Variation on a Theme: Al Jarreau, “Moonlighting [Theme]” (1987)

Written by Music

The theme to Moonlighting (1985-1989) was one of those great TV theme songs that was able to set the mood for the program that followed it. In just under a minute, the combination of the smooth arrangement, Al Jarreau’s even smoother vocals, and the very simple lyrics painted a quick but encompassing picture of the show’s basic premise: a combination of style meets intrigue, where a former fashion model, Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd), “moonlighted” as a private investigator in order to get back on her feet and ended up in a complex relationship with her business partner, David Addison (Bruce Willis), all with the supergloss of 1980s Los Angeles as the backdrop. The theme song fit the vocalist, the show, and the era perfectly.

However, I’m not here to talk about the broadcast version of the theme song, or the appeal of the show in its early years. I come here not to praise Moonlighting but to bury it.

In the fall of ’87, the year Moonlighting‘s soundtrack album came out, the show was beginning its fourth season. It had already “jumped the shark” during its third: (1) the cast did an abbreviated version of The Taming of the Shrew with iambic pentameter and anachronistic references (??); (2) “the show behind the show” — the characters, if you recall, knew they were on TV — was “investigated” by real-life gossip columnist Rona Barrett (??????); and (3) the interplay of David and Maddie was screwed up forever by having them sleep together in the season’s penultimate episode (pfffffft!!!). Plus, there was all the real-life stupidity behind the scenes mucking things up — contract demands, diva-like behavior, and a general seething antagonism that existed between Shepherd and Willis.

The three-minute single version of the Moonlighting theme fits well with both the show, circa 1987, and the soundtrack album: all three are way more bloated than their running times should’ve allowed. While the show had descended into a painful combination of bad scripts and self-satisfied mugging, the soundtrack clocks in at only 32 minutes but feels a lot longer than that — besides the elongation of the theme song, there are oldies like Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock,” standards such as Billie Holiday’s version of “Stormy Weather” and Linda Ronstadt singing “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and Bob James, David Sanborn, and our man Al’s ’80s update of “Since I Fell for You,” but what really bogs down the proceedings are Bruce Willis’s cover of the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” and Cybill Shepherd’s renditions of “Blue Moon” and “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out!”

That’s right — once again an actor’s inability to sing can’t compete with the combined forces of narcissism and star power. Amazingly, there were enough people still watching Moonlighting in ’87 who also wanted to get their hands on official show “product” that the soundtrack peaked at a not-too-bad #50 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.

As for the single version of the theme song, which was produced by Nile Rodgers, let me say this right off the bat: Al does a good job with what he has. He’s easily the best thing about it, although I don’t think he can get off scot-free, as he chooses to vamp into the first verse instead of just waiting until the verse to begin singing, which is how the 1985 version went. So we get a bit of quiet-storm scatting, followed by Al crooning the words “Don’t you change.”

Huh? Who are you talking to, Al? Did I just walk into the middle of a smooth conversation? I understand that you’re riffing on the first-verse line “Nothing could change you,” but it seems especially odd to preface that line with a plea not to change. Doesn’t the first-verse line make the pre-verse line moot? I mean … oh, forget it.

Next we have the first verse, which is the same as it’s always been. (When Al said “Don’t you change,” maybe he was giving a direct order to this verse.) However, “Moonlighting [Theme]” then runs into the problem that many a TV theme song has had when a writer tries to stretch it into a longer, radio-ready piece: while the broadcast version went straight to the bridge, a second verse is added here. And it’s … well …

Charming and bright
Laughing and gay
I’m just a stranger
Love the blues and the braves

Okay, look, Mr. Theme Music Script Doctor Guy, I know that Al Jarreau sounds a little like he could be singing through a megaphone while wearing a raccoon coat, but this is 1987, not 1927 — pop songs usually don’t refer to people as “charming and bright,” and they certainly don’t refer to people as “laughing and gay,” unless they’re tribute songs about Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Well, I’m done talking about the lyrics, which, as it turns out, were written by Al, so I guess that makes him Mr. Theme Music Script Doctor Guy. (He wears many hats.) The rest of the added verses are really just a riff on the second and last verse of the original, shorter theme song.

But I can’t wrap this up without talking about the second “bridge,” otherwise known as the smooth sax solo! Straight out of the Kenny G playbook, this baby treads the line between … well, you tell me — it’s not quite jazz, not quite pop. In fact, the way it’s mixed, it’s not quite a saxophone. But whatever it is, it dominates the second half of the song, even trying to butt in on Al’s vocals in the final verses. It makes you want to ask someone to put a dollar in the guy’s case in the hopes that that’ll shut him up for a while.

“Moonlighting [Theme]” was a #1 hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart (Jarreau’s only #1 on any Billboard chart ever), made it to #23 on the Hot 100 (his last appearance there to date), and even made it to #32 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. So, in the end, good for Al.