The art of the TV theme song is a lost one these days. After all, why waste 90 seconds playing music at the beginning of a show when you can just cram in an extra commercial break? But there was a time, my friends, when it seems as much care was put into crafting a memorable theme song as was put into writing the show itself. Sometimes even more.
So let’s pause for just a moment — not for a word from our sponsors — and remember the golden age of television theme songs. I couldn’t give you an exact date range for this so-called golden age, but do know that the 1970s had an embarrassment of theme song riches. I now offer my selection of the ten best.
CHiPs (John Parker)
There are a few different flavors of CHiPs to consider. The theme for the first season was sort of a hazy mariachi tune, and the one used afterward (arranged by Alan Silvestri) I refer to as “Disco CHiPs.” Far be it from me to take sides as to which one is better, but yeah, I’m totally taking sides.
This song is a thing of a beauty, and shines like Erik Estrada’s teeth. It’s bold, brassy, and has some killer flanged synth.
Barney Miller (Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson)
Admit it, you’re singing that bass line and making the finger motions right now, aren’t you? Of course you are, and for good reason. This grimy slice of funk was reworked several times over the course Barney Miller’s run, but always that bass line — played by prolific studio jazz musician Chuck Berghofer — is there, as dirty as New York City in the ’70s.
The Rockford Files (Mike Post and Pete Carpenter)
Hmm, Mike Post… now where have I heard that name before in relation to TV theme songs? I’m sure it will come up again when I cover the best themes of the ’80s. But until then, let’s enjoy this kicky, slightly countrified number featuring some lovely period synthesizers. And let’s also not forget that the song was also a legitimate hit, reaching #10 on the Billboard singles chart in the summer of 1975.
Sanford and Son (Quincy Jones)
Quincy Jones has been many things in his long, illustrious career. Jazz composer and bandleader, producer of hit records, and Grammy Legend. But let’s not forget one of his most awesome contributions to popular culture: the opening theme to the classic Redd Foxx sitcom Sanford and Son, aka “The Streetbeater.”
What’s Happening!! (Henry Mancini)
I defy you to name another composer who was able to produce two themes as different and yet as equally awesome as Henry Mancini, who composed “The Pink Panther Theme” and this. It can’t be done.
WKRP in Cincinnati (Tom Wells and Hugh Wilson)
This being a list about the ’70s and all, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one bit of Yacht Rock. And this is about smooth as it gets for shows from that decade. A full-length version of the original theme — as performed by Steve Carlisle — was released in 1981. It peaked at #65 on the Top 100 chart that year and at #29 on the Adult Contemporary chart in early ’82.
The Dukes of Hazzard (Waylon Jennings)
Even people who hate country music love this song, and for good reason. It’s one of Waylon Jennings’ most tuneful arrangements, and is a ton of fun to sing along to. But I suppose I’m biased, since I think Waylon kicks ass anyway. It also just so happened that “Theme from The Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol’ Boys)” became the Outlaw legend’s 12th #1 country hit, as well as nearly cracking the Top 20 of the Hot Singles chart.
The Jeffersons (Ja’net Dubois and Jeff Barry)
I’m a sucker for good old fashioned gospel, so I just had to include this rafter-shaking theme, which was sung by co-writer Ja’net Dubois with a gospel choir. If this doesn’t get you out of your seat and ready to watch George Jefferson lay into someone, nothing will.
M*A*S*H (Johnny Mandel)
This one does double duty as the theme to the original M*A*S*H movie and the long-running series. I’m only bothering with the TV version, which forgoes the rather bleak lyrics written by Mike Altman. Still, the theme’s sense of beautiful melancholy is powerful even as an instrumental.
Taxi (Bob James)
I used to make a point of cuing up this fantastic theme every time I crossed a New York bridge — which was usually the Tappan Zee. Good thing I didn’t commute into the city daily or that shit would’ve gotten really old really fast. But yeah, this song is great and could only have been chosen as a theme during the ’70s. It’s so very soft, smooth, and melancholy.