We continue our series looking back at some of the most iconic children’s TV theme songs of all time with Arthur.
Here’s a litmus test to find out if someone is a millennial: shout “and I say HEY!” at them and if they don’t respond with “what a wonderful kind of day”, well they’re probably from another generation.
Debuting in 1996, Arthur has been a source of education and silliness for almost 25 years now, which is some innings for a children’s TV show. That makes it the longest-running children’s animated series in the U.S., and also the second longest-running animated series in the U.S. behind a little show called The Simpsons.
Joan Rivers appeared several times. Lance Armstrong was another notable guest, before everyone found out he was a bit suss. In terms of cultural impact, it’s probably only second to Sesame Street in terms of children’s TV. Above all though, it was incredibly comforting, an easy show to idle the minutes away before and after school.
It followed the titular Arthur, an anthropomorphic aardvark, and his adventures with friends and family in the fictional Elwood City. There was Buster, his clumsy rabbit best friend (shout out to Buster for earning the carrot of his own spinoff show); there was Francine, the tomboy monkey; stuck-up monkey Muffy; the boring bear ‘Brain’; bulldog bully Binky; and – shudder – Arthur’s infuriating younger sister D.W.
It’s the theme song that most people remember though, long after they’ve grown up and stopped watching the show (or still continue to watch, no judgement here).
An upbeat reggae tune got you hyped for the upcoming episode as each character was introduced. The heartfelt and sincere lyrics were instantly memorable, reminding us to be polite and nice as we went about our daily business. It’s so popular that it’s been covered by everyone from Chance the Rapper to the bloody Backstreet Boys.
We managed to track down one of the two writers of the song, the musician Jerry de Villiers Jr. And he had some incredible stories to tell which you can read below, as we discussed moving from horror movies to children’s TV, his feelings about Ziggy Marley singing his song, his life in Canada’s jazz scene, and the impact Arthur had on his later life.
Check out the Arthur theme song and intro:
How did the opportunity to write the Arthur theme song come about? Who asked you to do it?
While on a European tour I met Jeff Fisher, a brilliant musician who was also the director of the house band at Cinar, a Montreal based production company that created children’s entertainment. Soon after that I joined the Cinar house band as a studio guitarist and was introduced to Jeffrey Zahn, one of the Cinar producers from New York.
One day Jeff called me to do a pitch for the theme song of a new kid’s series called Arthur. I was already composing for film and TV and he had heard some of my music and thought I would be a good candidate because of my Worldbeat style. He advised me that I would be competing with over 400 other composers and we would all be pitching to a special committee from the UK deciding on which song would get chosen.
The funny thing is I almost didn’t do it! I only had one night to put together my demo because the next day I had to leave for Los Angeles. I really wasn’t sure if I’d have enough time, but somehow I managed to get it done.
It took many months for the committee to decide on the pitches. I honestly wasn’t expecting to get it, seeing that there were so many participants and I had gotten my demo done so quickly. But surprisingly enough (as we all know) I ended up getting the call that they had chosen my song and that officially they’d be travelling to Jamaica to record the lyrics with Ziggy.
Check out Chancer the Rapper covering Arthur:
The year before Arthur, you contributed music to the sci-fi/horror film Screamers. It must have been quite the difference then writing for Arthur?!
In general, making scores for movies is a whole other story. There was a lot more pressure when it came to working on the Screamers soundtrack specifically. I was approached to work on the music near the end of the production process of the movie, and there was a lot of money on the line with very little time. So the magnitude of the job was definitely heavier and the deadline created a certain tension.
So we could say that working on Screamers wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. The vibe and energy of both of these projects were completely different, considering that one is a horror film and the other is a children’s TV show. Also, at the time of making the music for Arthur, I was about to have my first child and I was in a better headspace and feeling much more driven.
You co-wrote the piece with Judy Henderson? How was the collaborative process?
When I was putting the initial demo together,I was actually offered to work with a very talented lyricist out of NYC but I already had a preexisting relationship with Judy so I decided to choose her for the job. After I had finished putting the song together before heading out to LA, I had sung the melodies on it and put it on a tape that I sent over to Judy. She did a phenomenal job with the words, essentially taking my melodic gibberish and creating the beautiful lyrics that you hear in the theme song today. As for the official lyrics, the only thing I can actually take credit for is the “HEY!”
Your words were brought to life in the end by Ziggy Marley which must have been amazing. Did you ever get the opportunity to meet him?
I did not get the opportunity to meet him, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to. Regardless it was an honour, seeing that I was such a big fan of his father’s and of Reggae music in general. What I also found really cool was the fact that they had brought Bob’s former drummer into the studio to play the drums on the song with my music! Man, what a trip, what a fantastic drummer.
Did you ever foresee the song being such a classic? Are you surprised by its longevity?
I think a lot of it has to do with the content of the song; how uplifting and positive the lyrics were for people. The music really resonated with the viewers, which was always the goal, but you can never really expect your work to be received that well. Years later, I recall that they had tried to make adjustments and more “modern” remixes to the song but nothing ever stuck, and they would come back to our version because that’s really what the people wanted. That just reinforced the fact that we had made a classic; a timeless piece of music that somehow resonated with every generation.
Another big realizing moment was when I traveled to Peru to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony in 2013. There were many younger people, millennials mostly, that completely freaked out when I told them I had made this theme song. They were absolutely floored and kept repeating how I “changed their childhood” and had brought them so much joy with this anthem. This again opened my eyes to the power that the song had and how it really touched people’s hearts and held a profound place in their memory.
Check out the trailer for Screamers:
Aside from Screamers and Arthur, what other soundtrack/film and TV work have you done?
I started by composing jingles for commercials for companies like Molson’s and McDonald’s and went on to compose songs for other people’s soundtracks. I have to give credit to my good friend at the time, Normand Corbeil (may he rest in peace), who had introduced me to the world of composing music for films. The first movie I had contributed music for was Kids of The Round Table. The second was a movie with Burt Reynolds, called Frankenstein and Me.
The first movie that I officially scored myself was The Witness (Fish Out of Water) directed by Geoffrey Edwards, the son of Blake Edwards. This is when I really transitioned into the industry and took the lead on creating full soundtracks. For the first two movies I had worked on, I was essentially just a songwriter. After that I had the opportunity to score a movie called Believe. Then I did Art of War and after that I co-wrote and was hired as the official guitar player for the popular Quebecois film series Les Boys 1 and 2. I scored the whole movie for the sequels, Les Boys 3 and 4 (for which I won a Felix award for best soundtrack).
Other movies I scored include En Vacance, Hidden Agenda, Aftermath, Cause of Death, and View of Terror with Shannen Doherty. As for TV series I made the theme song for a show called Rotten Ralph, which my kids absolutely adored. I also had a hand working on L’Ordre du Temple Solaire and helped write songs for Caillou, another children’s series.
You were also involved in the Montreal jazz scene in the 1990’s. What was that time in your life like?
It was a very magical time. I took part in many jazz festivals throughout the mid 80’s to 90’s. It led me to meeting so many amazing musicians who later presented me with the opportunities I received in filmmaking and scoring for moving and television. It was an exhilarating period of my life, full of fond memories and lasting connections I will always hold dearly in personal history.
Do you have any children or grandchildren familiar with Arthur and the theme song?
I do not have any grandchildren (yet) but my children absolutely adored watching the show itself and the song of course. I think my daughter was probably one of the first people to hear it before the show came out. I wanted to test it and see how a child would react to hearing the song. I remember the kids I would play it for would just throw their arms in the air with excitement, you can’t deny those feelings and natural emotional reactions to good music!
My children took a lot of pride in telling their friends and teachers that their father had composed this famous theme song. It really seemed to be a big deal for a lot of people and that also helped me realize how impactful and powerful this particular piece of music was. I’m sure my kids will show it to their children when the day comes!