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Video to Vinyl, 1974: "Happy Days" Theme With Pratt & McClain + Henry Winkler and Milwaukee's "Bronze Fonz"
How a snappy tune turned into a theme! Plus, how a 29-year-old "Ayyyyyy"-list actor turned a high school student with a leather jacket and an attitude into an alloy statue in a city known for suds.
Sunday, Monday, Happy Days
Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days
Thursday, Friday, Happy Days
What a day
Rocking all week with you
Lyrics by the late Norman Gimbel (who passed in 2018)
It’s hard to see those words, and not start singing along to the familiar melody, as composed by Charles Fox! Here’s Fox, now 82, in a recent interview about writing the song:
The sitcom, Happy Days, originally aired on ABC-TV from January 1974 through July 1984, a good 10 1/2 years—11 actual seasons for a total of 255 eps, solidly placing them in the coveted land of lucrative syndication opportunities. In fact, they reached that hallowed ground about half-way in, and began a syndication run in 1979, with the re-run title of Happy Days Again.
Personally speaking, that ‘74-’84 original-run decade took me from my freshman year of college to the end of my second year of college (as a 29-year-old sophomore, I was what Admissions would call a “non-traditional student”—holy financial aid, Batman! Pell Grant? Yes, please)!
Frankly, virtually that entire decade forms the backbone of the FRONT ROW & BACKSTAGE close-encounters content, from my two years in college radio (meeting Journey and producing an interview show), my interviewing David Cassidy in his Houston penthouse, my two years in commercial radio, and half-a-decade in retail records, which includes (but is certainly not limited to) meeting Iggy Pop, driving Tom Robinson around downtown Houston, hanging with The Ramones in their hotel room in 1978, and so much more!
Happy days, indeed!
Rock Around the Clock (Until the Alarm Rings to Change Theme Songs!)
For the sitcom’s first season, the four executive producers (led by industry vet and the show’s creator, Garry Marshall) utilized Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” as the show’s opening and closing theme song (over which ran the credits).
For that initial season, the show used a newly-recorded version of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets (recorded in the fall of 1973) as the opening theme song. This recording was not commercially released at the time, although the original 1954 recording returned to the American Billboard charts in 1974 as a result of the song’s use on the show.
The show’s closing theme song in seasons one and two was a fragment from the Gimbel/Fox “Happy Days” (although in a different recording with a different lyric from that which would become the standard version).
Love is a Many-Splendored Theme
Gimbel and Fox also wrote themes for Love, American Style, Wonder Woman (whose Lynda Carter recorded her own album in 1978), Laverne & Shirley (starring Happy Days creator, Garry Marshall’s sister, Penny, as Laverne), and The Love Boat.
Omartian was chosen to produce the song, and he recommended old friends and recording partners, Pratt & McClain, to record it.
Per Wikipedia: According to SAG (Screen Actors Guild), this version was performed by the late Jim Haas on lead vocals (who, while a first-call back-up singer for years, infamously sang on and over many tracks on Leif Garrett’s late-‘70s sessions, according to the singer after Haas’ death; the complete story here), longtime veteran L.A. session vocalists, The Ron Hicklin Singers, Stan Farber, Jerry Whitman, and Gary Garrett on backing vocals, and studio musicians. Here is that 1974 version:
From seasons three to ten inclusive, a longer version of “Happy Days” replaced “Rock Around the Clock” at the beginning of the show. Released as a single by Reprise/Warner Bros. Records in 1976 by Pratt & McClain, “Happy Days” cracked the Billboard Top 5. The show itself finished the 1976–77 television season at #1, ending the 5-year Nielsen-ratings reign of CBS stalwart, All in the Family.
The success of the single (produced by Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, who also arranged) provided Warners with the opportunity to reward Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain with an album.
Hand-cuffed, to some degree, to the retro ‘50s theme due to the single’s success, the duo was “forced” to not only don silly letterman sweaters for the album cover (and, of course, make it appear as if they’re on a college campus!), but tailor some songs, as well, to the now-expected ‘50s/sock-hop format.
Welcome to big-time record company PR and marketing, P&M!
Song titles (whether this was the style they were used to or even wanted to record!) included “Raised on Rock” and “Devil With a Blue Dress” (the Mitch Ryder & Detroit Wheels 1966 hit). Plus, there was the ‘70s sultry mood-rocker, “Whachersign,” written by producer/arranger, Omartian, and his wife, Stormie Omartian:
Along with cans of Tab, banana seats on bikes, and wall telephones, asking one’s zodiac sign was as ubiquitous in the ‘70s as mood rings and lime green leisure suits.
Prior to “all this” happening to them in 1976, Pratt & McClain were a duo called Brother Love (you’ll notice the “Brother Love” billing on the single was dropped by the time the resultant album was released).
Truett Pratt (above, left) grew up in San Antonio, Texas, attended Thomas Jefferson High School, and sang in his church choir. Jerry McClain also sang in the choir in his hometown of Pasadena, California.
McClain formed his first band, American Scene, with the duo’s eventual producer, Michael Omartian, in the mid-’60s. In 1970, Omartian began a successful record-producing career, eventually recording hits for Christopher Cross, Donna Summer, Rod Stewart, and Amy Grant, among others.
In the early ‘70s, he introduced McClain to Pratt. They formed a band called Brother Love and began recording commercial jingles.
In 1974, the duo decided to expand into mainstream rock, changed the act’s name to Pratt & McClain, signed with ABC/Dunhill Records and recorded a self-titled album:
Omartian produced (with Steve Barri) both the 1974 and the 1976 Pratt & McClain albums. Omartian, who also provided keyboards on both sessions, played keys on the 1974 debut album by FRONT ROW & BACKSTAGE’s key contributor, Stephen Michael Schwartz, for RCA Records. That story can be read here:
The Fonz: Gentleman Preferz Bronze
The inspiration behind this peek into the Happy Days theme song, as well as Pratt & McClain, was an article in the Spring 2023 American Road magazine, titled “Bronze Fonz Loses Blue Pants” (something about the statue’s hues eroding into various shades of blue, and finally settling on a bronze patina).
Apparently, in 2008, a bronze statue of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character (from Happy Days) was unveiled on The Milwaukee Riverwalk, just south of Wells Street (the city was the setting for both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley).
While this writer is in Austin, Texas, and like San Antonio native, Truett Pratt, well familiar with The Alamo City’s Riverwalk, I wasn’t aware of either the Brew City’s Riverwalk, or any statue saluting a former 1970s ABC-TV sitcom character.
Fortunately, fellow Substack music scribe, Kevin Alexander, who pulls together the delectable and oh-so-subscribe-able On Repeat, lives in Madison, Wisconsin, about as far from Milwaukee’s Riverwalk (which he’s visited) as Austin is from San Antonio’s worthwhile waterway. He reflects on the Brew City’s tourist attraction:
“As for The Riverwalk, it’s fantastic. It starts down on the water, where Summerfest is every year, and heads up through a string of great art galleries, bars, and more. The Fonzie statue (The “Bronze Fonz”) is right there on the water. It’s one of those things everyone has to see at least once, and plenty of people do—it’s literally turning shiny from people touching it!”
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