show from 1955 till 1959 while a slower and sadder goodbye version was used at the end.  The writer was the beloved adult ringleader of the juvenile Mouseketeers and I was sad to read that he died at age 54 in 1964.  He had bit parts in movies like Flying Tigers and Easter Parade.  I seriously doubt that there are too many kids of my age who couldn’t then and can’t now still sing this song by heart.

10.The Adventures Of Robin Hood – Carl Sigman

Oh my, here is another song that seems to be burned in the brains of every (Medicare) carrying baby boomer.  This was from a British production for the BBC that ran from 1955 till 1959 here in the US.  The series is set in Sherwood Forest during the 12th century, during the reign of King Richard when nobleman Robin of Locksley is forced into the life of an outlaw and with his band try to help the poor while thwarting the evil Sheriff of Nottinham.   The singer was Dick James (Leon Vapnick) who made considerably more money as the publisher of the Beatles’ songs through his Northern Songs company than he ever did as a singer.  Songwriter Sigman wrote some true classics such as “Ebb Tide” and “The Day The Rains Came”.

11.The Rifleman – Herschel Burke Gilbert

Every red-blooded American boy from the baby boomer era was a big fan of strong Western stars like Bart Maverick, Johnny Yuma and Lucas McCain played by former baseball player Chuck Connors.   McCain was a single dad Civil War vet who blasted the bad guys bloodlessly with his Winchester.  Johnny Crawford who played his son Mark had a credible career as a singer back in the day as well (“Cindy’s Birthday”).   Composer Gilbert was a mainstay of early TV music being involved in Burke’s LawThe Dick Powell ShowThe Westerner, etc.

12.The Avengers – Laurie Johnson

While this show aired in the UK as early as 1961, the version we all remember in the US started in 1965 when ABC bought the rights to air this spy series about dapper John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and his lovely partner Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg).  The lighthearted banter between the two and the jolly bowler hat and umbrella carried by Steed were notable.  The theme song in the early version was a jazzier song, but this one juxtaposed an intense James Bond feel and a wistful string section.  Johnson was a major TV and movie music composer back in the day scoring for movies like Dr. Strangelove, First Men in the Moon and  Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter.

13.Route 66 – Nelson Riddle

I am pretty sure that I never saw this show that ran from 1960 till 1964 as back in the day we had one TV set and this was not the kind of series mom and dad would watch (no accordions, cowboys or comedians named Red, Jack or Jackie).  The show apparently followed the travels of two dudes cruising the country in a Corvette and having adventures along the way.  The show isn’t as important to me as the string-driven drop-note piano mover created by the great Nelson Riddle.  That the song only hit #30 in 1962 surprises me though that year was dominated by “The Twist” and “The Monster Mash”.  In his 64 years, Riddle packed in a lot of music mostly for Capitol records vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.  In the ’60s he was involved with the music for Batman (not the theme) and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Later audiences know him for his groundbreaking work with Linda Ronstadt.

14.Hogan’s Heroes – Jerry Fielding

How a show about the zany goings-on at a World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Germany ever got made is staggering and yet it was pretty darn funny if nothing else due to the stars (Bob Crane and Werner Klemperer – not to mention John Banner who played the lovable Sgt. Schultz).  Of course when this show ran (1965 – 1971) America was a different place than it is today (better or worse – that is for another post), but we are more interested in the excellent military themed song from Jerry Fielding (Joshua Feldman – a Jewish composer, no less).  Fielding was a big-band arranger in the ’40s and radio band-leader.  The McCarthy anti-Communist hearings were hard on Fielding’s career in the early ’50s (though he was never a Communist).  He scored music for the early Star Trek series and for movies like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Straw Dogs.

15.The Andy Griffith Show – Earle Hagen

You are referred to two months ago (the blog about whistling) for the info about this song.  Suffice it to say the melody was composed and whistled by the same gent who wrote the song “Harlem Nocturne” that was later used as the theme to a couple of shows about Mike Hammer.  He also wrote themes for I Spy and That Girl.

16.Mission Impossible – Lalo Schifrin

Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin came up with a durable piece of music for this 1966 through 1973 spy series that has stood the test of time through numerous style shifts.  While Schifrin’s original single could only make it to #41 back in the day, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr’s 1996 remake for the movie version managed to hit #7.  There were numerous cast changes in the original TV series, but this is the first cast before Steven Hill (later of Law & Order) was replaced by Peter Graves since he was an Orthodox Jew who would not work after sundown on Fridays (till the next night) due to his religion.

17.St. Elsewhere – Dave Grusin

So many of these shows could have very easily ended up in my fave TV series list – case in point is this excellent hospital show that ran from 1982 till 1988.  What a cast this one had – William Daniels, Norman Lloyd, Denzel Washington, Ed Begley Jr., Howie Mandel, Mark Harmon, David Morse, on and on.  The theme song was written by 1956 University Of Colorado grad (and native son) Grusin.  He composed music for Tootsie, The Graduate and On Golden Pond in addition to starting the GRP record label.  Some of his other theme songs were for Maude, Baretta and Good Times.

18.Gilligan’s Island – Sherwood Schwartz, George Wyle

Now here we may have, other than The Monkees and Star Trek, the ultimate show that has had way more influence than it’s original run on CBS from 1964 through 1967 would suggest.  The theme song tells the whole story of what happens in the show which always gets my admiration (you understand the whole premise right away) set to the tune of a jaunty sea shanty.  Many find it truly is amazing that through all their ingenuity they couldn’t find their way off the island, but we all know that the greater question was who did you like better – Mary Ann or Ginger (I went for the wholesome former).  Stars Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr. played off each other’s size differences much like the great comedy team of Laurel And Hardy.  The show became a phenomenon when it wouldn’t die in syndication and had several TV movie remakes and even a reset in space.  The song was written by the show’s creator Schwartz (who also created The Brady Bunch) and Wyle (a Jewish co-writer of the Christmas song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”) in two versions.  The version first used didn’t mention the professor or Mary Ann, but was changed when they became popular characters.

19.Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini

One of the great riffs in TV, this was written by perhaps the greatest composer of music for films and TV – Henry Mancini (“Moon River”, “Charade”, etc.).  I most certainly never saw this show back in it’s 1958 – 1961 run as once again mom and dad were not fans of these sorts of gritty detective shows.  The show was created by another media icon Blake Edwards (10Days Of Wine And Roses, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, etc.) who always seemed to team up with Mancini for something memorable.  This song has seen life several times over the years notably hitting for Ray Anthony, Duane Eddy and The Art Of Noise.  Another near miss to the list was Batman which always felt like this song turned upside down.

20.Monk – Randy Newman

If there is one person who could rival Mancini for wonderful film music, it would be Randy Newman (Toy Story, Ragtime, The Natural, etc.).  His song “It’s A Jungle Out There” became the theme song for Tony Shaloub’s starring vehicle in season two and won the 2004 Emmy Award for Best Main Title Music.  It’s sardonic Newman at his best talking about how hard it is to live in our world as Shaloub’s damaged character Monk struggles with.  For more about the show, please refer back to last month’s fave TV show blog post.

21.Perry Mason – Fred Steiner

Boy does this song evoke the mood of an era with the grinding strings over the persistent piano triplets.  Here is a show that ran forever it seemed – in first run from 1957 to 1966, then in syndication when I first saw it with my late friend Craig Sullivan; we tried to catch reruns during lunch breaks as Dental School Freshmen at Colorado.  The TV movies with Raymond Burr were also engaging however I must say that after years of watching the show Law & Order I have wondered how much Perry would have gotten away with in a modern courtroom.  As we discussed earlier for Hogan’s Heroes, Steiner was a prolific composer also creating music for the movie The Color Purple and the theme for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

22.Get Smart – Irving Szathmary

It was through the connections of Irving’s younger brother that he was able to compose the music for this silly spy spoof created by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks.  Brooks said of his inspiration, “No one had ever done a show about an idiot before. I decided to be the first.”  Don Adams as Maxwell Smart (Agent 86) and Barbara Feldon as Agent 99 worked for CONTROL and tried to thwart the nefarious KAOS every week – all with silliness like shoe phones and the dreaded cone of silence.  The show ran for five seasons starting in 1965 and caused many a kid to use the phrases “would you believe” and “missed it by that much”.  Starting in 1934, Szathmary was a musical arranger for orchestras lead by folks such as Benny Goodman and Andre Kostelanetz.  His younger brother Bill changed his last name to Dana and had a successful career mainly as the silly Hispanic character Jose Jimenez.

23.The Bugs Bunny Show – Mack David, Jerry Livingston

I am torn on this song as I can’t prove or disprove that this song was written specifically for this show.  Its such a great song and dance number, however, that I am going to go out on a limb and include it.  The specifics of this show were included once again in last month’s blog post.  Generally it was a chance for all us kids to watch classic Looney Tunes cartoons that amazingly are still hilarious and don’t look at all dated even today many some 70+ years after they were created.  Lyricist Mack David shouldn’t be confused with his brother Hal who wrote with Burt Bacharach.  Mack co-wrote many great songs including “The Un-Birthday Song” (Alice In Wonderland) and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” (Cinderella).  With Denver native Jerry Livingston, they created the theme to Casper, The Friendly Ghost  and “The Ballad Of Cat Ballou” among others.

24.Wild Wild West – Richard Markowitz

This over Rawhide is probably heresy, but that was a near miss to the list.  Here is yet another example of how great music was inspired by Western themed TV.  Supposedly Dimitri Tiompkin (High Noon, The Big Sky, etc.) was given first crack at the theme, but couldn’t pull it off so Markowitz who had originally done the theme to The Rebel came up with this memorable song.  The show was a regrettable last minute cut from my fave TV show blog (#26 perhaps?) as it combined a post-Civil War Western motif with Jame Bond spy work and gadgetry.  I never saw the Will Smith movie, but I don’t believe this was used in it.

25.The Flintstones – Joe Barbera, Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna

Oh how I struggled with this final entry – Mr. Ed, Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies.  Finally I had to go with this which is one of the most remembered songs from old TV and was used starting in the third season of the show’s original run from 1960 till 1966 (though when you see reruns now, it has been added to the first two seasons as well).  Now, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but at the time this was the first prime-time animated series paving the way for The SimpsonsKing Of The Hill, The Family Guy, etc.  The Hanna-Barbera animation studio had its beginning with The Ruff & Reddy Show in 1957 and their music director was Curtin.  We can thank this studio for a succession of classics including Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, The Jetsons, etc.