A. Ottawa, Canada born Paul Anka
“Johnny’s Theme” began life as “Toot Sweet”, a pop instrumental composed in 1959 by Paul Anka and recorded by Tutti’s Trumpets. It was released on Disney’s Buena Vista label as the B-side to The Camarata Strings’ single “Lost In a Fog”.
“Tutti” Camarata, who was Annette Funicello’s producer at the time, asked Anka to write some songs for Funicello’s first album to follow her work on The Mickey Mouse Club. Anka added lyrics to “Toot Sweet” and published them under the title “It’s Really Love”, and the song was released as part of Annette Sings Anka. He recorded his own version of “It’s Really Love” that same year for the French film Faibles Femmes.
When Johnny Carson, a fan of jazz music, was preparing to take over as the permanent host of The Tonight Show starting in October 1962, he recognized that he would need a theme song. Carson and Anka had worked together in England on the television special An Evening with Paul Anka in 1961; when they happened to meet up again in New York City the following year, Carson manager Al Bruno mentioned needing a theme.
Anka created a new instrumental arrangement for “It’s Really Love” and sent a demo to Carson and Ed McMahon, who were in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, making preparations for the show. McMahon said “it was the first time either one of us heard [the song]—and magic.”
Shortly after sending the demo, Anka received a telephone call and was told that Tonight Show bandleader Skitch Henderson was angry because Carson wanted to use a theme song written by “a 20-year-old kid”. Anka said he then offered to let Carson write and publish new lyrics in order to claim a songwriter’s credit, along with half of the royalties every time the song was played. Those lyrics were never used on the show. Anka estimated that “Johnny’s Theme” was played live on Carson’s Tonight Show more than 1,400,000 times over the course of 30 years. As its original composer, Anka also was paid each time the song was broadcast, earning each man an average of about US$200,000 per year.
The song was retired along with Carson in 1992; his iteration of The Tonight Show was called “the last widely public big-band forum”. Incoming bandleader Branford Marsalis composed a more “funky” theme for successor Jay Leno because “a swing tune doesn’t reflect Jay at all [and] jazz doesn’t come to mind either.”