The theme song to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is familiar to generations of TV watchers. The name of the man who wrote and sang it, less so.
Who can turn the world on with her smile?
Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Well, it’s you, girl, and you should know it
With each glance and every little movement you show it
Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have the town, why don’t you take it
You’re gonna make it after all
But by the time Sonny Curtis recorded “Love Is All Around” in 1970, he’d “made it” several times over himself, as a songwriter, as a recording artist, and as an early bandmate of the legendary Buddy Holly.
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Born in 1937 in rural West Texas, Curtis grew up picking cotton on his father’s farm. “Oh, it was a miserable job,” he told correspondent Mo Rocca. “The heavier the cotton sack gets, the worse it is, man.”
His love of music came from family. His aunt taught him to play the guitar, and while working those fields, Curtis dreamed up his own songs: “Driving a tractor, you go down half a mile that way, and when you get there, you turn around and come back a half mile this way. You have plenty of time to write a song!”
Curtis was just 14 when he met a young Buddy Holly in nearby Lubbock. “Buddy had black hair, but he had dyed it blonde, and it was growing out. And he reminded me of a black-and-tan coon hound. We sorta skipped all the niceties and got our guitars and started playing.”
Rocca asked, “How quickly did you realize this guy’s serious about music?”
“Buddy, he exuded confidence. He just knew he was gonna make it big one day.”
The two became fast friends, bonded by their love of music. Sometimes, Curtis said, he’d spend the night at Buddy’s. The two would wake up at midnight and flip on the car radio for a show out of Shreveport, Louisiana, to hear some of the rhythm and blues voices that would shape rock ‘n’ roll: “We heard, oh, Big Mama Thornton and Lonnie Johnson, and Lead Belly, Little Richard, Ray Charles, you name it.”
“Were you just absorbing this?” asked Rocca.
“Oh, boy, were we ever, yeah!”
Buddy and Sonny had formed a band and were still figuring out their own sound, when a then little-known Elvis Presley came to town. “And I mean, the girls were goin’ nuts, man. And that really got our attention. All a sudden, we thought, this not only involves music, this involves pretty girls!”
When Elvis came back to town in 1956, Buddy and Sonny’s band was the opening act. “Well, I guess we were right there sort of at the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“What was Elvis like backstage?” asked Rocca.
“He was just an old boy.”
The band went on to record some demos, but wasn’t making much money.
So, Curtis left to tour with country star Slim Whitman. “He treated me kind of like a little brother,” Curtis said. “I remember I’d be on the stage and he’d come over and say, ‘Now don’t be nervous.'”
Meanwhile, Buddy Holly formed a new band, which would prove to be seminal. The Crickets shot to fame, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Rocca asked, “When that was happening, did you feel a little left out, like, ‘Ugh’?”
“I did feel kind of like the train left the station and I wasn’t on it, you know?” Curtis replied.
But on February 3, 1959, Curtis’ friend and former bandmate died in a plane crash near Clear Lake Iowa.
Curtis served as a pallbearer.
“Buddy Holly was 22 when he died,” Rocca said.
“Yes. Can you imagine the amount of music he pumped into the system in a short period of, like, 18 months? No telling how much he would’ve contributed had he been around.”
By that time, Curtis had joined the Crickets. But with Holly gone, the band felt rudderless.
It was Curtis’ talent for songwriting that helped put the wind back in his sails. His song “Walk Right Back” became a big hit for the Everly Brothers:
And then there’s this classic, which Curtis claims he wrote in about 20 minutes: “I Fought the Law”:
“I Fought the Law” has been covered by artists from The Bobby Fuller Four to The Clash.
Sonny Curtis is 84 now. He and Louise, his wife of more than 50 years, live outside Nashville, where they raised their daughter, Sarah. He is enshrined in Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame – as is his old guitar.
In 2012, the year the Crickets retired, they were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
But it’s a song Curtis wrote for the small screen that may be his most enduring legacy.
In 1970, he was living in Los Angeles when he got a call from a friend about a new sitcom being produced for Mary Tyler Moore: “It was just this young girl gets jilted in this small community, and she moves to the big city of Minneapolis, gets a job at a news station. And that was about it.”
Curtis wrote the theme song based on a four-page description of the show. “I honed in on the part that she rented an apartment she had a hard time affording, and wrote, ‘How will you make it on your own?’ … ‘This world is awfully big, and girl, this time you’re all alone.'”
Within just a few hours, Curtis was summoned to the studio to play his song for producer James L. Brooks. Curtis recalled, “I got my guitar out and I sang it to him. He smiled and said, ‘Sing that again.’ And I had to sing it about ten times. And before I left that afternoon, the room was full of people standing all around the walls. I thought, ‘I believe I got a shot at this!'”
WEB EXTRA: Sonny Curtis on writing the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song
Rocca said, “It wasn’t a given that you’d write and sing it.”
“No. As a matter of fact they didn’t want me to sing it. I said, ‘I wanna sing this,’ you know? And I was probably more pushy than I should have been, if I’da known better. But fortunately, I didn’t know better at the time!”
When the show became a hit, Curtis was asked to rework his song: “When they started to do the second season, he said, ‘Sonny, she’s obviously made it. And we have to have some new lyrics.'”
For a man whose career dates back to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, Sonny Curtis remains disarmingly humble. “Oh, I’ve always sort of had a rule, don’t give advice in a crowd,” he laughed.
But when pressed, he will share some wisdom: “If they say, ‘Man, you oughta go back to Texas ’cause you’ll never make it,’ just look at them and say, ‘No, you’re wrong, because I am gonna make it.'”
Rocca replied, “You know, I should write this down, ’cause this sounds like a song right here!”
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Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: Lauren Barnello. Illustrations: Mitch Butler.