The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Rhythm Heritage’s “Theme From S.W.A.T.

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Rhythm Heritage – “Theme From S.W.A.T.

HIT #1: February 28, 1976

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

It seems absurd now, but once upon a time, people would watch a TV show because they liked the theme music. As a kid, I sat through a whole lot of reruns of old cop and spy shows simply because I was drawn in by the stomping, funky, instantly memorable opening instrumentals. Those sequences were fast and sensational and full of horn-stabs. With those theme songs, composers like Hawaii Five-O’s Morton Stevens and Mission: Impossible’s Lalo Schifrin promised a whole lot more excitement than the shows themselves could ultimately deliver. Typically, though, the theme songs themselves were not hits. They weren’t built to be hits. The songs themselves were about a minute long, and they only existed to be TV-show themes. Apparently, nobody even thought to release those tracks as records at the time. But that changed with “Theme From S.W.A.T..”

S.W.A.T. itself was not any kind of TV classic. It was a replacement-level ABC cop procedural, a spinoff of The Rookies that only lasted a couple of seasons in the mid-’70s. But S.W.A.T. did have one thing going for it: an absolute banger of an opening theme. Composer Barry DeVorzon’s music was a careening explosion of trumpets and chicken-scratch guitars and siren sounds. It’s basically the only thing that anyone remembers about the show.

Steve Barri’s six-year-old son loved the S.W.A.T. theme music, and he had a question for Barri: Why couldn’t you buy a record of that song anywhere? Barri didn’t know the answer, so he went ahead and recorded one. Barri and his fellow record producer Michael Omartian got a bunch of their favorite session musicians together, named the band Rhythm Heritage, and knocked out a four-minute instrumental arrangement of the S.W.A.T. music, figuring out how to stretch it out without losing that all-important momentum.

Honestly, it’s amazing that this didn’t happen more often. The approach had worked once before. In 1968, surf-guitar greats the Ventures put out a cover of Morgan Stevens’ Hawaii Five-O theme, and it peaked at #4 years after surf guitar had disappeared from the charts. (It’s a 7.) The Ventures’ version of the song doesn’t even hit as hard as the one from the show, but people still bought it in vast quantities. This was an era when there were only three TV channels, when everyone watched the same shows and presumably might have welcomed the opportunity to hear those songs more than once a week. But “Theme From S.W.A.T.” was still only the second TV-show theme to get to #1, after MFSB’s Soul Train theme “TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia).” It would not be the last.

Steve Barri had some history with TV-show themes. Actually, Steve Barri had some history with a lot of things. Barri had been working behind the scenes in music for more than a decade. He’d produced Tommy Roe’s 1969 bubblegum smash “Dizzy.” He’d also co-written Barry McGuire’s 1965 folk-rock protest anthem “Eve Of Destruction.” And as far as TV shows go, Barri and his “Eve Of Destruction” collaborator PF Sloan had written Johnny Rivers’ 1966 hit “Secret Agent Man,” which was the theme for the American broadcast of the British spy show Danger Man. (“Secret Agent Man” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)

So Barri knew what he was doing. And when he and Omartian stretched “Theme From S.W.A.T.” out to single length, they kept it tough and terse and explosive. If anything, they slowed the theme down a bit, setting it to a disco-funk tempo. But they also thickened up the arrangement, turning it into something that someone might conceivably play in a dance club. They added little breakdowns and crescendos, preventing it from becoming too repetitive. And they made it seem perfectly natural that this goofy TV cash-in could stand on its own, that it could work as a piece of music entirely separate from the show that spawned it.

Rhythm Heritage didn’t last long. The group quickly knocked out an accompanying album and hit the top 20 once more, with another TV-theme cover. (Their version of “Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow,” Merry Clayton’s theme for the ABC show Baretta, peaked at #20 later in 1966.) Barri and Omartian put together a touring version of Rhythm Heritage, but it didn’t feature any of the musicians who had played on the record, and it only lasted a few months. After that, Rhythm Heritage fizzled out. But shortly afterward, Barri produced another version of a TV-show theme; it’ll end up in this column soon. And two of the musicians who played on “Theme From S.W.A.T.” will also appear in this column: Drummer Jeff Porcaro, later of Toto, and guitarist Ray Parker, Jr.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: On his monstrous 1987 single “I’m Bad,” LL Cool J rapped about taking a musclebound man and putting his face in the sand over a “Theme From S.W.A.T.” sample. Here’s the immortal video:

(“I’m Bad” was the first LL Cool J single to chart on the Hot 100, though it only made it up to #84. As lead artist, LL’s two highest-charting singles both peaked at #3. The first is the 1995 Boyz II Men team-up “Hey Lover“; it’s a 4. The second is the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’“; that one is a 6. As a guest-rapper, LL will eventually appear in this column. Also, 16 years after recording I’m Bad, LL Cool J starred in the OK-I-guess 2003 movie adaptation of S.W.A.T. So forget Oreos, eat Cool J cookies.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On their canonical 1997 stomper “Tear Da Club Up ’97,” Three 6 Mafia used a slowed-down seasick-lurch “Theme From S.W.A.T.” sample. Here’s the just-as-immortal video:

(Three 6 Mafia have never had a top-10 single; 2005’s “Stay Fly” peaked at #15. But just like LL Cool J, Three 6 member Juicy J will eventually appear in this column as a featured guest.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Theme From S.W.A.T.” soundtracking a chase scene from the 2017 cinematic opus The Boss Baby: