Theme songs add to the legacy of a cherished series
Nobody is going to mistake the “Perry Mason” theme for a Motown hit.
But the late-1950s influence of rhythm and blues had a surprising impact on the music, with its swinging trombones and insistent piano notes, for the program featuring Raymond Burr as TV’s most beloved lawyer.
According to composer Fred Steiner, CBS execs “had this idea that the music should be a combination of his two sides: the suave, well-dressed man about town, which seemed to need a sophisticated sound; and then you have him dealing with criminals and crime, and historically, you associate jazz with the seamy side of life.”
It was 1957, and “R&B was the big thing. That rhythm just seemed like what I was looking for: a contemporary beat for that side of him, and yet the symphonic sound to represent him as the kind of guy who goes to the opera. It sounds easy now, but I must have gone through four or five different versions,” Steiner recalls.
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Few TV themes were intercut as spectacularly with visual imagery as “Hawaii Five-0,” CBS’ long-running police drama set in the 50th state with Jack Lord as tough-guy Steve McGarrett.
Morton Stevens, who in 1968 headed CBS’ West Coast music department (and later penned the “Police Woman” theme), recalls what creator Leonard Freeman had told him about the concept: “It’s about a guy who’s hard as a rock and living on a rock. And he’s hard.”
Stevens interpreted all this crude sexual innuendo as implying that the music should have a macho strength.
Stevens composed a forceful, rhythmically exciting theme, avoiding the usual Hawaiian cliches of ukuleles, steel guitars, falsetto voices and bongo drums. Title designer Reza Badiyi — using a tempo that Stevens had supplied even before he finished writing — edited together location shots of a giant wave, hula dancers, a jet flying overhead, faces of Hawaiian natives and sunset over the Pacific into a still-memorable 60-second montage.
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Bill Conti was stumped. The composer of “Rocky” had agreed to score the pilot for a serialized drama set in Denver about the members of a wealthy family. Producers Esther and Richard Shapiro had asked for “an elegant, movielike, rather than televisionlike,” theme, Conti recalls, thinking back to 1981.
The trouble was the title on the script: “Oil,” a concept that Conti found hard to musicalize. A few days later Conti received a phone call; ABC execs had decided to change the title to “Dynasty,” and that was all the inspiration Conti needed.
“I came up with the theme and wrote it before dinner,” he says. “It was one of the only times in my life that the music actually flowed through me. With ‘Dynasty,’ I just sat down and played it. It was so painless.”
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Mike Post has supplied the themes for many of Steven Bochco’s series, from “Hill Street Blues” to “NYPD Blue.”
“L.A. Law,” however, posed a special challenge. The now-familiar tune was actually Post’s fifth try.
Having received four respectful rejections, Post called producer Bochco and pilot director Gregory Hoblit to his Burbank, Calif., studio and sat them down. He recalls telling them:
“It’s the law: grand, powerful, majestic, fair. French horns, right? OK. Now, it’s California, so it’s got to have some sass to it, and I can’t do the Beach Boys because it shouldn’t be a shuffle. Here’s a big snare-drum thing: mm-mm-kish, mm-mm-kish. You guys like this tempo?”
Post noodled tunes at the keyboard until they agreed on a melody.
“Now, I said, what else is this show about? It’s about sex! Either the screwing that’s being done or the screwing the lawyers are giving the clients. Alto saxophone; nobody’s done Junior Walker. They sat on the couch, lick for lick, and when I was done, I said, ‘That’s your theme.’ ”
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One of TV’s most famous dramatic anthologies, “The Twilight Zone,” had not one theme but two.
Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann — who often wrote scores at CBS between assignments for Alfred Hitchcock and other filmmakers — penned the original 1959 theme, moody and mysterious.
But it was dumped after one season (part of an overhaul that also included the main-title images), replaced by the more familiar eight-note electric-guitar signature — actually two pieces of music out of the CBS music library that were never intended to be a series theme.
French avant-garde composer Marius Constant had written several short pieces (featuring a bizarre ensemble including guitars, flute, tenor sax, harp and bongo drums) for the network music library.
CBS music director Lud Gluskin found “Etrange No. 3” and “Milieu No. 2” and combined them into the music we recognize today. Only later was Constant informed that his quirky little pieces had become the famous “Twilight Zone” theme, and he never received screen credit.
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TV’s first drama to sport a rock ‘n’ roll theme was “Secret Agent” (1965).
James Bond was big at the box office, and NBC already had a hit with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” so CBS jumped quickly on the bandwagon by acquiring England’s “Danger Man,” starring Patrick McGoohan.
CBS execs approached producer Lou Adler, who managed rocker Johnny Rivers, about a new theme to help Americanize the show. Adler asked two of his staff writers, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri (who would later write “Eve of Destruction”), to write a Bond-style song that Rivers could sing.
According to Barri, they never even saw the show. Sloan came up with the now-famous guitar hook and the pair penned a song called “Danger Man (“look out, Danger Man, think fast, Danger Man”).
When CBS changed the title of the show at the last minute to “Secret Agent,” the songwriters were forced to alter the title to “Secret Agent Man.” And while it didn’t work as well as the original lyric, that didn’t stop it from going to No. 3 on the pop charts.