© 2021 By Allen B. Ury
in some ways, TV themes provided a soundtrack to our lives even more than rock & roll. Life-long TV fan, writer and raconteur Allen Ury picks 10 themes we guarantee you'll recognize instantly!
The Baby Boom Generation was also the first TV Generation. You could even say that the medium grew up right along with us. Statistically, the Baby Boom kicked off in 1946. Network TV broadcasting began in 1948. By the early 1950s, just when the first wave of Boomers was becoming cognizant, TV was ready to befriend us with such seminal – and kid-friendly -- programs as Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger and The Mickey Mouse Club. We shared our early childhood years with the Cleavers, the Andersons and Nelsons, entered our rebellious adolescence with the wild surrealism of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Outer Limits and Batman, and finally achieved young adulthood with the sophistication of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family and M*A*S*H.
All along this journey, TV theme songs and theme music provided the soundtrack to our lives. Elvis, the Beatles, or Petula Clark could dominate the charts for weeks at a time, but TV theme songs were there in our living rooms – and our heads – month after month, and sometimes even year after year – burrowing their way into our collective psyches like so many analog earworms. Just hearing a few notes of Dragnet’s portentous “Dum-dee-dum-dum” intro or the guitar slide that opened every weekly viewing of Bonanza is enough to instantly transport us back to our parents’ living room and put the misty glow of warm nostalgia in our weakening eyes.
Following are my Top 10 Best TV Themes for Baby Boomers. I selected them based on a variety of factors, including cultural impact, series length, simple memorability and pure musical excellence. Like all lists, this one is meant to be challenged. You no doubt have your favorites. But I think you’ll agree that these are all outstanding pieces of Baby Boom-era memorabilia.
- The Mickey Mouse Club March (from “The Mickey Mouse Club” [1955-1959]). If there is a TV theme song every member of the Baby Boom Generation can sing, this is the one. Just say “M-I-C-K-E-Y” to anyone over 45 – hell, say it to anyone over five – and the default response “M-O-U-S-E” is as reflexive as a kick following a tap to the patella with a rubber hammer. Written by show host Jimmy Dodd, it remains the Royal Rodent’s official theme song 60 years after its composition. Listen to it once and try to get the damn thing out of your head. Can’t be done.
- Park Avenue Beat (from “Perry Mason” [1957-1966]). One of America’s longest-running legal dramas, Perry Mason was nominated for nine Emmy Awards, won five (twice for series lead Raymond Burr for Best Actor) and, in 1961, won the TV Guide Award for Favorite TV series. In the jazz/noir category popular in the late 1950s, the race for Best TV theme basically comes down to Henry Mancini’s classic theme for Peter Gunn – best known for its unforgettable bass line – and this Fred Steiner composition, formally titled “Park Avenue Beat.” It’s simultaneously shrill, moody, bombastic and soothing, all the while conveying the aura of mystery that drove the series through nine seasons and 30 – yes 30 – made-for-TV movies.
- Theme from “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964). A full half-century after its cancellation, the term “Twilight Zone” remains synonymous with weird creepiness and shocking twist endings. It’s iconic “Dee-DEE-dee-dee,” theme by French avant-garde composer Marius Constant, which replaced Bernard Herrmann’s even darker intro music beginning in Season 2, remains an instantly recognizable response to anything strange, inexplicable or just plain bizarre. Whistle it after any Ann Coulter appearance on Fox News.
- Theme from “Rawhide” (1959-1966). Westerns dominated the TV landscape in the 10 years between 1955 and 1965, with the themes from Bonanza (composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) and Rawhide (composed by Oscar-winner Dimitri Tiomkin) perhaps the most memorable. In this contest, the win goes to Rawhide for its chart-topping single release by singer Frankie Laine in 1958, and for the equally unforgettable version sung by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in 1980s The Blues Brothers.
- The Fishin’ Hole (from “The Andy Griffith Show” [1960-1968]). Earle Hagen was one of the most prolific TV theme writers of the 1960s. He wrote classic themes for comedies (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., That Girl) as well as dramas (I Spy, Mod Squad). But perhaps his most famous theme was that for The Andy Griffith Show. Basically just a guitar, bass, snapping fingers and a buoyant whistle, the tune perfectly captured the simple, timeless innocence for which viewers visited the fictional burg of Mayberry, N.C. for eight full seasons.
Oh, and did you know the song had lyrics? Check out this rendition sung by none other than Sherriff Andy Taylor himself:
- The Ballad of Jed Clampett (from “The Beverly Hillbillies” [1962-1971]). In the early 1960s, warm family comedies like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver gave way to broad “high concept” comedies (a term not actually coined until 20 years later), basically “gimmick” shows based around some fanciful or fantastic conceit. Launched in 1958 with the success of CBS’s Ed (a talking horse!), these shows required a theme song to explain their unique premises to presumably ignorant first-time viewers week after week. The art form reached its zenith with The Ballad of Jed Clampett, a bluegrass-inspired ditty that made stars of its banjo-picking performers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who backed singer Jerry Scoggins in the weekly telling of how a penniless Ozark patriarch ended up moving his family to the land of “swimming pools/movie stars.” The song was written by writer/producer Doug Henning.
- Secret Agent Man (from "Danger Man/Secret Agent" [1964-1966]. Patrick McGoohan's intense, low-key answer to James Bond -- called "Danger Man" in its native U.K., the more generic "Secret Agent" in the U.S. -- arrived at the same time the British Invasion was sweeping across America's airwaves. This classic rock-and-roll theme, written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, was recorded by Johnny Rivers specifically for the show's North American incarnation and perfectly captures the swing and swagger of the Carnaby Street era. Topping out at #3 on Billboard's Pop chart, it's no doubt #1 on Austin Powers' personal play list.
- Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). Perhaps no theme of the entire Baby Boom era remains more distinctive – and iconic – than this pulsing, bass-heavy, brassy opener by Argentine-born composer Lalo Schifrin. Written in idiosyncratic 5/4 time (“I wrote it for spacemen with five legs,” Schifrin once explained), the theme has been parodied countless times and is still used by anyone wanting to imbue a scene with a sense of action, suspense and intrigue. Still featured in the modern “M:I” film franchise starring Tom Cruise, the music sounds as contemporary today as it did a half century ago. (Don’t even bother listening to the modern attempts to shoehorn the rhythms into conventional 4/4 time.)
- Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980). Any Top 10 list of TV themes is going to include this frenetic, horn-heavy celebration of pure energy by composer Mort Stevens. It starts out big and just grows from there. The song was a #4 Billboard hit for The Ventures in 1969, and remains a favorite with marching bands everywhere (especially in Hawaii!). When the series was revived in 2010, how many people do you think tuned into to see wooden Alex O’Loughlin play Steve McGarrett, versus how many watched just to hear the damned theme song!
- Theme from The Rockford Files (1974-1980). We're going to close our musical tour of Baby Boom Era TV themes with a show that debuted just one month after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. Starring the handsome and charming James Garner, who achieved TV stardom as the equally handsome and charming Brett Maverick two decades earlier, "The Rockford Files" featured a snazzy opener by Pete Carpenter and Mike Post, the latter of whom would go on who basically define TV theme music for the next two decades ("The A-Team," "L.A. Law," "Hill Street Blues," "Magnum P.I.", etc.).
Theme from "I Love Lucy" by Eliot Daniel
"Funeral March for a Marionette" from "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" by Charles Gounod
"Bandstand Boogie" from "American Bandstand" by Les Elgart
"Toy Parade" from "Leave It to Beaver" by David Kahn, Melvyn Leonard and Mort Greene
Theme from "Peter Gunn" by Henri Mancini
Theme from "77 Sunset Strip" by Mack David
Theme from "Bonanza" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
Theme from "The Flintstones" by Hoyt Curtin
Theme from "The Addams Family" by Vic Mizzy
Theme from "The Munsters" by Jack Marshall
Theme from "Gilligan's Island" by Sherwood Schwartz and George Wyle
Theme from "12 O'Clock High" by Dominic Frontiere
Theme of "Hogan's Heroes" by Jerry Fielding
Theme from "The Wild, Wild West" by Richard Markowitz
Theme from "The Green Hornet" by Billy May
Theme from "The Monkees" by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart
Theme from "Star Trek" by Alexander Courage
"Love is All Around" from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" by Sonny Curtis
"Suicide is Painless" from "M*A*S*H" by Johnny Mandel