“Nobody knows what I look like or sound like,” says musician Gary Portnoy, who was 26 when he recorded the song that would become one of the most iconic and recognizable TV themes of all time. Starting with his simple piano intro, da da-da-da-da da-da, then Portnoy’s delicate serenade: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got…” the Cheers theme was birthed.
“You’re probably exhausted talking about this song,” I tell Portnoy, who recorded it for the TV show 32 years ago.
“Pretty much, yeah.” he says, then adds, “But I’m flattered that there is continued interest.”
Portnoy’s voice is heard everyday (I’d say it’s safe to assume that somewhere, right now, someone must be watching Cheers) and the song undoubtedly has a legacy, infiltrating its way into other TV shows (Friends, The Simpsons, Ally McBeal, Saturday Night Live, How I Met Your Mother…) and being the ultimate earworm of multiple generations.
So, naturally, people want to know: Portnoy, how did you come up with this? Do you like what you’ve created? This song that you and the world will never escape.
“I am lucky that the song, for whatever reason, rose to the top of the mountain. I am lucky that it is one of my favorite things I ever wrote.” Portnoy says. “I do have songs on my shelf that will never see the light of day that I have fondness for, [but] nothing comes near the spotlight of the Cheers juggernaut, as I call it.”
Portnoy and his co-writer Judy Hart Angelo were commissioned to write the song based on the producers of Cheers‘ fondness for their Broadway song “People Like Us” for the musical Preppies. After a few months of trying out about four different songs, the Cheers theme we know today—”where everybody knows your name, and you’re always glad they came”—came to be.
“When I was writing TV themes I never set out to write a TV theme. I was really trying to write a song,” Portnoy says. This is part of the reason Portnoy has not continued his TV theme writing career. He’s disenchanted by the current state of TV theme songs, that are now roughly 10 to 15 seconds long, and longs for the narrative 60 seconds themes of decades past.
“I never wrote TV themes, so it became impossible for me to continue. There was no way I could write 10 to 15 seconds of anything. Nor did I want to.”
There was some debate at NBC as to who would sing the song. Going with someone famous was considered a smart move, considering that the show’s actors were not yet household names. But it was decided that Portnoy’s voice was the right voice.
He wasn’t nervous: “It was a TV show and it probably wasn’t going to last very long… If I had maybe known what it was going to turn into I probably would have been paralyzed with fear.”
And to this day, he does catch himself singing the iconic theme: “Obviously I do not walk around the world singing that song. But every now and then, if I’m walking alone somewhere, I do sing a few bars just to think, wow, it’s real, it exists. It is me [laughs].”
And now, a delightful appropriation of the Cheers theme from Bill Nye for your amusement: