The Theme Song, Stories from the Road

Fall 2012


I was honored last May to be asked by ASCAP to join with several esteemed creators to participate in their 2012 installment of We Write the Songs. For the past four years, under the aegis of the ASCAP Foundation, a concert has been presented to members of Congress and their guests at the Library of Congress for the purpose of celebrating the joy of music and song and reaffirming the value that music and lyrics have to our society as a whole. Thankfully, as demonstrated by the number of supporters that we have on both sides of the aisle, our craft that is not shackled by political boundaries. This year’s participants ran the gamut of genres and styles including such favorites as Melanie and Ray Parker Jr. As well as my good friend, Stephen Schwartz, I was particularly privileged to stand next to Irving Burgie, the writer of Jamaica Farewell, as I had recorded two of his songs with the great calypsonian, Count Bernadino in the Bahamas a few years ago.

My mission was to demonstrate the work and thought process that goes into creating a piece that accompanies a specific visual rendering and sets the tone for a television program that may run as long as ten years. I thought that I would share with you, many who may writing their first theme, some of the points and anecdotes that I shared with the audience that night last May.

Unlike a traditional song, a theme song must get to the point, make it’s case and complete it’s thought in a short space of time; kind of like a three act play in the space of a minute. The two themes that I performed, Roseanne and Home Improvement were originally about that long, but unfortunately, my current theme to The Secret Life of the American Teenager is confined to a shorter duration. There was a moment when one network wanted to do away with theme songs all together, but what they learned was that it served a huge function and was well worth the short amount of time that it took away from advertising. It signaled to the guy in the kitchen that the show he wanted to watch was starting up in the family room. It adds a familiarity that is intangible and that identifies the program in a way that only music can.

In the case of Roseanne, the producer of the show came to me and my then partner, Howard Pearl and said, “guys there’s this new comedienne that’s going to do this domestic goddess routine,” and he told us a little about how Roseanne, John Goodman and the kids were going to interact. There was nothing to suggest that this was going to be the hit show that it would become. What we came back with couldn’t have been more off base. It was this kind of electronic dance piece with lots of synthesizers. Matt Williams the creator told us in as gentle way that he could, that this really wasn’t going to cut it; it was too slick and didn’t have any of the earthy elements that were needed to introduce these rural characters. Well, knowing that the job was on the line, we did our best to get inside the soul of the show over the next couple of weeks. We added a harmonica, a dirty sax performed by Gary Herbig and took the producers to the most rocked out studio that we could find, a place called Sound City. Dylan and the Band had recorded there and it was imbued in rock n’ roll residue that gave it the authenticity that we were looking. I didn’t shave for a couple of days, wore an old tee shirt and took my most beaten up guitar into those worn walls, snuggled into an industrial park in Van Nuys. Well, the musicians and I started playing and looping the piece around and a short while later when we came into the recording booth, the response was immediate, “now that’s more like it!” I’ve been happy that Roseanne has seen the longevity it has, since its premier almost twenty-five years ago.

Home Improvement came around a few years later. Once again, Matt Williams was the creator and this time he took me with him to the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles so I could actually see this other comedian work in front of a crowd. Tim Allen was without a doubt, the funniest guy I had ever seen. He kept doing these cavemen grunts and it became apparent that night how I wanted to score him. I had recently been to the Red Earth festival in Oklahoma and witnessed all of these tribal drumming routines where ten or twelve Native Americans would sit in a circle and hit these big drums, and I knew that channeling the essence of that texture was the underpinning that would make it all work. Tim played the host of a tool show, though at home he was absolutely incompetent in any kind of home repairs—much like myself–but he wanted More Power! So with these ingredients in hand: tool sounds (I probably incorporated twenty different ones), lots of drums and percussion, a power guitar lead featuring Laurence Juber, with a flute representing Tim’s wife Jill’s feminine touch and finally Tim’s grunt, I put the whole package together and in this case was successful the first time out. I remember that we recorded this in Evergreen; a studio owned by one of the greatest theme writers of all, our SCL Ambassador, Charles Fox.

I’ve volunteered to judge in the Emmys the last two years, and am happy to say that the theme song is alive and well and thanks to the advocacy of past SCL president, Ray Colcord, it is still being duly recognized. There is some excellent work being done out there, much of it by our SCL membership. Our first SCL Ambassador, Earle Hagen was one of the pioneers of the theme song, and I know that his vision has a lot to do with the fact that we’re still watching most of the shows he was associated with, such as the Andy Griffith Show. Undoubtedly, with the intense competition among programmers there will always be a move to shorten the time it takes to get from one program to another, but the theme song sets the stage and introduces the program in a way that only our craft can.

Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXVII, Number Three, Fall 2012]