Original publication: Newsweek, August 2, 1976
Maureen Orth with Janet Huck in Los Angeles
Last October, 10-year-old Darrin Barri asked his father for a record of the theme from “S.W.A.T.,” his favorite TV police series. Discovering there was no such disk, his father, a Los Angeles record producer, decided to make one himself. Barri hired some studio musicians, mixed the tune with a disco beat and then watched it climb to No. 1 on the singles chart. Ever since, at least one TV-theme record has appeared among the top 100 singles each week.
Television theme music has suddenly become one of the hottest sources for middle-of-the-road pop music. And with an estimated 20 million to 50 million viewers a week, a hit TV series’s pull is so powerful that television is now launching its own stable of pop stars. John Travolta, who plays Vinnie Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” has become the newest teeny-bopper singing idol. He began by doing his version of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann” on the show and it came out “Bar-bar-barbarino.” Now he’s released his first LP with its own smash single, “Let Her In.” Without ‘Kotter’ it would have taken years,” says Travolta, 22, who introduces himself at record stores by saying, “Hi, I’m Vinnie Barbarino.” “How else would the kids know who I am this quick?”
David Soul, the hip, blond plains-clothes cop on “Starsky and Hutch” who began his career as a singer, cut his first album this spring, and it will be marketed in the fall through teen magazines. “Good Times’s” Ralph Carter, 14, has an LP out on Mercury Records, the youngest artist that studio has ever signed. Henry Winkler, who plays the popular Fonzie on “Happy Days,” unfortunately cannot even carry a tune. But as only the emcee at various rock concerts, he is already drawing as many kids as the acts he’s introducing. “Fonzie could read a telephone book off-key and make it a hit,” says Bob Wright, a senior vice president of ABC.
The popularity of TV music and its singing stars is very much a teen phenomenon. Most of the hit themes are from ABC’s shows, which were originally programed for teenagers. “We appeal to the kids who buy records,” says Michael Eisner, ABC vice president for prime-time programming. “But the shows were hits before the songs made it.” Still the network was aware that a funky sound could hook the teen audience. When “Happy Days” zoomed to the top of the Nielson charts, Eisner decided the show needed its own theme. After the ersatz rock theme caught on, Paul Drew, the programming director of the RKO radio chain, called the song’s publisher and demanded a record he could play on the air. The publisher contacted Barri, who ground out a recording in two days – complete with ‘50s “ooowawahs” – and the theme became a hit. “Radio stations want records that have the largest audience,” says Barri, who has produced several top TV tunes. “A song from a hit TV show is not much of a gamble.”
While the trend lasts, everybody is trying for a piece of the action. Norman Lear has hired composer Marvin Hamlisch (“The Way We Were”) to write the theme for Nancy Walker’s new TV series; Walker herself will sing it. The old king of movies’ theme music, Henry Mancini, is arranging an album of TV police themes including “Kojak” and “The Blue Knight.” Barri has dreams of recording the theme for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” but the 30-year-olds who watch the show are beyond the buying age for 45 records. “It would be a flop,” says Barri. If only the Fonz could sing.
This article is typed from the original material. Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.