Everyone who grew up during the ’80s and watched American cartoons will know the music of Shuki Levy. That’s not an overstatement. Everyone. You’ll have it permanently etched on your memory, readily accessed by the simplest reminiscence with friends.
But here’s the thing. You probably didn’t know his name. Given all the joy he has given us, we think that’s a damn shame. With that in mind, it’s time for us to reappraise the massive contribution to popular culture by the most successful composer you’ve never heard of.
Okay, that’s not strictly true: if you read our piece on the top 50 80’s kids’ TV themes you may have noticed Levy’s name come up more than once. You may even have taken the time while watching one of these cartoons you had taped off the TV to pause the video, during one of their bafflingly fast end-credits sequence just to see who wrote its amazingly catchy theme.
If you’ve done neither of these, allow us to acquaint you with the John Williams of kids’ television.
A fair comparison? We think so. Just as Williams nailed practically every iconic and enduring blockbuster film score from the mid ’70s and beyond, Levy set the tone for all American action cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s. Look at the evidence:
He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, Inspector Gadget, The Mysterious Cities Of Gold, M.A.S.K., Jayce And The Wheeled Warriors, Ulysses 31, and Power Rangers. It’s an impressive list of shows, all with irritatingly catchy themes tunes. We bet our entire annual budget that those of a certain age will recognize some or all of those themes.
But it doesn’t stop there. He also composed the music for She-Ra Princess Of Power, Digimon, Hello Kitty, Rainbow Brite, Sweet Valley High, A.L.F., Heathcliffe, The Real Ghostbusters, Pole Position, the rarely-seen cartoon of RoboCop, the truly odd animated incarnation of Mr. T…the list goes on and on.
If that isn’t enough to guarantee the man entry into the DoG Hall of Fame, Levy also contributed to the Marvel Universe. Long before Disney and Netflix decided to take superheroes to the next level, many of Marvel’s iconic characters have appeared on the small screen in animated form. For an appropriately rousing soundtrack, Levy was the go-to guy. Spider-Man, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Avengers all received the Levy treatment.
Like the music of John Williams, there are common and distinct elements that make a Levy score easily recognisable. A typical theme will feature terrible/awesome (delete as applicable to taste) soft rock; a cheesy but memorable chorus that screams the name of the show or main character, performed by histrionic, soaring vocalists. There may well be an awesome guitar solo. It’s amusing to picture some shoulder-padded, gurning guitar wizard laying down a virtuoso solo in a Los Angeles recording studio just for a cartoon about a toy.
A Levy theme will also be completely lacking in self-awareness or knowing humor: 30 seconds of deadly-serious, fist-pumping joy, alerting the already over-excited young audience as to how wicked-awesome this cartoon is going to be.
But don’t let us convince you; let the music do the talking.
So who is he? Is he even still alive? Fortunately, not least for him, the answer to that second question is yes. Now 68 years old, Shuki Levy is much more than a prolific composer. He is a savvy businessman whose acumen allowed him to dominate the US kids’ cartoon industry.
Shuki Levy was born in Israel on June 3rd, 1947, the son of a Russian-born barber and Israeli-born mother. He allegedly started playing music aged one and a half alongside his siblings. His sister played the piano, his brother the violin while he “played” cymbals by smashing saucepan lids. Having mastered crockery, his parents bought young Shuki a harmonica and then a guitar, which he learned to play by ear. Even today, he still cannot read music.
Levy started his professional music career gigging round the clubs circuit of Tel Aviv. During the ’70s he toured Europe as part of double act Shuki & Aviva, which you’d hope would feature extensive guitar solos. They actually enjoyed some success and here’s an exquisite live performance of their biggest hit, 1973’s Signorina Concertina, which sold 2 million copies. Note Levy’s magnificent hair.
If this wasn’t entered into Eurovision, someone missed a trick; it would have cleaned up. Levy did in fact go on to write the music for the 1981 Israeli entry Halayla (you can see Tel Wogan blathering on about it here) but sadly for all of us a pop career was not to be. Far bigger things were on the horizon, thanks to the business he formed with American/Israeli businessman Haim Saban. When it came to kids’ cartoons, together they would be unstoppable.
A few years older than Levy, Saban had managed Shuki & Aviva but also enjoyed early flirtations with the stage. He was bassist of the rock band The Lions Of Judah. When this brilliantly-named outfit failed to roar, Saban moved to France. Keeping in touch after the break up (in every sense) of his pop duo, Levy went into business with Saban, setting up a small record company in Europe. Saban Productions was born.
With Saban handling the business from France and Shuki in charge of all creative production from L.A., Saban Productions began delivering kids’ TV theme music for various international animation houses. One such company was DIC, a French outfit that had put down roots in America.
If that name rings a bell, it’s because you would have seen the DIC logo at the end of many of the shows already mentioned, starting in 1981 with Ulysses 31, originally a French/Japanese co-production that Saban Productions repackaged and localized for the English-speaking market with a shiny new, rocking theme tune composed, naturally, by Levy.
As the decade progressed, Saban rebranded the company as Saban Entertainment and bought the rights to DIC’s entire library, before selling the rights back to the company’s original French founder, Jean Chalopin. Relationships between DIC and Saban subsequently soured, however, with the former suing the latter. A settlement was reached but by this point, Saban Entertainment had grown into a television behemoth, driven by the talent and energy of two former club musicians with appalling hair.
By the ’90s Saban Entertainment was one of the largest independent producers and distributors of children’s programming in the world. In 1996 Levy and Saban got into bed with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, to form Fox Kids Worldwide. That same year, they secured the rights from Marvel Comics to develop shows based on a few of their most celebrated characters. It was only Marvel’s bankruptcy that put an end to what could have been a highly lucrative collaboration.
As Marvel fell, Saban Entertainment soared, thanks to a franchise they launched several years earlier that can be summed up in two words: Power Rangers.
Levy and Saban were experts at repurposing Japanese shows for a western audience, and this was no exception. They adapted the live-action show Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, itself the 16th chapter of toy company Bandai’s Super Sentai franchise, and August 28th 1993 saw the television debut of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
This vibrant, multi-colored, martial arts, action superhero romp was the brainchild of Levy, not only credited with an explosive theme tune but also co-creator, writer and producer. Power Rangers was a colossal hit, smashed into ’90s pop culture and spawned many spin-off shows video games and a feature film. And it’s still going. Levy must be minted.
He is. Levy and Saban parted ways amicably in 2001, just prior to the company being sold to Disney. According to business magazine Forbes, the deal made Haim Saban the 143rd richest person in America, with an estimated net worth of $3 billion. While Levy was directly involved in the company that emerged from the deal, renamed BVS Entertainment, one can only speculate that, based on Saban’s current worth, Shuki Levy must be, at the very least, doing okay.
So there you have it. The rise and rise of a musical titan that shows no sign of stopping. In August 2015 Levy announced he was launching a new “multiplatform production company” called Wonderfish Media. He also has plans to set up two museums in Israel, one dedicated to Albert Einstein, the second in memory of Masada, the ancient hilltop fortification where in 74-73 CE 900 Jews chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.
Will we will ever see Levy return to the stage? Unlikely. In a 2015 interview he said of his days as one half of Shuki and Aviva, “I was going crazy from being on stage. I was much more comfortable behind the scenes.” With all he has accomplished, not to mention 15 gold and platinum records selling over 14 million records worldwide, we would say that remaining behind the scenes has made him very comfortable indeed.
If you want to see what Shuki Levy is currently up to, he has an official website: www.shukilevy.com. When we clicked on it we were a little disappointed not to be hit in the face by a blast of his fantastic theme tunes. Then again, with so many to choose from, he probably couldn’t decide. Fair enough. So go back to YouTube, have another listen and tell us which you think is his best theme. Although we think Mysterious Cities Of Gold may have the edge, we defy you to pick a favorite.
Shuki Levi, thank you for all the memories. We salute you.