Film composers rarely have pop hits.
The last time a film composer topped the Billboard Hot 100 was 1969, when Henry Mancini knocked the Beatles’ “Get Back” out of the top spot with “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet”—a tune he didn’t even write. Unless you’re able to spin themes into end-credits gold, as the late James Horner did not once but twice, crossover pop success is a pipe dream.
So what about John Williams? The composer, who turns 87 on February 8, has enjoyed the kind of career longevity few musicians can dream of. Since he started writing scores in the 1960s, he’s earned 51 Oscar nominations (more than any living person, and second only to Walt Disney) and has won five. Many of those movie themes are currently in your brain somewhere, and will probably stay there forever. Like this one, or this one, or this one.
Williams has rarely set out to make a hit single, yet his music has ended up on the charts from time to time—often in unusual ways. To celebrate his latest year around the sun, here are a few times Williams’ themes took the form of a radio single and managed to make an impact.
Dickie Goodman – “Mr. Jaws” (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s shark horror blockbuster was his second film (of 29!) to feature a Williams score, and that propulsive Oscar-winning theme, built around two insistent notes, is still shorthand for underwater terror. So it’s little surprise that the Jaws theme made it to the Top 40, peaking at a solid No. 32.
What is surprising, for those of us not as well-versed in ‘70s detritus, is that by the time it peaked in late September 1975, it wasn’t the highest-charting Jaws-related single. That honor went to “Mr. Jaws,” a novelty cut by producer-turned-comedian Dickie Goodman. His shtick was relaying current events as a man-on-the-street reporter, with characters responding in the form of a snippet from a popular song. When Goodman asked the shark to describe the taste of his first victim, the chorus of James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is” broke in, and so on. “Mr. Jaws” reached No. 4 on the Hot 100 and topped the Cash Box chart, proving America’s hunger for Jaws (or reference-based comedy) was insatiable.
Meco – “Star Wars/Cantina Band” (1977)
In 1977 the world was in love with Star Wars and disco. So why not give the people both at the same time? Producer/arranger Meco Monardo, who claimed to have seen the picture on opening day and several times over that weekend, convinced Casablanca Records to issue an album of his disco-fied themes from the sci-fi epic.
Like the famously disastrous Star Wars Holiday Special that arrived a year later, Meco’s “Star Wars” (which topped the Hot 100 for two weeks in the fall of 1977, while Williams’ original settled for No. 10) is the sort of cultural artifact which ties the series firmly to its post-Watergate, ah-what-the-hell genesis. And yet, like the saga itself, Meco refused to stop going back to the well, earning a moderate hit with a tie-in single to 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (complete with Lucasfilm-sanctioned film sound effects) and even producing the infamous, officially-sanctioned Christmas in the Stars holiday album later that year, which featured a young Jon Bon Jovi collecting his first paycheck as a recording artist by wishing R2-D2 a merry Christmas.
John Williams – “Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” (1977)
Such was the success of Meco’s “Star Wars” that, while prepping the score to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Arista Records asked Williams if he wouldn’t mind arranging the iconic five-note theme into a disco single, packed in as an extra 45 with the soundtrack album. Amazingly, it was a chart success, becoming a No. 13 pop hit (besting Meco’s own rendition) and even, briefly, an instrumental standard covered by Gene Page and even the Captain himself, the late Daryl Dragon.
Maureen McGovern – “Can You Read My Mind (Love Theme From Superman” (1979)
After years of unlikely pop crossover success with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars, Williams’ most ambitious bid for the airwaves was recorded for the 1978 adaptation of comic-book hero Superman. While the brassy fanfare for the Man of Steel has become ingrained as the character’s definitive sound, it’s the sweet “B” theme (representing the burgeoning relationship between Superman and Lois Lane) that was adapted for mainstream play, with lyrics by renowned writer Leslie Bricusse.
Not that it was an easy choice. “[Producer] Pierre Spengler wanted the song,” Superman co-producer Alexander Salkind noted in a 2006 box set chronicling the film series’ music. “Everyone had an opinion except me; I wasn’t sure about it.” In that same box set, Bricusse recalled Toni Tenille was intended to sing the song, while others had mentioned Joan Armatrading as a potential match.
Ultimately, in the film, the song was rhythmically spoken by Lois Lane herself (the late Margot Kidder), who described her unused singing attempts as among the most embarrassing moments of her career. It wouldn’t be sung until 1979, when it revived the career of Maureen McGovern as a Top 5 adult contemporary single.
Walter Murphy – “Themes From E.T. (The Extra-Terrestrial)” (1982)
By the end of 1982, Steven Spielberg (with Williams’ help) had once again claimed the all-time box-office record with the sci-fi/fantasy E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Universal Studios attempted mightily to capitalize on E.T. mania for the Christmas season, largely to comical failure: a storybook album narrated by Michael Jackson landed in legal hot water when it was released mere weeks before Thriller, and an adaptation by Atari helped destroy the video game business for several years.
The brightest success was, improbably, yet another dance version of a Williams tune, this time arranged by Walter Murphy (recall his chart-topping “A Fifth Of Beethoven” from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack). I have seen E.T. more than any other film, and even I can’t imagine putting its theme to a disco tempo and reaching No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100. But perhaps that’s why Walter Murphy is where he is, and I am where I am.
Urth – “Lapti Nek Overture” (1983)
John Williams may have devised a high school jazz band standard with that catchy song from the cantina in the original Star Wars, but he was apparently less interested in creating an earthly pop song for the trilogy-ending Return Of The Jedi in 1983. That duty went to his son Joseph, who ended up joining Toto as lead vocalist in 1986. (The younger Williams stayed with the group for three years, returning in 2010, back when Weezer was “name an album after a Lost character” weird and not...you know.)
The resulting single, “Lapti Nek” was Star Wars’ thirstiest attempt at a hit, with one version, mixed by Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, delivered for club play that summer to little impact. A less-official version, credited to studio band “Urth” with Joseph on lead vocals, is even more obscure, though it’s possibly the more exciting version, featuring lyrics in English as well as alien, plus quotes of the elder Williams’ Star Wars themes. Graciously, Star Wars stayed far from the radio until parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic told the story of the series’ first prequel in 1999.
Pinkfong – “Baby Shark” (2015)
As the ‘80s became the ‘90s and then the ‘00s, Williams continued to ride high. He wrote several Olympic themesyou still hear today, Schindler’s List became his fifth Oscar win in 1993, and he’s the only film composer with an MTV world premiere and a viral video that declares him “the man.”
But John Williams’ most recent ripple on culture may have been too big to fully notice. South Korean edutainment brand Pinkfong’s version of “Baby Shark,” a nonsensical children’s song that’s become quite the phenomenon (racking up over 2 billion views on YouTube and recently denting the U.S. Top 40), kicks off with what sounds an uncredited quote of that infamous Jaws theme.
Except it's not quite a quote. Sneakily, the song makes use of the opening of Dvořák's 9th Symphony, though it's clearly meant to summon up memories of the best-known shark-related musical motif of all time.