Once in a while my editors at Variety will commission an essay on a topic of current interest. They asked for two in December, and I found both fascinating: A long piece looking at the progress, or lack thereof, that women composers have been making in film and TV music; and a second, somewhat lighter in tone, about the current popularity of television themes — mostly on the streaming services — and how they seem to be more memorable lately.
You never know when an old colleague will reach out and ask about something within your particular area of expertise. I’ve known TV critic David Bianculli for many years, ages ago at the New York Daily News and now as frequent host of NPR’s Fresh Air and editor-in-chief of TVWorthWatching.com. I have enormous respect for him, and when he called a while back to talk about the theme for TV’s Twilight Zone, I had no idea that it would wind up as part of his tribute to television themes in the current TV Guide. But I am delighted, and it’s the first time (in over 30 years of writing about TV) that I’ve been quoted in that venerable publication.
Variety posed an interesting question: If you’re remaking a classic TV series, what role — if any — does the musical theme of that series play? Should you remind the audience of the series’ origins via its music? Is it key to a marketing plan? If the theme is not iconic, should it be jettisoned altogether in favor of a new musical approach? With The Man From U.N.C.L.E. having just opened, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation still playing strongly, and The Peanuts Movie on the horizon, I talked to the composers of all three films (Daniel Pemberton, Joe Kraemer, Christophe Beck, respectively) about the importance of music from the small-screen originals.
CNN’s documentary series The Sixties was a good excuse for humorist Jeanne Moos to do a fun piece about why those ’60s TV themes still resonate with us after all these years. I was happy to contribute (via Skype, interestingly enough). And it was a good reminder to get my first book back into print (or at least e-book form), which we’re working on now.
Earle Hagen, who composed the iconic themes for The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Spy and many other TV classics, died at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. I knew Earle well and I loved the guy. We first met when I was writing my first book, on TV themes; he allowed me to audit his BMI film-scoring class; and I consulted on the writing of his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of. Here is the obituary I wrote for Variety; here‘s a longer appreciation I created for The Film Music Society; and here is the five-hour interview we did together in 1997 for the Archive of American Television. I was glad to contribute a few quotes to the Los Angeles Times obit on Earle, too.
My first book was about TV themes, so it was a special honor for the Television Academy to invite me to participate in an evening celebrating that unique art form with some of its greatest practitioners. Earle Hagen (The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show) received a special award “for his pioneering work and enduring contributions,” and part of my job was interviewing Earle onstage, as well as longtime collaborators Mike Post and Steven Bochco about their work on shows like Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law. Vic Mizzy brought the house down with his amusing anecdotes about scoring The Addams Family and Green Acres. Here’s a story about the evening, and here’s a great BMI photo op with both Post and Hagen.
One of my favorite moments was when Robert Vaughn, introducing the spy-TV segment, was summoned to the podium by his old Man From U.N.C.L.E. pen communicator. Writer Arthur Greenwald, like me, was a great U.N.C.L.E. fan, and he supplied the prop; the audience loved the gag.
The TV Land cable channel produced a one-hour show on “TV’s Top 40 Theme Songs,” and I was enlisted as its resident historian (which basically meant that I talked about everything they couldn’t get a songwriter or actor to talk about). It was fun, though, and the show also boasted composers Charles Fox, Paul Williams, Lalo Schifrin, John Sebastian, Gary Portnoy, Charles Strouse, Vic Mizzy, Earle Hagen, Bobby Hart and Vonda Shepard. Producer/lyricist Sherwood Schwartz has a great line in the show: “More people knew the words and music to the Gilligan’s Island theme than knew the Star-Spangled Banner!”
Everybody loves TV themes — from the silly Mr. Ed and The Addams Family to the intense Mission: Impossible and Peter Gunn to the atmospheric Hill Street Blues and The X-Files. But few people know how this music is made, or the stories of the men and women who have worked tirelessly (and often anonymously) to create it.
This book offers the complete story of this important musical field, giving it the serious, and colorfully anecdotal, history it deserves. Divided into chapters on each genre — from “Crime to a Beat” detailing cop and detective shows, through Westerns, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, TV Drama, Sitcoms, Action-Adventure, News and Documentaries, Cartoons, and Movies and Miniseries — Burlingame provides the real stories of the composers who worked behind the scenes to create the memorable music we all love.
Among those who have written and performed for television series are many famous musicians — like jazz pianists Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, arranger-producer Quincy Jones, film music giant John Williams, Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, and classical composer Morton Gould. Illustrated throughout with rare photos of the composers at work, this is a fascinating story of how a new genre of musical artistry was created.
A few reviews:
“Here’s a book that combines lengthy and impressive research, and tons of interviews, with good old-fashioned, behind-the-scenes stories…. Everyone will find something fun here… sets the record straight while providing a very enjoyable read.” — David Bianculli, New York Daily News
“Impeccably researched… crammed with musical facts, footnotes, biographical data — but also, lucky for us tune-deaf types, tons of juicy anecdotes about the making of our favorite tunes.” — Diane Werts, Newsday
“A far richer, more intelligent book… Burlingame has had one of those so-obvious-it’s-clever ideas and did a ton of research to dig up anecdotes about the theme songs and background music that are the soundtrack to a TV watcher’s life.” — Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly
“A serious, professional and comprehensive history of the songs and music that accompanied virtually every major show from Mr. Ed to The X-Files…. a required addition to any serious film or television library.” — Kathleen O’Steen, Emmy magazine
“A landmark historical overview of prime-time TV music from its beginnings to present day… comprehensive, informative and interesting.” — Lukas Kendall, Film Score Monthly
“Thoughtful and well-researched… Burlingame deserves high points for all the work involved; he spent several years tracking down the history of the medium, interviewing producers and composers.” — Billboard