Q: A few days ago, I was listening to a satellite radio station that played only music from the ‘60s. One of the songs I heard was the theme from the original TV series “Hawaii Five-O.” Hence, my question: How many and what TV theme songs have made the pop charts? Which was the biggest hit? How about movies?
F.H., of Edwardsville
A: If metro-east residents are looking for another reason to thrust out their chests with pride, here’s one I’ll bet nobody realized: The first TV theme song to hit No. 1 on a Billboard chart has a Belleville connection.
Can you guess what it is? Well, if that first clue was too vague, this opening lyric should be a dead giveaway: “Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed...”
That’s right, in the fall of 1962, Belleville native Buddy Ebsen loaded up his truck and headed west to start a nine-season run on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” And hitting pay dirt along with Jed and all his kin was the show’s producer, Paul Henning, who wrote and composed, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” It spent 20 weeks on the Billboard country singles chart — including three weeks at No. 1. It would take another 14 years before another TV theme would top any chart.
Those with keen musical ears, however, knew there was a difference between what they heard on TV and the strains coming out of their car radio. The television version of the Hillbillies theme featured Jerry Scoggins as the singer, backed by the dynamic bluegrass duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. But when the song was released as a single, Flatt took over as vocalist.
With its three-week stay in the catbird’s seat, it is still the theme that has remained in a top spot the longest, which some (especially country fans) might argue makes it the most successful of all time. However, it peaked at a lowly No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100, which seems to be the standard songs are measured against, so the “biggest hit theme” may be one that most people never heard — at least, while it was on TV. During the fall of 1992, a Fox musical drama series called “The Heights” ran for just 12 episodes. But the fictional band on which it was based (The Heights) soared to No. 1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks with the show’s eventual theme song, “How Do You Talk to an Angel?”
It’s the only one of the four top Hot 100 themes that lasted more than a week at the top. In fact, it took 21 years after the unofficial start of the rock ’n’ roll era on July 9, 1955, for a TV theme to claw its way to the summit. The story started on Feb. 24, 1975, when Steve Forrest debuted as the commanding officer of a Special Weapons and Tactics squad — better known as “S.W.A.T.” on ABC.
Several months later, the 6-year-old son of record producer Steve Barri reportedly asked his dad whether there was a record of the show’s theme song, which the boy loved. Why, no, there wasn’t, but Barri, who had written the No. 1 “Eve of Destruction” for Barry McGuire in 1965, quickly turned his son’s frown into a smile. Using a group of studio musicians he would call Rhythm Heritage, Barri cut a dance version of the “S.W.A.T.” that had the country grooving as it soared to No. 1 exactly one year after the show debuted.
Ironically, it would take only 10 weeks until the next TV theme would top the charts. When producer Alan Sachs was putting together “Welcome Back, Kotter,” he mentioned to his agent that he’d like a theme song written in the style of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian. Before you could say “Summer in the City,” Sebastian whipped out “Welcome Back” for the show’s sweathogs and eventually the song rose to No. 1 on May 8, 1976.
Since then, however, only one other song has made it to the peak of the Hot 100. In 1985, Jan Hammer enjoyed the spotlight for one week with his “Miami Vice Theme.” Like “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme to “The Dukes of Hazzard (Good Ol’ Boys)” featuring Waylon Jennings also hit the top spot of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart, but peaked at No. 21 on the Hot 100 (although it was Jennings’ best effort on the mainstream chart). In addition, the Rembrandts’ version of the “Friends” theme made the top spot on the Hot 100 Airplay chart for eight weeks, but stalled at No. 17 on the Hot 100.
There are, of course, dozens of other themes that have charted over the past 62 years. Space precludes me from listing them all, but here are some of my favorites, along with their peak rankings on the Hot 100. See how many you remember:
▪ No. 2: Joey Scarbury’s “Believe It or Not” from “The Greatest American Hero”
▪ No. 3: Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man”
▪ No. 4: “Hawaii Five-O”; 5. “Happy Days”
▪ No. 8: “Peter Gunn” and “Bad Boys” from “Cops”
▪ No. 10: “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight” from “Dr. Kildare,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “The Rockford Files”
▪ No. 17: “Batman”
▪ No. 19: “Bonanza”
▪ No. 20. “Baretta”
▪ No. 23: “Moonlighting”
▪ No. 25: “Laverne & Shirley” and “Magnum, P.I.”
▪ No. 41: Lalo Schrifin’s unforgettable “Mission: Impossible”
Others did well on the Adult Contemporary list, including:
▪ No. 15: “St. Elsewhere”
▪ No. 28: “Cheers (Where Everybody Knows Your Name)”
▪ No. 29: “WKRP”
▪ No. 30: “All in the Family”
▪ No. 37. “Love Boat”
And still others found success on even narrower niches including No. 27 “Smallville” on Alternative Songs and No. 16 “Ally McBeal” on Radio Songs.
You can find a list of at least 50 by searching Google for TV theme songs that made Billboard charts. If you miss the golden age of TV themes as I do, buy the seven-CD set of “TV’s Greatest Hits,” on which you’ll literally find hundreds.
On Friday, I’ll talk about No. 1 movie themes, which are a dime a dozen.
Name the only James Bond movie themes to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart. What two other 007 themes fizzled out at No. 2?
Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer