Stern Files Declassified: The History of Howard’s Theme Songs

A look back at all of the tunes used to open the Stern Show from the early ‘80s to now

March 16, 2017

The sun comes up, their radios come on, and the familiar theme song of the Stern Show fills the ears of faithful superfans around the globe – it is a morning routine that has gone unchanged for the millions who have listened to Howard for decades. However, the tune that signals the start of the Stern Show hasn’t always remained the same.

Check out the history behind the show’s theme music in the “Stern Files Declassified” segment (above) and relive all of the Stern Show’s theme songs (below).

“Johnny’s Theme” – Doc Severinsen & “The Tonight Show” Band

Two NBC shows, one opening song. That was the case in the early 1980s when the Stern Show was broadcast on WNBC and borrowed the well-known theme for “The Tonight Show,” NBC’s uber-popular late-night talk show hosted by Johnny Carson.

“The thing that was weird about it was, when you watched ‘The Tonight Show’ you probably get 45 seconds of it,” Stern Show executive producer Gary Dell’Abate said. A longer version of the “Tonight Show” tune was being used as the Stern Show’s theme song when Gary started working for Howard in 1984. “We would get like four minutes of it because Howard would be late coming in or Howard would be setting up his stuff so, I know that song way better than probably Johnny Carson does, or did.”

“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” – Napoleon XIV

Longtime listeners will also remember Howard using this memorable music to open up the Stern Show on WNBC. Audio engineer Jerry Samuels released the novelty record “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Haaaa!” in 1966 under the name Napoleon XIV. With the pitch of his voice traveling up and down throughout the song, Jerry sings of one’s descent into madness and being dragged off to a psychiatric hospital by “those nice young men in their clean white coats.” The single hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart but only lasted a year on the Stern Show.

“In a Mellow Tone” – Duke Ellington

Soon after arriving at K-Rock, Howard switched the Stern Show’s opening theme to the jazz standard “In a Mellow Tone,” taken from Duke Ellington’s album “Blues in Orbit.” Scott Salem had just started as the show’s sound engineer when the change was made and he still remembers the old theme song fondly.

“That was a laid back, old jazz tune from the ’40s or ’50s, somewhere in there,” Scott recalled.

Close, but not quite. “In a Mellow Tone” was composed in 1939.

“Tilt-a-Whirl” – Jimmie Vaughan

By the mid-’90s, Howard was looking for a new theme for the Stern Show. Head writer Fred Norris found Jimmie Vaughan’s song “Tilt-a-Whirl” and it became the music that opened the show each morning for years. Jimmie (brother of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan) must have had an affinity for the song, too – he later named his band after it and now tours as Jimmie Vaughan & The Tilt-a-Whirl Band.

“The Great American Nightmare” – Rob Zombie

First appearing on the soundtrack for Howard’s 1997 movie “Private Parts,” the song “Great American Nightmare” was performed live by Rob Zombie and Howard at the film’s New York City premiere in front of a crowd of thousands. The song became an anthem for Stern Show fans and it was soon undeniable that it should become the show’s new theme song. On Jan. 6, 1999, Howard pulled the trigger and began opening his show each day with the heavy metal tune. Nearly two decades later, it’s still the first thing fans hear when the Stern Show starts in the morning.

“It was written for Howard and it really kind of sums up what it’s all about: the Great American Nightmare,” Fred Norris said of the Stern Show’s song. “And somehow the Great American Nightmare is most beloved by America now so, maybe they have to rewrite that.”

Tune in to Howard 101 all this week for Sternthology: Declassified to hear more behind-the-scenes stories from the Stern Show.