The Lone Ranger (1949)
The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini (composer)
No one can avoid that rush of adrenaline when they hear a majestic tune. For pre-adolescent boys in the 50s, the tune was the Theme of the Lone Ranger and it was like sugar to a honeybee.
God forbid that you should tell them the piece was actually a well-respected part of the classical music canon. Since quite a lot of the Classical Canon was used in the Lone Ranger, one might assume that the creators of the series were classical music fans but the truth is far more practical. All the music used was in the public domain and simply helped keep down production costs.
Peter Gunn (1958)
Peter Gunn Theme by Henry Mancini (composer)
Here’s a hard charging piece of music with a distinctive and utterly unforgettable bass line. Peter Gunn, musically and stylistically made quite an impression on the youth of 1950s America. While the song was popular, the series was an incredible hit with teens; so much so that, to the bewilderment of mothers everywhere, wisp-like mustaches became all the rage.\
Theme from Bonanza by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
“I got a right to pick a little fight, Bonanza…”
That’s right! Believe it or not, this iconic instrumental, TV theme song has actual lyrics. The song with lyrics was actually recorded to end the pilot episode in 1959. Ben, Adam, Big Hoss and Little Joe all sing their respective parts. It is still available on YouTube. A single viewing will help you fully understand the producers’ decision to never allow the clip from this classic Western to never be shown on TV. Still, while the instrumental version was a Sunday night staple for a generation of TV watchers, the “sung” version is unbeatable.
The Twilight Zone (1959)
Theme from The Twilight Zone by Marius Constant (composer)
An avant garde composer even before the term became fashionable, M. Constant wrote ballets, tone poems and, almost as an afterthought, television soundtracks of which The Twilight Zone theme is, by far, the most memorable. The theme, in its original form, is so iconic and ahead of its time that even a band as talented as the Grateful Dead failed miserably failed in their efforts to improve upon it.
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Beverly Hillbillies (1962)
The Ballad of Jed Clampett by Jerry Scoggins with Flatt & Scruggs (performers)
With two legendary bluegrass musicians as backup, this theme tells the story of a simple man, Jed Clampett, who strikes it rich. The song is a masterwork of understated singing combined with elegant banjo, mandolin and guitar playing that one rarely hears in th etheme song of a situation comedy.
And in case you think that talent goes out of style, that is
the same Mr. Scoggins singing in the movie remake 20 years later.
Secret Agent (1964)
Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers (performer)
With that swinging beat, a “devil may care” attitude and some of the most jaded lyrics of all-time, Johnny Rivers brought this spy character to life for most American teens in the 1960s. In fact, as the TV character, Patrick McGoohan’s elegant stylings were a little too understated for U.S. tastes and the show never really took off but Mr. River’s song went to #3 on the Billboard charts.
Hogan's Heroes (1965)
Theme from Hogan’s Heroes by Jerry Fielding (composer)
The theme song to this controversial “war comedy” march is simultaneously martial and humorous. The drums add the appropriate seriousness while the other instruments add a lightness and frivolity that would otherwise be out of place in any other war movie
. The composer himself embodied the dichotomy of the series too as he was a Jew with the name ironic nickname of Jerry.
The Green Hornet (1966)
The Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (composer)
Was anything cooler or more “boss” than the sight of the Black Beauty as it turned a corner, screeched to a stop while Kato and Britt Reid sprang from the car? Even the music was intense and adrenaline inducing. Rimsky-Korsakov, himself, could have imagined neither better staging nor implementation. The song is pure genius from composition to execution.
Mission Impossible (1966)
Mission Impossible Theme by Lalo Schifrin (composer)
With its pounding bass beat and high pitched flute, this theme song was perfectly suited to ramp up the excitement as the on-screen fuse burned across the screen. Lalo Schifrin was a classically trained pianist and violinist with a serious bent towards jazz. He also conducted several orchestra and ensembles and understood, far better than most television theme composers, the power of a well-scored song.
Hawaii Five-O (1968)
Theme from Hawaii Five-O by Morton Stevens (composer)
The driving beat of the opening drums, the staccato horns and even the tinny piano were performed by the traditionally trained members of the in-house CBS Orchestra and not The Ventures as many mistakably assume. The confusion is understandable as The Ventures’ version did eventually go to #3 on the Billboard charts. Still, the original version, performed mostly by a bunch of guys who were then in their 40s, is one of the most recognizable theme songs of all time.
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969)
Best Friend by Harry Nilsson (performer)
When not creating some of the most original music of the 1960s and 70s, Harry Nilsson brought his considerable talents to the small screen and wrote and performed one of the most lovable theme songs of all time. Ever eccentric, Nilsson did not release the very popular song as a single and it only showed up on an anthology in 1995.
A Final Note on What Else but Star Trek
Star Trek Theme by ALexander Courage (composer)
Since it’s almost inevitable that I will hear from some Trekkie – No, I did not forget about Alexander Courage’s somewhat slapdash composition. I am a huge fan of Star Trek: TOS but in my mind, the execrable, instrumental version of the theme would actually be improved if William Shatner sang the lyrics – and we all know what that means.
For a truly great soprano solo in a sci-fi setting, check out the scene with the opera singer, Diva Plavalaguna (Maïwenn Le Besco), in the Fifth Element. It’s a truly stunning performance.
In case any of you doubt my veracity, have a look at this...