Day 784: Show Me That Smile Again

originally published February 22, 2014

Lately I have found myself falling back in love with All In The Family. The jokes are still funny, the characters still compelling, and it’s the only show from the 70’s that can still be called ‘edgy’ by today’s standards. I wanted to do a piece about the show, but rather than delve into a history of the show’s production or spin a bullet-list of trivia (which I’ve already done for The Golden Girls), I decided I’d focus on the song.

You know, that song. The one where Jean Stapleton – whom I have recently decided is the funniest woman ever to appear on TV – hits that high note that can make your sofa cushions cringe. The song that Family Guy homage-ifies with their opening number.

TV Theme songs may seem like a fluffy topic, but they are certainly worthy of a couple hours-worth of finger-punching my keyboard. The lyric-laden theme song is a dying art form, yet these tunes are woven with the fabric of my slothful youth. Some became hits or were hits already – I’m not going to dig into the roots of John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back” or Al Jarreau’s “Moonlighting” here. But each of these songs was written and performed by somebody, and those somebodies had a story.

“Those Were The Days” was penned by the team of Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, the guys responsible for the Broadway hit, Bye Bye Birdie. There were a few versions of the performance recorded throughout the series’ run, and astute listeners can pick out Stapleton’s second-verse screech becoming more comically punched as the song evolved.

The song’s melody can be played solely on the black keys of a piano, something I plan to try when I get home tonight. Also, the reason you don’t see any footage of the World Trade Center in the opening credits is because the footage was shot in 1968, two years before the show aired and three years before the towers would dominate Manhattan’s downtown.

See? I knew this topic would be full of fun and useless facts.

That suave, mustachioed heartthrob is Jeff Barry. Along with his wife, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff wrote a slew of girl-group hits, including “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “Be My Baby”, “Baby I Love You”, and “Chapel Of Love”. He also produced a heap of Neil Diamond’s early singles, as well as the Monkees’ cover of “I’m A Believer.” The guy has a mammoth resume.

In the late 70’s, scoring a hit was a bit harder to come by. He had split with Ellie and though he landed a big score when Olivia Newton-John sent his schlocky love song “I Honestly Love You” to the top of the charts in 1974, Jeff wasn’t above spurting out some addictively catchy ear-worms for prime-time TV, including “This Is It” for One Day At A Time, “Movin’ On Up” for The Jeffersons and “Without Us” for Family Ties. This guy scored a great deal of my childhood and I’d never heard of him before today.

Speaking of Family Ties, Jeff’s song was originally sung by Dennis Tufano (lead singer for The Buckinghams in the 60’s) and Mindy Sterling, who you probably remember as Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers movies. Back then she was merely a struggling actress, looking for work.

Then, because NBC didn’t want to give a break to two unknowns, the song was rerecorded by Deniece “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” Williams and Johnny Mathis after ten episodes. That’s the version we all remember.

The name ‘David Pomeranz’ probably doesn’t mean much to you. But if you were a fan of the Perfect Strangers theme, “Standing Tall”, then you know his work. Seriously, that theme song just went on and on… it was 90 seconds long before they started cutting it back to fit in an extra commercial or two.

Pomeranz’s other work never made a huge dent in our pop consciousness, but he has built a great career in theatre and television. Also, his compilation of adult-contemporary love songs – Born For You – His Best & More – became the greatest-selling album in the history of the Philippines. Hey, sales are sales.

Jack Elliott gets a long round of applause for me, as he wrote what might be the greatest sitcom theme ever, the opening of Barney Miller. He also laid down the similarly funky groove for Night Court, in addition to scribing the score for the 1984 Summer Olympics, and running the music for the Oscars and Emmy Awards.

Though unrelated to the theme song, I found it interesting that a number of police officers (including former Chicago cop and brilliant character actor Dennis Farina) called Barney Miller the most realistic cop show ever made. Yes, that quote comes from two sources after The Wire, so that’s saying something.

I said I wasn’t going to write about theme songs that became hit singles, but then I’m not sure that peaking at #65 on the pop singles charts constitutes a hit. But I mention this to dispel those rumors that Richard Saunders (Les Nessman) sang the opening theme of WKRP In Cincinnati. I enjoyed believing that was true, but it simply ain’t.

And the closing theme – there are actually lyrics to that tune, some vague story about a bartender. But composer Jim Ellis decided to lay down a gibberish vocal track, drowning the lyrics in seemingly arbitrary vowels and consonants. Still, the closing theme rocks harder than pretty much any other theme song I can think of.

Hell, I didn’t even like this song. “Brand New Life” was written by the creators of Who’s The Boss, who apparently didn’t like to farm jobs like this out to professionals. The music was composed by smooth-jazz artists Larry Carlton and Robert Kraft (not the guy who owns the New England Patriots). There were three versions used throughout the series, sung by three different people. I have no idea why this was deemed necessary.

Larry Weiss sang the opening from 1984-1986. Larry’s other big contribution to music was writing the song “Rhinestone Cowboy”. Steve Wariner, one of the most active country music singer/songwriters in the last half century, sang the version used between 1986 and 1990. Lastly Jonathan Wolff sang the tune for the show’s final two seasons. Wolff’s other claim to fame?

That’s right, Wolff put together the sampled bass, synthesizer and weird vocal pops and clicks that made up the Seinfeld theme. In true Seinfeldian, post-modernist fashion, the sitcom broke with the tradition of employing a full-on theme song to introduce the show, thrusting us right into the action. Well, into the stand-up comedy that preceded the action.

The Seinfeld music varies from episode to episode, mainly composed from bits of improvised funk Jonathan Wolff played using the same instrumentation. At the start of season three, a bit of female vocal scatting was added to the music, but while Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David loved it, the network did not. Jonathan’s music was kept pure from then on.

Okay, I suppose there was enough for a full-size kilograph in those opening credit sequences. I kind of miss the all-out theme song – The Office had one and 30 Rock’s was rapid-fire and brilliant. But while I’d probably fast-forward or check my phone during an all-out theme song today, it’s still sad to see an art form die off. Those were the days, I suppose…

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