Archive for the ‘Television Themes’ Category

Saturday Singles Nos. 156 & 157

June 1, 2022

Originally posted October 24, 2009

I’ve written before about how my love for soundtracks and movie themes predated my interest in rock and pop. Well, forty years later, as I continue to expand the boundaries of my rock and pop universe, I continue as well to listen to soundtracks, renewing acquaintances with previously heard composers, artists and works, as well as finding new folks and music to hear. And I still find myself digging, from time to time, into television themes, a category that seems to divide itself into three subfolders: those themes I heard while watching favorite shows in years gone, those I hear while watching favorites these days, and those themes I’m aware of – both then and now – that come from shows I don’t recall seeing.

When I search for “television theme” on the RealPlayer, I get back a list of eighty pieces. (That doesn’t yet include the more than one hundred mp3s from television westerns I found and wrote about the other day; those have yet to be sorted and indexed.) And a run through the titles can be quite a trip:

The earliest television theme I have is Miklós Rósa’s unmistakable piece for “Dragnet,” which first went on the air as a radio drama in the late 1940s and then came to television in 1951. The radio version lasted until 1957, the first television version ran until 1959, and the show was revived on television from 1967 to 1970. The mp3 I have is, I think, the theme from the early television show. (One of the difficulties in dating and sorting television themes is that the themes are often tinkered with from one season to the next, and it’s difficult to know which season’s theme one has.)

The most recent comes from 2006: the evocative theme by W.G. “Snuffy” Walden for Friday Night Lights, whose new season starts this week on DirecTV. We don’t have that service, so we’ll have to wait until next spring, I think, to see the new episodes on NBC. I will have a hard time waiting; I truly think that Friday Night Lights is one of the great television dramas ever made.

Between those extremes in time fall a lot of good themes, a lot of very dorky bits of music, and a number of tunes that lay right into the middle. A while back, I offered a selection of television themes, and I might do so again in the next few weeks. But this morning, I’m thinking about one theme in particular.

Late last evening, while the Texas Gal was studying, I scanned the DVD shelves and pulled down a box that I’d set aside when we moved and hadn’t gotten back to since: Hill Street Blues: The Complete First Season, a gift – with its companion second season – from the Texas Gal a few years ago. Back in the 1980s, when each week’s episode of Hill Street Blues was essential watching at my house, I would have put the drama—edgy for its time – in the top spot of my list of best television series of all time.

Since then, there are some television series that have been better, although not many. A few that I’m sure of are The West Wing, The Sopranos and Deadwood. I’ve never watched The Wire nor Homicide, omissions that will be remedied, but they might belong in a list of the top ten television dramas of all time; I know that the Texas Gal will reserve a spot for ER, and I’d likely concur. I mentioned Friday Night Lights above, and there are other recent dramas that might push HSB down the list a little further, but without actually pulling that list together, I’m pretty certain that Hill Street Blues stays in the top ten.

Even if that’s not the case, it doesn’t take away from the quality of the show or the pleasure I – and others, I assume – get while watching the first season unfold on my screen, with the second season box waiting for me to get to it. (A check at Amazon this morning showed no other seasons currently available; I hope that will change. There was a link to a firm offering a box set of the full series, but I have a hunch that’s a counterfeit.)

And that pleasure includes the little shiver I still get from the introductory piano chords of Mike Post’s theme for the show. Whether it’s the version from the show itself with the voice of the dispatcher and the sound of sirens or the version released as a single – it went to No. 10 during the autumn of 1981 – that little shiver is still there. And here they are, today’s Saturday Singles:

“The Theme from Hill Street Blues” by Mike Post, television theme [1981]

“The Theme from Hill Street Blues” by Mike Post, Elektra 47186 [1981]
(Featuring Larry Carlton on guitar)

The Strains of the Westerns

May 27, 2022

Originally posted September 25, 2009

Last weekend, poking around in one of the nooks and crannies where I occasionally find old music on the ’Net – I’m not sure which one it was – I came across a collection of themes from television westerns. And I began to run through them, listening to each one a few seconds at a time: lots of orchestral music, a lot of French horns, some guitars, and every once in a while, a stentorian voice telling us grandly the name of the show that we’d be about to watch, were we somehow transported back to 1957 or 1961 or 1965.

It was great fun, and I soon got lost in clicking from one western theme to the next, until the unmistakable strains – well, at least to those of us who grew up during the late 1950s and early 1960s – of the “Theme from Gunsmoke” came out of the speakers.

“What are you watching?” asked the Texas Gal from the next room.

“I’m listening to western themes.”

“Geez, I thought it was something on television that was using that music,” she said. “It sounded like an odd show, and then I recognized that last one.”

She said her dad had watched Gunsmoke for years. I told her that just the first instant of the theme flipped me back in time more than forty years: I had a quick memory of my father sitting in his coral-colored rocker – it was reupholstered in orange sometime in the mid-1960s, which helps me date this image at least a little – his eyes locked on our old Zenith television and the tales of Dodge City it brought into our living room. It would have been a Saturday evening, I believe. Not much kept Dad from Gunsmoke; the only thing that I think would have made him miss a week’s episode would be a St. Cloud State men’s basketball game, either on the radio or across the river on campus.

I kept clicking through the long list of theme songs. A few of them triggered similar memories: family time on Sunday evenings, watching Bonanza, or maybe seeing Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Gates on Rawhide early on a Friday evening as I waited for something I really liked. (A look at the prime time schedules offered at the Classic TV Database tells me that Rawhide was on CBS and I was likely waiting for The Flintstones on ABC.)

None of the others, however, brought me anything quite so vivid as did the “Theme from Gunsmoke,” so that’s a good place to start today’s music.

A Six-Pack of Western Themes
“Boot Hill/Theme from Gunsmoke” [ca. 1967]
“Bonanza” [ca. 1959]
“High Chaparral” [1967]
“A Man Called Shenandoah” [1965]
“Rawhide” [1959]
“The Rifleman” [1958]

Bonus Track
“Bonanza” [Original version, 1959]

Gunsmoke, which ran for twenty seasons, tweaked its theme numerous times. The sweeping main theme had also been used for the radio version of the show, which ran from 1951 to 1962. (The television version ran from 1955 through 1975.) The version here begins with a musical cue that was titled “Boot Hill” and accompanied the opening shot of the show: a view of a gunslinger framed by Marshall Matt Dillon’s boots. After Dillon dispatches the gunslinger, the announcer tells us what we’re watching, and then comes the main theme. According to an entry at, “Boot Hill” was written by Fred Steiner and the main theme – known when the show was on radio as “The Old Trail” – was written by Rex Koury. Just based on the sound and a few dim memories, I’m guessing that this version of “Boot Hill/Theme from Gunsmoke” dates from the mid-1960s.

The theme to Bonanza was written by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans. The version I have here sounds like the one I heard almost every Sunday evening from about 1960 on, but there were enough tweaks through the years – the show ran from 1959 into 1973 – that I cannot be sure. The first version of the theme song, offered here as a bonus track, features Lorne Greene taking the vocal. I’ve read – I cannot remember where – that the vocal version was used for only one week, with the more familiar instrumental taking its place for the show’s second broadcast. (It’s entirely possible – and maybe more likely – that the song was replaced after the show’s first season. In either case, the version with the vocal was short-lived.) For me, the theme to Bonanza was one of the more memorable television themes, right from the ascending guitar lick.

I was aware of High Chaparral, a series based in the Arizona Territory in the 1870s, but I never watched the show, which ran from 1967 into 1971. Its theme was written by well-known television composer and arranger David Rose.

I do not recall “A Man Called Shenandoah,” a series that found Robert Horton playing a Civil War veteran wandering the West in search of his memory. He sang the main theme, to boot. The music for the theme song, obviously, is the old American folk tune “Shenandoah.” I haven’t found any indication so far of who wrote the lyrics.

I remember watching The Rifleman a couple of times, but it was never anything like essential viewing, and the theme doesn’t ring any bells It starts with the rapid firing of the rifle of the title, as did the show. The music was written by Herschel Burke Gilbert, and the lyrics – which you can read here – came from the pen of Alfred Perry.

Frankie Laine’s theme from Rawhide has to be one of the most recognizable of all television themes, never mind westerns. The music came from the pen of Dmitri Tiomkin with words by Nate Washington. It evidently wasn’t, however, the theme that the show started with when it hit the air in 1959. notes that there is a theme credit in the archives for composer Olliver G. Wallace and orchestrator/arranger Paul Van Loan. The website’s editors speculated that the success of Johnny Western’s recording of “The Ballad of Paladin” from the CBS show Have Gun, Will Travel might have spurred the producers of Rawhide to find a song to similarly help brand the show, and the results was the Tiomkin/Washington classic. All-Music Guide says that the song “was a huge pop hit” for Laine, but I wonder about that, as it’s listed in the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. Maybe on the country charts. The song did make the Top 40, however, in what I assume was an instrumental version by Link Wray and the Wraymen, reaching No. 23 in early 1959.

Note from 2022: There’s no trace of Laine’s version of “Rawhide” on the country chart, either. Note added May 27, 2022.


It’s ‘The Green Hornet’!

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 24, 2008

Wikipedia notes: “Inspired by the success of the Batman series, ABC brought The Green Hornet to television in 1966.”

The character of the Green Hornet had been the focus of a radio show that ran from 1938 to 1952 and the subject of two movies in the 1940. The televised Green Hornet was played by Van Williams, with his sidekick, Kato, played by the late martial arts star Bruce Lee. Unlike Batman, in which the camp element was played for hoots – “Holy light show, Batman!” – The Green Hornet was presented as a straight crime-fighting drama, running from 7:30 to 8 p.m., Eastern Time on Thursday evenings.

The show was canceled after only one season, leaving as its legacy the fame of Lee – his popularity was so great in Hong Kong, Wikipedia notes, that the show was marketed there as The Kato Show – and the theme song. As I noted yesterday, the theme is an adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and features Al Hirt performing an arrangement by Billy May. Much of its current-day fame comes from its use by film-maker Quentin Tarrantino in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

Here’s what’s likely the opening sequence to the television show. My only question is whether the still photos at the start were used that way. It seems awfully static to me, even for 1966. Anyone out there know?

Every Sunday Evening: ‘Bonanza’

April 22, 2011

Originally posted June 12, 2007

I didn’t watch a lot of television when I was a kid. I was – once I got to the age of six – more interested in reading or in creating my own adventures, quite often with Rick, in the playhouse of my imagination.

I did watch some, though. I do recall watching Ruff & Reddy, the first animated series developed by the team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the creators later on of Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and countless other cartoon characters. I also recall watching Huckleberry Hound from the time of his first episode in 1958. The show aired weekly at 6:30 p.m. on, I think, KMSP, which would have been the ABC affiliate in the Twin Cities at the time.

Early Saturday morning was television time, too, with much of the fare being classic Warner Bros. cartoons that had originally been shown in movie theaters. Other shows I recall were Annie Oakley, a western; Sky King, a series about a rancher with his own plane, Songbird, and his perky niece, Penny; The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, another western; and a show with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing songs and riding down bad guys on their horses Trigger and Buttermilk.

Then there was Andy’s Gang, a kids’ show featuring Andy Devine, a large man with a raspy voice who’d played Jingles, the sidekick on the Wild Bill Hickok show. Andy introduced cartoons for kids, and between cartoons, dealt with interruptions from a cast that included Midnight the Cat and Tige the Dog. The most frequent interruptions, though, came from Froggy the Gremlin, a rubber character with a foghorn voice who was always up to mischief. When Andy got flustered enough with Froggy, he’d send him away in a cloud of smoke by saying, “Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy!”

One of the toys my sister and I discovered a few years ago when we helped Mom clean out the house where we grew up was a rubber Froggy the Gremlin, battered but still mostly whole. I remember playing with it, but it must have been my sister’s originally, from the time when Ed McConnell hosted the show featuring Froggy. Devine became the host in 1955 after McConnell’s death.

But for most of my childhood, the one time all four of us watched television together was Sunday evening, often with a large bowl of popcorn (actually popped in a frying pan as microwaves were only a dream and Jiffy Pop, per serving, was more expensive than buying a bag of popcorn and a bottle of oil). We’d gather in the living room at 6 on Sundays for the Walt Disney show, which went through numerous name changes over the years. The content was the same, though: nature documentaries, animated features, programming about Disneyland – the site of today’s Disney complex in Florida was still empty acreage at the time – and serialized movies.

(In 1961, which was about the time our Sunday family viewing nights started, Disney moved his show to NBC because of that network’s ability to broadcast in color. That made no difference to us. We watched on the mid-1950s Zenith until 1968, when one of my dad’s friends got a color television and gave us his old black and white set, which was still newer than our Zenith was. I’m not sure when the folks got a color television, but I know it was after I moved out in 1976.)

Anyway, we’d watch the Disney show together, and then there was an hour that NBC filled with various situation comedies, none of which ever seemed to last very long. I recall Hazel, starring the great actress Shirley Booth in what had to be one of the low points of her career. There was Car 54, Where Are You? about two bumbling New York City cops played by Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne, the latter of whom would go on to play Herman Munster in The Munsters. There was also Grindl, a comedy that starred 1950s television genius Imogene Coca. But the comedies between 7 and 8 were for the most part something to get through.

That’s because 8 o’clock meant Bonanza, starting with the map of the Ponderosa bursting into flame and burning away to reveal the four Cartwrights riding their horses into the opening credits. Bonanza was our favorite show, as was the case for many American families in those years. How many? Well, the show was the top-ranked show in television from 1964 through 1967 and was in the Top Ten for many more years during its run from 1959 into 1973.

These days, watching Bonanza on TV Land or other cable channels, the stories are hokey, the scripts stilted and the production values are primitive. But forty years ago, it was good television. And the guitar twang that marked the beginning of the show’s theme song was the signal that heralded another hour of adventure for the Cartwrights and, vicariously, for us.

That’s why I’m starting today’s Baker’s Dozen of random television themes with the theme from Bonanza.

“Bonanza” by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, 1959

“Perry Mason” by Fred Steiner, 1957

“Branded” by Dominic Frontiere, 1965

“Winds of War” by Robert Cobert, 1983

“Ancient Voices” (Survivor) by Russ Landau, 2000

“Mission Impossible” by Lalo Schifrin, 1966

“The Contender” by Hans Zimmer, 2005

“Dallas” by Jerrold Immel, 1978

“Mannix” by Lalo Schifrin, 1967

“Streets of San Francisco” by Patrick Williams, 1972

“The Flintstones” by Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna & Joseph Barbera, 1960

“Hill Street Blues” by Mike Post, 1981

“The West Wing” by W.G. “Snuffy” Walden, 2000

I think these are all original themes with the exception of “The Winds Of War,” which is a recording by Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. I’ve never seen the score to The Winds Of War on LP or CD, and it’s too lovely a piece of music to pass up.