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TV Themes: Welcome Back, Kotter

It took the crazy success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease to bring Welcome Back, Kotter to German TV, cashing in on cast member John Travolta”s rise to fame at about the same time as the series ended its five-season run on American TV in 1979. The happy upshot of this was that by the time the show had jumped the shark “” after the third season “” it was passé even in Germany.

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As Vinny Barbarino, Travolta played the nominal leader of a quartet of high school underachievers in whom teacher Gabe Kotter, returning to his inner-city alma mater, recognises much of his younger self. His hope is that these four doofuses will complete their schooling and become successes in life, much as Kotter did. The teaching profession is indeed a noble and very undervalued vocation, but is the uniform of brown curdoroy jackets with elbow patches really an aspirational objective? The Sweathogs, as the school”s gang of remedial students are known, were founded by Kotter himself, so he has much empathy for the youngsters.

welcome-back-kotter-castAn unlikely premise rooted in cliché, clearly. Except that the main characters were based on people Gabe Kaplan “” Kotter in real life “” knew at school, with the names changed (except that of Arnold Horshack, he with the bizarre laugh). The notion of academic redemption resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, my underachievements in school would have relegated me to the Sweathogs, if there had been such a group. Alas, I had no teacher like Mr Kotter, so I made it my business to excel at failure, to meet what I thought were my teachers” low expectation and what I perceived to be their desire. Happily, I was able to climb out of that deep hole and eventually graduate from university.

The groovy theme song was written and sung by John Sebastian, who in the Mamas and the Papas” song Creeque Alley sat in The Night Owl with Zal and Denny, passing round the hat. The three and Cass Elliott and Jim Hendricks were the Mugwumps. Denny and Cass went on to become a Papa and a Mama, while John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky formed the Lovin” Spoonful (Hendricks disappeared from the scene). Sebastian”s theme song was a US #1 hit in 1976. The show itself, originally titled simply Kotter, was renamed in a nod to Sebastian”s chorus, which repeats the words “welcome back”.

More recently, Sebastian appeared on the Eels song Dusk: A Peach in the Orchard from the wonderful Blinking Lights and Other Revelations album. As for Gabe Kaplan, apparently he now works a commentator on televised poker. I”m sure the Sweathogs would approve.

John Sebastian – Welcome Back (Kotter)  (full version).mp3
John Sebastian – Welcome Back, Kotter  (title version).mp3

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And watch this great clip from the series, which also features James Woods as a preppy teacher.

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  1. Carl Cafarelli
    June 24th, 2009 at 04:36 | #1

    Clarification: the TV show was NEVER called just “Kotter;” it was called Welcome Back, Kotter from its debut until its departure from the airwaves, at least in the US. As I recall, Sebastian’s single was originally called “Welcome Back, Kotter,” but its title was subsequently shortened to “Welcome Back.”

    (If, however, you mean that “Kotter” was the show’s original working title, I dunno…yer probably right. In which case, um, never mind.)

  2. June 24th, 2009 at 07:21 | #2

    Thanks, Carl. I did indeed mean that ‘Kotter’ was the working title, but didn’t express myself clearly.

  3. June 24th, 2009 at 08:28 | #3

    I liked that show when I was a kid.
    But that thing about his recognising himself in the kids, that’s news to me. It must have been completely over my head at the time.
    I like this theme though. It’s stuck in my mind all these years. Thanks.

  4. Carl Cafarelli
    June 24th, 2009 at 18:52 | #4

    You expressed yourself clearly enough–I just didn’t pick up on it until I’d almost completed my initial response.

    BTW: this is one of my favorite blogs, especially for The Originals series.

  5. June 24th, 2009 at 23:10 | #5

    No, I think you were right to raise it; it could be understood the way you first read it.

    And thank you for your kind words.

  6. October 23rd, 2009 at 14:41 | #6

    Thanks for this and having a Steely Dan title. I was about ten when the show first hit the air

  7. Duncanmusic
    January 31st, 2011 at 06:45 | #7

    Jim (or more properly James) Hendricks started out as a member of the Big Three with Cass Elliott and after The Mugwumps had a brief fling (I believe only one 45, maybe 2) in a band called The Lamp Of Childhood on Dunhill Records (welcomed there I’m sure because Cass was on the label and could help out).
    After that he is probably best known for penning a couple sizable hits for Johnny Rivers “Look To Your Soul” and “Summer Rain” (and a few other LP cuts). He also gave James Parks of ‘Then Came Bronson’ TV show his only hit (and ironically) with the theme song “Long Lonesome Highway” on MGM. (Another TV Theme posting?) He ended up providing the lion’s share of the writing on the initial James Parks’ LP ‘Long Lonesome Highway’ and if I recall correctly ( I once owned all of his LPs on MGM) and nearly all the country/lite rock songs on his 3-4 follow up LPs. Because they DID sell in modest amounts because of the TV show (a semi-biker-hippie fusion loner saga) he was also allowed to make at least one LP for MGM himself filled with originals and two Hank Williams and one Jimmie Rodgers covers. The reason I got ALL the michael Parks and James Hendricks LPs on MGM was the BAND, which was pretty much the TCB BAnd a/k/a Elvis Presley’s band featuring James Burton on guitar & Dobro, Jerry Scheff on bass & Ron Tutt on drums along with Buddy Emmons on Pedal Steel amd Michael Rubini on piano and strings. Burton’s dobro work was paramount to the sound, though he did manage to pull off a few of his characteristic guitar licks here and there. I had first discovered Burton on the 2nd Buffalo Springfield LP ‘Again’ playing dobro on “Child’s Clain To Fame” and soon discovered him everywhere…on Ricky Nelson’s early hits primarily, then with Elvis and followed him through that stage to Emmylou and eventually John Denver.

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