It’s been said that we live in a golden age of television due to the plethora of high-quality programs available to watch on cable and streaming services. That may be true, but while recent programs such as Game of Thrones and Stranger Things deserve credit for delivering engaging opening-credit sequences, it’s clear to most TV fans that the heyday of the catchy, finger-snapping theme song passed well before anybody knew what a streaming service was.
Here’s a look back at eight memorable theme songs that were every bit as beloved as the shows they represented.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale of how this beloved theme song came to life. Needing to sell the idea that his deserted-island comedy could start each week with an expositional theme song — a relatively new concept in the 1960s — “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz performed a song that he penned on the fly, “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” to a room of CBS executives. The song was well-received, and according to Jon Burlingame's TV's Biggest Hits, Schwartz then teamed with George Wyle, who wrote the holiday song "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” to reshape the music into what he called a "sea chantey." The now-familiar singalong was modified after season one to include mention of the Professor (Russell Johnson) and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), who had previously been lumped together as "the rest." Schwartz later reprised his exposition-packed theme song formula to similar results with The Brady Bunch.
"The Addams Family"
Occasionally, gold springs forth from penny-pinching roots. Upon learning that Charles Addams' cartoons about a spooky family were being adapted for television, and that producers were planning to skimp on the music budget, composer Vic Mizzy reportedly offered to write its theme song for free. Per TV's Biggest Hits, his cost-cutting solution was to bang out a ghoulish-sounding tune, “The Addams Family Theme,” on the harpsichord, with his "creepy and kooky" lyrics overdubbed to give the effect of a chorus. Mizzy also was prominently involved in the title-sequence choreography, which famously features the cast snapping in unison. Amazingly, the song nearly was left out of the 1991 big-screen remake of The Addams Family, before producer Scott Rudin wisely changed course to heed the expectations of the fan base.
Composer Neal Hefti worked with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, but his greatest musical challenge may have been when he was asked to score ABC's campy adaptation of the DC Comics superhero Batman. Hefti eventually found the proper tone for his “Batman Theme” by way of a 12-bar blues progression with driving bass and percussion, rounding out the sound with a group of vocalists (not horns, as has been rumored) belting out "Batman!" in unison. Rewarded with a Grammy for his struggles, Hefti also gleefully took credit for his lyrical efforts, mentioning how one chorus member commemorated the recording with the notation: "Word and Music by Neal Hefti."
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show"
Already known for writing the rock classic "I Fought the Law," Sonny Curtis delivered his greatest contribution to the world of TV soundtracks after learning of CBS' plans to develop a series for Mary Tyler Moore of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame. Working off of a treatment that provided sparse details of a woman striking out on her own at a big-city news station, Curtis took about two hours to write a song that immediately impressed the producers. Per Burlingame, "Love Is All Around" was then rounded out by former big-band arranger Pat Williams, although its status as an ode to women empowerment wasn't yet complete; that would come after the lyrical changes to the season two opener, which included the tweaking of the line "you might just make it after all" to the more emphatic "you're gonna make it after all."
The creator of the theme songs to Wonder Woman, Laverne & Shirley, and The Love Boat, Charles Fox is credited by Burlingame for bringing elements of the era's popular music to the genre, although he had to mine an earlier sound for Happy Days. Heeding ABC's request to model the theme after the 1954 hit "Rock Around the Clock," Fox and lyricist Norman Gimbel reeled off a cheerfully nostalgic ditty, only to see the network go with "Rock Around the Clock" for the opener and push their work to the end credits. It wasn't until season three that a re-recorded "Happy Days Theme" took center stage, with an accompanying version by Pratt & McClain that shot up to No. 5 on the Billboard chart helping to popularize the eminently quotable series about the Fonz and friends.
Ja’Net DuBois had already compiled an impressive list of credits, including roles on Broadway and the sitcom Good Times, when she confessed to producer Norman Lear that she yearned for more creative opportunities. Lear offered her the chance to write the theme song to his upcoming spinoff of All in the Family, and DuBois promptly teamed with '60s hitmaker Jeff Barry to pen a song that reflected her attempts to rise from humble beginnings. The result was "Movin' on Up," the opener for The Jeffersons, which featured DuBois' powerhouse vocals about claiming "a piece of the pie" above the singing and clapping of a 35-member choir.
In 1982, Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo learned that their song "People Like Us" had interested the producers of a new sitcom about a group of Boston barflies. Unfortunately, "People Like Us" was already attached to their musical, Preppies, so Portnoy and Angelo hammered out a few alternate selections on piano — all of which failed to impress their would-be employers. The duo eventually hit upon a wistful tune that gave way to a rousing chorus about finding sanctuary amid like-minded souls, and following a rewrite to make the lyrics more universal, Portnoy was given the honors to record the number before Cheers hit the airwaves in September. Preppies soon closed production on Broadway, but "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" took flight as the endearing theme of this primetime favorite.
The marriage of one of TV's most popular theme songs to a ratings juggernaut was truly a team effort. Starting with composer Michael Skloff and lyricist Allee Willis, the song about six New York City companions was passed to the pop-rock duo the Rembrandts, who put their spin on the material while giving way for the show's producers to contribute the (four, not five) handclaps. An assist also goes to Nashville radio program director Charlie Quinn, who looped the 40-second theme into a three-minute song that boosted listener demand. "I'll Be There for You" became a Top 20 hit for the Rembrandts, and at a time when other sitcoms like Seinfeld were seemingly hastening the demise of an elaborate title sequence, the Friends theme proved that audiences remained receptive to a well-crafted opening number.
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