Saturday, September 6, 2008

Joey's Walking On Air

Believe it or not television has the power to revitalise a pop singer’s career. It did so for John Sebastian when he scored a US#1 hit with the theme from the 70s TV comedy ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ (see earlier post). History very nearly repeated itself in 1981 when Joey Scarbury re-entered the U.S. Hot 100 after a decade long absence. It also gave song writer Mike Post one of the biggest hits of his long and illustrious career.

Firstly the Joey Scarbury story, which begins in his home town of Thousand Oaks, California. He started singing as a teen, and at age 14 was signed up to song writer Jimmy Webb’s publishing company, after being spotted by Webb’s father at a local talent show. It was 1969 and Scarbury was being groomed as another Wayne Newton or Paul Anka. His first single ‘She Never Smiles Anymore’ didn’t attract any attention, and soon after his recording contract was terminated. Scarbury scored another opportunity in 1971 when his single ‘Mixed Up Guy’ made a small splash inside the Hot 100 chart waters, paddling to #73. But that same year an even younger pretender to the pop throne broke through in the guise of a 13 year old called Donny Osmond, once again consigning Scarbury to the pop outskirts.

Still committed to his vocal gift, Scarbury spent the remainder of the 70s working as a backing singer, for artists such as Loretta Lynn. He soon came to the attention of writer/producer Mike Post, who heard in Scarbury the voice that could deliver a knock out TV theme. The TV show in question was ‘Greatest American Hero’ for the ABC network. It was a proposed weekly super-hero drama/comedy to star William Katt, Robert Culp and Connie Sellecca. The two hour pilot premiered in March 1981 and the new Mike Post/Stephen Geyer composed theme was featured throughout, soon prompting people to ask “who sings that song, and where can I buy a copy?”.

‘Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)’ was a classic soft rock song with an irresistible anthemic hook as a chorus, that proved a great vehicle for Joey Scarbury’s considerable vocal range. Initially it benefited from the exposure it received through the popularity of the TV show ‘Greatest American Hero’, but before long it was the show which was benefiting from the exposure that Scarbury’s song was receiving on every pop music radio station across the States, and later Australia.

‘Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)’ debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 during May 1981. The song spent 26 weeks inside the charts, peaking at #2 during August ‘81. ‘Endless Love’ by Diana Ross & Lionel Richie denied Joey Scarbury top spot, when it started a nine week run at #1 that same week. The song took a little longer to take off in Australia, most likely due to the long delay between when the TV show premiered in the States and when it finally aired here (thank goodness those six months delays no longer occur, often anyway). ‘Believe It Or Not’ debuted on the Australian charts during February 1982, and just like the U.S., it spent 26 weeks inside the top 100, peaking at #2.

Joey Scarbury recorded just one album with ‘America’s Greatest Hero’ being released on the Elektra label, with a cover featuring a very awkward looking Scarbury posed against a patriotic red, white and blue backdrop. The album crawled to #104 on the U.S. Pop Album charts, but aside from ‘Believe It Or Not’ the only other hit it yielded was the U.S.#49 ‘When She Dances’ in late 1981, though there were song writing contributions from Dan Seals (of Seals & Croft) and Bruce Hornsby (pre-the Range). Scarbury left the spot light soon after, and though it’s possible he was abducted by the same benevolent aliens featured in the pilot of the TV series, or caught the same boat to Key Largo as fellow soft rock vocalist turned one hit wonder, Bertie Higgins (see future post), he actually went on to be involved in a number of other projects in the ensuing years. He worked with Mike Post again on the song ‘Back To Back’ from the TV detective show ‘Hardcastle and McCormick’ in the mid 80s, and in 1990 Scarbury himself penned the top 10 country hit ‘No Matter How High I Get’ by the Oak Ridge Boys. In 2004 the song ‘Believe It Or Not’ received a profile boost again through its inclusion over a key sequence in Michael Moore’s documentary ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’. In 2005 Scarbury’s album ‘America’s Greatest Hero’ was re-issued on CD.

The other major contributor to the hit ‘Believe It Or Not’ was the song’s co-writer Mike Post. Initially Post started out in the early 60s as a backing musician for surf-music outfit The Marketts (interestingly The Marketts scored a US#17 hit in 1966 with the ‘Batman Theme’, perhaps inspiring Post to a new career direction), and for a time with Paul & Paula (US#1 ‘Hey Paula’). Whilst still attending college studying music, Post’s professional career as a songwriter/ producer began in earnest with the low profile Texas garage rock band the Outcasts in the mid 60s. Following his college graduation he formed a short lived folk ensemble called The Wellingbrook Singers. Post is also credited with playing guitar on Sonny & Cher’s U.S.#1 ‘I Got You Babe’ and was a touring musician with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. During the latter half of the 60s Post worked extensively with Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, producing their first three albums. He won his first Grammy Award in 1968 at the age of 23 for Best Instrumental Arrangement on Mason Williams’ U.S. #2 ‘Classical Gas’.

The following year he became musical director on ‘The Andy Williams Show’. In 1973 Post began what would become a long term association with TV producer Stephen J. Cannell, when he wrote the theme for Cannell’s cop drama ‘Toma’. It was while Post was musical director for ‘The Mac Davis Show’ in the mid 70s that he scored his big break through. He co-wrote (with Pete Carpenter) the theme tune to the popular James Garner TV show ‘The Rockford Files’ (another Cannell production). The track was released as a single and reached #10 on the U.S. Hot 100 during 1975. In addition to having the knack of composing hit TV themes, Post also formed a decade long collaborative partnership with Pete Carpenter scoring music for television. Post later estimated he has scored over 2000 hours worth of television screen time.

He continued to work on TV productions for both Stephen J. Cannell and Stephen Bochco during the latter half of the 70s. In fact if you watched any amount of commercial television from that era, chances are you would have heard some of Post’s work. His next big breakthrough on the charts came via ‘The Theme From Hill Street Blues’ in 1981. The gritty New York cop drama was a big hit, as was Post’s theme which matched the performance of ‘The Rockford Files’ in reaching #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and earned Post four Grammy Awards. 1981 proved a banner year for Post, also co-writing the Scarbury hit and working with Dolly Parton on her hit album ‘9 To 5’ in 1981 (though he didn’t produce the #1 title track). The following year Post wrote the theme music for the hit detective show ‘Magnum P.I.’, which reached #25 on the Hot 100. Other popular shows of that era that benefited from Post’s music were ‘The A-Team’, ‘Tenspeed And Brown Shoe’, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and ‘Wise Guy’. His television themes continued to be prevalent into the 90s with the likes of ‘News Radio’, ‘L.A. Law’, ‘NYPD Blue’ and ‘Quantum Leap’. In 1994 the prestigious BMI Richard Kirk Award was given to Post in recognition of significant lifetime achievements in the field of film or television music.

In many respects Mike Post is to TV themes, what Danny Elfman or John Williams are to movie themes.

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