It’s Prime Time for ‘60s Music


Even without Ed Sullivan, Motown’s girl groups and a host of other ‘60s pop music stars long absent from the Billboard charts are hitting it big again in prime time.

No less than five current network television series employ snippets of legendary ‘60s songs to evoke, emote or otherwise fill time each week. A handful of others dabble in the music of the “Big Chill” generation.

“It’s a trend like everything else,” said Doug Frank, vice president of music at Warner Bros., who is responsible for securing the rights to songs used in ABC’s “China Beach.”


“Programming today is gearing itself toward a yuppie audience that grew up with those songs. They create a certain familiarity and nostalgia, taking you back to a certain time and place.

“Sixties music is popular right now and it will run the gamut--on television, in movies, in advertising--and eventually they’ll move on to other things. Already I hear producers saying they’re sick of it.”

Maybe, but right now both CBS and ABC are banking on the notion that the TV audience is anything but sick of it. “China Beach” uses Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Reflections” as its theme song. “The Wonder Years” opts for the Joe Cocker cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” for its theme and, like “China Beach,” uses the Supremes, Cream, the Doors, The Temptations and every other ‘60s group it can get its hands on to augment the emotional impact of each episode.

CBS’ first-year series “Almost Grown,” which features James Brown’s “Think” over its opening credits, is a show built as much on music as on characters. And the network’s most popular new show, “Murphy Brown,” uses different Motown hits each week to help depict the antics of a 40-year-old TV reporter who, according to the program’s executive producer, “would love to be reincarnated as the only white Vandella.”

“Tour of Duty,” “thirtysomething” and “Moonlighting” have all been a part of the musical nostalgia tour as well, and a host of advertisers--most notably the California Raisin Commission with Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”--have jumped on the ‘60s bandwagon to help pitch their products.

In fact, advertisers and television producers sometimes hit on the same song. The Temptations’ “My Girl,” for example, has popped up recently on both an episode of “China Beach” and as the centerpiece of an American Express commercial.


“The reason that this music is so prevalent is simply that the people who are creating the shows today are 35 to 40 and grew up on ‘60s music,” said Joel Shukovsky, executive producer of “Murphy Brown,” whose 40ish, Motown-loving wife, Diane English, created the series. “None of our friends are into heavy metal. I think you’ll continue to see ‘60s music for a while, and then you’ll start to see ‘70s songs as the younger producers come up.”

“We’ve steadily moved through nostalgia,” agreed John Wells, producer of “China Beach.” “In the ‘70s, the nostalgia was for the ‘50s with ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ and ‘Grease’ on Broadway. Now, I think we’ve moved forward into the next era of nostalgia, the ‘60s, with movies like ‘The Big Chill’ and ‘Platoon’ and all these television shows.”

But renting their favorite songs doesn’t come cheap. Ever since “Miami Vice” began using rock music as a supplement to each episode in 1984, licensing costs have been escalating fast.

Shukovsky said that his series struck a bulk deal with Motown to use any of a long list of old hits for between $3,500 to $7,000 a pop.

Warner Bros.’ Frank said that “China Beach,” the story of a group of women at a rest-and-relaxation outpost for soldiers in Vietnam, spends up to $30,000 an episode for the rights to old recordings.

Frank said it is conceivable that as the increasing demand for hit songs drives the prices up, television shows might have to drop the idea entirely. Already, he said, some programs are cutting costs by buying cheaper sound-a-like recordings.

For now, however, the effect of the song seems to be worth the cost. No producer who uses ‘60s music in his television show will admit to worrying that the flood of such music in movies, TV and advertisements has already rendered the practice just another Hollywood cliche. And even though the same song might be used in a commercial or on a rival show, all of the producers interviewed for this story denied paying attention to their competition.

“We don’t concern ourselves with the fact that someone else may have used a particular song,” said Steve Miner, supervising producer for “The Wonder Years.” “If someone uses our theme song to sell garbage bags, then we might have to consider rethinking it. We might not be able to live with that kind of association. But we really have to be more concerned with how a song works for a scene than whether someone is using it to sell deodorant.”

In most cases, ‘60s songs are used to establish time and place and give the fictional TV scene an extra aura of authenticity. “The Wonder Years,” “China Beach,” “Tour of Duty,” parts of “Almost Grown” and the flashbacks on “thirtysomething” are all set in the ‘60s.

Since the military setting of “China Beach” limits its ability to evoke the time period with costumes and hair styles, the music, producer Wells said, takes on an added importance.

“But more than that, the music is used to evoke a mood or a specific emotional response,” said Wells. “Sometimes the lyrics will hit the emotion of the scene right on the nose and sometimes we’ll use it ironically, to reflect just the opposite feeling. We have a kind of ironic nostalgia built into our show because nobody looks back at the Vietnam War with nostalgia. Yet the music helps trigger fond memories of where you were at the time, in high school or college. It makes for an ironic juxtaposition.”

Rarely, however, are the ‘60s’ once politically charged anthems called on to evoke memories of body bags or student riots. Generally, the songs help re-cast the ‘60s with a warm, sanitized glow. As one music critic has put in, Jimi Hendrix’s apocalyptic guitar riffs never make an appearance in prime time.

“The Wonder Years” often employs a song simply to make a scene funnier or sadder. In one recent show, the 12-year-old protagonist made up with his girlfriend after school and began to walk her home. As Carole King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” swelled on the sound track, he put his arm around the girl, only to have her knock it right off.

“When you use a song that is established in memory, from the very first bar you’ve evoked a feeling that would take you six shots to create with pictures,” producer Miner said. “It’s a shorthand way of packing in more information.”

The big winner in this ‘60s revival on TV seems to be the music industry. Tracy Jordan, Motown Records’ vice president of artist development, said that the company always sees “increased record sales” the week after one of its songs appears on TV. Not only does hearing a group such as the Supremes on television encourage some baby boomers to update their old record collections with a new CD, Jordan said, these TV programs also introduce the genre to a whole new generation of potential customers.

Songs From the ‘60s Heard on Prime Time

“Murphy Brown”

“Respect” Aretha Franklin

“Set Me Free” Supremes

“Baby Love” Supremes

“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” Temptations

“Devil With a Blue Dress” Mitch Ryder

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” Shirelles

“Nowhere to Run” Martha and the Vandellas

“Heat Wave” Martha and the Vandellas

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” Stevie Wonder

“Your Precious Love” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

“Baby I Need Your Lovin”’ Four Tops

“The Wonder Years”

“With a Little Help From My Friends” (theme) Joe Cocker

“Thrill Is Gone” B.B. King

“Some Day We’ll Be Together” Supremes

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” Carole King

“Riders on the Storm” Doors

“I Am a Rock” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

“Sunshine of Your Love” Cream

“Just My Imagination” Temptations

“River” Joni Mitchell

“It’s Not Unusual” Tom Jones

“China Beach”

“Reflections” (theme) Supremes

“My Girl” Temptations

“These Boots Are Made for Walkin”’ Nancy Sinatra

“Sugar Town” Nancy Sinatra

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” Marvin Gaye

“You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” Aretha Franklin

“Don’t Think Twice” Joan Baez

“Heat Wave” Martha and the Vandellas

“This Is Dedicated to the One I Love” Mamas and the Papas

“Standing in the Shadows of Love” Four Tops

“Stay” Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs

“Kansas City” Trini Lopez

“Almost Grown”

“Think” (theme) James Brown

“Time Has Come Today” Chambers Brothers

“It’s a Man’s World” James Brown

“My Best Friend” Jefferson Airplane

“I’m a Man” Yardbirds

“Mockingbird” Inez Foxx

“Can I Get a Witness” Marvin Gaye