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Unsung Black Music in Family Television, featuring Mishon

Njai Mon, Jun 15, 2009
Unsung Black Music in Family Television, featuring Mishon

The art of creating stellar television programming can be complicated due to variables including casting, writing, lighting, camera angles, set design and a host of other factors. One of those factors, particularly in family oriented television, is music. Setting the mood for everything from suspenseful moments to exciting family vacations in Hawaii, family series such as My Wife and Kids, The Cosby Show, Lincoln Heights, Good Times and Family Matters would be forgettable without the musical elements that keep us coming back for more – even after the show is no longer distributed on screen.

Perhaps the cornerstone of all early African American based family series was ‘The Cosby Show’. Running eight seasons, only surpassed by ‘The Jeffersons’ and “Family Matters,’ The Cosby Show presented a predominately African American cast led by Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable and his wife Clair Huxtable. What may not be as known as the show however, was the music and legendary artists who contributed to the background music, theme songs and actual soundtracks that were released in the late 1980s.

During its first six years on NBC, ‘The Cosby Show’ filled its scenes with music from not only Grammy Award-winning artist Herbie Hancock but vocals and production from Roberta Flack, Ashford & Simpson, Roy Ayers and Billy Preston. Even Whitney Houston’s mother artist in her own right, Cissy Houston contributed vocals to the show. Most important, Bill Cosby along with legendary Jazz performers and composers Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t Worry Be Happy”), Stu Gardner (Living Single, A Different World) and the late Lester Bowie, created multiple theme songs for the long-running series along with other featured tracks. Before wrapping up its final season in 1992, ‘The Cosby Show’ and its cast including Keisha Knight Pulliam, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Lisa Bonet, Tempestt Bledsoe, Raven Symone, and Phylicia Rashad picked up a multitude of accolades including Emmy, Golden Globe and NAACP Image Awards.

Before ‘The Cosby Show,’ families enjoyed James and Florida Evans on the six season running sitcom ‘Good Times’. Keeping audiences entertained from 1974-1979, ‘Good Times’ is often remembered for its beloved characters including J.J. (famous for the word ‘Dynomite’), Esther Rolle (Florida), and a then pre-teen Janet Jackson as Penny. Of course, James Evans’ death (John Amos) became a particularly low point for the show and remains a memorable moment for viewers. Beyond the characters though, ‘Good Times’ signature theme song penned by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, with assistance from jazz/composer Dave Russin, remains part of cultural iconography. Celebrities including Marlon Wayans, John Witherspoon, and Mark Curry have all recognized ‘Good Times’ through comedy.

Like ‘Good Times, with much comedy and family time, ABC’s ‘Family Matters’ arrived in 1989 and spent a near record nine seasons on television – the second longest running predominantly African American cast sitcom in history. Ironically, the theme song for ‘Family Matters’ comes close to being as memorable as ‘Good Times’. Originally based on the classic Louis Armstrong record “What A Wonderful World,” ‘Family Matters’ later opted for the Jesse Frederick (Full House, Step By Step) written and performed “As Days Go By”. Beyond the music featured on the show, ‘Family Matters’ also launched the career of singer/actor Darius McCrary. Since the show, McCrary’s voice has been heard on films and sitcoms including ‘Something To Sing About’ and ‘Girlfriends’. (McCrary has since expressed the goal of releasing an album in the near future.)

But the music on family series, some of which are comedic based, is simply not confined to Hollywood professionals or chart-topping artists. There are a multitude of black musicians behind the scenes of lauded television series including ‘Everybody Hates Chris,’ ‘The Game’ and ‘That’s So Raven’. One of those musicians is Grammy Award-winning composer/producer/bassist and multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller. Miller, acclaimed for his work with Miles Davis and Luther Vandross on “The Power of Love,” scored the theme for  Chris Rock’s comedy/family series “Everybody Hates Chris” and has credits on notable films including “Boomerang,” “House Party,” “Above The Rim,” ‘Love Jones,’ and most recent “Obsessed”(2009) starring Beyonce and Idris Elba. Joining Miller, BMI recognized composer Kurt Farquhar has been the go to man behind everything from ‘The Parkers’ and ‘Moesha’ to ‘All of Us’ and ‘Sister Sister’. For Farquhar, music must grow with the characters and the series. “My method of work is less technical than soulful; I write from my soul and from the heart of the characters on screen,” he shared with BMI. “To see the characters develop and to create the music that grows with them over the years is rewarding.”

With the aforementioned noted, there are certainly additional black musicians, composers, songwriters and other professionals behind family television series. I encourage you, at your will, to research these individuals and learn more about the work they have presented over the years. As an aside, recording artists including Cheryl Lynn (“Got To Be Real”), Jamelia (‘Superstar’), Kool & the Gang, B5 and Aretha Franklin have all contributed to either featured music or background vocals.

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