As a sometimes musician and songwriter, I look to stories behind songs for inspiration and lessons in patience. Sometimes, we hear about hit songs that were written in 30 minutes, but often they take time to come together. Like writing of any kind, the quality is in the revision.
This NY Times article on the campy-yet-cool theme song commissioned by the team in the mid-70s serves as an interesting origin story for how the song came together and illustrates three lessons when making something.
Lesson #1: Work on a quality first draft, but remember it’s a draft.
At the time of the song’s creation, Childress was doing odd jobs for the 76ers while he finished his degree at Temple. He recalled that he once earned $500 for dressing up as a turkey at a game before Thanksgiving. A pair of female ushers, clad in pilgrim costumes, led him around.
“I did all sorts of stupid stuff,” he said.
As for the team itself, the 76ers were on the rise after years of yawn-inducing mediocrity. But Pat Williams, then the general manager, understood the 76ers needed to add some pep to the game-day experience if they were to draw larger crowds to the Spectrum, the team’s arena at the time.
“We were trying to create the kind of atmosphere where it was a fun place to come,” he said in a telephone interview.
So when Williams learned that Childress was in a rock band, he had an idea: Perhaps the 76ers needed their own theme song.
Armed with a new assignment, Childress invited Rocap and a third bandmate named Joe Sherwood to his small apartment, where he had a four-track machine. They hammered out a demo, the original beat set by the steady dribble of a basketball.
“Boink, boink, boink, boink,” Childress said.
In the Lean Startup world, this would be called minimum viable product. Also, as a side point, very clever using the pace of a bouncing basketball as both the tempo of the song and the foundation of the demo itself. You don’t need fancy tools. Work with what you have to finish the initial idea faithfully.
Lesson #2: Observe the “everyday world” around you for inspiration
One morning, after watching “Sesame Street” with his 7-year-old daughter, Rocap arrived with lyrics:
One, two, three-four-five, Sixers!
Ten, nine, eight, 76ers!
“And we’re going, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” Childress said. “So that’s where the initial burst came from, and then we built the whole song around it.”
You could also say that this is providing space for magic to happen. Or to be OK with not having all the answers initially. These guys were trying to write a catchy song. Along the way, they realized that kids music — insanely catchy and these days a huge market — provided a simple, demonstrable way to
Lesson #3: Work with people you trust and allow them the chance to make specific choices
The band, known as Fresh Aire, wrote the song in E major, a key at the top of the vocal range for most male tenors. By pushing that range, Sherwood said, the song created energy. And in hopes of protecting its shelf life, over the years the band kept the lyrics free of references to specific players on the team — even the illustrious Julius Erving.
On the track, the band harmonizes to an accompaniment that includes guitars, piano, bass and drums. Sherwood’s brother Richard gave the song some soul by jamming out on a Hohner Clavinet, a keyboard instrument at the height of cool in the 1970s thanks to Stevie Wonder.
“My brother added a little riff,” said Joe Sherwood, 70, who began singing:
“Here they come! Deedley deedley deeeee!”
The band made specific choice to the music in order to achieve its original goal — the be an upbeat theme song that everyone would enjoy. The point about resisting the urge to just start name-checking players is interesting. Through the idea-development process, there will be hundreds of choices and it’s difficult to know what the right choice is in many cases. This type of long-term thinking isn’t fool-proof, but the fact that it was something the writers considered means they were thinking critically about what they created.
Of course, I’m biased because the Sixers are my favorite team and, oh by the way, the song was the last one played at our wedding reception.