As I mentioned some weeks ago, I remain a fan of the ahead of its time, little seen, and under-appreciated masked crime fighter TV series from the 1966-7 season, The Green Hornet. More so, the other thing that marked the program distinctly was its theme song. The tune used reflected back to a time when such things were important in ways now long forgotten in today’s programming. Decades ago, it was a practice of sort to aspire a show’s signature tune to be liked enough that it’d make its way up the pop music charts. The Hornet’s would do just that and influence those that came afterward.
Back then, it wasn’t unheard of for television shows to employ classical music tracks as their theme songs. The Lone Ranger famously used the William Tell Overture as its musical prologue. And the long-time radio program for The Green Hornet, the one that preceded its ’60s namesake TV series, used the orchestral interlude for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Flight of the Bumblebee, which was composed in 1899–1900, for its introduction.
This piece has long been enjoyed by classical music listeners (casual or serious) and it remains a popular melody because it’s simultaneously catchy and playful. You can imagine the flight of said large hairy bee as the notes zigzag through your ears and into your head. Despite that, the instrumental tune remains an obvious challenge for those playing it. And for the very same reason it draws listeners. The frantic pace and intricate melody make it so. Wikipedia explained it simply:
“It is not so much the pitch or range of the notes that are played that challenges the musician, but simply the musician’s ability to move to them quickly enough; because of this and its complexity, it requires a great deal of skill to perform.”
Editor’s Note: Brian Moon in the comments makes the case that while Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Bumble Bee was probably the inspiration for the Green Hornet Theme, it is a different tune written by Billy May, “…which has been recorded by trumpeters such as Rafaél Mendéz and Wynton Marsalis, among others.” The post has since been updated to reflect this information.
However, for the television show version it was significantly rearranged for the television series by Billy May. That noted musician-arranger-conductor gave it a decided kick by incorporating a big band jazz style makeover that was nicknamed “Green Bee”. And with that, The Green Hornet theme1 became best known for the trumpet solo played by the New Orléans-bred music legend, Al Hirt. If skill with jazz and that particular instrument were ever needed to deliver on a musical piece, one that really demanded it, only someone in stature of this trumpeter and band-leader could carry through with the challenge. And he surely did that.
While Lionel Newman conducted the orchestra in support of the piece, Al Hirt’s solo was so exemplary it popped out to dominate once the song’s opening notes passed. Literally, Al’s virtuoso trumpet quickly pushed everything to the background. While his Java recording from 1964 endures as the trumpeter’s biggest chart hit, it’s safe to say Al Hirt’s version of
Flight of the Bumblebee Green Hornet remains just about iconic for the eyes and ears of those old enough to remember the program and its signature theme. So much so, director Quentin Tarantino, in a clear homage to Bruce Lee and The Green Hornet TV program, introduced it to younger generations when he re-tasked the song for a transitional sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Needless to say, it’s far from forgotten now.
- It should be noted, the album The Horn Meets The Hornet remains only on vinyl LP. No CD or file download are available. ↩