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THE BEST SELLERS’ LIST- The Trendsetters: Ranking the best theme songs of 1950s & 60s television

By Thomas Sellers Jr.

The Lone Ranger

I think I am prepared to take on my greatest challenge of The Best Sellers’ List column.

When I ran an idea by my colleagues Carolyn Bahm and Graham Sweeney recently, they both started laughing. My plan was to write about my favorite 10 television theme songs of all time.

Carolyn quickly said, “Only 10?” Graham followed with, “Good luck with listing just 10. Maybe you should do genres or by the decade.”

They were right once again. So over the next few weeks The Best Sellers’ List will tackle the best TV theme songs from the 20th century. This week I’ll start with the 1950s & ’60s. Then the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s will get the individual treatment.

Instrumentals, singalongs, snippets to original compositions, television themes are a part of Americana. The invention of the TV shaped the 20th century more than the automobile or computer. The television had a good 50-year run as the top dog in communication and entertainment. So programs needed something to separate themselves from commercials, documentaries, movies and sporting events. The 1950s and ’60s got the musical ball rolling with tremendous momentum for sitcoms, dramas, cartoons, game shows and variety shows.

Before I send my little brother toward the TV to twist the nob to my favorite themes, here are my honorable mentions: “Bonanza,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Z Cars,” “The Dating Game,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Honeymooners,” “Green Acres,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Monkees,” “Leave it to Beaver,” “My Three Sons,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “The Flintsones,” “Perry Mason” and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

10. “The Addams Family”

Once you hear this theme, you’ll forget all about “The Munsters.” This iconic piece was written and arranged by Hollywood composer Vic Mizzy. Finger snaps you we can participate in the singing. Easy to remember lyrics. Ted Cassidy brought those to life, and the Mizzy theme even was released as a 45-rpm single. It failed to make the U.S. charts, but now it lives on through 1990s movies and reappearing in a commercial for M&Ms in 2007. Now end this passage with two snaps …

9. “The Carol Burnett Show ”

This landmark variety show hit the airwaves on Sept. 11, 1967. Beside an all-star cast featuring Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Vicki Lawrence, comedian and stage actress Carol Burnett had a decade run on CBS television. Many of the characters brought to life on the show are iconic and still make pop-culture references. But the theme is so under-appreciated. Joe Hamilton created a piece that can be played uptempo or smoothed out. It sounded like an award show theme wrapped in a blanket of laughter. For fans of the show, the tune personifies Burnett.

8. “Route 66”

Working with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and Judy Garland, you might know a little bit about music. Nelson Riddle’s composing career spanned from the 1940s to 1980s. And one of his best pieces was the television theme “Route 66.” It starts off with a fun, uptempo beat. Then it is quickly snatched by string instruments and horns. That guitar keeps you rocking to the beat from the drums. Then the orchestra style delivery embraces your ears and heart. Then your ears and heart take hands to the dance floor. Or you can image riding down Route 66 in a 1950s Bel-Air on a late September evening.

7. “Dragnet”

This is a quick and simple theme. Performed in big-band style, the instrumental theme from the radio and television show of the same name has lasting power. It was composed by Walter Schumann and sampled in hip-hop music countless times. The Dragnet theme has set the table for cops shows to follow over the years.

6. “Rawhide”

If you’re talking about 1950s and ’60s television, at least one Western theme is going to make the actually countdown. I love Bonanza ride-along tempo. “Gunsmoke” is the standard for TV Western themes. “The Rifleman” has the best visuals with the gun rapid firing and Chuck Connors breaking the fourth wall. But the best to me is the sing-along “Rawhide.” Written by Ned Washington and composed by Dimitri Tiomkin in 1958, this piece was originally recorded by Frankie Laine. The song was used as the theme to “Rawhide” for seven years on CBS. The 1980 film “The Blue Brothers” pumped a new life in the song. In later years, the song has been parodied in commercials. It keeps going-going-going.

5. “The Jetsons”

This cartoon series ran from Sept. 23, 1962, to March 17, 1963, before running in multiple runs in various formats. But in that short time back in the ’60s, there was the birth of an iconic theme.

During this era of television, several themes explained in detail the premises of the program. “The Jetsons” not only gave us a synopsis but explained each character in the futurist household. You can even hear “The Jetsons” theme in commercials today. And once you hear it, you will learn the lyrics. You won’t even be ashamed to sing it out loud in public. Composer Hoyt Curtin struck our eardrums for a lifetime.

4. “Beverly Hillbillies ”

Speaking of long-lasting themes that break down the show, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,

And then one day he was shootin’ at some food,

And up through the ground come a bubblin’ crude.

Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea …”

“The Ballad of Jed Clampett” was performed in the perfect Southern baritone of Lester Flatt. Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded the song that was composed by Paul Henning in bluegrass brilliance. For nine years on CBS this song was the perfect intro for each episode. Plus America has enjoyed singing the song and dancing along to the banjo.

3. “Bewitched” & “I Dream of Jeannie”

NBC and ABC wagged an unofficial war in the mid-1960s. Which network’s woman of mystic powers and wonders would win over U.S. Americans’ hearts? As of 2018, Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha of “Bewitched” and Barbara Eden’s Jeannie from “I Dream of Jeannie” have split the country in half in retrospect. They are both a part of American folklore in sitcom history. Assisting both women were their themes. Samantha had the ideal theme and intro for day one with the piece composed by Howard Greenfield. But Jeannie’s perfect pitch took a minute. Season one had music composed by Richard Wess. Then came the piece we know and love today by Hugo Montenegro and Buddy Kaye.

Both theme songs are enjoyable today and provided the perfect musical backdrop for Montgomery and Eden.

2. “The Twilight Zone”

Maybe the reason why CBS ruled the TV landscape decades ago was the composition department. The network did it once again with “The Twilight Zone” theme. The tune is synonymous with science-fiction, weirdness and creepy storytelling. The American anthology series was created and presented by Rod Serling. And the instrumental theme was brought to life by composers Bernard Herrmann, Marius Constant, Jerry Goldsmith, Fred Steiner, Leith Stevens, Leonard Rosenman and Franz Waxman. Still today when you think of the supernatural or psychological horror, the theme from “The Twilight Zone” is choice No. 1.

1. “The Lone Ranger” (“William Tell Overture”)

But the No. 1 choice for the 1950s and 60s is the “William Tell Overture,” aka “The Lone Ranger” theme. The main reason this is the best of this era is longevity. Gioachino Rossini composed this as part of his opera in 1829. Then the piece became famous as the theme music to “The Lone Ranger” television and radio shows.

When I hear the trumpet intro, I imagine myself as the masked Texas Ranger riding Silver. With my sidekick Tonto, I’m ready to save the day. If anyone wears the costume to a Halloween party, the song is a part of the outfit.

“The Lone Ranger” theme set the bar for the requirements of an iconic TV theme — sound recognition, catchy, memorable and sets the tempo for the program.

THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for Journal West 10 Media LLC. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to thomas.sellers@journalinc.com.

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