The music of an era becomes so ingrained in the consciousness of those living through the times that it indelibly shapes one’s perceptions of that time. In many cases, music provides the literal and figurative soundtrack for an era. Trying to picture the “roaring 20s” without also thinking of brassy jazz, or the World War II years without big band swing, or even the 1970s without disco, is nearly impossible, as the music and time are practically interwoven. In American culture of the late twentieth century, television became a mainstay in the home, and the period shows of those years were not immune from playing their role in shaping the memories of their time. It is only natural then, that the music that provided the identity for a television show played just as crucial a role in keeping it in our esteem and collective recall as surely as did the characterizations or the plot lines.
The 1970s in the United States saw the emergence of some of the greatest television programs in the history of the genre. In the days before cable or satellite television, there were only three major market competitors. Each broadcasting network held a finite and select number of prime-time hours that writers and producers competed for fiercely. Just as a feature film derives its identity from its score, so too can the television theme song define not only its show, but also, that show’s place in the history of the decade. Join us now as we roll back the clock to the era where disco, polyester, and bad hair was the order of the day, and we will look at the eight greatest theme songs from 1970s television programming.
1) Title: M*A*S*H*
Air Dates: September 17, 1972 – September 19, 1983
Starring: Alan Alda, Harry Morgan, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, Jamie Farr
Theme Song: Suicide is Painless by Johnny Mandel and Michael Altman
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/MASH.html
Based on an irreverent 1970 feature film of the same name, M*A*S*H* remains one of the most enduring television shows in history. Just as the Bell model-47 helicopter featured in the opening credits is forever associated with the Korean conflict and with the show, so too is the theme song. Suicide is Painless was originally written by Michael Altman, the 14-year old son of the feature film director Robert Altman. The senior Altman purchased the rights to use the song in his film from the junior Altman for the price of a new electric guitar, and the rest is history.
Both the film and the first season of the television show feature the song complete with lyrics. Later seasons saw the lyrics replaced with sweeping orchestral pieces. Nearly thirty years have passed since the wrap of the television juggernaut, but the soothing tones of the opening titles building up to a crescendo still has the power to take one back.
2) Title: The Muppet Show
Air Dates: January 29, 1976 – 29 April, 1980
Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Theme Song: The Muppet Show Theme Song, by Jim Henson and Sam Pottle
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Muppet_Show.html
Sounding very little like Presbyterians to me, the opening notes of The Muppet Show Theme Song were full of whimsy and silliness that still excites the little kid in me. Fifteen years before The Simpsons would include a different chalkboard and couch gag in the credits, poor hapless Gonzo the Weirdo would suffer a new indignity each week.
Marshall Brown, Sales Coordinator, 40, recalls “There was something about the joy of figuring out what would happen with Gonzo on the last note of the song each week.”
3) Title: All in the Family
Air Dates: January 12, 1971 – March 1983
Starring: Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton;Rob Reiner; Sally Struthers
Theme Song: Those Were the Days, by Strouse and Adams
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/All_In_The_Family.html
Later mimicked by Family Guy, the opening theme for All in the Family featured the two lead actors seated at the family piano, enjoying singing together. In the first episode of the show, the theme was played live before the audience and it is great fun to hear the audience react to the shrill stylings of Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker. One of the nicest parts of the theme is that it allows the two characters to show some passion for being together, and shows the normally abrasive Archie in a tender light.
I can credit Strouse and Adams with helping me to get more than one answer on a history quiz correct thanks to their lyrics. After all, what 10-year old today knows who Herbert Hoover was? While the show is full of rampant and pantomime overt racism and ignorance, the simple melodies of the theme song do indeed recall the “Good old days.”
4) Title: Sanford and Son
Air Dates: September 15, 1972 – September 2, 1977
Starring: Redd Foxx, Demond Wilson
Theme Song: Streetbeater, by Quincy Jones
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Sanford_And_Son.html
A little known fact about the theme song for Sanford and Son is that it was written by music legend Quincy Jones. Streetbeater is a fabuously funky and fun little tune that fits the overall feel of the entire program. One of the lasting impressions of the Sanford and Son theme is that the instruments used to perform it sound almost improvised, as if they were rickety byproducts born of the salvage yard the show was set in. Again, as a 1970s program, long before the era of political correctness, Sanford and Son made its laughs on the back of savage and abusive racism and ignorance, delivered by the incomparable Redd Foxx. The titular reluctant hero made his way through his world of salvage yet his not-always-hidden charm and affection accompanied by good natured lighthearted joy of Quincy Jones’s music.
5) Title: Welcome Back, Kotter
Air Dates: September 9, 1975 – August 10, 1979
Starring: Gabe Kaplan, John Travolta, Marcia Strassman
Theme Song: Welcome Back, by John Sebastian
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Welcome_Back_Kotter.html
Welcome Back, Kotter is one of those shows that I honestly struggled with to include or exclude from this list. After all, it is the vehicle that gave the world John Travolta, and thus is indirectly responsible for some of the worst movies in American cinema history. However, we can forgive the show and instead rejoice in the message of tolerance, non-judgment and good nature that the theme song and the show embodied.
Performed by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, Welcome Back is a very mellow, relaxed, and friendly tune. The catchy melody easily overshadows the gentle lyrics, but if one listens to the words, there is a great message here. Gabe Kaplan’s character was just like one of the underprivileged and challenged kids of the Sweathogs, and he had a chance to “escape” that life. However, he returned to his home to try to help others get that same chance who might otherwise be limited. As a prelude to the selfishness and status-conscious 80s on the horizon, Welcome Back was a delightful reminder that helping one another is the greatest use of our talents.
6) Title: The Dukes of Hazzard
Air Dates: January 26, 1979 – August 16, 1985
Starring: Tom Wopat, John Schneider, Catherine Bach, Denver Pyle
Theme Song: Good Ol’ Boys, by Waylon Jennings
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Dukes_Of_Hazzard.html
While the show didn’t debut until the very end of the 1970’s, the show encapsulated much of the rough-and-tumble of that bygone era. After all, here was a program that celebrated drinking and driving, fighting, casual sex, scantily-clad women, moonshining, and the Confederate flag. Those born in the days of political correctness might be shocked to learn such a thing ever existed on television. To make matters all the more amusing, the show was a huge success with elementary school children. Ah, sweet ignorance of youth.
The theme song, Good Ol’ Boys, performed by Waylon Jennings, provided a taste of country music to the masses. Kids in the northern suburbs of the United States, whose previous exposure to country-western music might have been a few minutes of Hee-Haw, received a sample of a country music without rhinestones. The song as performed perfectly suits the theme of the show, and personifies the Dukes almost as surely as does their bright orange Dodge Charger.
7) Title: The Brady Bunch
Air Dates: September 26, 1969 – August 30, 1974
Starring: Robert Reed, Florence Henderson, Maureen McCormick, Ann B. Davis
Theme Song: The Brady Bunch, by Frank De Vol and Sherwood Schwartz
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: Unavailable by song owner request
As trendy as it may be to make fun of the Brady family dynamic today, it is impossible to resist the fact that the Brady Bunch was a huge cultural phenomenon. The program took routine and almost mundane trivial incidents and spun them into half-hour nuggets of family drama. Don’t let the sarcasm of the Brady movies of recent years fool you… the Brady Bunch was a monster, both during prime time and later in syndication.
Part of the shows universal appeal is the simple orchestrations by Sherwood Schwartz. Light woodwinds accompany much of the action throughout the show, and even today’s programs attempt to mimic this soundtrack. The theme song evolved over the course of the program run, starting with a professional choir ensemble performance, and then later seeing performances by the cast members themselves.
Many will poke fun at the Brady Bunch, for its clothing, its ideals, and its sappy and sickeningly sweet wholesome values, but yet I defy you to find someone who can deny the compulsion to sing along with the melody. Just try it… walk up to someone today and say “Here’s the story…” and see if they don’t reply “of a man named Brady?”
8) Title: Happy Days
Air Dates: January 15, 1974 – July 12, 1984
Starring: Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Marion Ross
Theme Song: Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Happy_Days.html
Ay! While the theme song for Happy Days is actually a performance of the popular Rock Around the Clock from the 1950s era the show is set it, it is impossible now to hear that song and not think of the television show that ran it during the opening credits. As music defines and recalls the time it was born in, the use of the 1950s classic hit immediately takes the audience back to a clean-cut era gone by.
While almost every song on the list before this point have been original works specific to the show, few songs better encapsulate the theme of a program and have the evocative power of this piece. Which begs the question: when the Jaws movies franchise decided to allow the creation of a 3-D movie set in a Sea World, did Jaws “Jump the Fonz?”
Honorable Mention: Barney Miller
Air Dates: January 23, 1975 – September 9, 1982
Starring: Hal Linden, Ron Glass, Abe Vigoda, Max Gail
Theme Song: Barney Miller, by Jack Elliot and Allyn Ferguson
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Barney_Miller.html
Honorable Mention: The Rockford Files
Air Dates: September 13, 1974 – July 25, 1980
Starring: James Garner, Joe Santos, Noah Beery Jr.
Theme Song: The Rockford Files, by Mike Post and Peter Carpenter
Sample courtesy of TelevisionTunes.com, available at: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Rockford_Files.html
In an act of pure selfish poetic license, I have included the following themes on the list as honorable mentions. Both themes are very jazz inspired, and many years before Seinfeld’s slap-bass theme, Barney Miller featured deep bass rhythms that are impossible to deny.
In both cases, the tunes evoke deep personal memories of my youth. One of my central memories of my childhood involves being five- or six-years old and watching The Rockford Files with my grandfather, who was a devout James Garner fan. I recall distinctly by the electric organ sounds coupled with a harmonica underscore fascinating me, and still to this day, more than thirty years later, I hear that theme and I recall my grandfather’s coarse black-and-silver whiskers and the way he breathed through his nose when he was relaxed.
Music truly has the transformative power to pull deep-seeded memories back up to the surface. The 1970’s featured civil unrest, the unpopularity of the Vietnam conflict, the embarrassment of the Nixon administration collapse, the fuel crisis, and a lingering inequality between the sexes or the races in America. Yet, through the power of music coupled with the entertainment of the day, these television program theme songs can make us think of those times and recall our own “good old days.”