» Bill Conti: Music For Underdogs

Most people know it as the “Theme From Rocky,” but the official title of the original Rocky soundtrack title song is called “Gonna Fly Now.”

It was scored by Bill Conti, with lyrics (only 30 words long!) by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins. The vocals were performed by DeEtta West and Nelson Pigford, in a recording that lasts a mere 2:48. However, those few minutes are crucial to pop culture: it accompanied Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and is forever associated with underdogs who are fighting their way toward a goal, often accompanied by a montage noting their progress.

Our documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, includes a behind-the-scenes look at the original Rocky, including how its underdog theme was captured in music.In addition to the original Rocky, Avildsen directed all three Karate Kid films, as well as Save The Tiger and Joe. His gift for underdog stories inspired millions of filmgoers and influenced popular culture for decades (yet Avildsen is barely a household name). He received a Best Director Oscar for his work in Rocky; in all, he directed seven actors to Academy Award nominations.

“Gonna Fly Now” was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1977, for Best Original Song (it lost to Barbara Streisand’s “Evergreen,” from A Star Is Born). However, United Artists released it as a single. Like an underdog, it fought its way to the #1 position on the Billboard pop chart after 20 weeks, on July 2, 1977. The magazine ranked it as the 21st most popular song of the year, exceeding over one million copies in record sales.

That same year, the song was also interpreted by jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. That version spent 13 weeks on the Billboard charts, reaching as high as #28. “Gonna Fly Now” was also given the inevitable disco treatment — Rhythm Heritage, a hitmaking instrumental group that also disco-fied the TV themes from S.W.A.T. and Baretta, took its version of “Gonna Fly Now” to Billboard‘s Hot 100 (#94). The American Film Institute included the theme in its 100 Years…100 Songs list (#58).

The song lived on far past 1977. It was reincarnated in different forms in future Rocky films, including Rocky II (1979), which featured a children’s chorus, and Rocky V (1990), in which two different versions of the original song were played. Rocky Baboa (2006) brought back the theme yet again, with additional brass as well as a vocal remix. Creed (2015) sampled the first few notes of the song during the film’s final fight scene.

Composer Bill Conti attended Julliard, but his big break came in 1976, when he composed the Rocky theme. Director John G. Avildsen wanted noble, fairy-tale, no-nonsense music for his fighting underdog.  The song, which earned Conti an Oscar nomination, also cinched him the job as musical director of the that Academy Awards program (he has held this position 18 times since then, more than anybody else). Avildsen asked him to compose the music for another of his underdog movies, The Karate Kid (1984).

The success of the “Theme From Rocky” brought Conti into the spotlight as a go-to composer for film and TV. He scored the music for the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981). During the rest of that decade, he created classic TV themes for Dynasty, Falcon Crest, American Gladiators and Cagney & Lacey, among others.

Cick here to devour John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.

Click here to check out Chassy’s other amazing docs.