The man behind the theme

You may not know his name, but you know his songs. Earle Hagen composed some of the most recognizable instrumentals of the 20th century.

Hagen, who was 88 when he died Monday in California, wrote the themes to these 1960s TV shows, each expressing the essence of the show and its setting in less than a minute:

“The Andy Griffith Show,” 1960-68. Everyone knows this one. Everyone loves this one. Whistle along as you head out to the country.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” 1961-66. The sophistication of TV’s early days. Tom over at One Poor Correspondent offers some background on the opening segments that accompanied this tune, all involving Van Dyke navigating that pesky ottoman.

“Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” 1964-69. A clever riff on military marches.

“I Spy,” 1965-68. Hagen works gunfire and explosions into the middle of this classic bit of post-007 secret agent music.

“That Girl,” 1966-71. One of Hagen’s best themes, perfectly fitting a young Marlo Thomas’ wide-eyed, innocent romp around late-’60s Manhattan as the show opens.

“The Mod Squad,” 1968-73. Andrew over at Armagideon Time had this great line about this theme last summer:

“If this tune doesn’t instill an irrational desire to chase a cheap hood down a dirty alleyway (that oddly resembles a studio backlot) full of empty cardboard boxes then there’s something seriously wrong with you.”

I learned Earle Hagen’s name long ago, seeing it almost every night in the credits. My dad loved — and still loves — TV sitcoms, and we watched all those mentioned above.

Hagen also wrote one of the classic jazz instrumentals, “Harlem Nocturne,” while playing the trombone for the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1939.

DJ Little Danny over at Office Naps wrote about this tune in his last post before heading back to school and offered a Latin version of it. (Go get it!)

Here’s the most familiar version of the moody “Harlem Nocturne,” done by the Viscounts in 1959. Don’t know where I got this from, but thanks to whoever put it out there last summer.

(For 41 other versions of “Harlem Nocturne,” check out Clinton’s post over at WFMU’s Beware of the Blog.)

I’ve touched only on the most familiar aspects of Hagen’s career. The Los Angeles Times’ terrific appreciation of Hagen’s work is a must-read.

All of the Hagen TV themes are from “Television’s Greatest Hits” and “Television’s Greatest Hits, Volume II,” which appear to be out of print on CD. Those rips are from my vinyl LPs, released in 1985 and 1986, respectively.

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3 Comments

Filed under May 2008, Sounds

3 responses to “The man behind the theme

  1. clairslair

    The Hagen name I remember from TV shows.
    I Spy was fun.

  2. Never ceases to amaze me how a song can INSTANTLY put you right smack dab back into your past. When I listened to these songs I could even “sense” my 5 senses experiencing the moments all over again.

    Great post title!

    Thanks for the memories

    good times indeed…..

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