From around 1940 to the late 1950s, a genre of film grew out of German expressionism called film noir. These films, shot in black & white, were most often crime dramas. What was striking about them was their photographic style and character presentation. Among these features were sharp contrasts between light and dark; copious amounts of shadows and silhouettes; dark figures shrouded in street fog or cigarette smoke; dangerous damsels in distress; private detectives with as much swagger as investigative power and, ultimately, due to the movie Production Code, criminals who would always face their comeuppance.
Once TV really started getting its footing with regular programming in the 1950s, crime dramas became popular subjects. Three music genres were vying for attention from the public at the time: country, jazz and rock. Since many of the TV show theme composers turned to film noir for inspiration — and several had scored these types of films — aspects of jazz became the calling card for TV show opening songs. From Big Band to blues, bebop to Latin jazz, a new generation was planting its musical flag in the new medium of television.
While scenes were shot visibly lighter for better viewing on small black & white TV screens, the jazzy theme songs of these shows help set the mood. Since the 1930s, film scores were predominantly orchestral in nature, and early TV show themes followed suit. String sections were the lead instruments in most of them. A case in point is the theme from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-66; listen to it in a YouTube video by clicking here.) This opening song sounds like a waltz, or a score of a film from decades earlier.
The theme from Dragnet could very well have been the opening salvo in the change in TV show themes. Walter Schumann wrote the now famous da-da-dum-dum horn theme for the Dragnet radio show in 1949. When the show made its way onto TV in 1951, the theme came with it.
Contrast that and the 1950s crime dramas of Perry Mason (1957-66) and Peter Gunn (1958-64) with the earlier string sounds of Ozzie & Harriet. Though the Perry Mason opening begins with strings, there is a darker, more ominous sound. The strings quickly give way to piano, use of percussion, staccato rhythms, and most notably, trumpets and saxophones. The music in one short clip portrays the title’s character as a hard-boiled criminal defense lawyer who means business. The orchestra has been replaced by an ensemble, and one that sounds as if it were playing in a smoke-filled night club in not the best area of town. The show’s now classic theme song had a name: Park Avenue Beat, and it was composed by Fred Steiner.
Mr. Steiner’s TV music credits include a long list of jazzy TV show music of the 1950s and ’60s. He composed the theme music for The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-64), and also wrote music for dozens of other programs, including Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Have Gun, Will Travel, Rawhide, Hogan’s Heroes and more. In each case, Mr. Steiner’s songs feature horns a-plenty, whether they elicit the fun, mischievous nature of a cartoon or are the serious backdrop to a fight scene, in court or on the street.
The theme from Peter Gunn may very well be one of the most recognized TV show themes of all time. It was crafted by none other than Henry Mancini. It exudes a sexy, urban sense that echoes the title’s sophisticated private detective.
Mancini had previously scored dozens of now-classic movies, including The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), Touch of Evil (1958), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and more. Mancini went on to win numerous awards for his film scores. Other than his theme for Peter Gunn, his song for the Pink Panther movies (1963) is probably in the top ten of recognized jazzy theme songs … ever.
Mister Boomer did actually pay attention to the TV theme songs, and had many favorites. Here are just a few with notable jazz theme songs:
77 Sunset Strip (1958-64)
The song, written by Jerry Livingston and Mack David, has a very Big Band feel. Mister B and his father loved the show, too. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
Surfside 6 (1960-62)
Spin-offs are nothing new, as evidenced by Surfside 6. It was a spin-off of 77 Sunset Strip. Where Sunset was about detectives in Los Angeles, Surfside was based in Miami. Jerry Livingston and Mack David also wrote this theme, which also has a Big Band feel with horns and vocals. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
Route 66 (1960-64)
This theme was composed by Nelson Riddle, another famous name in American songwriting. It uses strings, but as rhythm rather than a lead; piano becomes the lead instrument, with guitar and trumpet. A true TV show jazz theme classic.
Top Cat (1961-62)
Hoyt Curtin wrote this horn-filled theme to the popular cartoon. Mister B has written that you can tell an early boomer from a later one by whether they watched Felix or Top Cat. (Which Cat Was the Coolest?) Mister B, as a mid-age boomer, watched both. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
The Saint (1962-69)
Another detective series, most boomers recall Roger Moore played the Simon Templar, the lead character. Edwin Astley wrote the theme in a slower temp when the show first aired in black & white. When it was broadcast in color, he reworked the theme in a faster tempo. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
The Jetsons (1962-63)
Certainly a cartoon that is among many boomers’ favorites, The Jetsons can also boast a great jazz theme opening, also written by Hoyt Curtin. Again, horns are front and center. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68)
Another in a series of spy thrillers spawned by the popularity of the James Bond movies, the theme from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was composed by Jerry Goldsmith. The song begins with a very military-style drum rhythm, then the horns come in. Goldsmith reworked the theme for each of the show’s four seasons, getting progressively quicker in tempo and all-around “jazzier” with each passing year. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
The Prisoner 1967-68
One of Mister B’s favorite programs of the era, Patrick McGoohan plays a retired spy who is kidnapped and forced to live in a town as a prisoner, along with its inhabitants. Ron Grainer composed the theme to elicit the same surreal nature of the show, combining bebop bongo sounds with an almost Burt Bacharach and Hal David-style horn section. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
Mister Boomer’s mom couldn’t get enough of Mike Connors as detective Joe Mannix. The theme song, with its horns and piano — composed by Lalo Schifrin — really frames the genre for the era. Schifrin is also known for the theme from Mission: Impossible (1966-73) and for many movies, including Dirty Harry. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
The Mod Squad (1968-73)
A cop show with the tag line, One black, one white, one blonde, The Mod Squad was among Mister B’s favorite shows, in no small part due to the presence of Peggy Lipton. The fast-paced theme seemed to illustrate not only the show’s storyline references to Hippie culture of the late 1960s, but reflected its influence in popular music with the addition of tambourine punctuating the jazzy horns. (Click for YouTube video of the theme.)
Of course, there were many, many others in the cop, detective and spy genre that used jazz as their music of choice, and still more sitcoms and cartoons, too. By the late sixties, though, the genre was fading. Though many Generation Xers may be nostalgic for a sing-along to the lyrics from The Facts of Life, can any of the themes from that era hold a candle to these exciting TV themes?
What’s your favorite TV show jazz theme, boomers?