Common Thread: Studio Albums Sporting Memorable TV Themes

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

There’s no shortage, of course, of soundtracks from television shows with hit theme songs – take, for instance, the soundtracks to Ally McBeal (Vonda Shepard’s “Searchin’ My Soul”), Moonlighting (the lush smooth-jazz of the Al Jarreau-sung title theme), or Miami Vice (the chart-topping Jan Hammer-performed propulsive instrumental opening theme). And, naturally, it’s no big surprise that you can find the title theme of the Monkees’ appealingly zany sitcom at the opening of their first album. But there are just as many shows that never had proper soundtracks despite having theme songs that were sizable hits. Here are just a few discs – most of these extremely little-known – where you can find some of the most iconic and catchy TV theme songs of the ‘70s through the ‘90s …

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Railhead Overture, Mike Post (1975, MGM)

Absolutely nobody has a resume of iconic instrumental theme songs for television series that quite rivals Post’s: he’s written and performed the themes to Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I., The A-Team, L.A. Law, and Law and Order, just to name a small handful. But perhaps his most-loved theme song of all is still the very first one in the bunch: the incredibly infectious synth-driven theme to the James Garner detective series The Rockford Files, included on this full-length. 

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Pratt & McClain, Pratt & McClain (1976, Reprise)

Happy Days actually went through two different theme songs; for the show’s first two seasons (which practically feels like a different show altogether, having been taped sans a studio audience and featuring Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli in a much more minor role, as well as boasting an elder Cunningham son who would mysteriously disappear halfway through Season Two, never to be mentioned again), the theme song was the first Number One song of the rock-and-roll era, Bill Haley and the Comets’ “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” The show underwent several changes for its third season, one of the most major being that the show’s former closing theme was both re-written and re-purposed as the show’s new opening theme. The pop duo of Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain had the fortune of being tapped to record the new version, and they were rewarded with a Top Five hit as a result. 

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Welcome Back, John Sebastian (1976, Reprise)

For all the success that the Lovin’ Spoonful had in the ‘60s, racking up a string of ten Top Forty hits between 1965 and 1967 that includes a whopping seven Top Ten hits, three of which either reached Number One (“Summer in the City”) or Number Two (“Daydream,” “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind”), it’s perhaps somewhat surprising that the group’s former lead vocalist and primary songwriter, John Sebastian, only has one Top Forty hit to his name as a solo artist. But that one post-Spoonful hit couldn’t have been a much bigger one: “Welcome Back” went all the way to Number One and served as the theme song for the much-loved late ‘70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.

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Making Our Dreams Come True, Cyndi Grecco (1976, Private Stock)

You probably don’t recognize the name Cyndi Grecco, but you’ve almost certainly heard her voice. Her lone Top 40 hit may have only climbed as high as #25, but it can still be heard on television on any given day: the title track of this album is actually a full-length version of the theme song to Laverne & Shirley!

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Maureen McGovern, Maureen McGovern (1979, Warner Bros.)

McGovern is best known for her 1973 Number One hit “The Morning After,” the theme song to the film The Poseidon Adventure, but she would unexpectedly return to the Top Twenty six years later – after briefly leaving the music industry altogether to work as a secretary! – as the singer of “Different Worlds,” the playful theme song for the long-forgotten late-‘70s sitcom Angie, starring Donna Pescow (Saturday Night Fever), Robert Hays (Airplane!), Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Debralee Scott (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Welcome Back, Kotter). It’d mark her last appearance on the Hot 100, but McGovern would land a memorable cameo the following year as the singing nun in the now-legendary spoof flick Airplane!

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Music Man, Waylon Jennings (1980, RCA)

Music Man isn’t the country legend’s biggest-selling solo album (that title belongs to his 1977 disc Ol’ Waylon, while the 1978 duets LP Waylon and Willie, with Willie Nelson, would do even better), but this disc does have one especially noteworthy distinction: it’s where you can find his now-iconic theme song to The Dukes of Hazzard, “Good Ol’ Boys.”

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America’s Greatest Hero, Joey Scarbury (1981, Elektra)

Like Cyndi Grecco, the little-known Scarbury is a fellow one-hit-wonder, but his hit would prove to be the much more enduring radio staple, still popping up on adult-contemporary stations decades later, long after the show it came from – the superhero dramedy The Greatest American Hero – had been forgotten. “Theme from ‘Greatest American Hero’ (Believe It or Not)” (the music of which was composed by Mike Post) spent two weeks at Number Two during the summer of 1981 and would receive further small-screen immortality in the ‘90s after being incorporated – albeit with modified lyrics – into an episode of Seinfeld as the song that serves as George Costanza’s answering machine message. “When She Dances,” also included here, would hit the lower half of the Hot 100, but perhaps the most interesting track here beyond the famous television theme is the second-side opener, “Take This Heart of Mine,” penned by a young Bruce Hornsby, five years before the massive success of his debut album The Way It Is.

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Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon, B.J. Thomas (1985, Columbia)
Midnight Minute, B.J. Thomas (1989, Reprise)

The criminally underappreciated B.J. Thomas had a long string of hits from 1966 to 1977 that included the Number One hits “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” the Top Ten hits “Hooked on a Feeling” and “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” and a surprisingly excellent easy-listening makeover of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby.” The hits sadly came to a screeching halt after 1977, but Thomas never completely went away – his voice could be heard every week in the late ‘80s singing the theme song to Growing Pains, “As Long As We’ve Got Each Other” (the lyrics of which were penned by Richard Carpenter’s former songwriting partner, John Bettis, who’d since gone on to co-write Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Madonna’s “Crazy for You”). The theme song went through several different incarnations: the original Thomas-only version from the first season can be found on Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon, while the re-recorded version with the legendary Dusty Springfield serving as Thomas’ duet partner can be found on Midnight Minute.

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L.P., Rembrandts (1995, EastWest)

Much like The Clash’s “Train in Vain (Stand By Me)” before it, the Rembrandts’ theme song to the sitcom Friends, “I’ll Be There for You,” was such a last-minute addition to the record that it wasn’t even listed on the album’s original packaging and acted as a hidden bonus track at the end of the disc. The song topped the Adult Contemporary charts but was held back from single release for some time, making it ineligible for the Hot 100 at the height of the song’s success. The song would ultimately get belatedly released as a double A-side with the equally fun “This House Is Not a Home” (which can also be found on this disc) and reach #17. [Contrary to popular misconception, though: it’s not the band’s only single to reach the Top Twenty: they’d had an even bigger hit four years earlier in 1991 with the song “Just the Way It Is, Baby,” which reached #14.] While the last-minute addition of the Friends theme (which sported an unforgettable video featuring the show’s full cast cavorting alongside the band on a soundstage) certainly helped to boost the disc’s sales, there are some equally great tunes here that got overlooked in the process, especially the awe-inspiringly pretty acoustic ballad “The Other Side of Night.”

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Go Slow Down, BoDeans (1993, Slash)

Technically, “Closer to Free” wasn’t written especially as a television theme. But whereas shows like Bosom Buddies, The Golden Girls, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation utilized Billy Joel’s “My Life,” Andrew Gold’s “Thank You for Being a Friend,” and The Who’s “Who Are You” as their respective theme songs years after the songs had already proven to be major radio hits, the BoDeans song languished in obscurity for three years before suddenly being plucked by the producers of Party of Five to soundtrack the opening credits of the popular drama. The exposure naturally brought new life to the long-dormant Go Slow Down, and the song would belatedly become the Wisconsin rock combo’s first – and sole – Top 40 hit.