The Wolff of 116th Street: How Seinfeld’s Theme Song Was Created
What is the DEAL with that bassline?
Before writing the most iconic theme song in the history of TV sitcoms, Jonathan Wolff was playing in studios during the day and jazz clubs at night as a young professional musician in Los Angeles. But his utility talents in the studio, a hard work ethic, and keen business savvy allowed him to build a TV theme music empire in the heart of Burbank, California. Just a few miles outside of Hollywood and home to the entrainment industry’s biggest studios, Wolff composed theme songs for shows like Will & Grace, Married… With Children, and Who’s The Boss? It was also here, at his Music Consultants Group Inc., that the theme to Seinfeld was born.
Everyone knows Seinfeld’s signature slap bass theme, complete with all sorts of pops, clicks, and other mouth sounds that Wolff made with, you guessed it… his mouth. And most fans know that the theme was actually played on a synth, with all of these sounds recorded and sampled. But something that kind of shocked me, and made complete sense when I sat back and thought about it, was that the theme for each week’s episode was unique. Jerry provided the meat of the song with his opening monologue, and Wolff played a different variation along to it each time. Over nine seasons and a total of 180 episodes, that’s a lot of slappin’ da bass (but actually on a synth), mon!
We caught up with Wolff from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, where he has retired to with his wife and kids. We discussed what’s the deal with Jerry finding Wolff, monopolizing slap bass in TV, ZZ Top, and doing it yourself, among other things.
Noisey: How did you get into producing television theme songs?
Jonathan Wolff: At the time, musicians played, and engineers recorded. I did both. I had this whole career as a recording engineer. I worked at recording studios, first pulling cables and doing maintenance. And then I would work the board and do sessions. And I was also doing sessions as a musician, and later the technologies intertwined and became more closely related. For example, in the later 70s when synth technology became available, they started putting out synthesizers with keyboards attached. I was all over that. I was an early adopter for consumer synth technology. It helped my career, because I was already a studio pianist, I could read, I could play in studios, and I could do electronics, which was a viable double at the time. Then, when the home studio revolution occurred, in the early 80s, companies made multitrack recordings available to us in our homes. Man! That changed everything. That was a whole new game. We could actually record and do projects ourselves without booking time at studios. Now we could book packages. I was an early packager, where you just give ‘em a lump sum of money. I could sing most of the parts, deliver a product, and pocket the money. I would buy a house and build a studio in it, and when the studio outgrew the house, I’d buy a bigger house.
At a certain point, there were certain clients that I wanted who were never gonna pay the big bucks for someone who worked out of their home. No matter how cool that studio was, if it was in your home, they’re not bringing their clients there. So I bought a commercial building in Burbank, California, right in the heart of studio town on Burbank Boulevard. I could ride my bike to Warner Brothers or Disney, ABC, Burbank Studios. I was right in the middle of all those places, and I built what I really wanted. I wanted a job where I could work with the world’s greatest musicians, LA studio musicians, and the world’s greatest singers, LA studio singers, doing great music on the best equipment. No one was hiring me for such a job. Such a job didn’t exist. So I created it for myself in this building in Burbank, California. The company was called Music Consultants Group. That’s when I stopped being a multi-purpose musical utility for artists or composers, and started being the composer myself.
How did you get the Seinfeld gig?
The wonderfully talented comic named George Wallace and I were great buddies. I did songs with him for his act. Turns out, Jerry Seinfeld, in real life, has a best friend named George. It’s my buddy George Wallace. So, when Jerry Seinfeld complained to his best friend George, just like he does on the show, that he was having trouble with music for his pilot at the time called The Seinfeld Chronicles, George said, “You’ve gotta call my buddy Wolff. He’ll help you out.”
Jerry had this order of four episodes, and he and Larry David had somehow convinced Michael Richards and Jason Alexander to come back and do these four episodes, and invited Julia to join the group. So I said, “OK, I’ll do your four episodes. Tell me about this show.” Jerry described for me, on the phone, not a music issue, rather, a sound design challenge. He wanted the main title opening of his show to be himself doing standup in front of a small club. Along with that, he wanted music. Some kind of signature, identifiable, quirky music to serve as his main title of his show. That, to me, was a conflict.
In the late 80s, and that’s what we’re talking about here, 1989, theme music was melodic, a lot of sassy saxophones, silly lyrics, and yeah, I had done a lot of that music myself. Guilty. But that was not going to work for this Seinfeld Chronicles opening, because the way I saw it, the melody for the Seinfeld theme was already supplied by Jerry’s voice. Every monologue was going to be a variation on the theme. So whatever I did, I needed to architect it modularly so that it could be shiftable, changeable, like Lego music. It needed to not conflict with his voice. His human voice was really organic. It wasn’t a trumpet or a clarinet. It was a human voice. So I chose to build this percolating rhythm, this New York groove, using the organic human sounds from my lips and tongue. So we’re already into a different species and genus of music. On TV at least. That bassline that some people may have noticed is so basic and sophomoric that it does not require meter, or four bars. It’s gonna stay together if I need to hold for a joke. Fine. There was no timing obligation for it. And it was in a frequency range that did not compete with his human voice. All good. I could be as wacky as I wanted to be. The instrument slap bass had not yet enjoyed the celebrity status of solo instrument. It was, up until that point, a component of funk music. So when it showed up as his theme song, Jerry liked it, Larry liked it. Not everybody was open to such rule-breaking. Such risk taking. There were calls from producers.
Can you explain how you played it and scored it? Would you record the slap bass onto a synth and then play it from there each week? How would you do that?
During Seinfeld, sampling technology was in its infancy. So yes, it was sampled, as were the lips and the tongues and clicks and things, so that I could do super human lip stuff. And super human bass licks for transitions. There were things like pulls and bends that a real bass, even my six-string, couldn’t do. It was a more efficient, more flexible, stronger, better to do it that way.
How collaborative of a process was it? Did Jerry give you an idea of what he wanted and you went for it? Or he sent you the whole idea of the monologue and then you came up with it from there?
The producers and directors who got my best work were the ones who told me about their show, about their characters, about their musical sensibilities, they told me how they were going to use the music, how the music might function, and then left me alone. That’s what Jerry did. He said, “I’ve got these monologues. They’re in a room like this.” He never once said, “Oh, it should sound like...” A lot of producers wanting to maintain every asset of their show, will say things like, “We want the music to sound like…” and it doesn’t matter how the sentence ends. At that point, I’m doing derivative music. I’m making it sound like whatever the next thing they say is. So I’m connecting dots. You cannot at the same time say, “Oh, but it’s gotta be unique and weird and quirky and one of a kind and a new species.” Those are two conflicting instructions. It can be one or the other.
On a number of occasions, I got producers who were open to risk taking. If you’re going to create a new species of music, you’ve gotta be willing to do some Frankenstein experiments with some audio gene splicing, approaching from a different way than other composers have, and be willing to swing hard at that weird ball you just created. I did it a number of times. I also created a lot of music that was derivative. It sounded like other music. It all depends on what my instructions were.
What was it like doing the different song for each episode? Would you sit there, watch it, and play along? What was that process like?
Well, occasionally I’d think ahead. Not always. But in this case, I did think ahead, and I architected the music to be modularly manipulative for prospective monologues, knowing that that was going to come up. It was a matter of getting the timings right. This was before a thing called digital audio. If it were today, or 15 years ago, even, I’d just put it up on Pro Tools and fill in the blob. This blob’s where he’s talking, oh this blob is where he stopped talking. Before digital audio, I had to do it from timings.
My music editor would do a detailed timing list. An EDL, an edit decision list, of each line, what he said, what the timing was. And from that, I would kind of map out the music. Here’s where this will start, that will start. I would build each monologue based on this list, this computer print out of his voice and what he was saying, how long it was. I knew that I had to end up with the whole theme and the instruments that would build towards that end. It was a little bit more labor intensive than most other shows because I had to re-do that opening every time. But it was worth it. It was a worthwhile venture. It made sense. It wasn't a waste, even as I was doing them I knew it wasn’t a waste. He was funny. He was creating new material. As long as he’s creating new material, I’ll do the same thing, and I will create along with him.
Did you ever do any acting on the shows you were working on?
I think they named a character after me on Seinfeld but I don’t remember what it was. In the ten years where I was doing utility chores, one of them was I was an actor. But I only played musicians. They would hire me to be the guy that recorded on camera. I did three seasons on Knots Landing. Man, was I a terrible actor. It was like watching a cardboard cutout trying to say his lines. It was terrible. There were times when I went to the set for music reasons. Like on Will & Grace, you can see me accompanying Patti Lapone. On Seinfeld, when Elaine was dating the jazz saxophone player, there was a plot point that caused the saxophone to not have great control over his lips at the end. Well, they don’t teach you that stuff in music school, I’d bet. Because I’m the one who had to make the gawks and squeaks on the sax. That was a funny day at work.
Oh yeah, what was that name of the song he wrote?
“Hot and Heavy.” But I wrote it!
A friend of mine is a really big ZZ Top fan. He played me this song called “Thug.” He was like, “It reminded me so much of the Seinfeld theme song.” And I agreed, it totally does kind of have that same bass going on. We were curious if you are a ZZ Top fan or not.
Everybody’s a ZZ Top fan! I mean, there’s no such thing as not being one. Does “Thug” pre-date Seinfeld? Because you’re the first person who has mentioned that.
It’s on Eliminator. Early 80s.
Yeah, so “Thug” pre-dated Seinfeld, but any song that has an ascending bassline and two chords, one and four, that’s a long list. I mean, there’s a long list of things that could fit into that. There’s no relationship and I’ve never heard from ZZ Top. Although I think when I was doing chores I may have worked on a re-record of “Sharp Dressed Man” for Alvin and the Chipmunks. [Laughs]
Are there any other big bands that have a slap bass thing that have told you that they listen to Seinfeld or any weird type of relationship like that? Have you heard of any influence from the song in modern rock music?
I can’t imagine that. Music journalists, not you, but others guessed that Les Claypool had played the bassline. It’s not true. I played the bassline. That would have been cool. [Laughs] He was obviously around at the same time. He’s probably still around. I don’t know that there’s a whole lot of crossover there. It’s kind of the opposite, it meant that other composers and screen music composers were from that point on were not allowed to use slap bass as a component of their theme music because of Seinfeld.
Just because it would sound too similar?
I got complaints. [Laughs] From other composers going, “Yeah, great, thanks Wolff, now I can’t even use the slap bass. It’s not like you invented the slap bass.” I didn’t invent the slap bass. Sly Stone was doing it a long time before I was. I popularized it on TV. I don’t know that there’s been any real influence beyond that. That’s negative space influence. It has carved it’s own space.
Reed Dulea imagens what if Seinfeld on TV today on Twitter.