In this very strange day and age, we suppose such a thing was inevitable. But really, could there possibly be a face-off of any kind between the venerable but long-deceased Nelson Riddle, composer of the famous “Route 66 Theme,” and Matt Groening, creator of that terminally irreverent and irritating cartoon series, The Simpsons, an animated celebration of All Things Dumbed Down? And if so, who would win? If you could even call it a win.
The by now 25-year-old cartoon series featuring a family of misfits has been a vehicle of satire for its creator, cartoonist Matt Groening. Groening was drawing a newspaper cartoon called Life In Hell for the alternative weekly Los Angeles Reader when writer and producer James L. Brooks contacted him about creating some short animated skits for his then-current TV program, The Tracy Ullman Show. That’s where The Simpsons debuted. The cartoons were spun off into a separate series in 1989, and the rest was TV history. The Simpsons has been steadily mocking popular culture and modern life ever since. And the theme music, written by TV and film music composer Danny Elfman, is a Jetsons-sounding bit of whimsy that is instantly recognized all over the world. (Thus, the power of American media.)
The overlap here is the (fictional) town of Spingfield, home of the Simpson family. Yes, there are two other Springfields on historic U.S. Route 66, the state capital in Illinois and a Missouri town halfway between St. Louis and Tulsa, OK. Does either one of these resemble even vaguely the mythical Springfield of Groening’s warped imagination? You’ll have to be the judge. But someone thought there was enough similarity to do a mash-up of the theme music. So Happy April Fool’s Day, y’all, and enjoy the musical joke!
Nelson Riddle was an entirely different kind of guy than either Groening or Elfman, a long, tall (6’2″) elegant man from another era (the martini-drinking WW II and post-war generation, which probably accounted for the cirrhosis of the liver that indirectly caused his death from hepatitis in 1985 at age 64). The online music database AllMusic.com calls him “quite possibly the greatest arranger in the history of American popular music.” Riddle, an accomplished musician on piano and trombone, began arranging as a young man when he joined the Charlie Spivak Orchestra just as WW II was starting. In 1943, he joined the merchant marine so that he could stay in the states and remain with the Spivak band. In 1944, he joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra as third trombonist before the Army drafted him in 1945. It was during the post-war era, however, that Riddle really made his mark, becoming famous as an arranger for people like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and, on occasion, for Judy Garland, Keely Smith and Dean Martin. Riddle got his big break when he arranged the hit single “Mona Lisa” for Cole.
Riddle’s trademark sound was lush, and his orchestrations were always swinging; he arranged with the singer as vocal interpreter in mind. In addition to doing film scores for a number of Sinatra films during the 1950s and 1960s, he was musical director for TV variety shows starring Sinatra, Cole and singer Rosemary Clooney. Riddle also infamously had an extramarital affair during the 1960s with Rosie Clooney (yes, George’s aunt), which ended both of their marriages.
The theme for Route 66 was one of Riddle’s fewer forays into TV and film music. CBS commissioned him to write the theme music for its new drama series because the studio execs didn’t want to pay royalties to Bobby Troup for his tune. Riddle responded with a work that became one of the most recognized pieces of television music of the 20th century. The theme is the epitomy of 1960 swinging cool jazz, when cool was at its height, and as such was highly appropriate for a drama series about two serious young wanderers in a Corvette doing their Kerouac thing across the U.S. during the Kennedy era. It was notoriously popular at the time, too, becoming only the third TV show theme to enter the Billboard Top 30, following the “Dragnet Theme” by Ray Anthony in 1953 and the formidable Henry Mancini’s “Mr. Lucky Theme” in 1960. Riddle’s theme song also earned two Grammy nominations in 1962. A version with lyrics by Stanley Styne, retitled “Open Highway,” was recorded on an album by the same name by jazz singer Teri Thornton in 1963; that vinyl album (available as a 2001-reissued audio CD with liner notes by Tony Bennett) is now a collector’s item on Amazon.com.
The “Route 66 Theme” was, of course, the title music from the 1960s TV drama anthology series of the same name, starring George Maharis and Martin Milner. The series was the brainchild of creator Stirling Silliphant, best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the 1967 film In The Heat Of The Night. Silliphant was what people used to call a class act. Before Route 66, he had written scripts for other drama series, including Zane Grey Theater, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Alcoa Theater, Mr. Lucky, General Electric Theater and Naked City. After Route 66, Silliphant wrote scripts for Chrysler Theater and a made-for-TV movie before he got the chance to write his first film script, for a 1965 Sydney Pollack movie that also starred Sidney Poitier, called The Slender Thread. That led next to director Norman Jewison and In The Heat Of The Night, after which came certain fame and scripts for the 1968 Oscar-winning drama Charly and the later blockbuster thrillers The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
The show’s scripts examined a changing American society, which was not that surprising for a drama series that debuted only three years after Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac’s seminal book On The Road was published. Silliphant’s writing for the series was mostly dark and literate, not unlike Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone. Silliphant also rivaled Serling’s accomplishment on that series in that Silliphant wrote three-quarters of the episodes for Route 66, many of which were written at least partly on the road. Silliphant traveled around the U.S. and Canada scouting locales for the TV series. The moment Silliphant nailed a location he liked, a crew of 50 arrived shortly thereafter to begin filming. Episodes were filmed in 40 states, but very few of them were anywhere near the actual U.S. Route 66. Only three early episodes even referred to Route 66. The show still made for one hell of a ride, though, lasting for four seasons and 116 episodes. Reruns are currently airing on cable TV channels and the U.S. broadcast network MeTV.
Until next time,
your music muse DJ SweetMarie