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Cowpoke Hit Parade: The Great TV Western Theme Songs

Sep 8, 2016

The death of Hugh O’Brian last week has put me in a nostalgic mood for the great TV Westerns of yesteryear.

O’Brian, as readers of a certain age will recall, played the title character in the series, “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The TV show debuted in 1955 and lasted for six years.

My nostalgia is not so much for the shows themselves as for their theme songs, which as a group constitute a distinguished and underappreciated little subset of late 20th century American music.

As a rule, they were written not by hacks, but by Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley’s most accomplished songwriters, most of whom had classical training.

There were dozens of them. Here, in no particular order, are the ones I consider to be the most enduring:

"The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"
To begin with O’Brian’s show, the theme – a jaunty little waltz, no less – was certainly one of the more inspired and memorable of the genre.

As well it might have been: the music was by the great Harry Warren, the Oscar-winning Hollywood veteran whose portfolio includes “The More I See You,” “You’ll Never Know,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” “An Affair to Remember,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Jeepers Creepers,” among many others.

The main cast of "Bonanza" in 1959, from left: Dan Blocker, Michael Landon, Lorne Greene, and Pernell Roberts.
Credit NBC Television

"Bonanza"
An example of the rarefied category of TV themes that became independent pop hits (#19, Billboard, in 1961). Written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the team that gave us “Silver Bells,” “Mona Lisa,” “Que Sera, Sera” and “Tammy.” Their other TV series contribution was a perhaps less inspired specimen: the theme from “Mister Ed.”

"Maverick"
A particular gem, with lyrics by 17-time Oscar nominee (and three-time winner) Paul Francis Webster, who also gave us “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “A Certain Smile,” “The Shadow of your Smile,” and “Secret Love.” Music by David Buttolph, whose other bid for TV theme immortality, not entirely successful, was “77 Sunset Strip.”

"The Roy Rogers Show"
The theme here, of course, was “Happy Trails to You,” the work of Roy’s wife, Dale Evans. Although Dale is often identified as a lifelong songwriter, the muse seems to have visited her only sporadically, and nothing she wrote before or after approached the success of “Happy Trails.”

"Rawhide"
Despite a somewhat overwrought original rendering by Frankie Laine (I guess that’s a redundancy), the “Rawhide” theme became a true standard, attracting cover artists ranging from Liza Minnelli and Johnny Cash to the Dead Kennedys and the Jackson Five. Lyrics by Ned Washington (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” et al.), who deftly rhymes “rollin’” with “swollen.” Music by the prolific Dimitri Tiomkin (“High Noon,” “Town Without Pity,” “The High and the Mighty,” and on and on.)

You get the idea. Other worthies: “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Bat Masterson,” “Wagon Train,” “The Rebel.”

And in a category unto itself, let us also remember “The Lone Ranger.”

The theme “song” was the final, onrushing section of Rossini’s overture to his opera “William Tell.” The TV show made that overture the hands-down most instantly recognizable piece of classical music of all time for millions of kids of my generation.

But nothing lasts forever: a few years ago, a veteran conductor told me a story about how he always used that overture as the finale to his orchestral children’s concerts. The kids would roar their recognition and walk out happy. But after doing this successfully for many years, he said that abruptly one day, the kids responded with blank silence.

Apparently “The Lone Ranger” just suddenly dropped out of syndication, or video games took over, or kids just somehow moved on. Rossini, overnight, was just Rossini again.

Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.
Credit Public Domain

Sirena in Shanghai

Congratulations to violinist Sirena Huang, who won third prize in the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition.

The three-week competition, which attracted violinists from around the world and which will now be held every two years, is named for the celebrated American violin virtuoso, Carnegie Hall rescuer and musical ambassador who died in 2001.

Huang, 22, is a well-known figure in these parts, having grown up in South Windsor and having performed frequently over the years with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, among other groups. In 2011 she became the HSO’s first-ever Artist In Residence.

For her showing in the Stern competition, Sirena earned $25,000.

The first-prize winner, Mayu Kishima of Japan, earned $100,000.

The Heavenly Jam Session

Fred Hellerman, the last surviving original member of the Weavers, has left us.

He died September 1 at his home in Weston, where he had lived for many years.

Although he was best known for being part of America’s most iconic – and most egregiously persecuted -- folk group, Hellerman had an interesting career as a guitar player, songwriter and record producer. He wrote songs for Harry Belafonte, played on albums by Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and produced Arlo Guthrie’s seminal album, “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Something about folk singing, incidentally, must be good for the body: although fellow Weaver Lee Hays died relatively young in his 60s, Ronnie Gilbert was 88 when she died last year, Pete Seeger was 94 when he passed in 2014, and Hellerman was 89 when he went to his reward last week.

So perhaps instead of statins, a few daily choruses of “Goodnight, Irene.”

Steve Metcalf can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.