I have been reacquainting myself over the past couple of years with many of the television programs I used to love when I was growing up. In an essay that ran a couple of weeks ago, I had name-checked a short list of prime time action shows from the late ’70s through the early ’80s that placed spectacular car chases and crashes front-and-center. Among those shows was “CHiPs”, which was originally broadcast on NBC from the fall of ’77 through the spring of ’83, turning actors Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada into household names.
“CHiPs”, set in Los Angeles and a loose acronym for “California Highway Patrol”, was one of those rare shows that had a little something for everyone watching in the living room. It had a funny, likeable, attractive, and somewhat diverse cast (by late-’70s standards), which also usually showcased one strong female officer prominently in the story line amid the all the testosterone in the briefing room. Actress Brianne Leary, who played officer Sindy Cahill, checked out after just one season, the show’s second, to be essentially replaced by Randi Oakes’ Bonnie Clark character for the next three years. Mensa material it wasn’t, but it’s still one of my favorite shows, ever.
As a young kid, the big draws for me were the cars, the camaraderie between the officers, especially Ponch and Jon, the action shots on the expressway, and lastly and not at all the least important, the music. American composer Alan Silvestri, who would go on to score myriad movies and TV shows, contributed a very late-’70s-Los Angeles soundtrack to “CHiPs” with sounds that ranged from yacht rock-ish incidental music to frenetic disco with a four-on-the-floor beat, both during opening credits (starting in Season 2) and also during some of the heated chase scenes. In my opinion, the music of “CHiPs” deserved its own casting credit for being such an integral part of the show, being no less indispensable than the “motors” the officers rode on or Erik Estrada’s perfect teeth.
Also cast on this show was what seemed to be the exact same roster of maybe ten cars that were used and reused, intended to be seen as completely random background traffic. Included among them were a silver Ford Mustang II hatchback, a black, H-Body Buick Skyhawk, a ’76-or-so Toyota Corona Mark II sedan (when’s the last time you saw one of those?), a white, mid-’70s Camaro with a camel-colored vinyl roof, and perhaps my favorite, a ’77 (or early ’78) Pontiac Firebird Esprit Sky Bird, pictured above. Exposure to “CHiPs” probably left me with the false impression at the time that there were a ton of these Sky Birds roaming the streets across the United States.
I’ve been rewatching this show on DVD and have to suppress a chuckle every time the silver Mustang II or blue Firebird appear in frame. There simply weren’t that many Sky Birds produced to merit their ubiquity in every other scene. I couldn’t find a breakout of Sky Bird production for ’77 or ’78, but referencing William Stopford’s earlier piece on limited edition Pontiacs, only about 4,200 versions of the ’79 “Red Bird”, the Sky Bird’s successor, found buyers. That latter model year was the all-time high water mark for Firebird sales, at 211,000 units. Given the 2% take rate for the Esprit Red Bird that year, one can interpolate that even if the Sky Bird sold more units during its run, its popularity was still a small percentage of the 34,500 Esprit models sold for ’77 (37,000 for ’78). Total sales of the restyled ’77 Firebird were about 156,000, which was an appreciable 40% increase over the 111,000 units sold in ’76. Most were Trans Ams in both years, by a substantial margin.
It’s becoming clearer to me that this particular show must have been partially responsible for my enduring taste for both disco and also that smooth, L.A. session musician sound of the period made popular by artists like the Doobie Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, the band Pablo Cruise (there is no actual “Pablo Cruise” in the group), the underrated Valerie Carter, and also many different acts produced by the brilliant and prolific David Foster. (If you like the early Foster sound, you should check out his very first outing as producer, of Jaye P. Morgan’s eponymous record from ’76. It’s another one of my favorite albums from this era.) In tandem with my rediscovery of so many cherished shows from my childhood, I’ve also been doing some deep diving into the sounds of the late ’70s that also put me into a happy place. Perhaps I should qualify that, in some cases, I’ve discovered the DJs and music curators who have done the actual “crate-digging” for me and unearthed many until-now unfamiliar musical gems of that ilk.
DJ Supermarkt (Marcus Liesenfeld) from Germany has been steadily putting together and releasing compilation albums within this oeuvre, sonically similar to what was played in the background during episodes of “CHiPs”, since his first excellent “Too Slow To Disco” collection from 2014. It was on his “The Ladies Of Too Slow To Disco, Vol. 2” from 2020 that I discovered the titular track to this essay, “Pretty Bird” from ’77, the year when our featured car was fresh off the Pontiac dealer’s lot and “CHiPs” had first aired. It was recorded for independent record label Baby Grand by an artist named Terea who, according to Discogs.com, has also recorded under her given name of Sharon Robinson. The following sample of the lyrics seemed a very appropriate tie-in to our featured car, sitting as it was parked on the curb with The Club anti-theft device stretched across its steering wheel and locked into place:
Your owner offers you protection
Provides a cell and food everyday
Now, careful, pretty bird, don’t you spread your wings too wide
You were meant to be free, but you may never, never, never go outside
I hear you, pretty bird in a cage
Now, do you wish to be you or just a sparrow?
Just a simple sparrow
Now do you understand
He’s worthless as the sand, but free as the breeze
And he goes where he pleases
Oh, pretty bird, don’t you see that if only you were ordinary
You too could be free
Here was this beautiful, limited edition Firebird, still looking resplendent in its factory Normandy Blue paint, with its custom license plates and looking like, well, an escapee. Cars like this aren’t used as daily drivers, and daily-driven cars like these aren’t in beautiful condition like this usually for very long. It’s the eternal question for the owner of any classic car, the delicate balancing act between enjoyment of one’s prized vehicle, preserving it, and/or ultimately consuming it. This Sky Bird’s owner could leave it in its heated garage for three hundred sixty-three days of the year, but then it has become a caged bird. He or she probably drives their hypothetical Corolla about town, so it is that little Toyota that is as “free as the breeze”.
It’s not that hard for me, with my active and colorful imagination, to personify both cars in my mind and to forget that they’re inanimate objects that don’t care about being caged in a garage or being free to roam the streets. At the same time, I recognize that nice things are meant to be enjoyed. I’m going to go ahead and keep watching all of my favorite shows, both new and old. I’m going to put on “repeat” the albums and music I have come to cherish without fear of wearing them out and/or diluting their impact. I will incorporate all of these things into my life both this year and beyond in the hope that, to rearrange some of the lyrics interpreted beautifully by Terea, I may find freedom and enjoyment in that which is my ordinary. Here’s hoping this pretty bird is still in flight.
Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, October 31, 2010.