Bob Ross might be the most famous painter in the universe. He has a halo of curly hair and, as you likely know, is renowned for painting “happy little clouds,” “happy little trees,” mountains, rivers, and streams as he instructed his national PBS viewers on how to create canvas-based landscape works just like him.
Ross’ show, The Joy of Painting, is known for its mellow tone. Sometimes he’d even have squirrels climbing on him. Ross practically whispers to his TV instructees. The gentle rhythms of his brush taps and painter’s knife scratches could pleasantly put anyone to sleep like the pitter-pattering raindrops outside your spring window.
But it takes a special song to engender this mood, a special theme song to introduce viewers and painters to the light-handed, open-hearted 30-minutes of art. But who wrote the theme for The Joy of Painting, that acoustic guitar ditty that gets a bounce to your heart and a grin to your lips?
Well, the songwriter has many names: it’s Lawrence Gordon “Larry” Muhoberac, Jr. Also known as Larry Owens and Larry Gordon. Born in Louisiana on February 12, 1937, Muhoberac was an American musician, producer, and composer. In his twenties, he moved to Memphis, and in his thirties, he was known as the original keyboardist in Elvis Presley’s TCB (“Taking Care of Business”) Band, the King’s main backing group until he died in 1977.
Muhoberac, whose hands were used as doubles for Presley’s in movies when the rocker was playing piano, first appeared with the group in 1969. But he was replaced in 1970 by Glen Hardin. Muhoberac, who also worked with Neil Diamond, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Tanya Tucker, Nancy Sinatra, and Barbara Streisand, later composed TV theme songs for the company, Network Music. He wrote the theme to The Bold and the Beautiful but is uncredited.
He also composed the theme for The Lawrence Welk Show, and of course, “Interlude,” which is the title theme for The Joy of Painting. In the mid-80s, Muhoberac moved to Australia where he worked with Keith Urban, Silverchair and others. He’s been a part of countless records. But his theme for The Joy of Painting lives on. Outlets like Pluto TV, which show the painting program on a single channel 24-hours a day, have the theme playing constantly.
Netflix, which has prominently carried the series, also just released a new documentary about Ross, who passed away in 1995, which uncovers some scandal about the co-founders of The Joy of Painting, Annette and Walt Kowalski. The three-time Emmy Award-winning show, which ran for 31 seasons (over 400 episodes) from 1983-94 and focused on the theme that “anyone can paint,” is certainly memorable and indelible. It’s also rich with intrigue.
But what of its theme?
The bright song features an acoustic guitar melody. Included are chimes, a funk bass, crisp percussion, and some ambient synths. Before each episode, Ross, a former air force sergeant in Alaska, would often come out in painters’ garb and feign painting a new image with a giant brush in an animated opening. The song, which was smooth like Ross’ own voice, the type of song you might hear on hold waiting to talk to your favorite dentist, is inoffensive. It’s lovely, too.
Scientists have studied the effect Ross and his voice have on people. It has a formal name, Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. So, the show needed a peaceful instrumental track to gently ready listeners’ ears for what was to come. Muhoberac’s theme—which wasn’t used originally in the first season of The Joy of Painting (produced in Falls Church, Virginia)—was soon adopted shortly after the series launch and maintained its place in the opening throughout the remaining 30 plus seasons (produced in Muncie, Indiana).
Muhoberac, who suffered from dementia later in his life (more on him can be heard here), was admitted into an institution toward the end of his days, sadly. And while little more is known about the iconic theme song and its composition, it’s clear it’s one stock track that, after it was chosen for the historic painting show, went on to help fill a lot of walls and shelves with lovely, pastoral Russian artwork.
Here are some cover versions of the song:
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