'The Beverly Hillbillies' and other great storytelling TV themes
When bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs passed away this week, he left a gaping hole in entertainment circles beyond just music. His three-finger banjo picking was a trend-setter, and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was both a Grammy-winner and an all-time music classic. But to TV fans, Scruggs' entire career can be boiled down to one song: "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."
Scruggs played the banjo on the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies," one of the most famous TV theme songs ever, with the immortal opening line, "Come listen to my story 'bout a man named Jed..."
The song, sung by Jerry Scoggins, was released as a single that reached No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962.
Today such elaborate TV theme songs are practically nonexistent, but decades ago they were used to establish a mood for a show - and also provide a handy back story for new viewers.
In honor of the passing of Earl Scruggs, here's a brief look back at some of the most notable storytelling TV themes.
Composer David Buttolph and lyricist Paul Francis Webster used an all-male chorus to set up this light western series starring James Garner as the gunslinging cardsharp Bret Maverick.
1962: 'The Beverly Hillbillies'
Show creator Paul Henning wrote "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" and enlisted the musical duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to perform the music with Jerry Scoggins singing. The rest is a song that most TV viewers know at least part of the words to.
1964: 'Gilligan's Island'
Series creator Sherwood Schwartz and composer George Wyle wrote "The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle" because Schwartz was not a fan of expositional dialogue. There were two versions of the theme song. the first was used during the series' first season and was performed by the Wellingtons. For the second and third seasons, the song was re-recorded to include the Professor and Mary Ann. (Originally they were just called "the rest"). The Eligibles recorded the new version of the theme (shown here).
1965: "Green Acres"
Composer Vic Mizzy wrote the theme song to this rural comedy starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor. It takes a slightly different approach than other themes in that it tells the tale from the differing perspectives of its two main characters, Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas.
1969: "The Brady Bunch"
Creator Sherwood Schwartz gives the facts in the opening theme again, this time in collaboration with series composer Frank De Vol. Three different versions of the theme song were recorded for the show's first three seasons. The first version was recorded by the sunshine pop group the Peppermint Trolley Company, the second season featured the song as recorded by the Brady boys, peformed by Christopher Knight, Barry Williams and Mike Lookinland. The third and final version of theme featured the Brady boys and the Brady girls (played by Maureen McCormick, Eve Plumb and Susan Olsen.)
1974: "Land of the Lost"
Singer-songwriter Linda Laurie composed tunes for Sonny and Cher, Nancy Sinatra and Helen Reddy, but perhaps her biggest claim to fame is composing the opening tune to producers Sid & Marty Krofft's "Land of the Lost."
1990: "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air"
Will Smith was already a successful rapper when he landed this NBC sitcom. Smith wrote the song with music by Quincy Jones. A full-length version of the song was released in the Netherlands and was included on Will Smith's greatest hits album.
1993: "The Nanny"
The story of how Fran Drescher's character went from peddling cosmetics to nannying the children of a successful Broadway producer was written and performed by Broadway singer Ann Hampton Callaway and her sister Liz Callaway. The song was not in the series pilot but was used for every episode thereafter.
2008: "Martha Speaks"
How does a dog learn to speak? By eating alphabet soup and having the letters travel to her brain instead of her stomach. Make anatomical sense? It doesn't matter! The theme song to this PBS kids' series was written by Daniel Ingram, with lyrics by Ken Scarborough and performed by Robert Wilson.
-- Patrick Kevin Day