There’s a small handful of songs guaranteed to make me pluck an album out of a thrift store bin and take it home, regardless of who the artist is. “Music to Watch Girls By” and “Theme from A Man and A Woman” (a.k.a. “Un Homme et Une Femme”) are two that immediately come to mind — such is my love for those indelible melodies that I once compiled a mix CD titled “Music to Watch a Man and a Woman By,” which contained about 15 different versions of each song. And the third that comes to mind would be the theme from The Odd Couple…
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As I recounted in the last Jagged Time Lapse post, NYC-centric programming formed a significant portion of my early television diet, and The Odd Couple was a definite family favorite. I loved the comedic chemistry between Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison and Tony Randall’s Felix Unger, but I also really dug the heavy Noo Yawk accents of many of the supporting characters (Penny Marshall’s Myrna was an early crush), the regular references to NYC places and personalities, and the footage of early ‘70s Manhattan that was used in the opening and closing credit sequences, and which occasionally popped up between scenes.
The Odd Couple made such a deep childhood impression on me that in the summer of 1983, which I spent working as an office assistant at the Hunter College School of Social Work (thanks, Dad!), I pounded the Upper East Side pavement on my lunch breaks until I found the actual building where the show took place — 1049 Park Avenue. I recognized it by the friezes along the top three floors, the ornamental rectangular stones that studded the exterior of the bottom two, and of course the “1049” on the building’s awning.
Located at Park and 87th, the “Odd Couple building” was just close enough to the School of Social Work that I had time to grab a slice of pizza or an Eppie Roll at Don Filippo’s on 79th and Lexington, then walk over to the building and pay homage to my favorite sitcom by eating my lunch on the sidewalk (or Park Ave. median) in front of it. I still repeat this sacred pilgrimage whenever I find myself on the UES; I took the above pic last February while enjoying a slice following a morning visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Having been born too late to see the original 1968 film version when it was first released, the Odd Couple I grew up on was the TV adaptation. Though I love the film now, watching Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the Oscar and Felix roles was vaguely unsettling to me when I first saw it after school one day on ABC’s The 4:30 Movie. Klugman and Randall felt like part of our family; Matthau and Lemmon seemed familiar yet out of place. It was kind of like if Sonny & Cher had shown up at our house and announced to my sister and I that they were our parents.
The element that most connected the film and the TV show for me was Neal Hefti’s theme song, which was used to great effect in both. There’s something about that opening three-note keyboard vamp, and the swinging groove and playful-yet-melancholy melody which follow, that make me indescribably happy. Maybe it just brings back comforting memories of sitting down to watch the show with my dad and sister in our Ann Arbor living or dining rooms on a Friday evening, and knowing that we were all going to laugh our asses off for the next 30 minutes.
Hefti’s theme is a piece of music that can be stretched in a variety of emotional directions, as the film’s soundtrack ably attests. There’s even a vocal version on the soundtrack with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, though I doubt the legendary songwriter ever considered them among his best work. (They manifest around the 1:20 mark in the clip below…)
Along with the immortal Batman TV theme and the sublime “Girl Talk” from 1965’s Harlow soundtrack, the theme from The Odd Couple remains Hefti’s best-known composition; it has been covered by dozens of artists over the years, ranging from jazz organist Richard “Groove” Holmes and Brazilian composer/conductor Djalma Ferreira to ‘60s easy listening stalwarts The Brass Ring and The Living Marimbas. And I thought I had heard all the versions out there until recently, when I unearthed Al Hirt’s rendition in a stack of singles at Rocket Number Nine, my favorite Hudson Valley record store.
Much as I love the easy listening music of the ‘60s, I’ve always kind of shied way from Al Hirt. I know the guy had legit New Orleans/Dixieland roots, and that his nightclub was a Bourbon Street fixture for two decades, but his recordings have generally struck me as a little too “white bread,” even for my tastes. (And this is coming from a guy who absolutely adores Ferrante and Teicher’s Snowbound LP.) I mean, look at the cover of 1968’s Al Hirt Now! — that Nehru jacket isn’t fooling anybody, pal…
But hey, it was a cover of “The Odd Couple,” so I had to pick it up. And I’ll be damned if it hasn’t become one of my favorite versions — even if Joe Renzetti’s arrangement ditches the song’s classic keyboard intro for a groovy two-chord vamp cribbed straight outta “Spooky” by The Classics IV…
Philly native Renzetti was no stranger to the groove, having already worked with Gamble & Huff on tracks by The Intruders, Bunny Sigler, Dee Dee Sharp and Jerry Butler by the time this Hirt session came around. (In 1968, he also contributed his arranging expertise to “Two-Bit Manchild,” one of my all-time favorite Neil Diamond singles.)
Hirt seems to be picking up on what Renzetti is putting down here, and his swinging trumpet performance winds up going a little further into R&B territory than you’d expect, locking in nicely with the simmering rhythm section, whirring Hammond organ, sweet strings and wordless background vocals. Hirt gets off a few of his patented horn bursts around the 1:20 mark, but he mostly just cooks along with the rest of the musicians, and the results are delightful indeed. The flip, a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” is almost as great; sadly, I can’t seem to find it anywhere on YouTube.
Which I suppose isn’t too surprising, given that — for whatever reason — neither of these tracks was ever included on an Al Hirt album, and the single sank without a trace upon its release in the spring of 1968. The above review, from the May 25 issue of Billboard, was the only time that the single was ever mentioned in that respected trade publication, and it never managed to reach the charts.
And this, in a 2:17 nutshell, is part of why I continue to dig through stacks of old vinyl. Sure, there’s always the hope of excavating some valuable rarity, but there’s also the tantalizing possibility that I might find some magical yet unheralded recording that’s completely fallen through the digital cracks — a recording which is just waiting for me to stumble upon it, spin it, and bring it to life once again. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to whip up some “goop mélange” and watch a few Odd Couple re-runs…
What a killer find! My parents - who were decidedly NOT hip - had some early Al Hirt records. Lol. I wasn't sold. And as you note, even in later years, "that Nehru jacket isn’t fooling anybody, pal…" Ha ha! But, this version, even without the groovy piano vamp at the intro, is fantastic!