How Mary Tyler Moore’s Theme Song ‘Love Is All Around’ Became a Feminist Anthem and an Instant TV Classic

Lyndsey Parker
The critically-acclaimed “Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the first to depict an ambitious, single, 30-something woman, and became the template for female-led sitcoms from “Murphy Brown” to “30 Rock.” (Photo: Hulu)

Today, love is all around as the world mourns the death of legendary actress and feminist icon Mary Tyler Moore at age 80. And the soundtrack for this nothing day is “Love Is All Around,” the theme for Moore’s revolutionary, namesake sitcom of the 1970s. The ebullient, 56-second opening song set the perfect plucky tone as the hardworking, hat-tossing career woman who could turn the world on with her smile, Ms. Mary Richards, made it on her own in the big city of Minneapolis. And it became one of the catchiest, most beloved themes in television history.

It turns out there’s a reason why “Love Is All Around” was such a success. It was penned and performed by a real rock ‘n’ roll veteran: Sonny Curtis, a member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, whose writing résumé also includes “I Fought the Law” and tunes for the Everly Brothers, Andy Williams, and Bobby Vee. (Side note: Urban legend has occasionally incorrectly credited Paul Williams as the theme’s writer, a misunderstanding because a man named Pat Williams wrote music for the series.)

Incredibly, Curtis wrote “Love Is All Around” in just two hours; it was an instant classic, in the truest sense. But the song almost didn’t make it onto The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In 2014, Curtis told the Tennessean how the deal came together.

“I wrote it for the show. It all happened in one day, and I owe getting the deal to Doug Gilmore, a real good friend of mine who lives here in Nashville now,” Curtis said. “He was in L.A. working for the Williams Price Agency. They managed Mary Tyler Moore. He called me one day and said, ‘They’re going to do a sitcom with Mary Tyler Moore. Would you like a shot at the theme song?’ I said, ‘Why, sure.’ So during his lunch break, he dropped off a four-page format of what the show was about, and I called him back a couple of hours later and said, ‘Who do I sing this to?’”

Curtis told the Austin Chronicle in 2011 that Gilmore’s show synopsis didn’t give him much to go on, which makes his lightning-speed writing session all the more impressive. “It wasn’t a script, just a description. I’ve always thought that was kinda lucky, because they didn’t give me a lot of information,” he said. “It just said, ‘A girl from the Midwest moves to Minneapolis.’ She got jilted, I believe. ‘Gets a job at a newsroom, gets an apartment she has a hard time affording.’ You know, that kinda stuff.”

The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s executive producer, James L. Brooks, was skeptical when he was first presented with the song, according to Curtis. “He was a little bit cold,” Curtis told the Tennessean. “He said, ‘We’re not near to the stage where we need a theme song yet, but I’ll listen to what you’ve got.’ We went into this big room that was empty, no furniture. He had a couple of iron-back chairs sent in, and I sat down and sang him the theme. … There was a black telephone on the floor. He picked up the phone and had some people come in, and had some more people come in. I sang it about 10 times. He said, ‘OK, I need a cassette recording machine. I need to take this to Minneapolis with me this weekend.’ I had begun to feel pretty confident.”

Perhaps Curtis was feeling a little too confident at this point; he confessed to the Tennessean that when he found out Brooks wanted to get another vocalist to record the theme, he blurted out, “If you don’t let me sing it, you don’t get the song!” Brooks agreed to Curtis’s terms, though Curtis sheepishly told the Tennessean, “I don’t think I’d do that now.”

And so, it all worked out, and the song changed Curtis’s life almost as much as the show changed Moore’s. Curtis started his own publishing company with Gilmore and Crickets drummer Jerry Allison — “for some reason or another at that particular time, that was the summer of 1970, they hadn’t quite caught on that publishing was that big of a deal” — and published the song himself, raking in royalties for decades. He only just sold the copyright in 2013.

The song changed over the course of the sitcom’s seven seasons; in Season 1, the lyrics pertained to the naive Mary’s post-breakup move to Minneapolis, opening with “How will you make it on your own?” and ending with the tentatively encouraging “You might just make it after all.” But by Season 2, Mary Richards was America’s thoroughly modern sweetheart, with a promising job at WJM-TV and her own groovy bachelorette pad, so those lines were fittingly replaced with the more optimistic (and now much more recognizable) “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” and “You’re gonna make it after all.”

photo: Mara Schwartz

Mary’s theme (the second version, of course) has since been covered by everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. (as a 1976 disco tune!), to future American Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd (who recorded a dance version for the 1995 Isaac Mizrahi documentary Unzipped), to Minneapolis grunge-rock legends Hüsker Dü (who recreated several scenes from The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening sequence for their lo-fi “Love Is All Around” music video, and wound up being an answer on Jeopardy!). The familiar bubbling keyboard line and chorus were also sampled on 1993’s Saturation by another trio of Midwestern alt-rockers, Urge Overkill.

But the best remake came along in 1996, courtesy of another feminist role model, the woman who could turn the world on with her sneer: Joan Jett. It’s no wonder that this grrrl-powered version was chosen as the updated theme for Moore’s 2000 TV movie with Valerie Harper, Mary and Rhoda.

“I grew up watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I was inspired that women were shown as being equal to men and it had an influence on me as I became a musician. The show was groundbreaking, important, and funny,” Jett said in a statement Wednesday, speaking for all of America as she added: “I will miss Mary Tyler Moore.”