I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Mike Post: The Musical Genius You Hate, or Hill Street Blues, My Darling

by Cory Vielma
June 16, 2011

If you recognize the name Mike Post, chances are that 1) you are aware of his numerous TV theme songs and 2) you harbor some level of hatred toward said theme songs for their insidious ability to implant themselves in your brain and take up residence there until you’re ready to poke out your eardrums with a sharp stick. Many would scoff at calling someone most famous for TV themes a genius, but really, what else would you call someone who has written some of the most instantly recognizable and memorable songs of the last half-century? I mean, songs that are so ridiculously catchy, that even in their brief 30 to 60 second running time could eliminate the memory of any other song? Seriously, put it to the test-- the next time something like “Careless Whisper” weasels its way into your brain and makes itself comfortable, have a listen to one of his classic themes and see which song wins. My money is on Post.

Mike Post took to playing music like it was pre-determined. By his own account, the first time he sat at a piano, he simply started playing, later remarking that “it just made sense.” It was not long before he was playing in local Los Angeles bands and getting noticed as a hot session player with a remarkable ear for arranging. His fingers were in several musical pies at the time, and his first big break was playing the chiming guitar part on Sonny & Cher’s smash hit “I Got You Babe.” From there, the floodgates opened and he was instrumental in such massive singles as Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” (for which he won three Grammys) and The First Edition’s “I Just Dropped In,” amusingly referring to Kenny Rogers as the worst musician in the band.

But it's his work in television for which he is best known, and it was Andy Williams who first got him there when he hired Post as the musical arranger for his show. Among Post’s innovations at the time was the idea to record the backing arrangements for a song a day early and have the performers sing live to the playback the following day, greatly reducing the massive headache of pulling off complicated pieces with full orchestra on live TV for the producers and crew.

From here, Post’s career in television exploded. He went on to compose the classic themes for scores of popular shows including The Rockford Files, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The A-Team, LA Law, Hill Street Blues, CHiPs, Doogie Howser MD and MacGyver to name just a few. Not only that, but another of his themes-- The Greatest American Hero-- peaked at number 2 on the singles charts in 1981, and stayed in the top 40 for 18 weeks. Take that, Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams!

Somehow, even while cranking out one classic theme song after the other, he also found time to produce records for other artists, including Van Halen, Peter Allen and even the 1981 money-grab “soundtrack” to The Dukes of Hazzard -- one of the rare TV music jobs he had for which he didn’t compose or perform. His biggest success as a producer, however, was surely Dolly Parton’s 1980 album 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs from which the song “9 to 5” was a massive success, hitting number one on both the country and pop singles charts, and eventually garnering four Grammy nominations, in the end winning for "Best Country Song" and "Best Female Country Vocal Performance." The film 9 to 5, starring Dolly Parton and featuring music from the album, was itself a huge hit and earned Parton an Oscar nomination and even went on to be produced as a stage musical in 2009.

But what does it mean? It surely takes some massive talent to create so many memorable songs in a single career, so why do so many people perceive his work to be lightweight fluff? In the bigger picture, (both literally and figuratively) why do movie themes carry so much more perceived prestige than TV themes? Should he feel guilty about his success? Should John Barry feel guilty about his success? That’s right, I said it.

The possible cause for this bias could be due in part to the medium of television itself, which is often perceived as fleeting, throw-away trash pandering to the lowest common denominator, and also due to Post’s melodies being so deceptively simple that it is perhaps hard for people to take them seriously as a stand-alone art form. But looking at it objectively, you have to admit that each theme song captures the mood of its show pretty accurately; not to mention that it's extremely difficult to think of another musician who has had so much success in this field. In fact, I can’t come up anyone who comes even close.

So here’s to you, Mike Post. We herewith celebrate your life and work, and wish you many more lives and works.

Cory Vielma has had the pleasure of writing for such great publications as SF WeeklyGreencine.com and more. His love of music and film runs so deep that it has permanently altered his DNA and given him the ability to smell time and taste rhumbas.