Nobody sings TV show themes anymore. I used to have one of the many volumes of Television’s Greatest Hits, which compiled awesome TV theme songs from the ’50s to the ’70s. Back when TV was only something you got out of the air or through a cable, theme songs were at least twice as long as they are now and far more likely to have lyrics featuring the name of the show. Imagine singing Breaking Bad to the tune of The Love Boat or better yet — Happy Days:
“Sunday, Monday breaking bad
Tuesday, Wednesday breaking bad
Thursday, Friday breaking bad
Saturday, meth all day
Cookin’ all week with you.”
It seems these days, when TV shows have themes with lyrics, the creators prefer to bring in somebody famous to sing them. You know, like Barenaked Ladies’ Big Bang Theory theme, Ozzy Osbourne’s Dog The Bounty Hunter theme, They Might Be Giants’ Malcolm In The Middle or Carly Rae Jepsen’s updated version of Everywhere You Look for the Fuller House reboot. TV producers also prefer to drop actual popular music in shows, rather than original soundtrack stuff. I remember this being groundbreaking when Miami Vice did it back in the ’80s. Actual songs were common enough in movies, but not TV.
That’s all changed. I’m not against it. TV is generally pretty terrible anyway. But what I wanted to discuss here today is TV theme songs or featured music performed by famous artists, — but you didn’t realize it. Either because it was recorded before they were famous, or just flew under the radar for some reason. One example is the theme from the 1960s cartoon The Mighty Hercules:
“Softness in his eyes,
Iron in his thighs,
Virtue in his heart,
Fire in every part,
Of the Mighty Hercules.”
It’s sung by Johnny Nash, about a decade before his big hit I Can See Clearly Now. Even though Nash had been toiling away since the late ’50s, his only U.S. No. 1 came in 1972. He came close in 1968 with Hold Me Tight, which was Top 5 in the States but No. 1 in Canada. So, during the show’s original 1963-1966 run, he wasn’t a star. But by the time I first started watching the show as reruns in the 1980s , he certainly was.
Another one I watched all the time was Sesame Street, but I didn’t learn until many years later that it was The Pointer Sisters singing the Pinball Countdown (aka Pinball Number Count song), and its 11 variants. This was recorded in 1976 and first appeared on Sesame Street in 1977. In my world, The Pointer Sisters weren’t a household name until the 1980s, when they had a string of huge hits — He’s So Shy, Slow Hand, I’m So Excited, Jump (For My Love) and Neutron Dance. Back in 1977 they weren’t huge stars; they scored their first major hit in 1978 with Fire.
Musician involvement in kids’ show music is pretty common — famous, marginally famous or not-yet-famous. Think Rev. Horton Heat’s Ren & Stimpy theme, Stewart Copeland’s theme for the ’80s animated Star Wars spinoff Droids (he also did The Equalizer!), the millions of shows Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh has scored or soundtracked, and Little Richard’s Magic School Bus theme.
Personally, one of my favourites — as a parent — was Taj Mahal’s theme for Peep And The Big Wide World. It also was narrated by one of my crushes: Joan Cusack.
They were already pretty famous, but most people still probably would never have guessed it was The Grateful Dead doing the theme song for The Twilight Zone when the show was rebooted briefly in 1985.
Like the Dead, Jose Feliciano was pretty famous when he was hired to compose and perform the theme for Chico And The Man in 1974. Similarly, Dr. John had already long since established himself by the time he did the theme for Blossom in 1991, though he certainly was having some lean years. He didn’t write My Opinionation; the theme is yet another Mike Post co-write. Post wrote many themes, and some of them became hits — Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, Magnum PI, Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not) and even L.A. Law were charting singles.
John Sebastian had his only post-Lovin’ Spoonful solo hit: The theme song for Welcome Back, Kotter. I already mentioned Miami Vice, but I should also include here the fact that the show’s theme, by Jan Hammer, was also a No. 1 hit — his only one as a solo artist. Waylon Jennings had a huge crossover hit with his Dukes Of Hazzard theme Just The Good Ol’ Boys, which he wrote as well as performed — and was the show’s narrator.
The other big one, of course, was I’ll Be There For You — the theme from Friends. The Rembrandts hung around for a few years, but that 1995 theme song remains their only hit. I would be remiss in not mentioning The Wire. The theme song is Tom Waits’ Way Down In The Hole — but five different versions of it, one for each season. Only one season, Season 2 I believe, is the Waits original. The other versions are by The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe and Steve Earle.
DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince already had a breakthrough hit two years earlier when their Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air theme song made them — well, Will Smith — a household name in 1990.
Finally, most had no idea who Ja’Net DuBois was before she co-starred as their feisty neighbour in Good Times in 1974. The following year she cemented her legacy by co-writing and performing the awesome theme from The Jeffersons, Movin’ On Up. For such a great vocalist, she only made three albums in 1980, 1983 and 2007. She moved all the way on up on Feb. 17, 2020.
• • •
Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.