Theme songs: Meet the Black music and musicians who serenade us from the small screen

Theme songs: Meet the Black music and musicians who serenade us from the small screen

While mourning the passing of actor Michael K. Williams last week, I revisited some of the episodes of the HBO classic series The Wire and was reminded of the theme song: Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole.” The song was performed by different artists each season, including The Blind Boys of Alabama—whose version was selected for the series’ premiere season—as well as the Neville Brothers, Waits himself, and a group of Black Baltimore teenagers. 

Listening to these very different versions got me thinking about Black musicians and music in other television series. Though white artists and composers predominate scoring and performing for television series, I was elated to find Black music offerings in various genres. Some I was familiar with, and others which I had not heard until I started searching.  

So for today’s #BlackMusicSunday, join me in a musical expedition on the small screen, starting with The Wire.   

In 2008, The Chicago Tribune explored “The music behind ‘The Wire.’

“The Wire” doesn’t do much of anything the traditional TV way, and its unorthodoxy extends to its opening theme. It’s the same old song each season — “Way Down in the Hole,” a scary gospel-blues that Tom Waits composed about 20 years ago — but interpreted by a different group or artist.

Initially, a revered African-American gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama, sang the song. Waits himself got a turn the second season. The Neville Brothers, out of New Orleans, did the honors in Season 3. For Season 4, when the series’ focus widened yet again, this time to take in man-children in the Baltimore projects trying to say no to drugs and crime, the series’ creators turned to five Baltimore teenagers — Ivan Ashford, Markel Steele, Avery Bargasse, Cameron Brown and Tariq Al-Sabir — collectively known as DoMaJe. For the final season, Waits’ 23rd Psalm sentiments are sung by alt-country star (and former heroin addict) Steve Earle, who is also reprising his recurring role in the series as a recovering junkie who works with a 12-step program.

As mentioned, the original series opening was performed by the Blind Boys of Alabama.

The Blind Boys of Alabama’s website gives their background details.

Touring throughout the South during the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 1950s, the Blind Boys flourished thanks to their unique sound, which blended the close harmonies of early jubilee gospel with the more fervent improvisations of hard gospel. In the early 1960s, the band sang at benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and were a part of the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement. But as the years passed, gospel fans started to drift away and follow the many singers who had originated in the church but were now recording secular popular music. And the Blind Boys, who refused many offers to ‘cross over’ to secular music, also saw their audiences dwindle. However, the Blind Boys persevered and their time came again, starting in the 1980s with their starring role in the Obie Award-winning musical “The Gospel at Colonus,” which began a new chapter in their incredible history. It’s almost unbelievable that a group of blind, African-American singers, who started out touring during a time of whites-only bathrooms, restaurants and hotels, went on to win five Grammy® Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and to perform at the White House for three different presidents.

Few would have expected them to still be going strong—stronger than ever, even—so many years after they first joined voices, but they’ve proved as productive and as musically ambitious in recent years as they did in the beginning. In 2001, they released Spirit of the Century on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, mixing traditional church tunes with songs by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones, and won the first of their Grammy Awards. The next year they backed Gabriel on his album Up and joined him on a world tour, although a bigger break may have come when David Simon chose their cover of Waits’ ‘Way Down in the Hole’ as the theme song for the first season of HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire.  

In a review for Classic Rock of all five versions of The Wire’s theme, Emma Johnston gives her opinion on the Neville Brothers’ rendition.

The Neville Brothers step up for season three, and they bring a hot New Orleans flavour to the cold streets of Baltimore with the funkiest interpretation of the song yet. An elephantine organ line thumps things along, while addictive Mardi Gras bottles-and-cans percussion injects an air of wanton celebration that has little to do with spiritual searching and substantially more to do with earthly pleasures. Add a sultry sax section and a super-soulful vocal that threatens to topple even Stevie Wonder’s position at the top of the R&B heap, and you’ve got a version that displays its heavyweight riches without an ounce of modesty.

As such, it fits into the season’s theme of corruption in the halls of governmental power as snugly as a financial bung to a dodgy MP.

Listen for yourself.

Season Four of The Wire focuses on Baltimore’s schools

Show creator David Simon turned his attention to Baltimore’s struggling public school system, as experienced by several teachers and particularly a group of four young friends. Those boys, growing up in the inner city, are in an environment designed to make them addicts or criminals before they become adults. Whether any of them can navigate that minefield successfully is the question that drives this powerful season. […]

Singing the opening credits song this time around, appropriately, is a group of Baltimore teens who performed under the name DoMaJe

This version was particularly surprising to anyone who paid attention to the first three seasons’ performances, which were performed by musicians far from childhood.

Once I finished exploring and refreshing my memory of The Wire’s theme song, I was taken back in time to an ‘80s TV series I had forgotten: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.

The theme song is “Harlem Nocturne,” written by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers in 1939 and has since become a jazz standard. Radio station WFMU lists 42 versions—which is only a partial listing. 

Here are two of my favorite renditions. 

Several television series themes feature funky Latin beats. Puerto Rican percussionist Willie Bobo recorded one of them.

Before his untimely death at the age of 49 in 1983, legendary Nuyorican jazz percussionist Willie “Bobo” Correa left behind an impressive and eclectic discography that includes fourteen records as bandleader, with styles ranging from Afro-Cuban to Soul, Funk to Brazilian influences, and so on. He was also accomplished as a sideman, with over 50 appearances performing alongside some of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century.

The celebrated timbalero is perhaps best known for releasing the original version of “Evil Ways”, written by his band’s guitarist and later made famous by Santana in 1969.

Here’s Bobo’s beloved Kojak theme.

Surprisingly, another Latin percussion-enhanced theme song on my list is “Suicide is Painless,” from M*A*S*H. Vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson recorded a version of it in 1975.

Who woulda thunk that the theme song from The Flintstones cartoon series, “Meet The Flintstones,” would become a jazz standard?

You may have noticed that I have not shared music from television series with predominantly Black casts and targeted specifically to Black audiences. I did that simply because one would expect that Black TV shows would include both Black music and musicians. There are a few to choose from, most of which were sitcoms. I’ll be posting some of them in the comments, but I would like to highlight one Black sitcom theme that came from an unlikely source: actress Ja’Net Dubois, who was one of the stars of the series Good Times.  

As YouTuber Pop Goes The Culture TV wrote in February 2020:

Ja’Net Dubois, beloved as Willona on “Good Times”, recently passed away. In addition to many movies, guest shots and other roles, Ja’Net also was the composer and singer of the opening theme to THE JEFFERSONS. In this archival clip, she recounts how she came to write that iconic theme song.

Enjoy this story of Dubois’ self-advocacy—aimed at Norman Lear—and how she found success … with a little help from Mom.

Enjoy both versions of the iconic theme below.

Notes posted by YouTuber E included the lyrics that Dubois described as “personal”:

Yes, we’re movin’ on up to the east side

To a deluxe apartment in the sky

Movin’ on up to the east side

We finally got a piece of the pie

Fish don’t fry in the kitchen

Beans don’t burn on the grill

Took a whole lotta tryin’

Just to get up that hill

Now we’re up in the big leagues

Gettin’ our turn at bat

As long as we live, it’s you and me, baby

There ain’t nothin’ wrong with that

Well we’re movin’ on up to the east side

To a deluxe apartment in the sky

Movin’ on up to the east side

We finally got a piece of the pie

When I think about The Jeffersons and what George and Weezy represented — I also think today of why we, as Black people, are resented by such a distressingly large segment of our fellow citizens. The lyric “finally got a piece of the pie” says it all, to me, at a time when racists still want to take away that tiny slice we’ve gained over time.  

Clearly, we still have further to go. After all, in 2020, Amanda Jones became the first Black woman nominated for a Primetime Emmy for composing a score, “for her work on the “Maine” episode of Home, a docu-series that explores the world’s most innovative homes.”

Meet the first Black female Primetime Emmy nominee for composing a score Composer Amanda Jones is hoping to pave the way for more diversity behind the scenes. 👁⚙🌩

— the kinte space (@KinteSpace) October 23, 2020

Jones did not win the Emmy, but she is part of an organization called the Composers Diversity Collective, “[a]n organization of music creators who are achieving a workplace environment in the entertainment industry as diverse as our society.”

Though we often think of television as mostly “visual,” the music that both introduces and ends shows, as well as providing an aural narrative woven throughout any given program, is key to our enjoyment and often remains with us long after we’ve forgotten dialogue and images.

Since much of American music is fundamentally Black music, that should be reflected and writ large in our small-screen experiences.

From Daily Kos at Read More. This article is republished from DailyKos under an open content license. Read the original article at DailyKos.

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