ESPN seems to be pulling back a lot of curtains recently. A couple of months ago, we finally got a glimpse at Chris Kelley, the "This ... is SportsCenter" dude. Now, ESPN has done a short (albeit informative) interview with John Colby, the composer who wrote the ubiquitous SportsCenter theme that's apt to hit your eardrums two dozen times a day. Check out the interview above, as there's some interesting history that Colby recounts.
In truth, though, there's a passage in Those Guys Have All the Fun, last year's epic ESPN oral history from James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, that really tells the full story from start to finish. Here's Colby, as quoted in the book:
In the early eighties I had been working for Ken Burns, producing music on his documentaries, playing in bands, and writing industrial music. I used to watch SportsCenter late at night when I came home from gigs. Like a million other musicians, I thought I could make better music than what I heard on the air. In late 1983, I cold-called ESPN, looking to write and produce music for the network. Somehow I got through to Bill Fitts, who oversaw all production. That was lucky, because he was a history buff and knew my work. I got hired as music coordinator in 1984.
At the time, the way ESPN handled music was starting to be a problem.
Producers would just pull cuts off records and air them. The network was still under the radar and nobody noticed, but the legal department saw the time coming when ESPN couldn't continue to use music without either licensing it or producing it.
I was there at the right time, and started to write and produce more music than I ever dreamed of; by 1986, I had written just about every theme that was on the network.
All the while I was weaving in four-note logos. I wanted to create ESPN's version of the NBC chimes, but nothing stuck.
By 1989 it was time for a new SportsCenter package. John Walsh—man of many hats—suggested that we go in a Saturday Night Live direction. To me that translated into a sax-driven R&B feel, and so the theme package was written and recorded. I loved the way it rode out on the sax solo and capped—this time I didn't even address the elusive four-note cap. It went on the air and I thought no further of it—on to the next project, you know.
Next thing I remember about it is about a year or so later, and I walk into the office, and Charley Steiner says, "Holy shit, man, do you see what's going on with this dah dah dah thing." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" It went viral, as they say. Not only did those notes identify ESPN but they became a catchphrase of any play that was so good as to make the highlights of SportsCenter.
When people find out who I am, they say, "Dah dah dah, dah dah dah." I'm always asked if royalties from SportsCenter have made me rich, but there are no performance royalties on music aired on ESPN. All music on the network is either a work for hire, licensed per program, or library music. Brilliant business on their part. I've got no regrets playing it, believe me.
Oh, I don't know. The network is poised to air the 50,000th episode of SportsCenter tomorrow, and more than two-thirds of them contain Colby's composition? I imagine he might have a regret or two in this department.