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50 Years Ago This Week, a Landmark TV Series With a Classic Theme Song Debuted

Fifty years ago on Saturday (Sept. 19), The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted on CBS, sandwiched between Arnie (another freshman sitcom) and the long-running detective series Mannix.

Moore’s show, of course, became an all-time classic. It was the first female-fronted sitcom to win three Emmy Awards for outstanding comedy series. Its stars won a collective 16 acting Emmys, more than any other series in TV history.

But I’m not here to praise the show, but rather its letter-perfect theme song, which was written and performed by Sonny Curtis.

The version of the song heard over the opening credits that first season is different than the one you probably remember and can sing by heart. The tone was more uncertain and anxious, reflecting the show’s initial premise—an unmarried woman, 30ish, coming off a romantic breakup, moves to Minneapolis to make a fresh start. The lyric begins: “How will you make it on your own?/This world is awfully big/Girl this time you’re all alone.” It ends on a hopeful, but not quite certain, note: “You might just make it after all.”

Curtis revamped the lyric for Season 2 to the sunnier version you know and love: “Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?” The concluding line now expressed certainty: “You’re gonna make it after all.” Because, by then, of course, Mary Richards had made it: She had a job (associate producer!), a funny best friend (her upstairs neighbor, Rhoda) and a really cool studio apartment.

Curtis related the story of how the song came about in a Q&A with Jim Liddane of International Songwriters Association.

One of my dear friends, Doug Gilmore, who was road manager for Roger Miller, called me one day and said that Mary Tyler Moore was readying a sitcom, and they wanted a real good song for the theme. He also said that they had a couple of writers in mind, and asked me if I would like to have a shot at trying out for it as well.

“Naturally I said yes, and later that morning, he dropped off a four-page format – you know ‘girl from the Midwest, moves to Minneapolis, gets a job in a newsroom, can’t afford her apartment etc.’ which gave me the flavor of what it was all about.

“So I sat down there and then and wrote that song probably before any other songwriter  had even started on one, and just after lunch I rang Doug Gilmore back and said ‘where do I send it?’ and he sent me over to see James L. Brooks…”

Brooks and his partner Allan Burns co-created The MTM Show. They had worked together the previous season on Room 222, a high school-set comedy which drew praise for its “relevancy” (a buzz word of the era) and multi-racial casting. (Room 222 also had a memorable theme song, a classy, subtle instrumental composed by Jerry Goldsmith.)

In the interview with Liddane, Curtis picked up the story of his first meeting with Brooks. “He said ‘We’re not at the stage of picking a song yet, but I’ll listen anyway.’ So I played the song, just me and my guitar, and next thing, he started phoning people, and the room filled up, and then he sent out for a tape recorder.”

Brooks was wise to listen to the song even though he hadn’t planned to do that yet. Perfection doesn’t fall in your lap every day.

Curtis released the song as a single in 1970, but it didn’t chart. He re-recorded it in 1980, giving it more of a country flavor. That version reached No. 29 on Hot Country Songs. Both versions are gentle acoustic ballads. (The version heard on TV was punchier and more dynamic.)

The song has since been covered by a wide range of artists, affirming the adage that a great song can be performed in any number of styles. Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ray Conniff both recorded glitzy, jazzy versions. Davis sang it on a 1972 album, Portrait of Sammy Davis, Jr., that reached No. 128 on the Billboard 200. Davis changed “girl” to “babe,” in keeping with his hip-cat persona. Conniff recorded the song for his 1976 album, Theme from ‘SWAT’ and Other TV Themes.

Several rock acts have recorded the song. Hüsker Dü, which hails from Minneapolis, cut the song in 1985, releasing it as the B side of their single “Makes No Sense At All.”  Their video has the band replicating iconic scenes from The MTM Show’s opening credit sequence.

Christie Front Drive, an emo band from Denver, Colo., recorded the song for a 1995 compilation, Punk TV.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts recorded a scrappy version which bubbled under the Hot 100 (at No. 108) in 1996. It was the closing track on their 1996 album, Great Hits. Jett even performed it on Late Show with David Letterman, whose host had co-starred in Moore’s short-lived 1978 variety series, Mary.

Jett’s kick-ass version is a reminder of the fact that, in its unflashy, unassuming way, The MTM Show was a revolutionary series for its time. (It debuted four months before All in the Family, which toppled TV taboos in a more overt way.) The radical (for its time) idea in The MTM Show was that Mary Richards was more interested in pursuing her career than in finding a husband.

Curtis has written or co-written three top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 — The Everly Brothers“Walk Right Back” (No. 7 in 1961), The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” (No. 6 in 1966), and “More Than I Can Say” (a Bobby Vee B-side from 1961 that Leo Sayer took to No. 2 for five consecutive weeks in 1980-81). “I Fought the Law” is as much of a classic, in its own way, as the MTM Show theme. Fuller’s recording was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015.

“I Fought the Law” and “More Than I Can Say” (which Curtis co-wrote with Jerry Allison) both first appeared on The Crickets’ 1960 album, In Style with the Crickets, the group’s first album following the death of front man Buddy Holly.

Curtis’ membership in The Crickets earned him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. (Holly had been inducted as part of the inaugural class in 1986.)

The Curtis hit that “Love Is All Around” most resembles is “The Straight Life,” an amiable song that Curtis took to No. 45 on Hot Country Songs in the summer of 1968. Bobby Goldsboro and Glen Campbell both recorded it soon after. Goldsboro’s version made the top 40 on the Hot 100 in November 1968. Campbell’s version was featured on his album Wichita Lineman, which topped the Billboard 200 for five weeks in 1968-69. “The Straight Life” (the title refers to following the rules) sounds very much like a TV theme. All it needed was the TV show.

TV themes and hit singles are similar art forms: Both are based on getting right to the point. Dionne Warwick’s 1967 recording of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s effervescent “I Say a Little Prayer” was not a TV theme, but it sure sounds like one. It’s the theme to the great single-woman sitcom that never was, the show that might have been the bridge between That Girl (which debuted in 1966) and The MTM Show.

While Curtis, now 83, never quite reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, he has hit the top spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Keith Whitley’s “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” topped the chart for two weeks in April 1989—one month before Whitley died of alcohol poisoning at age 33. The single went on to win a CMA Award for single of the year. (Curtis co-wrote the song with Ron Hellard.)

“Love Is All Around” so perfectly summed up Moore’s persona that it became her signature song. It was closely identified with her until her death in 2017 at age 80. An  instrumental version of the song was used for the opening of Moore’s short-lived 1979 variety series, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour. The 2000 TV movie Mary and Rhoda opened with a mash-up of Curtis’ gentle original version and Jett’s brash remake.

A 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live featured a sketch that quoted the lyrics to the MTM Show theme. Guest host Ed Asner reprised his Lou Grant character for a scene in which he is hiring mercenaries to “rescue” Mary from “syndicated reruns.” Two of the mercenaries, played by Rich Hall and Jim Belushi, ask about her:

Mercenary #1: “Is it true what they say about her?”
Lou Grant: “What?”
Mercenary #1: “She can turn the world on with her smile.”
Lou Grant: [ sentimental ] “Yeah… yeah, she could…”
Mercenary #2: “And could she really take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”
Lou Grant: “No, of course not! Don’t be stupid!”

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