With the Fall TV season just getting underway, we combed the Hot 100 to find the last 30 years’ ten hottest songs written as TV theme songs. These 10 hot TV tunes are ranked based on each track’s peak on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from 1980 through Jan. 8, 2011.
Few things in pop culture are as strong as television — add a hot theme song to a hit TV show and you’ve got a powerful meme that’ll provoke memories for decades. Whether it’s a synthy instrumental matched to a pair of pastel clad Florida cops or a good ol’ Country tune about a pair of crime-fighting Southern brothers, sometimes TV themes are so popular they earn a spot on the charts.
The 70s may have been over when the theme for “WKRP In Cincinnati” hit the charts, but the the 70s’ love affair with mellow rock carried into 1981 for this super laid back ditty about the staff of a midwestern, middle-of-the-road rock radio station staff “living on the air in Cincinnati.”
It’s not every week that a soaring instrumental orchestral number breaks into the Hot 100, but when you’ve got most of America glued to the set to watch the huge-shoulder-pad and diamond-encrusted foibles of the nasty rich folks on night time soap “Dynasty” it’s not so surprising that Bill Conti’s theme song would provoke a pavlovian response equating the swelling strings with blingy wealth that would help catapult it onto the charts.
The brassy “Magnum P.I.” theme, with it’s disco-rock guitars provided an apt soundtrack to mustachioed 80s hunk Tom Selleck speeding around Hawaii as a lady-killer private eye. The song, written by TV-theme vet Mike Post, got a slight update for a popular Maybelline mascara commercial in 2010.
Accomplished jazz veteran Al Jarreau’s smooth vocals were the perfect compliment to the neo-noir opening titles of the Bruce Willis/Cybil Shepherd 80s drama/comedy “Moonlighting” about a pair of mismatched detectives — she prissy and precise, he disheveled and mischievous — that managed to solve crimes and eventually fall in love none the less. “Moonlighting strangers who just met on the way,” as Jarreau sings.
It’s hard to tell which cast member of “The Dukes of Hazzard” was the most popular: a) the “General Lee”; b) Daisy Duke’s short shorts; or, c) the series’ theme song. (OK, it’s probably b). Still, the song became Jennings ‘ biggest Hot 100 hit and his 12th of 16 Country Songs No. 1s. “(The show’s executives) called me and asked me to do that song,” Jennings told Tom Roland in the Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits. “So, I wrote (it) and sent it out and they called me back and said, ‘We need something in there about bein’ modern-day Robin Hoods and fightin’ the system.’ I just changed a rhyme line and said ‘fightin’ the system like two modern-day Robin Hoods,’ so they were happy.” The theme opened each episode of the series, which ultimately promoted down-home family values as much as fast action car chases, which ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985.
This sunny 90s pop-rock gem, complete with handclaps and lyrics about the pitfalls of pre-millennial young adulthood (“Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA”), was the perfect sonic alert that another 22-minutes with “Friends” Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey, Ross and Phoebe was afoot. It’s no surprise the song was the Rembrandts biggest hit: the long-running “Friends,” after all, was easily one of the most popular TV shows of the 90s.
It’s not often a that TV theme becomes so big that it inspires reference in song by a legendary rock band, but that’s exactly what happened with Mike Post’s downbeat “Hill Street Blues” theme. The critically-acclaimed cop drama got a big nod nearly 20 years after it ended when the Who released an ode to its writer in 2006, titled “Mike Post Theme.” Post, who collaborated with guitarist Larry Carlton on the piano-driven “Hill Street Blues” theme, also wrote the theme songs for other big-name cop shows including “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order.”
Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)
Perhaps ahead of its time, ABC’s “Greatest American Hero” poked ironic fun at the superhero genre, starring William Katt as an unlikely – and bumbling (but good-natured) – possessor of superhuman abilities who stumbled upon “the suit” brought to earth on a UFO. (He promptly lost a would-be helpful instruction booklet). While sung by Scarbury, the theme song was co-written by the composer responsible for the Nos. 8 and 4 titles on this list, Mike Post.
Czech pianist/composer Jan Hammer had a promising career that included a handful of albums with Jeff Beck before he ever fired up the ol’ keytar for the instantly recognizable synth driven track that introduced Crockett and Tubbs’ pastel-clad exploits every week on “Miami Vice.” But the “Vice” theme was his hugest hit — it was the last instrumental to top the Hot 100 and one of the most successful TV soundtracks ever.
How Do You Talk To An Angel
The Heights Hot 100 Peak: No. 1 (two weeks), 1992
And you thought Fox TV began assaulting Billboard charts with “American Idol” and “Glee.” In August 1992, the network briefly aired “The Heights,” Aaron Spelling’s series about a band of the same name. The series received poor ratings and Fox cancelled it that November, but its opening (if not the rest of each weekly episode) was a smash: the theme, sung by lead vocalist Jamie Walters, topped the Hot 100 less than a week after the series was cancelled. One of the series’ cast members, notably, resurfaced in “Glee”: 17 years after playing Hope Linden, Charlotte Ross is now better known, among her other career roles, as Judy Fabray – aka Quinn’s mom.
Text by Jillian Mapes, Gary Trust and Jessica Letkemann