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The songs you know by heart

Steve Gottlieb built a label on TV theme songs

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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FACT BOX

Stray TV Theme Facts

- Songs that hit No. 1:
"S.W.A.T.," Rhythm Heritage (1975); "Welcome Back," John Sebastian (from "Welcome Back, Kotter") (1976); "Miami Vice," Jan Hammer (1985); "How Do You Talk to an Angel" (from "The Heights"), The Heights (1992)

- Songs covered by major rock or hip-hop artists:
"The Addams Family," MC Hammer (as "Addams Groove"); "Peter Gunn," Duane Eddy (1960) and The Art of Noise (1986); "Mission: Impossible," U2; "Love Is All Around (The Mary Tyler Moore Show)," Husker Du

- Songs written by Sherwood Schwartz:
"The Ballad of Gilligan's Island," "The Brady Bunch," "It's About Time," "Dusty's Trail"

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(CNN) -- They've been maligned. Mocked. Mistreated.

Rodney Dangerfield has nothing on television theme songs.

People laugh at "Love, American Style." They blanch at "The Brady Bunch." They gag at "Gilligan's Island." And we won't even get into "Diff'rent Strokes," "My Three Sons" and "Green Acres."

But everybody knows them. They might even be running through your head right now.

So, 20 years ago, when a friend of Steve Gottlieb was looking for an album of TV themes, Gottlieb got an idea. The idea was to treat TV themes seriously -- or, at least, not as a joke.

"There were hundreds of records, but the fact that he didn't realize this [told me] that the people who were [putting out the records] were missing the boat," he said in a phone interview. "That's what got me interested. These pieces of music were great folk culture."

Gottlieb, then a freshly minted lawyer, decided to put out his own record of TV themes. He acquired the rights to use as many themes as possible ("a lot of people didn't take shows all that seriously," he recalled) and had to recreate a handful because tracks weren't available or in good condition.

Then he packaged the whole thing as a double album called "Television's Greatest Hits," put together a label to distribute the record and started advertising, often whimsically, on late-night TV.

The response was more than he could have imagined. Tee Vee Toons, the label Gottlieb set up as "a one-shot," in his words, evolved into TVT Records, one of the biggest independent labels. Its artist roster has included Nine Inch Nails, Lil Jon & the EastSide Boyz and the Ying Yang Twins.

Now the label has returned to its roots with the release of a two-CD collection, "Tee Vee Toons Presents: All-Time Top 100 TV Themes" (TVT), featuring 100 TV theme songs -- the original versions by the original artists, as the old commercial would say.

'An extraordinary array'

They remain songs of many virtues.

Film composers Bill Conti ("Dynasty"), Miklos Rozsa ("Dragnet") and Henry Mancini ("What's Happening!!" -- yes, "What's Happening!!") have written TV themes, as have rock musicians Danny Elfman ("The Simpsons"), Harry Nilsson ("The Courtship of Eddie's Father") and Mark Mothersbaugh ("Pee-Wee's Playhouse").

Performers have included the Cowsills ("Love, American Style"), Andrew Gold ("Mad About You"), Bob James ("Taxi") and B.J. Thomas and Jennifer Warnes ("Growing Pains").

Then there are the masters of the TV theme form, such as Mike Post ("The Rockford Files," "L.A. Law," "Hill Street Blues"), Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox ("Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley"), Joe Raposo ("Sesame Street," "Three's Company") and Neal Hefti ("Batman" and "The Odd Couple") -- writers who could boil the essence of a show down to a one-minute song that ran under the credits.

"It's an extraordinary array," Gottlieb said.

In many cases, these songs became national hits. The themes to "S.W.A.T.," "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "Miami Vice" all hit No. 1, and the themes to "Friends," "Ally McBeal" and "Bonanza" -- among others -- hit the top 20.

In the meantime, of course, they were etching themselves in the national conscience.

Now, Gottlieb is finding, the circle has come around at his own label. The Ying Yang Twins recently were approached by UPN to rework a theme for a TV show. So now TVT, founded on TV themes, may be providing them.

Who knows? Maybe that theme will pop up in a future edition -- that is, if it makes the cut. After all, Gottlieb and his staff had as many as 500 contenders for the "All-Time Top 100," he said.

And, he added, "They're all brilliant."

"This is a folk culture constantly revived," Gottlieb said. "People think it's nostalgia for baby boomers, but the shows are always being recycled. We're now looking back on five decades of music, so it's representative of several generations. ... These songs are a great unifier."

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