Fall TV: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that theme

HOLLYWOOD — This fall Clint Black, Carly Simon, Los Lobos, Glenn Frey, Delfeayo Marsalis and even David Cassidy will boldly go where the likes of Nelson Riddle, Duane Eddy and Lalo Schifrin have gone before. The new crew of TV theme-song writers will be belting out tunes for CBS’ “Harts of the West,” ABC’s “Phenom,” Fox’s “Front Page,” CBS’ “South of Sunset,” ABC’s “Moon Over Miami” and NBC’s “The John Larroquette Show.”

With two of the four networks avidly courting a hip younger audience, it makes sense for new series to use marquee-name musicians rather than crusty TV jingle writers.

Sometimes, as in the case of FBC’s “Front Page,” a band gets the nod because its appeal matches the show’s demos. In other cases, the recording artist is selected because his sound soulfully encapsulates the timbre of the series. Occasionally, the executive producer is a fan. Whatever the reason, in today’s competitive primetime environment the theme has to conspire to draw viewers in and keep them tuned in.

One interesting development of the interplay between Sunset Strip rockers and Burbank producers, though, has been a mutual respect for each other’s craft. Songwriters and showrunners have been learning that they’re not terribly different people after all. “Harts of the West” creator and executive producer Robert Moloney says of his work with country music star Clint Black: “A writer is a writer is a writer. I didn’t have to tell him that I didn’t want any of this ‘my dog died and my ex-wife is back in my life’ songs. Clint is a very bright and well-spoken guy who feels the same way about his work that I do about mine.”

So how does a producer decide that a certain performer is right for a series? And, if toe-tappers like Black’s theme song for CBS’ “Harts of the West” (“In a Laid Back Way”) goes double platinum, who gets the dough?


On “Harts of the West,” Moloney drew up a short list of country performers whose sensibilities he felt would capture the timbre of his “City Slickers”-type , Saturday night hour. “Harts” is about a Chicago lingerie magnate, played by Beau Bridges, who, after a heart attack in Bloomingdale’s, decides to follow his dream of living in the West. Lloyd Bridges plays the old mule-skinner who coaxes the Windy City tenderfoot through his rustic adjustment.

A producer on the show had contacts with some Nashville agents, and the “Harts” staff got a copy of the pilot to Black, who agreed to write the theme. The phrase “Harts of the West” appears in the song, but Moloney did not want to set any parameters on Black’s composing. He merely suggested the song “have something to do with wanting to change your life and simplify it.”

Since “Harts” star Beau Bridges also composes and performs a few tunes, Moloney is trying to stunt-cast Black and have the two perform a duet. A Black cameo would certainly get “Harts” a big tune-in, especially considering CBS’ more rural audience.

The songwriter retains the publishing rights for the theme “In a Laid Back Way.” If it becomes a hit, Black, not “Harts’ ” production company (Kushner-Locke), stands to profit.

By contrast, “South of Sunset” exec producer Stan Rogow says that any revenue from Glenn Frey’s title track will flow into the profit pool for the show.

The selection of the former member of California’s legendary rock band the Eagles as the theme performer was a natural outgrowth of Rogow’s selection of Frey as the lead for the Hollywood private eye series.

The producer wanted the show to have the desultory yet cool feel of the Sunset Boulevard locale. Frey had that sensibility as an actor. Says Rogow: “When you think Los Angeles and rock ‘n’ roll, you think about the Beach Boys, and they weren’t right. Then you think about the Eagles. And, lo and behold, while we were casting this series there was Glenn Frey, so we started talking about music.”

Several seasons back Rogow had used jazzman Wynton Marsalis on “Shannon’s Deal.” Rogow showed the musician the pilot before Marsalis composed the theme. (This season, Marsalis’s baby brother, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, is scoring ABC’s “Moonlighting”-type comedy “Moon Over Miami.”)

Potential viewers were likewise a major concern in formulating the theme music of Fox’s newsmagazine “Front Page.” The show’s exec producer wanted to craft a program that would appeal to a younger audience, and he wanted a theme to convey the fact it was the first national newsmag produced from L.A.

Most newsmagazines rely on synthesizer and percussion, and their anchors host the show from studios. But Corvo told Los Lobos the show would originate from L.A.’s Bradbury Building (seen in “Blade Runner”), and showed them sketches of the opening montage, which includes quick shots of baby-boomer icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Says Corvo, “I wanted something that would appeal to a younger viewer. We didn’t want Grunge. Los Lobos had a nice, unplugged sound; and they’re from L.A.” The group delivered some signature guitar music, drums and humming that acts as a refreshing intro for the hour. Los Lobos retain publishing rights to the theme.

Cassidy scores

Perhaps the best story behind a theme song is that of “The John Larroquette Show.” David Cassidy, formerly the mop-topped face-man of “The Partridge Family, ” submitted a scat-blues tune under the pseudonym of Blind Lemon Jackson to Don Reo, the show’s exec producer/creator.

Reo and the other producers listened to 10 entries and felt Jackson’s composition best captured the feel of a sitcom set after midnight in a St. Louis bus depot. They discovered Blind Lemon Jackson’s real identity when they called him in to talk about recutting the tune to fit the credits.

So how involved with their theme musicians do the producers of these shows get? Moloney’s rapport with Black is not atypical. He remembers that Black would call late at night from the road and sing over the phone. The “Harts” scribe admits he began to understand how singer Lyle Lovett cast his spell upon actress Julia Roberts.

Says the producer: “Clint would say, ‘My throat’s really giving out,’ but then he would start singing. I was ready to run away with him and he has better hair than Lyle Lovett.”

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