A Who’s Who of Sitcom Theme Song Composers

Whatever happened to predictability? The milkman, the paperboy, evening TV…and the following Theme Song Composers? (I’m only choosing people who are still alive, because, well, the “Where Are They Now?” wouldn’t be much fun if the person’s dead.) Here’s a rundown of the people who wrote and recorded the songs that kicked off everything from Full House to Seinfeld to Clarissa Explains It All.

Jesse Frederick (Full House, Perfect Strangers, etc.)

The intro for this article is a Full House reference, so might as well start with Jesse Frederick, who wrote and sung the theme song for not only that show, but also Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, and Step by Step. This guy owned ABC comedies in the 1990s — and it all began when in 1971, when Frederick released his debut album for Bearsville Records. Few people heard it and literally no one listened to the next two records (they went unreleased), so Frederick changed career paths and became a fixture in the soundtrack business, including music for 1984’s The Flamingo Kid, where he worked for Garry Marshall. A year later, Frederick, now paired with fellow songwriter Bennett Salvay, met with Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett, who had also previously with Marshall, of Miller-Boyett Productions, the team behind Bosom Buddies and Happy Days. They were working on a new show, originally titled The Greenhorn before becoming Perfect Strangers, and needed a theme song. Thus, sitcom history was made, and the world got “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” (Perfect Strangers), “Everywhere You Look” (Full House), “As Days Go By” (Family Matters), and other endlessly optimistic and nostalgic songs (all of which were sung by Frederick, except for “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now”) from Stiletto Music, Inc. At one point, Frederick and Salvay had their theme on every one of TGIF’s four sitcoms, the three mentioned above, plus the forgettable Going Places. The duo would continue to crank out songs — including the themes for On Our Own and Meego — until 1998’s Two of a Kind, starring the Olsen Twins, when everyone went their separate ways.

Where Are They Now?
After Two of a Kind flopped, Frederick retired from show business, sold his boat, built another one, and sailed with his family around the Caribbean for the next two years. That’s at least what Imagine Yachts says about Frederick, who now resides in Annapolis, according to his bio.

Gary Portnoy (Cheers)

I guess you have to take the good with the bad. How else to explain Portnoy, who had previously penned songs for Air Supply and Dolly Parton, singing and co-writing (with Judy Hart Angelo) the theme songs for both Cheers, the good, and Punky Brewster, the bad? One night, while having dinner with Angelo, Portnoy was seated next to a Broadway producer who just so happened to need songs for his new musical, Preppies. Soon after, the duo wrote “People Like Us,” the demo of which was later heard by a TV executive, who liked it so much that he asked them to keep the song’s melody and re-write the lyrics to be about a bunch of barflies in Boston, rather than a satirical take on WASPs. But, the producers of Preppies claimed that the song belonged to them (legally, it did), and Portnoy and Angelo went back to the piano, until they came up with the now familiar line: “Sometimes you wanna go…” In 1984, Punky Brewster and its theme “Every Time I Turn Around” premiered, followed by the Portnoy and Angelo-written “According to Our New Arrivals,” sung by Leon Redbone, for Mr. Belvedere.

Where Are They Now?
The entirety of Portnoy’s “Outside Cheers” section on his website is made up of moments where other people sang the famous theme song, including the New England Patriots in 2009 and the casts of Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives in 2010. So, instead of trying to top Cheers, which wasn’t going to happen, he retired from the soundtrack business, and since 2004, has released three albums: Keeper, Destiny, and Songs Along the Way, which includes the demo for “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”

Jonathan Wolff (Seinfeld)

Although it had no actual theme song, the music from Seinfeld has become one of TV’s most recognizable scores. Right now, instead of reading this, you’re probably thinking about synthesized bass riffs and, in his words, “finger snaps, mouth pops, lip smacks, and tongue noises.” Who is “his”? That would be Jonathan Wolff, who, according to this interview, based the music around Jerry Seinfeld’s “rhythmic, musical” pacing, and that he clocked his tempo, “about 110,” and “built the music around him at that tempo.” His non-Seinfeld works includes composing the music for Caroline in the City, Malcolm & Eddie, and Will & Grace.

Where Are They Now?
His last gig was Will & Grace, which ended in 2006 after nearly 200 episodes, and he has since retired and is now living in Kentucky, living off those sweet, sweet Seinfeld DVD residuals, I assume.

Rachel Sweet (Clarissa Explains It All)

Speaking of Seinfeld: Rachel Sweet played George’s cousin in “The Contest,” but long before appearing briefly in a classic episode of a classic sitcom, she was a musician, one who opened for Bill Cosby when she was six years old; then released a country album; then dropped out of school and released a rock album, Fool Around, containing the top-40 U.K. hit “B-A-B-Y,” written by Isaac Hayes; then she released three more albums; and then, in the late 1980s, she started doing a bit of everything. She wrote songs for John Waters’ Hairspray and Cry Baby, she hosted a show called The Sweet Life on The Comedy Channel (pre-Comedy Central), and, for purposes of this article, she sang the theme song for Clarissa Explains It All. That annoying, yet catchy and totally 1990s “nah nah nah nah nah…nah nah nah nah nah nagh”: that’s Rachel!

Where Are They Now?
She’s continued to a bit of everything in the post-Melissa Joan Hart-era. She’s been a producer and written episodes for Sports Night, Dharma & Greg, George Lopez, and Hot in Cleveland. Although only of those show is any good (hint: it’s not George Lopez!), it’s still a pretty remarkable career turnaround for the person who once sang, “I said baby, oh baby/You look so good to me, baby.”

W.G. Snuffy Walden (Roseanne, Ellen, My So-Called Life, etc.)

Many TV theme song composers either were or continue to be studio musicians, and Walden, who has composed music for Roseanne, My So-Called Life, The Wonder Years, Ellen, and all of Aaron Sorkin’s shows, is no different. In 1968, the Texas-raised Walden, real name William Garrett Walden, formed Stray Dog, a relatively popular blues rock trio in the mid-70s, before joining Eric Burdon, formerly of the Animals, in his group. Hollywood agents heard his guitar-playing abilities and asked if he was interested in scoring TV shows (according to his website, they were mostly intrigued by his name) — he was, and in 1987, he scored and wrote the theme for thirtysomething, followed by The Wonder Years, Roseanne, and plenty of other great comedies and dramas from the late-1980s and early-1990s.

Where Are They Now?
Walden continues to score TV shows, and has a remarkable taste to boot: he’s done the music from Friday Night Lights, Huge, Felicity, Men of a Certain Age, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and more. He’s also stepped into the film industry, too, and is currently composing the music for the upcoming cinematic adaptation of The Umbrella Academy.

The Rembrandts (Friends)

Now that you don’t hear it every 13 seconds, it’s totally acceptable to admit: “I’ll Be There for You” is a magnificently catchy song. It’s got a great hook, easy-to-remember lyrics, and you can’t help but picture Jennifer Aniston in that black t-shirt she wears in the music video. In their pre-Friends days, the group, made up of Phil Solem and Danny Wilde (formerly of the Quick, a fantastic power pop band from the 1970s), had a hit in 1989 with “Just the Way It Is, Baby,” and their second album, Untitled, further enhanced the band’s popularity — but that was nothing compared to what would happen in 1994, when the Rembrandts teamed up with David Crane and Martha Kauffman, the creators of Friends; composer Michael Skloff; and songwriter Alee Willis to pen “I’ll Be There for You,” which was originally only supposed to be 45 seconds long. A DJ in Nashville, however, fell in love with the song, and extended it to over three minutes. Soon, the Rembrandts had a chart-topping hit and became an important part of TV history.

Where Are They Now?
And yet, three years later, they broke up, only to reunite in 2000 and release a new album, Lost Together. The Rembrandts haven’t officially broken up, but Wilde has spent the last few years writing songs for the Gin Blossoms, Evan & Jaron, and Plain White T’s, while Solem released his first solo album, Hodgepodge, this year.

Ray Colcord (Dinosaurs, Boy Meets World)

There’s something reassuring in the fact that the guy who composed the music for Dinosaurs also provided the theme for Boy Meets World. Or should I say themes: from its proggy, synth-heavy early days to its surf music middle seasons (its lyric-filled final years was performed and sung by Phil Rosenthal of the band Twenty Cent Crush), Colcord, who also worked on the music for The Facts of Life and played keyboard on Lou Reed’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal live album, was the man who made it possible.

Where Are They Now?
If you create the theme for one of the world’s finest sitcoms, which Boy Meets World certainly is, you deserve all kinds of good things, like being a member of the American Federation of Musicians, the Recording Musicians Association, the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors, and the American Association of Music Arrangers and Composers.

The Solids (Oliver Beene, How I Met Your Mother)

Carter Bays, Craig Thomas, Patrick Butler, and C.C. DePhil. Those names aren’t quite as synonymous with power pop as “John, Paul, George, and Ringo” are to the British Invasion, but you probably still recognize the first two: Bays and Thomas are the creators of How I Met Your Mother. They’re also one half of the Solids, a band that’s been together since 1996 and have since released a self-titled album, and provided the theme songs for Oliver Beene (“The Future is Now”) and How I Met Your Mother (“Hey Beautiful”).

Where Are They Now?
Um, writing on season seven of How I Met Your Mother, hoping not to fuck things up like the Lost guys.

George Patterson (Gilligan’s Island)

The Wellingtons, lead by George Patterson, were an old-fashioned folk group that Disney signed to record the theme song to Wonderful World of Color and “The Ballad of Davy Crocket.” Sherwood Schwartz, then working on the pilot for Gilligan’s Island, liked their sound, and wrote, along with George Wyle, up the now-familiar lyrics to the show’s theme. The Wellingtons recorded the song that would be used for Gilligan’s first season (the lyrics changed slightly in season two, sung by a different group), and would even appear on the show, in “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes,” a parody of the Beatles. 

Where Are They Now?
All that having been said, what profession would you expect Patterson to be doing now? If you guessed “transformational recovery” center in Toluca Lake, California, you guessed right! George Patterson PhD runs Patterson Therapy and Intervention, and his work includes “specialized counseling within the entertainment industry.” He still sings, too: as part of a church choir. I wonder if anyone ever yells out, “GILLIGAN!”

Ja’net Dubois (The Jeffersons)

On-screen, she played the exuberant Willona Woods on Good Times, which ran on CBS from 1974-1979. Off-screen, she co-wrote and sang “Movin’ On Up,” the theme song to The Jeffersons. Even if you know nothing about the Jeffersons, other than there’s a character named Weezie, you know “Movin’ On Up,” a phrase that results in over one million Google search results and a song that has appeared in The Simpsons, The Office, and Tropic Thunder.

Where Are They Now?
After you’ve gone to that de-luxe apartment in the sky, what’s left in life to accomplish? Well, if you’re Dubois, it includes becoming a character actress, with guest roles in everything from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, where she played Momma Bosley. She was also the voice of Mrs. Avery on The PJs, which nabbed her two Outstanding Voice-Over Performance Emmys.

Josh Kurp’s favorite theme listed above: Perfect Strangers.

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