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Here's a little-known fact: The "Cheers" theme song started out sounding much different than the one we know and love. In fact, it was a different song entirely.
It took a few false starts and countless revisions, but songwriters Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo eventually crafted a timeless theme song: "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," the sentimental, piano-driven bar ballad that preceded all 275 episodes of "Cheers."
With the "Cheers" theme heading into the Final Four of our Theme Song Thunderdome bracket, we spoke to Portnoy (who also sang the theme) this week about how "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" came to be. And he told us a story almost as long and convoluted as one of Cliff Clavin's meandering tales. But one that ends happily: with the creation of one of the best TV theme songs of all time.
From "Preppies" to "Cheers"
The story begins in the fall of 1981, when Portnoy and Hart Angelo were writing songs for a Broadway musical called "Preppies." One of those songs, "People Like Us," attracted the attention of a Hollywood producer, who reached out to them wanting to use it as the theme for a new NBC sitcom called "Cheers." To this day, Portnoy still doesn't know how the song made its way to that producer's desk: "About ten people have taken credit for that. I think that my co-writer had a friend at a television production company, and he was married to one of the producers. It was one of those weird Hollywood connections."
All Portnoy and Hart Angelo had to do was rewrite the lyrics, the producer said, and "People Like Us" would become the "Cheers" theme song. Great, right? There was just one problem: The producers of "Preppies" owned the rights to "People Like Us" and wouldn't let Portnoy and Hart Angelo take it elsewhere. The duo tried altering "People Like Us" just enough to avoid any legal issues, but the "Cheers" producers didn't like the result. They had no choice but to start from scratch.
But "Cheers" co-creators Glen and Les Charles (who were coming off a hit in "Taxi") weren't ready to give up. "Thankfully, the Charles brothers said, 'Take another try at it,'" Portnoy recalls. "They owed us nothing and had no reason to stick with us, but I guess they heard something they liked." As the songwriting pair continued chipping away at it, Portnoy found inspiration by reading the "Cheers" pilot script. "The writing was so crisp, and it was funny, but it was also insightful. I grew up on sitcoms, and it just seemed to be a class act from the first word."
"A smoky bar at 2 in the morning"
By the spring of 1982, though, Portnoy and Hart Angelo still hadn't quite nailed it, and time was running out. (The show was set to debut that fall.) One day, while recovering from a breakup, Portnoy started tinkling away on the piano and hit upon a sad little tune that wouldn't leave his head. And it seemed to fit what "Cheers" producers were looking for: "They wanted something that evoked a smoky bar at 2 in the morning. So right off the bat, I'm thinking Frank Sinatra's 'One More for the Road.'"
He and Hart Angelo came up with lyrics to match the melancholy melody and added a redemptive chorus about finding one place in the world "where everybody knows your name." Portnoy concedes that if the whole song had remained as downtrodden as that first verse, "it might have been a little morose. But fortunately, the chorus kicks in, and it seems to lift people's spirits. So it's sort of like the saving grace that let us get away with that verse."
Hear the "Cheers" theme song right here:
The now-iconic seven-note piano intro came later, as a way to call audiences back to the tube. "We were saying we need something that's going to get someone back from the refrigerator," Portnoy remembers. "If someone went to get a beer or a sandwich, we want something that says, 'We're here!' [The intro] wasn't that short at first. It was sort of like a trumpet fanfare. Somehow, we worked together to shorten it and make it more identifiable. It wasn't born in those seven notes, but fortunately it wound up in those seven notes."
Recording the theme "on a football field"
Excited by what they had created, Portnoy and Hart Angelo went into the studio the next day to record a piano demo of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," with Gary on vocals. "Cheers" producers loved it; in fact, they loved it so much, they considered having Gary sing the official TV version of the song. According to Portnoy, "There was some debate as to whether I should sing it or whether they should try to get somebody famous, because there was nobody famous in the cast."
Those pushing for Portnoy must've won out, because in August 1982, he got called out to Hollywood to record the "Cheers" theme and was granted total creative freedom by the producers. "They just said, 'Go in and do what you do, and try to recapture the sound on the demo'… they wanted us to keep that intimate, 'bar at 2 in the morning' kind of sound." Portnoy and the other musicians had to try and do that, though, on a massive Paramount soundstage that could fit a full orchestra. "There were only four of us on this huge stage," he remembers. "It was kind of like standing on a football field."
Accompanied by a drummer, guitarist, and bass player, Portnoy played piano and sang during the recording session for "Where Everybody Knows Your Name"... and they got it right the first time. "Back then, people used to rerecord theme songs from season to season," he recalls. "But we never touched it again. So I worked on 'Cheers' for one day."
NEXT: Did the theme song save "Cheers" from cancellation?
Save this show
On September 30, 1982 -- just a month after Portnoy recorded "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" -- "Cheers" made its TV debut. And… no one watched. Critics loved the show from the start, but "Cheers" regularly got clobbered in the ratings by CBS's "Simon & Simon," finishing its first season 74th out of 77 shows. And yet NBC stuck with it, because of the rave reviews, because of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff's faith in the show… and maybe even because of that theme song.
"There seemed to have been an instant response to that song," Portnoy remembers. "We were getting a lot of calls for the sheet music… We went into the studio and recorded the full-length version of the song. As it was starting to get radio airplay, the ratings started to pick up in the cities where they were playing the record." The full-length version (with a second and third verse not heard on TV) made the pop charts both here in the U.S. and in Great Britain, and the theme was nominated for an Emmy in 1983 -- losing, somehow, to a song from a George Burns TV movie.
When asked whether he thinks the popularity of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" might have helped keep "Cheers" on the air during that first year, Portnoy laughs. "I'm old enough now that I don't have to be unnecessarily humble. I really do... I hope that it did, because boy, it would've been a horrible loss if that show hadn't survived."
"Intimate, and yet unknown"
"Cheers," of course, did survive, running for 11 seasons, winning dozens of Emmys, and becoming the top-rated show on TV. (And by the way, that musical "Preppies"? Closed after eight weeks.) Portnoy enjoyed the show's success -- from afar, though. In fact, he had virtually no interactions with the show's cast "because I live on the East Coast. Every year, they would have a party after the first show and a wrap party after the last show. I never went."
He did attend a cast party in Boston for the 200th episode of "Cheers" in 1990. But "by then, the show had been on for eight years," Portnoy says. "I didn't know these people; they didn't really know me. But I knew their work; they knew my work. It was strange. We felt intimate, and yet unknown." He later performed "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" on a special edition of "The Tonight Show" following the "Cheers" series finale in May 1993, and again for a cast reunion at the TV Land Awards in 2006.
Portnoy and Hart Angelo went on to compose several more memorable TV theme songs together, including "Punky Brewster" and "Mr. Belvedere." But eventually, they tired of writing one-minute ditties and went their separate ways. Portnoy took a break from songwriting for a while, returning to it in the 1990s to pen a number of country tunes. He released an album of original songs in 2010, "Songs Along the Way," that includes his original demo of the "Cheers" theme.
"All bets are off"
Thirty years after its debut, Portnoy and Hart Angelo's composition lives on. What is it about that tune that connects so deeply with us? "I think there's a universality to it," Portnoy offers. "I think the first part of the song really connects with people's angst, and then the chorus says, 'There's hope. There's help.' There's some warmth, some connectivity, some hope that there's a place where things are a little better."
It's hard to fathom, but Portnoy says he never had a sense for how popular his song was until he launched his own website. "From the moment I put up that website, I've gotten a nonstop flow of emails from people. From kids who weren't born [when the show started], telling me they close their bars in their towns with it. People who tell me it got them through their chemotherapy, it helped them get through apartheid… every age imaginable, every country imaginable, every story imaginable."
With "Cheers" in worldwide syndication, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" is played anywhere and everywhere across the globe... even in the place you'd least expect. "My mom went to an [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting one time, and she walked in and they started singing that song," Portnoy recalls. "And she said, 'They don't know who I am, so it couldn't have been because of me.' And it turns out they started their AA meetings with that song every time. Here's a song written for people in a bar, and people are using it to not drink. So once I heard that, I said, 'All bets are off.'"
"A song first and foremost"
Looking back on his career, Portnoy is eternally grateful for the fact that "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" is beloved by so many. "It's a very beautiful thing. It's obviously not something anyone could plan for... I feel incredibly blessed." And of course, it helps that he gets a royalty payment every time you see an episode of "Cheers" on TV, both as a songwriter and a singer. In fact, he gets paid as a singer six times -- since the song's chorus is his voice dubbed over six times: "All six of me are the singers, so we're lucky in that regard, too."
Portnoy appreciates being a part of TV history, because he grew up enjoying classic theme songs himself. "I loved the 'Andy Griffith' theme when I was growing up," he recalls. "And a little later, 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' That song warmed my heart every time I heard it. And I liked 'Gilligan's Island,' too. It was crafted so masterfully. I thought 'Taxi' was beautiful. I like 'Welcome Back, Kotter,' too. That nailed it."
In fact, he remembers some kind words he received from the writer of the "Welcome Back, Kotter" theme, Lovin' Spoonful frontman John Sebastian: "I was honored when I heard that John Sebastian said that the 'Cheers' theme was a song first and foremost, and a TV theme second. And that's the way it always was to me. That meant a lot to me." And that may help explain why Portnoy's song still means a lot to us, all these years later.