Monday, January 15, 2024

Interview: Truett Pratt (co-singer of “Happy Days” theme)

Fifty years ago today, the classic sitcom Happy Days premiered. 

To celebrate, rock out to an interview with Truett Pratt, half of Pratt & McClain, whose 1976 recording of the theme song became a hit.

What were you doing professionally prior to Happy Days?

I was a child. [laughs] 

I have been told that I was singing harmony at 3½ years old. In my youth, I spent a large amount of time with my musical friends and was involved in both church and school music, vocally and playing first trumpet in the marching band. 

My senior year, I provided the musical entertainment for the Miss Teenage America competition in our South Texas region. Six weeks after graduating, I got a call from the entertainment unit of Chrysler. 

They were putting together a massive promotion—they gave 7,000 cars free every year in small towns and at colleges because the driver education students were there but they had no vehicles. They were giving cars because they were good citizens. A year later they bought them back and sold them as demos. This was 1967-68. 

[They sponsored a singing group] called The Spurrlowsand after a 30-second non-rehearsed audition, I received an invite to [join] the 26-member act. I was the youngest. 

We traveled and performed everywhere from colleges to high schools to public venues like malls, sometimes 4-5 shows a day with costume changes. 

I did the television appearances. I was on the centerfold of Life magazine with our cars.

The other folks traveling with us were, for the most part, active in their churches as well. Most of the nights on the tour, they performed a sacred concert of beautiful traditional music.

One time I woke up mid-morning and I was fully dressed on a stage performing for about 600 people. I’d arisen, showered, got in my car, went to the performance, and came into consciousness on stage. And I believe it was the second wardrobe change of that show! [laughs] I was thoroughly worn out in under 11 months.

After [doing that] tour [for a year], I attended a well-known university for one year. The policies of the school and the (most important) location soured my attraction and was truly a “down” year for me.  Fortunately folks had seen me and my talent, that leading to an invitation to come to Los Angeles, the start of my career.

What songs were you singing?

In the daytime, our 90-minute performance [included] contemporary pop chart hits and traditional, well-known tunes. The night was a first class, more formal show, in tux and black tie.

How did you and Jerry McClain meet/start working together?

I moved to LA when I was 20 in 1970. About three or four months after I arrived, I got together with Jerry. My roommate had known Jerry from the music business in Los Angeles. Jerry and his wife and her twin sister had performed with a number of mid-60s pop groups. They’d had some success and done well in the commercial area of life as well.

My roommate thought Jerry and I would be a good match because I’m—not egoistically speaking—advanced in music. I sang and was first trumpet with the marching band and jazz band. I sang in church. I was eclectic and could handle different types of performance. 

Jerry and I decided to move together on the future. We put together a very slick Las Vegas-style rock and roll act. We employed James Fitzgerald, husband of the movie star Jane Powell, to be our manager.

He notified agencies in LA. We put on an audition by renting a small rehearsal studio that could seat an audience of 200. We set up with matching outfits and we did 18 minutes, took a three-minute break, then did the same 18 minutes again—repeated for three hours. The agents who came to see us could come when they wanted and stay as long as they wanted. The next day we got a call from William Morris, the biggest agency in the world. Other agencies made a bid but William Morris was immediately organized and had the connections for our type of act. We started in the business at what I call the middle. 

What was the name of that act?

Pratt & McClain and Brother Love.

Was Jerry your age?

Seven years older.

Your version of the Happy Days theme was used for seasons 3-10 (out of an 11-season show). How did you get the gig to record the theme?

We were already a successful nightclub act. Our business [model] was to tour about six months off and on, and [spent] the other part of the year working on our recording. Our first album was completed in late 1974. We got some airplay on album stations, but no blockbuster success.

One of my producers [who was also my former roommate] Michael Omartian moved offices to Warner Bros. We came off the road and, in April 1976, had a meeting with Michael and Steve Bari, who already had 21 gold singles—the Turtles, the Grass Roots. 

We discussed the fact that the show Happy Days was an instant hit and we should make a “Happy Days” record. The song was written by Norm Gimbel [lyrics] and Charlie Fox [music]. I guess you’d call them well-known. The 20 seconds you hear on the show were studio singers.

We got permission from the clearance houses to record that song. The first meeting was a Friday morning. Since we used the finest players in the industry, we couldn’t get everyone for five days. By the following Wednesday afternoon, we’d done all vocals and background instruments. By Friday night, it was hand-carried by couriers to the largest radio stations in the country for national release at 8 pm in every time zone. First meeting to finished record in seven days. [Then] “Happy Days” was being played every hour on the hour.

The song was on our second [and final] album, Pratt & McClain Featuring Happy Days

Did you write for your albums?

Two of the songs on the second album are mine: “California Cowboy” and “Summertime in the City.” 

Was your “Happy Days” song written to be used on the show or intended only to be a single?

Once the show was a hit, Garry Marshall [the show’s creator] contacted Gimbel and Fox and they wrote up the lyrics. I don’t think it was ever intended to be a single. It was intended to be used for the show but then became a single as well. Almost simultaneously. We saw a business opportunity to give product where there was no product.

Were you already a fan of the show?

When you travel the way we did, and are otherwise busy in studio, I didn’t have much time to watch TV. I was familiar with the show but not an avid fan. [But then] after viewing episodes, I became a big fan…and a grateful fan!

What interactions if any did you have with the stars of Happy Days?

We were never on set. We didn’t have any affiliation with the show other than being booked on some TV talk shows—Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin—with some of the side actors like Ralph [Don Most] and Potsie [Anson Williams]. They were guests, not singing with us. The shows would pick us up in a limo. When we’d arrive, there’d be people everywhere and we could barely get out. It was like the Beatles!

I would see Ron and Clint Howard at a Christmas/Chanukah party I attended for some years. They were great, very down-to-earth. 

Have you met any of the cast over the years?

No. But others. Christina Applegate babysat kids in the neighborhood just before Married… With Children. I can’t remember if she babysat mine. My older son learned to shoot pool two houses down with Mr. T. The neighbors were all friends. It was a quiet neighborhood in Sherman Oaks. Henry Winkler’s house was less than a mile away. I remember standing in line at the grocery store having a serious conversation with Don Cornelius of Soul Train. That’s what life was at that time.

Is Jerry McClain still with us?

He is, what’s left of him. 

Our second release [the album with “Happy Days”] hit the top 40. We’d be partners for 7-8 years. We truly became brothers. Our traveling life was usually interesting. It had its ups and downs. After our second release “Devil with the Blue Dress” hit the Hot 100 on Billboard, he started partying and got completely addicted to cocaine. It started out with Jerry pulling no-shows for radio promotions. He was hanging out with what he called a record promoter—I called him Jerry’s new girlfriend—who was really a coke dealer.

He never really came back. He hit the skids, as most addicts do. I got away from him as quickly as I could. But he damaged my reputation deeply. By the time I started to unravel the mess, he had drained every dollar of our bank account. This was about 1978-79. I don’t lie, cheat, or steal. I learned a big lesson watching my business partner lose everything. 

I had to sue him five years ago. A friend at Warner Bros. called me. I was the first recording artist he’d worked with at Warner Bros., 40 years ago. He was the worldwide head of royalties till he retired two years ago. He asked how I’d been liking those “Happy Days” royalties. I said “What royalties?” He said he’d call me back in five minutes but called in three. 

He’d hit one button on his accounting computer and brought up the past 15 years. Jerry had called a secretary in the royalties department to somehow [redirect my portion of the royalties] to his house in Burbank. He also forged my name.

It turns out Warner Bros. had never failed to issue me a royalty check every six months for the last 47 years. 

His behavior and choices at that time [led to] a very long recovery. It’s horrible… I wish him the best.

I’m so sorry to hear this. For how long was your money being sent to him?

Probably 30 years! 

Did you assume you weren’t getting payments because the royalties had simply dwindled to nothing?

Of course.

So you get royalties now? 

Yes. It’s pretty steady because of streaming—Apple Music, Pandora. It doesn’t pay the bills now, but years ago it was a lot of sales.

Do you know roughly what you’ve earned from the song? 

No. Forty-seven years is a long time!

Where do you live?

I got turned off by the ego. I’m just a Texas boy, two feet on the ground. I moved from California back to my hometown San Antonio around the end of 1997. I’ve been around the world 4½ times. I’ve had dinner with kings and dated their daughters. Nothing comes close to Texas Hill Country. I was born and raised here. The residence I’m talking to you from, I first spent the night at when I was 6½ years old. 


I have two sons, two daughters-in-law (six college degrees in that bunch), two grandchildren by each couple, all very happy and doing very well. I also have two buttons on the chest of my shirt that pop open whenever I talk about them!

What are you doing these days?

I am just enjoying the heck out of life, brother. I have assets, multiple streams of royalties. I did 12 cruises in the last 14 months with my girlfriend Jackie.

I had to be careful for a while because of what Jerry did to me. I’m multi-talented. I’ve always been a real estate animal. I started learning all the aspects of real estate development. I went to contractor school and got a license in California. 

I started two companies. One was called Airport Flyer Systems. In 1983-85, I created and put into action the airport bus system in Houston, TX. It’s the fourth largest city in the U.S. in population and the largest city in the world in square miles and has two airports—but had no bus system! 

To accommodate the schedule of my two children, to be best provider I could be, I got into the finance of real estate. The way the lifestyle is in that industry, I could have control of my schedule. I started at the very bottom. I was an assistant processor and complete gofer in the mortgage business. Spent 1½ years learning the business at a wholesale mortgage money source. I became a full real estate broker. I have had a mortgage company for just under 25 years. I ended up lending in California and Texas—two completely opposed systems.

Have you ever participated in a Happy Days-related event (reunion, convention, documentary, etc.)? 

I have not because back then they didn’t have them. 

Would you now?

Sure, of course. Why not! I am a friendly guy and have always valued interfacing with folks.  My friends jokingly compare me to Will Rogers who “never met a stranger…”

Do you have any mementos from your Happy Days experience?

Gold record in my hallway, photos of all kinds of folks, and volumes of memories.

What did you think when you got my interview request?

I’d been approached before but those people were not as succinct as you so I thought I’ll answer you. [laughs] 

How do you look back on your Happy Days experience?

Tremendous gratefulness. 

I have been blessed with a colorfully unique life experience, one heck of a rollercoaster ride—a truly mind-boggling ride—with a view from the top of the world. 

From “Happy Days” success, I gained the seasoning to encounter other business challenges and to achieve success in most of them, allowing me to own my schedule and continue to travel the world. I’m truly enjoying the fruits of my labor and spending time with my posse. For example, my older son and I own the newest Gold Wing touring motorcycles (among others) and will be leaving on a trip to the western U.S. 

I’m occupied at this time writing [a book]. The title: Memoirs of an Almost Rock Star and How I Survived.

Why “almost”?

We could have gone much further if my partner had not gone to another planet. 

I [still] perform 4-5 times a month when I’m home.

And I am happy, the most important factor of all. I am truly living in Happy Days!

No comments: