50th anniversary of the best TV theme

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Apapted and updated from a 2013 post.

Sept. 20 is the 50th anniversary of, arguably, the best television theme of all time: Hawaii Five-O by composer Morton Stevens.

The Five-O theme is one of the most famous pieces of music in the world. People who’ve never watched an episode recognize it when just a few notes are played.

Over the decades, it’s been used in commercials and been played by marching bands. Yet, the vast majority of those who’ve heard it probably couldn’t name the man who wrote it.

In the 1960s, the likes of Stevens, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin were busy doing scores for television. Of that quartet, three became big-time film composers. Stevens didn’t.

In the spring of 1965, CBS hired Stevens to supervise its West Coast music operation. It was in that capacity that Stevens scored the Hawaii Five-O pilot. But Stevens couldn’t do every job himself. Thus, he hired Williams to score 1969’s The Reivers, which CBS released under the Cinema Center Films label. The Steve McQueen movie helped Williams transition from TV to films.

Stevens died in 1991, at the age of 62, of cancer. His lasting music achievement was the original 1968-80 Five-O series. Not only did he write the theme, he created the music template for the series.

Stevens delivered episode scores for 11 of the 12 seasons. The Five-O theme was often used by Stevens and other composers in the background music. It showed up as an action riff. It would also be slowed way down for reflective moments in a story.

This decade, Stevens got attention for his other work. The DVD set for the 1960-62 Thriller anthology series with Boris Karloff featured a number of episodes where viewers can isolate the scores of Stevens and Jerry Goldsmith.

A Morton Stevens title card (for music supervision, not for his theme) for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

Jon Burlingame, who has written extensively about film and television music, did a commentary track about each composer. He discussed Stevens’ work in detail.

In 2016, the blog did a post about Stevens as part of its “unsung figures of television” series.

Stevens’ work on Hawaii Five-O represents a paradox. It’s a famous TV theme. Million of people know it. Yet he’s relatively obscure. Stevens had a successful career. Yet his contemporaries — such as Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams — achieved more fame than he did.

Regardless, the Five-O theme is a crowning achievement for Stevens. Watching a Hawaii Five-O theme is akin to viewing a James Bond film scored by John Barry. In both cases, the composers established a music template that thrills viewers decades later.

The man who hired Goldsmith, Williams and others

Stanley Wilson’s title card (along with others) on a first-season episode of Universal’s The Name of the Game

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

The blog’s post this week about the television factory run by MCA Corp.’s Revue Studios (later Universal Television) didn’t have room to get into some details. This post is aimed at remedying that.

One of Revue-Universal’s stalwarts was Stanley Wilson, who ran the music department.

In that capacity, he hired composers who had to work under tight deadlines. Wilson hired some of the best, some of whom would become major film composers.

One of Wilson’s hires was Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004). Goldsmith already had credits at CBS. But the network let him go.

Stanley Wilson’s title card (along with others) on an episode of Thriller, whose composers included Jerry Goldsmith.

Wilson wisely assigned him jobs at Revue-Universal. Some of Goldsmith’s best television work was on the studio’s 1960-62 anthology series Thriller hosted by Boris Karloff. For a 2010 home video release, extras included permitting viewers to listen to Goldsmith’s music only for episodes he scored.

Wilson (whose title was either “musical supervisor” or “music supervisor”) also brought on John Williams to work on the 1960-62 series Checkmate, a detective series created by Eric Ambler. It was one of the earliest credits for Williams. Williams was also hired by Wilson to work on the anthology show Kraft Suspense Theater.

Other notable Wilson hires included Morton Stevens, beginning with an episode of The General Electric Theater. The episode starred Sammy Davis Jr. Stevens worked for Davis as his arranger.

Wilson hired Stevens for the Davis episode of The GE Theater. That began a career switch for Stevens of scoring television shows. That included scoring the pilot for Hawaii Five-O and devising its iconic theme. Stevens also was a major composer on Thriller.

Other Wilson hires included Quincy Jones for the pilot of Ironside (resulting in the creation of another well-known theme) and Dave Grusin on a number of Universal projects. They included the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder that introduced Lt. Columbo to television audiences.

Jon Burlingame, a journalist who has written extensively about television and film music, had a 2012 article in Variety when Universal named a street on its Southern California lot in honor of Wilson.

“Stanley Wilson Avenue connects Main Street with James Stewart Avenue on the Universal lot, not far from the now-demolished Stage 10 where its namesake conducted literally thousands of hours of music by young composers who would go on to become the biggest names in Hollywood film music,” Burlingame wrote.

On his blog, Burlingame wrote an additional tribute. “Wilson is an unsung hero in the film/TV music business.”

Wilson died in 1970 at the age of 54.

45th anniversary of the best TV theme

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Sept. 20 is the 45th anniversary of, arguably, the best television theme of all time: Hawaii Five-O by composer Morton Stevens.

The Five-O theme is one of the most famous pieces of music in the world. People who’ve never watched an episode recognize it when just a few notes are played. Over the decades, it’s been used in commercials and been played by marching bands. Yet, the vast majority of those who’ve heard it probably couldn’t name the man who wrote it.

In the 1960s, the likes of Stevens, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Lalo Schifrin were busy doing scores for television. Of that quartet, three became big-time film composers. Stevens didn’t.

In the spring of 1965, CBS hired Stevens to supervise its West Coast music operation. It was in that capacity that Stevens scored the Hawaii Five-O pilot. But Stevens couldn’t do every job himself. Thus, he hired Williams to score 1969’s The Reivers, which CBS released under the Cinema Center Films label. The Steve McQueen movie helped Williams transition from TV to films.

Stevens died in 1991, at the age of 62, of cancer. His lasting music achievement was the original 1968-80 Five-O series. Not only did he write the theme, he created the music template for the series. Stevens delivered episode scores for 11 of the 12 seasons. The Five-O theme was often used by Stevens and other composers in the background music. It showed up as an action riff. It would also be slowed way down for reflective moments in a story.

Only recently did Stevens get attention for his other work. The DVD set for the 1960-62 Thriller anthology series with Boris Karloff featured a number of episodes where viewers can isolate the scores of Stevens and Jerry Goldsmith. Jon Burlingame, who has written extensively about film and television music, did a commentary track about each composer. He discussed Stevens’ work in detail.

Sept. 1 post: HAWAII FIVE-O’S 45TH ANNIVERSARY: COP SHOW WITH A SPY TWIST

What if Fleming hadn’t exited U.N.C.L.E.?

The cast of Checkmate

The cast of Checkmate

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming crying U.N.C.L.E. and opting to end his participation in the television series that would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But would have happened if he had stuck around?

It might have been similar to Checkmate, a 1960-62 crime drama on CBS.

Checkmate featured two dashing private detectives (Anthony George and Doug McClure), aided by an academic (Sebastian Cabot). Two things stood out about the show: it was produced by a production company owned by Jack Benny and it was billed as having been created by novelist Eric Ambler (1909-1998), a contemporary of Ian Fleming. In fact, in the novel From Russia, With Love, Fleming’s James Bond has an Ambler novel with him on his journey to Istanbul. Amber in 1958 also married Joan Harrison, an associate of Alfred Hitchcock, who oversaw production of the director’s television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

According to IMDB.com, Ambler never wrote an episode of Checkmate. According to the IMDB.com information, he sometimes got a creator credit and sometimes didn’t during the two seasons of the show. (From a few episodes we’ve seen, the “Created by Eric Ambler” credit appears in the main titles during the first season and shows up in the end titles in the second.)

Ambler’s participation (or lack of it) in Checkmate mirrors what was shaping up with the television project originally named Solo: it was originally to have billed Ian Fleming’s Solo, but the heavy lifting of devising a pilot episode story was done by writer Sam Rolfe. Once Fleming signed away his U.N.C.L.E. rights for 1 British pound, Rolfe still only got a “developed by” credit instead of a “created by” credit for the 1964-68 series.

Based on a sampling of episodes, Checkmate is entertaining. One episode (The Human Touch) featured Peter Lorre as the villain. Also, the series, including its theme music, was an early credit for composer John Williams (who called himself Johnny Williams at the time). Still, Ambler didn’t do the heavy lifting in terms of coming up with stories. That was left to others.

As a result, we suspect had The Man From U.N.C.L.E. come out as Ian Fleming’s Solo, the author would have been a kind of front man (even if he had lived past August 1964) while executive producer Norman Felton, Rolfe (who produced the show’s first season) and others done most of the work of devising story lines.

John Barry gets a posthumous credit in Ted

John Barry


John Barry, who defined music for James Bond movies, gets a posthumous credit in Ted, which was the No. 1 movie in the U.S. and Canada this weekend.

The R-rated comedy, directed by Seth MacFarlane, includes a rendition by star Mark Wahlberg of “All Time High,” the title song from Octopussy, the 13th 007 film produced by Eon Productions. As a result, Barry and lyricist Tim Rice get a credit in the long scroll of end titles. John Williams also gets a few credits for compositions he did for the Star Wars series and for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

If Barry, who passed away last year, been around to see Ted, he might have gritted his teeth a bit during Wahlberg’s performance.

Our salute to Morton Stevens

Before we proceed any further, let’s address the question some of you are asking. Morton who?

Morton Stevens (1929-1991) wrote one piece of music almost everybody knows, the Hawaii Five-O (or with the new show, Hawaii Five-0) theme. But that can explained away. He was just a one-hit wonder. Not really. Still, in the early- to mid-1960s, Stevens did a lot of episodic television along with Jerry Goldsmith, John (then Johnny) Williams and Lalo Schifrin. Goldsmith, Williams and Schifrin all became major film composers.

Stevens didn’t. He ended up, starting in the spring of 1965, taking a job as head of CBS’s West Coast music department. TV and movie music historian Jon Burlingame, in a commentary for the DVD set of the Thriller television series DVD set, says Stevens expressed some regret about that toward the end of his life. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, CBS dabbled in feature films. Stevens could have assigned himself to score The Reivers but assigned the job to Williams. That helped Williams achieve the status of a movie composer.

Still, Stevens shouldn’t be forgotten. The composer did at least one score for 11 of the 12 seasons of the original Five-O series (1968-1980). Here’s a clip from the ninth-season opener, Nine Dragons. Stevens provides the score staring around the 1:40 mark. It may be a trifle padded but that just gives the viewer more of an opportunity to enjoy Stevens’s work:

Three years earlier, Stevens scored the sixth-season opening episode, Hookman, for which he earned an Emmy. Here’s the “coming next week” preview and the start of the episode:

Stevens was also there was the original Five-O finished up its 12-year run. His music would be the best thing about Woe To Wo Fat:

Years later, CBS decided to do a new Hawaii Five-0 series (with the 0 replacing the capital O). When the pilot was produced in early 2010, it had a “rock music” version of Stevens’s theme. Before the network broadcast the show, the decision was made that a more traditional version was needed. Musicians who worked on the original show were called in:

On the Thriller commentary track, Burlingame quotes composer Bruce Broughton as saying that any Five-O composer had to be aware of the template that Stevens provided. In the commentary, Burlingame likens the situation to James Bond movie composers following in the steps of John Barry. That’s high praise indeed, but praise that’s earned. Arguably, Stevens is one of the composers that people don’t know but who should.

UPDATE: We can’t help it, but we have to include the end to a first-season episode (in fact, it’s one of the earliest filmed episodes), where Stevens’s score is a perfect match to McGarrett outfoxing a Hawaiian crime boss.

OK, one more clip, this one from the 1968 pilot: