Ernie Kovacs’ Theme Song

Throughout the various iterations of Ernie Kovacs’ television shows over different networks, time slots and formats from 1951-1962 there was one thing that remained constant — his theme song. And like much of Kovacs’ humor, there was an element of Dada to it. “Oriental Blues” by Jack Newlon is neither oriental, a blues, or wholly composed by Jack Newlon.

I first became familiar with it in the “Best of Ernie Kovacs” TV shows that aired on PBS in 1977, played against a title supered over a shot of (Ernie’s) hands in silhouette in a multiple image that seems like it was made with video feedback, something I learned about in high school TV production. The music is also on the Ernie Kovacs Album, released by Columbia Records in 1975, the audio sourced from one of the specials Kovacs made for ABC in 1961.

Oriental Blues Ernie Kovacs
Oriental Blues was released in both 78rpm and 45rpm formats.

The version on the ABC specials and on The Best of Ernie Kovacs is very slightly different from the original recording made in 1951 by Ernie’s musical director Tony DiSimone and his trio. Only slightly, but Kovacs used the DiSimone Trio record through 1956. Why a new edition was recorded, and why it varies slightly from the orignal recording and sheet music, is a bit of an unsolved mystery.

Oriental Blues, published as sheet music and in a recording in 1951 by Top Tunes, has as its first strain a something that bears a striking resemblance to Rialto Ripples composed in 1917 by Will Donaldson and some guy named George Gershwin. The last four bars of the strain are different and end with a melody whose melody sounds like it could be fitted with the lyrics “the or-i-en-tal blu-u-u-ues”…or, I suppose, “the Er-nie Ko-vacs Show-w-w-w!”. We don’t know how Ernie found this record.

How they got away with borrowing the Gershwin/Donaldson is beyond me. The left hand of Ripples combines with the melody to give the listener the impression of rippling water, I suppose, while the Newlon has a straight-up stride left hand in it. The rest of the piece is completely original. 

Unlike a lot of Ernie’s musical choices, it’s the one “elbows-out” piece of music he ever used that sounds like comedy music. Wildly different from playing the German-language Moritat from the original cast recording of Threepenny Opera over surreal blackout gags interspersed with a close-up of an oscilloscope. Or a recording of a trio movement of a Haydn string quartet (yes, I know it was actually composed by Hofstetter) to underscore a cigar commercial with a single drawn-out sight gag whose pacing anticipates that of Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films.

There are two other recordings of Oriental Blues released to the public besides the DiSimone one of Top Tunes Records. One by Jan August on Mercury in 1952 on a 10″ LP called Piano Variations, and another by an aggregation known as “Leroy Holmes and his Tugboat Eight”. Holmes was the music director on the “Tonight!”show when Ernie was tag-team hosting it with Steve Allen. Perhaps there was the hope that Ernie’s being on the show would sell records…although the show (and Ernie) lasted from October 1956 to January 1957.

We have no idea who recorded or did the arrangement of the version of Oriental Blues heard on the 1961 ABC specials, and it was never released as a single. The only thing that narrowed down its production time for me came about when I was working on the DVD box set of Ernie’s Take a Good Look bizarro panel-quiz show.

Season one features a piece of music that sounds like it may have been production music, a big brassy lead-in to any show. It’s possible it was composed and recorded for the show, I supposed. Kovacs actually wrote a theme song for the show, and the lead sheet — melody, lyrics and chords, in his handwriting — survives. It does not have the upbeat, peppy feel of a game show theme, and the lyrics are about a man moving out on his wife after catching her cheating on him. You can understand the network brass passing on this for a new quiz show.

In going through episodes of Take a Good Look — all but one episode of the entire run of its two seasons survive, thanks to Edie Adams — I discovered that shows in season two open with that later recording of Oriental Blues. Edie saved everything, and perhaps there is some correspondence in a file box that outlines some back and forth between Ernie and ABC executives about the theme that precipitated the change from the generic TV game show music to having a new recording of Ernie’s theme done. 

One of Ernie’s main interests in doing TGL was that it gave him an opportunity to produce sketches and blackout gags that could be repurposed into another, future show. Perhaps that’s why a new recording of the Kovacs theme got recorded. The ABC specials open with it, and the oscilloscope blackout gag sequences are mostly mashups of TGL clue gags.

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Kip WilliamsMary MalloryBen ModelMichael C. DelichKaren owen Recent comment authors
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Karen owen
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Karen owen

Do you have more information on the big band arrangement used for his prime time NBC show and color special? It makes those shows sound bigger if that’s the right word

Michael C. Delich
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Michael C. Delich

The later 1961 version, I was told by someone, was by John Maxwell. No other details. But I definitely prefer that version to any others.

Mary Mallory
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Mary Mallory

There was also a 1921 Oriental Blues song, released on record, so the composer might have gotten something from that as well.

Karen Owen
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Karen Owen

Watching Stu’s Show compilation of Kovacs segments reminded me of what the Take a Good Look season 1 theme was – “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon” 15th century French song – public domain!

Kip Williams
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Interestingly* enough, the piano roll George Gershwin cut of “Rialto Ripples” in 1917 has a stride bass left hand instead of the version that’s in the sheet music (which I first heard played by composer William Bolcom).

* (Oh yeah? Well -I- say it’s interesting!)