By Erin Canty
Not all stereotypes are bad. Many, yes. It’s the reason my African-American mother made two trips from the car when she mistakenly brought fried chicken AND watermelon to her company picnic.
But some stereotypes are so positive, so true, that they border on fun facts. Tidbits that have somehow transformed from the exception to the rule. Case in point: Old Black TV shows had amazing theme songs. There, I said it. In the best cases, they provided key back story and set the tone for the next 30 minutes. They’re stirring, musical snapshots of idealized Black life. And at their worst, they had some funky organs and a lot of record scratches. You can’t ask for much more than that, especially in just under a minute.
Black sitcoms consistently hit theme music out of the park. With composers and songwriters like Quincy Jones and the Bergmans, and A-list (or formerly A-list) performers like En Vogue, Aretha Franklin, and Heavy D, these songs have a life outside the small screen, finding their way into Top 40 radio, film, and for the elite among them, pop culture history.
There are almost too many fantastic theme songs to choose from. You know what that means?! Editing Rankings! Below, you’ll find my less than scientific, all-matter-of-personal-opinion list of The Top 5 Black Classic TV Themes Of All Time. Let’s count ’em down!
#5. A Different World (1987–1993)
Written By: Stu Gardner, Dawnn Lewis, & Bill Cosby
Performed By: Phoebe Snow (season 1) Aretha Franklin (season 2–5) Boyz II Men (season 6)
When Aretha Franklin, Boyz II Men, and Phoebe Snow all take a crack at singing your show’s theme song, you know it’s a hit. Snow kicked things off for season one, but when the show’s fictional Hillman College transformed into a historically Black school in season two, the opening titles needed a soul infusion. Regardless who’s singing it, the theme grooves and is surprisingly thought-provoking. Commit this one to memory, college students.
Little Known Fact: Dawnn Lewis, who helped write the theme song, also played Jaleesa Vinson-Taylor on the show.
Lovable Lyric: “I know my parents love me/Stand behind me come what may/I know now that I’m ready/Because I finally heard them say/It’s a different world from where you come from.”
#4. Living Single (1993–1998)
Written & Performed By: Queen Latifah
Before Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, there were Khadijah, Synclaire, Max, and Regine. Living Single followed four professional Black women living in Brooklyn. This song fought its way into the Top 40 on ’90s nostalgia alone: the rap break, the random saxophone, and the background vocals from a girl group. Not to mention the opening titles, which feature a dancer with beaded clothes and the whole cast busting a move in an apartment.
Lovable Lyric: “In a 90s kind of world/I’m glad I’ve got my girls.”
#3. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
Written By: Music – Quincy Jones, Lyrics – The Fresh Prince
Performed By: The Fresh Prince
When I was growing up, the best way to test a fellow suburban child’s hip-hop prowess was to force them to spit the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. It was the first rap song we learned, and for that, it will forever hold a pretty special place in our Day-Glo hearts. And it’s definitely one of the best theme songs telling a backstory ever recorded. Second only to Sigmund The Sea Monster, of course.
Little Known Fact: The full version of this song is actually just under three minutes long. You can find it on Will Smith’s Greatest Hits. (Ed.: And on YouTube!)
Lovable Lyric: “I got in one little fight and my mom got scared/And said, ‘You’re movin’ with your Auntie and Uncle in Bel-Air.'”
#2. Good Times (1974–1979)
Written By: Music – Dave Grusin, Lyrics – Alan and Marilyn Bergman
Performed By: Jim Gilstrap & Blinky Williams
The theme is upbeat and familiar, with rich gospel undertones. It’s relentlessly optimistic, yet bittersweet, just like the show itself. You didn’t need to live in the projects to appreciate the wealth of love and hope the Evans family shared, even in the most dire circumstances and conditions. That’s probably why the lyrics still resonate today. Whether you’re working your way out of the inner city, or just your dead-end cubicle job, there’s a little Evans in all of us, and we’re reminded every time we hear the plunking of those piano keys.
Little Known Fact: When Norman Lear asked the Bergmans to write theme for Good Times, the show didn’t have a title. They came up with it for the song.
Lovable Lyric: “Not getting hassled/Not getting hustled/Keeping your head above water/Making a way when you can.”
Drumroll please: Your #1 theme song is…
#1. The Jeffersons (1975–1985)
Written By: Ja’Net DuBois & Jeff Barry
Performed By: Ja’Net DuBois
I knew the lyrics to The Jeffersons theme song years before I saw my first episode. The song is pervasive, working its way into other TV shows, movies, and popular music—so much so that it’s bordering on becoming a TV trope of its own. Clapping + a shout-out to fried food+ one amazing choir. We have a winner, America.
Little Known Fact: This song was written and performed by Ja’Net DuBois, who played Willona on Good Times.
Loveable Lyric: “As long as we’re living/ It’s you and me baby/ There ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”
Not every theme song could make the cut. Here are my Honorable Mentions:
What other songs did I miss? What does your ranking look like? And feel free to challenge my assertion and fill me in on a less-than-perfect theme song from an old Black TV show. Lay it on me in the comments.
Previously on Black in Time: Dear Grandchildren, You Would’ve Really Liked In Living Color