Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Rockford Files (1975)

Performer: Mike Post                                         Writers: Mike Post & Pete Carpenter
Highest US Chart Position: 10                           Label: MGM Records
Musicians: Tommy Morgan (harp), Dan Ferguson (dobro), Mike Baird (drums)

Though the show ran from the time I started junior high until I graduated high school, I can’t remember ever sitting down to watch any episodes of The Rockford Files. In thinking back on it, I never really watched any crime dramas. Manix, Cannon, Ironside, Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, The Streets of San Francisco all passed unnoticed by me throughout the decade. The theme song to "The Rockford Files" by Mike Post, however, was an entirely different story. I’m pretty sure it was my sister who bought the 45, but it spent a lot of time in my room. Another of the great things about pop music in the seventies is how many instrumental TV themes made it into the charts. This is one of the good ones. Because James Garner himself was from Oklahoma, Post decided to go slightly Southern blues with the song, using harmonica and dobro, and it definitely set it apart from other themes at the time. The backing orchestra is something Post called “a chamber group on steroids,” two flutes, two French horns, and two trombones. Post and co-writer Pete Carpenter actually set out to make a hit record with the song--as they did with most of their themes. But Post was smart. He waited until the show had a season under its belt and had become a hit on television before releasing the song as a single.

The song begins with a three eighth-note pick-up by the rhythm section. But then it is only the brass who hit on the downbeat, with the melody waiting until the upbeat of one to finish the phrase with two quarter notes, Tommy Morgan’s harmonica playing over the first time and Dan Ferguson’s dobro playing over the second. After two times around the intro the distinctive melody comes in on the Moog synthesizer and plays twice through. Though Mike Baird plays a backbeat on the snare, the way the melody comes down on all four beats evenly seems to give the whole song a call-and-response feel underneath. Morgan plays the harmonica on the bridge with the horns playing countermelody, but the emphasis on the four-beat nature of the song gives it the feel of a march at that point. At the end of the bridge the drums and horns play a series of accents together, then the everyone drops out but the bass playing beneath Morgan’s single-note vibrato. Then the whole thing begins again. On the third time through, however, Dan Ferguson plays a terrific solo over a section with just drums and percussion punctuated by the horns that Post added later for the single. This time on the bridge it’s just the horns playing the melody without Morgan and ends with some terrific slide work by Dan Ferguson on guitar. From there the song repeats the melody with Ferguson soloing as the song fades out.

Everything about the song is unique, and is undoubtedly the reason for its chart success. The harmonica and dobro are incredibly distinctive, but then so is the synthesizer. What really cements everything together, though, is the low brass. With no trumpets to compete with the solo instruments it’s the perfect accompaniment. The song entered the Hot 100 on May 17th, debuting at number 93, then proceeded to march up the charts ten spots a week until it slowed down in the middle of July and made its way from 26 up to number 10 a month later. It stayed there for two weeks before plummeting off the charts two weeks later in September. The B-side of the single, the song “Dixie Lullabye,” begins as a piano ballad, then brings in the distinctive synthesizer from the A-side playing the melody, before the horns come in to support and give the whole thing an equally theme-song like feel. I may not have watched the show, but the song is a vivid reminder of that crucial summer of 1975 when I came alive to music and my father was in the hospital. I’ve always loved instrumental music, and the seventies was the last time they appeared on pop radio with any frequency. Forty years later, Mike Post’s theme to "The Rockford Files" is still just as impressive.

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