A gigantic shift has occurred in the world of television over the last twenty years and I can’t say it’s necessarily a good thing. The theme song has all but been eliminated from TV shows. Sure, we may get a few seconds of something, but very few are still doing the full story theme.
From the 60’s through the 90’s, TV themes were often used as a pivotal starting point for a show. If you knew nothing about the show you were about to watch, that was fine. The theme song would fill you in on everything you needed to know. For example, here’s the entire set up for The Odd Couple:
That told you everything in 74 seconds.
But sometimes the theme songs change during the run of the show. For example, when Happy Days first aired, they used “Rock Around the Clock”, by Bill Haley & His Comets as the opening music:
It wasn’t until the third season that the incorporated the “Happy Days” theme that continued for the next seven years:
Some songs have become iconic:
You can usually understand why the original version was replaced:
The original doesn’t have the same pizzazz – I certainly couldn’t imagine Ferris Bueller rockin’ out to it:
Often, if a show switches networks or is moved to syndication, they need to replace the theme for licensing purposes. When Baywatch first aired on NBC, they used Peter Cetera’s “Save Me” (which featured Bonnie Raitt on guitar):
But when they moved to syndication for Season Two, they replaced it with “I’m Always Here”. If that voice sounds familiar, you’ve probably heard it before. This was sung by Jimi Jamison who, as lead singer of Survivor, was responsible for such 80’s classics as “Eye of the Tiger”, “Burning Heart” & “High on You”:
Other theme songs are used as a temporary filler until they can come up with something different. The original theme for Magnum P.I., for instance, just seems out of place. Rumor has it that the producers wanted one from theme song icon Mike Post (Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files, The A-Team), but he wasn’t available when the series started. As a result, the show initially began this way:
Starting with episode twelve, Post had done his magic. The new theme was an immediate smash, rising as high as No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on May 25, 1982:
But the one that always struck me was the original Gilligan’s Island theme. Most people are familiar with it, but just in case, here’s a refresher:
Like so many from this era, that is a perfect “story theme”. In sixty seconds, you get a full idea of the plot and the characters. Anybody tuning in would know exactly what was happening. That’s one of the reasons this has been listed among the greatest theme songs of all time.
Fun fact: You may have noticed the absence of Mary Ann and the Professor. Initially, they were just referred to as “the rest”, but Bob Denver (Gilligan) took offense to that. When he approached producers about including them up front, he was told that they had contracts stipulating they would be only mentioned in the closing credits.
So I said, “I have a contract that reads first billing… that means I can go anywhere… I want to be in the back with ‘the rest'”. [So they agreed to] move them up. It was silly… It was embarrassing to have them as ‘the rest’.Bob Denver, 1995 interview on Today Show
Beginning with the second season, we heard “The Professor and Mary Ann” in the opening.
But the initial version still wasn’t anything like that. Take a listen:
Where do we start? First of all, the Calypso-styled tune was performed by creator Sherwood Schwartz doing his best Harry Belafonte/Sir Lancelot impression. Hearing that voice come from this man is a bit surprising:
In Tropical Sea is a tropic port / vacation fun is the favorite sport
This is the place where the tourist flock / renting the boats at the busy dock
Two secretaries from USA / sail on the Minnow this lovely day
A high school teacher is next aboard / all taking trip that they cannot afford
Without getting into too much detail (I’ll save that for a future PILOT WATCH), the movie star and the farm girl did not exist. Instead, we had two young secretaries named Ginger & Bunny. The Professor was also deemed to be too young to have the advanced degrees necessary, so he was replaced as well.
The next two people are millionaires / They got no worries, they got no cares
They climb aboard and they step inside / With just enough bags for a six-hour ride
A SIX hour ride? Still doesn’t account for nine suitcases.
Tourists come, tourists go / Tourists touring to and fro
These five nice tourists, they take this trip / Relaxing on deck on this little ship
The weather is clear and the sun is hot
The weather is clear / I think it is not
That seems to be a very meta / self-aware moment for a show from this era.
Tourists come, tourists go / Tourists tossing to and fro
The captain is brave. He’s….
CARUMBA! What a storm!!
The captain is brave / He’s a fearless man
And Gilligan helps him all that he can
The wheel she break and lose all control
S.S Minnow do the rock and roll
The sea is now calm and the weather grand / Where is the Minnow upon this sand?
What happens now will bring you a smile
The adventures of….. Gilligan
And the Skipper….
And the Millionaire…
And Mrs. Millionaire…
And the other tourists on Gilligan’s Isle!
Just like before, we’re back to ‘the other tourists”. We definitely knew who the stars were supposed to be.
On an unrelated, but still trivia-worthy note, if you look closely in the background during this scene, you can see a flag flying lower than usual. The filming for this episode ended on November 23, 1963, the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, so the harbor was filled with flags at half-mast. Producers had to get creative with some shots to avoid them.
If you’ve stuck around this long, you are in for a great bit of trivia.
This Calypso version of the song was written by a young man who only had a few music credits to his name. He did work on The Time Tunnel and Lost In Space. He had worked with Henry Mancini on a number of shows. He even played the famous opening riff for the Peter Gunn theme song.
Johnny Williams slowly moved his way into feature films until finding massive success in the next decade. Trimming his first name to John, Williams has been responsible for some of the industry’s greatest film scores, including Jaws, Superman, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
What are some of your favorite theme songs that have changed since the beginning? Let me know in the comments!