The Music of “Welcome Back Kotter”

welcome backThat’s the theme from Welcome Back Kotter, written by John Sebastian for the middle-70s television series. While with the Lovin’ Spoonful Sebastian had written seven top 10 hits, this TV theme was his only successful single as a solo artist.

Welcome Back Kotter was one of the first sitcoms to present a lighter version of the Norman Lear format established with All in the Family, and it ran successfully for four seasons on ABC. The show centers around Gabe Kotter, a teacher played by comedian Gabe Kaplan, who returns to his alma mater, James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn, to teach a group of outcasts known as the Sweathogs (because they have the hottest room in the building). While Kaplan was the star, the series is best remembered for having launched the career of John Travolta, who you might remember from such films as The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and Phenomenon.

Folks often have a laugh at the John Travolta’s tidily quaffed hair on LP jackets in the shop, assuming his musical career started with Saturday Night Fever or Grease — but in fact his first hit, “Let Her In,” was released when he was still starring on Welcome Back Kotter. His first ever appearance on an album was even earlier than that — he had a role in the 1974 Sherman Brothers musical Over Here! which also featured two of the Andrews Sisters.

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kaplan

Comedian Gabe Kaplan’s 1974 LP, Holes and Mello Roles, was the inspiration for the television series. It was first released by ABC Records with an image of popsicles crashing into the moon on the jacket. After the success of the series, the album was reissued with an image featuring Kaplan with the Sweathogs.

fonzThe Sweathogs made an goofy appearance on this 1976 TV-marketed oldies compilation, Fonzie’s Favorites. The back of the album (which includes a die-cut stand so you can put the Fonz on your piano next to the kids’ school pictures) promises “the Fonz has not taken to singing on this album. Better!! He has chosen his favorite 50s records to share with you.”

One side of this collection of familiar favorites by the likes of the Coasters, the Elegants and the Five Satins ends with a couple novelty songs — notably “The Fonzarelli Slide,” which inexplicably has the cast of Welcome Back Kotter meeting the Fonz, who would of course be older than Kotter by the middle seventies.

This wasn’t the only connection between the two hit sitcoms — when Pat Morita, who played Arnold, left Happy Days it was to star in a short-lived Welcome Back Kotter spin-off, Mr. T and Tina (which was, incidentally, the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as the lead). Sitcom spin-offs were all the rage and Happy Days itself produced six of them. Arnold’s replacement, Al, later married the mother of Fonzie’s cousin Chachi, who was played by Ellen Travolta, sister of actor John Travolta. Still with us? She first played Arnold Horshack’s mother on Welcome Back Kotter. And this concludes the least interesting paragraph ever posted on the Hymie’s blog.

lawrence hilton jacobs

Travolta’s albums were the most successful, but he was not the only of Kotter’s Sweathogs to make a record. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington not only sang back-up on Rick James’ Street Songs but made two albums of his own in the late 70s. A 1981 Halo single produced by Hilton-Jacobs is one of the rarest modern soul/boogie records you’ll never find (and is a pretty good party jam), selling for more than $1500 on any rare occasion when it appears online.

Hilton-Jacobs turned in a well-received performance as Joe Jackson in the 1992 TV movie based on Katherine Jackson’s autobiography, The Jacksons: An American Dream. He had a recurring role as a hard-nosed detective on the series based on Alien Nation, and has many screenwriting credits as well.

None of the remaining Sweathogs made records, although Ron Pallilo, who played Arnold Horshack, once portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart off Broadway.

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