So the boys were around and talking as we are wont to do. Somehow through the bizarre maze of conversation that defines our talks, we ended up with television show theme songs. Or, more to the point, that shows don't have theme songs anymore. They barely have intros. They just plop down and start. The boys suggested that might be due to the encroachment of advertisements and commercials. With so little time left for broadcasting, something had to go.
In any event, they said for them there aren't any 'theme's' that come to mind when they think of growing up. Not like my wife and me. Not like the shows they've grown up watching from our time, when they actually associate the Andy Griffith theme or Hogan's Heroes with their childhood more than any shows that came out in their younger years.
That made me think. They're right. There are themes to shows that I never watched, and yet as soon as I hear a few notes of the snogs, I immediately recall another world and another time in my life. In fact, I decided to go through and grab a handful of the more memorable TV theme songs and was struck by how few were attached to shows I actually watched (back then there was too much important fun to have to waste time sitting in front of a television). Here is the list that leaped out at me. It's by no means comprehensive, but I doubt most of them are unknown to most Americans.
What can I say? This was a favorite show for me as a kiddo (along with the older show Combat!). Most of my friends knew of it, but I don't think there was a bigger fan than me. The opening theme is famous, and despite the many decades of scorn and condemnation aimed at this show, most people hearing the song immediately know its origins. FWIW, Bob Crane, no mean drummer in his own right, played the famous drum cadence for the opening theme. He also scored and performed the various cadences heard throughout the episodes.
If ever a theme song matched the show, it's this. The picture of Andy Griffith strolling with a young Ron Howard has been copied and recopied a million times over the years. Griffith, himself a musician of no small ability, seems right at home with the nonchalant whistling that replaces the song's lyrics. I wouldn't say this is the best, greatest, or most influential theme. It's just the theme of all the themes that couldn't be replaced.
I Love Lucy
The show that started it all. I Love Lucy set the standard and, in its own way, was one of the biggest monster hits in the history of television. Lucy is the face of the show, but it was Desi who was, in many ways, the creative brains behind the show and the visionary who helped establish how television shows would be filmed and produced. It shouldn't be a surprise, therefore, that adding an opening (and iconic) theme paved the way for every television show for the next forty years. And yes, it was performed by Desi's own orchestra.
Dukes of Hazzard
You won't find this on many streaming services, owing to our open mindedness and tolerance. But was there ever better delivery of a made for television theme than this? Waylon Jennings nailed it on every level. It's a narrative song, basically setting the backdrop for the modern adventures of the Duke boys.
The Beverly Hillbillies
I was never a fan of the show. I saw it in reruns growing up, but only paid scant attention. Nonetheless, you can't beat the theme song. Especially praiseworthy is the opening versus, with such a droll delivery you can't help but smile when you think of black gold, Texas tea. Admit it, if anyone says oil, how often does that come to your mind?
Welcome Back Kotter
The most successful of all TV themes ever. There were other themes that made it onto the Billboard charts. But this was by far the most successful. Written and performed by John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful and released under the abbreviated title "Welcome Back", it was a mega hit in 1976. Other themes did well as releases - I'm thinking the them from S.W.A.T. - but none matched Sebastian's tune that I'm aware of:
Lavern and Shirley
Speaking of hit theme songs making the charts, this was another one from that crazy summer of '76. A spinoff from the show Happy Days, Lavern and Shirley's opening theme, Making Our Dreams Come True, was also released as a single. It was performed by Cyndi Grecco. If her name doesn't ring a bell, don't worry. I had to look it up. Truth be told, I always favored this song over others. I was always a bit nostalgic for the world my much older sister grew up in, and this song combined a strange sense of nostalgia and optimism. That's probably why I liked it then, and still do today.
Simon and Simon
Ah, poor S&S. In a decade where many one hour shows became mega-hits, Simon and Simon was always the bridesmaid. Its first season almost tanked the show. Happily, execs decided to move the time slot and link the show to that 1980s uber-hit Magnum P.I. Though it was successful (it ran as long as Magnum), it never came close to the monster ratings of Magnum. Nonetheless, whatever Magnum had that S&S didn't (most likely a weekly dose of Tom Selleck running around shirtless), its theme was cooler in every way. Magnum's theme may have had that upbeat 80s feel, but S&S oozed with cool and swagger.
All in the Family
In terms of iconic television theme songs, I'm at a loss to think of one that passes this. All in the Family didn't last as long as you'd think. But it changed television - for good or ill - forever. Conner and Stapleton do perform the song, and it was a song with lyrics that should have told the American audience that Americana was about to get a big finger in its eye. Still, whatever we could say about the show, Those Were the Days is a song that can't be missed as soon as you hear the first words.
Hill Street Blues (Chariots of fire of TV themes)
For aspiring piano players everywhere in the early 80s, there was no movie theme that captured their aspirations more than Vangelis' theme to Chariots of Fire. If movie themes weren't their cup of tea, however, on the television front this theme was a fine substitute. I can't remember how many students who played the piano sitting in the school's music room and plucking their way through this. Most of the song is orchestration, but those first gentle pinna notes that lead into the theme couldn't be missed. As soon as you played it, everyone in the room got the reference.
Hawaii Five-0 - the champ
The songs on this list are subjective, and I'll freely admit others might think of theme songs I've ignored. But I'll defy anyone who suggests the theme to Hawaii Five-O isn't one of the most awesome - if not the most awesome - television theme song ever. Every high school band in the history of high school bands made sure this was played at least once each year. And when the band director brought it out of the music room, everyone cheered. Especially the low brass sections (in which I played).
Special Mention: Gilligan's Island
I know. This song? Yeah, this one. Let's face it, who doesn't know it, and who hasn't heard it referenced at least a thousand times over the years. Just a couple weeks ago someone said 'no telephones', and it was immediately followed by 'no lights, no motorcars! Not a single luxury!'. And that was a group of mixed age individuals. A tale of a fateful trip, a three hour tour, All of these can be said and the bulk in any room will know the reference. In terms of cultural impact, you can't do much better.