Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman this month recounts the memorable cartoon theme songs that have become fond parts of our collective pop culture.
The cartoon theme song is nearly as old as animation. When we recognize, smile at or sing along with one, we are sharing our popular culture with countless others who have enjoyed both cartoons and the music composed for them. Not all cartoons have been memorable, and the same can be said for many of the themes and songs written to accompany them, but the best of them are universally known and beloved by all.
Below are 10 themes that may have made the biggest impact on American culture by dint of their popularity and ubiquity; any one of them, heard in public, would be (or once were) instantly recognized by everyone and would inspire a happy sense of nostalgia in the listeners. More than likely, an impromptu sing-a-long would follow. Of course, if you doubt this, you could try it.
I have not included the many great musical numbers found in theatrical releases, because they do not qualify as theme songs. I have also omitted the many memorable holiday tunes that came to us through animated specials, for much the same reason, and also because they are seasonal and only shared at specific times. It is unusual for most people to break into a spirited version of "Holly Jolly Christmas" around campfires or during summer cookouts. Although, you never know.
Minnie's Yoo-Hoo (1929) (Carl Stalling, Walt Disney) For historical interest, but deserves inclusion. Not too many people remember this today, but during the 1930s there were 775 Mickey Mouse clubs with more than a million mouse-worshipping kids swarming into local movie houses to take pledges, sing patriotic songs, and elect officers. The official song of the Mickey Mouse Clubs was "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo," a tune from the 1929 short Mickey's Follies. "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo" was, in fact, the first original song ever to be written for a Disney film, and featured Walt himself on the vocals.
This tune is noted for its tin-pan alley style, frankly atrocious lyrics, and the fact that everyone in the country knew it by heart. Memorable line" "I'm the guy they call little Mickey Mouse/Got a girlfriend down at the chicken house."
Popeye the Sailor Man (1933) (Sammy Lerner) There is a legend surrounding this tune that Lerner simply laid the music down as a timing track, never intending to actually use it. Dave Fleischer, desperate because a cartoon was nearing deadline, grabbed it and tossed it in, whereupon he song became an unexpected hit. The truth is nearly as amazing: Lerner actually wrote the music in just under two hours.
The song was first heard during Popeye's debut in Popeye The Sailor (actually a Betty Boop cartoon) in 1933. This jaunty song was at least part of the reason why Popeye soon eclipsed Mickey Mouse in popularity. Memorable line: "I'm strong to the finich, 'cause I eats me spinach." Notable cover version: Face to Face.
The Woody Woodpecker Song (1947) (George Tibbles, Ramey Idriss) In 1947, Tibbles and Idriss, two musicians in Walter Lantz' orchestra, told the boss about an idea they had for a song. The tune highlighted Woody Woodpecker's famous staccato laugh, and Lantz urged the pair to publish it. Tibbles and Idriess took the song to bandleader Kay Kyser, who worked out an orchestral arrangement. Vocals were sung by Gloria Wood, and the woodpecker's laugh was provided by Harry Babbitt.
The song was first heard on screen in the 1948 Woody cartoon, "Wet Blanket Policy". When released to the public, "The Woody Woodpecker Song" sold 250,000 copies in just 10 days, and was #1 on the Hit Parade for most of the summer of 1948. The song was nominated for an Academy Award that same year, and was the focus of an unsuccessful half-million dollar lawsuit by Mel Blanc, who claimed to be the originator of Woody's chortle. Memorable line: "And it's nothing to him, on the tiniest whim/To peck a few holes in your head". Notable covers: Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye (with the Andrews Sisters), Mel Blanc and the Sportsmen.
Meet the Flintstones (1962) (Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera) Most animation fans know that this sprightly sing-along was not the original theme for the show. The Flintstones opened at first with an instrumental known as "Rise and Shine;" the music that was to become the famous theme song was used only as underscore. The first time this song was heard in full was on a record album and was sung by the cast. Curtin later recorded it using 22 musicians and five singers, and it became the popular show's new opening song.
"Meet the Flintstones" is the archetype for every universally recognized and beloved sing-along cartoon theme ever recorded. Can anyone forget that great moment in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where John Candy cheers a busload of despondent riders by leading them into a spirited rendition of this great carton theme? Memorable line: "Let's ride with the family down the street/Through the courtesy of Fred's two feet." Notable cover versions: The B-52s (as the BC-52s).
The Jetsons Theme Song (1963) (Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera) Curtin went jazzy for this one, showcasing his songwriting versatility. The lyrics are minimal (11 words) but the instrumentals are wonderful, including a free-form turn by noted trumpeter Bud Brisbois. Curtin originally wrote the piece for a small combo, but Hanna and Barbera wanted a more symphonic sound. Curtin gave the pair their money's worth, with a hint of "Chopsticks" thrown in for good measure. Sorry, Astro... you weren't in the song. Memorable line: "Meet George Jetson."
Spiderman Theme Song (1967) (Bob Harris, Paul Francis Webster). The animation was cheesy. The story lines were simple. The opening boogie and its hip lyrics were absolutely irresistible. Webber, who had penned lyrics to numbers such as "The Shadow of Your Smile" and "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" added this gem to his legacy. Webster's words combine with Harris' savvy, jumpy bass line to make this one of the most popular cartoon theme songs to emerge from Saturday morning. Memorable line: "Is he strong? Listen, bud/He's got radioactive blood". Notable covers: The Ramones, Aerosmith.
Josie and The Pussycats (1970) (Hoyt Curtin, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera) Hoyt Curtin strikes again! When Josie, Melody, and Valerie needed a theme song, the venerable songster came up with a true treasure. The mod music for this groovy show was produced by Danny Janssen and sung by Cathy Dougher, Cherie Moor (later known as Cheryl Ladd), and Patrice Holloway.
"Josie and the Pussycats" featured Dan DeCarlo's character designs and some of the silliest Saturday morning storylines (and chases) ever to be coupled with music. The theme was reprised with different lyrics for the follow-up series Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space. Memorable line: "Josie and the Pussycats/Long tails and ears for hats." Notable cover version: Liana Hatfield and Tonya Donelly.
George of the Jungle (1967) (Sheldon Allman, Stan Worth) Seldom has any one man written so many silly themes that will live forever. Allman (no relation to Duane or Greg) also crafted the unforgettable theme song for Mr. Ed, but you knew that of course, of course. With its bouncy tom-tom beat, Tarzan bellow, and immortal tag line -- "Watch out for that tree!" -- the George of the Jungle theme is known to several generations of cartoon fans and recognizable to millions of others who may have never seen the cartoon. Allman, along with collaborator Stan Worth, wrote the music for the show's other two components, Tom Slick and Super Chicken. Notable Cover versions: Weird Al, The Presidents of the United States.
Sugar, Sugar (1969) (Jeff Barry, Andy Kim) OK, this is not a theme song, but the fact is this #1 hit and RIAA Record of the Year for 1969 was launched from a Saturday morning toon. The Archie Show contributed this bubbly gem to American culture, if not much else. "Sugar, Sugar" did not launch the genre known as "bubblegum rock," but it was perhaps the finest example of same. Jeff Barry is the man who discovered Neil Diamond; Andy Kim went on to record another number one hit with "Rock Me Gently" in 1974. The Archie characters starred in a total of 10 animated TV series, but never achieved musical fame again. Memorable line: "You are my candy girl/And you've got me wanting you." Notable cover version: Mary Lou Lord and Semisonic.
Underdog (1964)( W. Watts Biggers) This thrumming, humming theme song is inseparable from sugary bowls of cereal and happy Saturday mornings. Composer Biggers wanted a stirring, heroic anthem to accompany the adventures of the wonder pooch, and the result was a classic theme song that ranks among the best.
From the opening triadic bass line and manly vocalizations to the final sweeping chorus of "Un-der-dog!" this ditty is as potent as one of Underdog's Super Energy Vitamin Pills. Take that, Riff Raff! Memorable line: "Speed of lightning, roar of thunder/Fighting all who rob or plunder/Underdog! Un-der-dog!" Notable covers: Butthole Surfers, The Blanks (performed on NBC's Scrubs), Tom Hanks (on the Rosie O'Donnell Show).
Feel like singing yet? If you do, you belong to a huge fraternity of cartoon fans who can never visualize their favorite toon without the theme song winding incessantly through their minds. A great cartoon theme song is a friend to you and me. It's just how sweet a kiss can be, does whatever a spider can, and, of course, is a page right out of history.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.