Exclusive: 'Mad Men' Finale Song's Writer on How the Catchy Coke Jingle Came to Be

Courtesy of YouTube
A scene from the 1971 commercial "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

Roger Greenaway's song became the iconic "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial, a hit single & now the epic ending to a beloved TV series.

When Roger Greenaway co-wrote "I'd Like to Teach the World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)" 45 years ago for Coca-Cola, he had no idea the song would become part of one of the most iconic ad campaigns in history -- much less that it would play a role in Sunday night's Mad Men series finale.

Not that the legendary British songwriter, 76, was watching. Not only has Greenaway never seen Mad Men, he had no idea the show had licensed the feel-good song and commercial, which ends the episode and is seemingly the result of protagonist Don Draper's breakthrough at a spiritual retreat. "I only learned of its use in the final episode when I received a congratulatory email this morning from John Titta, head of membership at ASCAP, so obviously it came as a pleasant shock," he exclusively tells Billboard.

'Mad Men' Finale: The Real Story Behind the Coke Jingle That Became a Billboard Hit

Greenaway co-wrote "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)" with his frequent collaborator, Roger Cook, and McCann Erickson executives Bill Backer and Roquel "Billy" Davis for the ad agency's client, Coca-Cola. As he reveals via an email interview, the tune, originally called "True Love and Apple Pie," underwent a few changes on its way to becoming not only the staple of Coca-Cola's ad campaign for years, but also a top 10 single in both the U.K. and the U.S.

Greenaway, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009 and retired from ASCAP after years as head of international in December, co-wrote dozens of hits, including "The Air That I Breathe," "Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again," "This Golden Ring," "You've Got Your Troubles I've Got Mine," "My Baby Loves Lovin'" and "Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress." He tells Billboard how the song developed and what he hopes happens next.

How did you first begin working with McCann Erickson?

Roger Cook and I had been writing Coca-Cola commercials since 1966, after The Fortunes hit "You've Got Your Troubles I've Got Mine." Bill Backer was the first to approach us and we worked with him and another account exec named Arnold Brown. When Arnold left McCann for another agency, Bill Backer head-hunted Billy Davis who had produced Coke commercials as an independent. We worked with both teams on average about three or four times a year writing and co-producing spots for Coke.

Did the theme of universal harmony really come from Backer writing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" on a napkin after the flight he was on was diverted and he saw irritated travelers calming down over a Coke?

Bill [Backer's flight to London] was diverted to Shannon [Ireland]. Roger Cook was also out of town performing with his group Blue Mink. Roger and I had written the melody, which was to become "Teach the World" whilst on holiday in Portugal, which I played to Billy as a suggestion. He liked it and that day we finished it, calling it "True Love and Apple Pie."  Once Bill Backer had made it to London, he heard "True Love" and felt the lyric was not suitable for Coke. He did like the melody and mentioned an idea he had whilst waiting at Shannon airport. The song was then re-written as "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." I had to leave London early so the new lyric was written by Cook, Backer and Davis.

How long did it take to write?

The song took about four to six hours to complete.

The song first aired in Coca-Cola's radio commercial, but it wasn't until the television commercial aired that the tune took off, right?

After we finished the recording sessions, the commercial went straight to radio -- not to TV -- and there was no special reaction to it. It wasn't until a man called Harvey Gabor, who worked in the TV commercial area at McCann, had the idea of filming a group of young men and women of different nationalities and backgrounds standing on a hill [known as the Hilltop version] with a bottle of Coke in their hand and used "Teach the World" as the anthem that the song took off.

How quickly did The New Seekers' version that rose to the top of the charts and that didn't mention Coca-Cola come about?

After only a week on air, the Coca-Cola company was receiving thousands of letters from the public asking how they could get a copy of the music. Luckily, The New Seekers were performing in a New York Hotel during that  time and were able to go into the studio with Billy Davis and record the song for commercial release. Because of the TV commercial, the record climbed the charts very quickly both in the States and in the U.K. and we realized we had a monster hit on our hands. It was a Christmas No. 1 in the U.K. It was a few years before we heard the words iconic applied to both the song and the Hilltop commercial. None of us expected the song to be so successful. I still find it difficult to believe even after all these years.

When did you find out the song/commercial would be used in the Mad Men finale? Are you a fan of the show?

Although the Mad Men show has been aired in the U.K. I have never seen a single episode. I only learned of its use in the final episode when I received a congratulatory email this morning from John Titta, head of membership at ASCAP, so obviously it came as a pleasant shock.

Have you heard any plans about the song now being reintroduced in a new commercial or about the tune going to radio again similar to how Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" experienced a new life after its usage in the Sopranos finale?

I have no idea if the Coca-Cola company has any future plans for the commercial but live in hope.

What's your favorite memory about the song?

My favorite moment was when I first saw the TV commercial in London and then 10 days later watching the Seekers recording going to No. 1 after selling over a million copies.