It may take different strokes to move the world, but it took one Canadian entertainer to turn the theme for an ‘80s sitcom into a song that sticks with us. Alan Thicke, the actor, comedian, talk show host, author and Canadian Walk of Famer, is also a successful songwriter for television, and a SOCAN member. The Diff’rent Strokes theme is one of his most enduring compositions.
How did you start in the world of composing for TV? That’s not what you went to L.A. to do, right?
No, I was a lousy bar band guitar player and singer in Toronto, and was always interested in music. When I got my first producing assignment in the U.S., after a couple of years of writing variety shows down there, it was for a game show. They knew a little bit about my musical background and they assigned me to come up with a theme song. They wanted something different so I suggested maybe rock ‘n’ roll, something contemporary. And to take it beyond that, we said why not write a lyric for it? So I did. I wrote and recorded and sang the theme song to The Wizard of Odds. By today’s standards it would be pretty lame, but back then it was progressive for a daytime game show.
“The fact that every quarter for 35 years I get SOCAN statements outlining where this has been used and played is very flattering.”
The theme for Diff’rent Strokes is credited to yourself, your then-wife Gloria Loring and executive Al Burton. How did you work together?
Al would quite frankly admit that his role in the creation of the song was to assign it to me. [laughs] Gloria was very busy as a performer and touring a lot. When I told her I had this assignment she and her guitar player pitched a few ideas, and I think there was a line we used. I don’t want to discredit her in any way, we shared a lot of things. But I think she would agree that I wrote the song. All the lyrics are mine and most of the music. Then I went into the studio with David Foster – who played keyboards on a lot of my sessions back then – and produced it, with David and the boys. Brenda Russell is also on there singing backing vocals. It was a fine beginning to a relationship with Norman Lear Productions that lead to Facts of Life and about 45 themes over the years.
This was a golden age for writing theme songs with lyrics. Why do you think that’s fallen out of fashion?
Networks don’t want to wait 30 seconds to start the next show to hook you. It’s a practical matter.
What kind of stories have you heard over the years about this song, about what it meant to the viewers?
As I understand it, college kids get together to play beer pong and bet each other who can remember the most of their parents’ [era] show lyrics. [laughs] The fact that every quarter for 35 years I get SOCAN statements outlining where this has been used and played is very flattering. Between Diff’rent Strokes and Facts of Life, the lyrics have popped up in shows from Dave Chapelle to SNL to Two Broke Girls. When I hear the lines used in a sketch, I turn to my 16-year-old, elbow him, “Hey, that’s my song!”
You’ve talked about the scene in L.A. in the ‘70s of Canadians helping each other, and about how you later helped the next generation of Canadians there. What’s your advice for young film and TV composers?
Well, I would say don’t aim to make music for television, just make music. Television will find you.