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Ernie Kovacs’ Enduring Theme Song

Although there have been several comedians from TV and radio who were associated with a particular song or theme song, Ernie Kovacs’ association with his theme runs through his entire television career as well as for every series he had. More than playing “Thanks for the Memories” when Bob Hope strode out onto a stage for an appearance on his or someone else’s show, the “Oriental Blues” by Jack Newlon was Kovacs’ signature, musically, and it let you know you were in for a good time.

Main title from the short-lived 15-minute Kovacs show “It’s Time for Ernie” which ran weekday afternoons May-June 1951 on WPTZ, the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia

The recording of the piece, on the Top Tunes label by Tony DeSimone and his trio, makes its first known appearance on the earliest surviving kinescope of a Kovacs show, “It’s Time For Ernie”. It may be the earliest of his shows to be kinescoped at all. While it’s not known how Kovacs came to find the recording, it was not something he’d used on the radio, as the piece was both published and released on record in 1951. “It’s Time For Ernie”, a 15-minute live show aired on WPTZ, the Philly-based NBC affiliate, in 1951.

In fact, the show aired three test shows in early March 1951 before actually airing as a series weekday afternoons at 3:15pm from May through June of 1951. DeSimone and his trio were already part of Kovacs’ ensemble, having been there since the launch of his morning wake-up show “Three To Get Ready” which had debuted in the 7am-9am slot in November 1950.

But when a piece of music clicked with Ernie, or he with it, it clicked. It wasn’t always an obvious choice anyone else would make, but Ernie stuck to it. Whether it was the German language “Moritat” of the original cast recording of “Threepenny Opera” for a series of blackout gags punctuated by an oscilloscope, the Adagio Cantabile movement of the Hofstetter quartet (originally attributed to Haydn) to advertise cigars, etc., Ernie’s taste in music was what it was.

“Oriental Blues” (of which the piece is, actually, neither) follows Kovacs from series to series to series. It’s heard at the top and bottom of Kovacs’ shows – played from the Top Tunes record, by a live combo on his 1955-56 NBC daytime show, by a pit orchestra on the 1956 NBC prime time summer replacement show, by a full symphony – orchestrated by Peter Matz and conducted by Andre Previn – for 1959’s Kovacs on Music, and again on a recording for his ABC shows, you knew this was an Ernie Kovacs show from the first bar of music you heard.

The recording many of us are more familar with from the ABC specials and from its use on the “Best of Ernie Kovacs” compilation shows that aired on PBS in 1977 is something of a mystery. While I’d always assumed this recording had been done for the ABC specials, it wasn’t until I began going through the episodes of the 1959-1960 bizarro panel quiz show “Take a Good Look” preparing for the DVD box set for Shout Factory that I discovered the actual start of its use.

Season one of TaGL used for its opening and closing music a piece of what sounds like stock or production music, a peppy big band-sounding cue Kovacs had actually written a song “Take a Good Look” that couldn’t possibly have been a good fit for a game show. Perhaps the production music was a last minute replacement, since Kovacs’ song wasn’t going to work. Episode one of season two, however, has that “ABC shows” recording of “Oriental Blues”. A few bars here and there are played slightly differently from the original 1951 record and sheet music, but it’s otherwise the same.

The 1960 recording of the piece was never issued on vinyl, and the musical personnel on the recording is still, to this day, unknown. No master tape of it survives in the Ediad Productions archives, housed now at the Library of Congress.

I’ve blogged about Ernie’s theme song previously here, and about the tune’s origins and composer.

“It’s been real.”

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