by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Nigel Olsson was never quite a household name, but he worked with plenty of them. In 1969, he was drummer for a short-lived group called Argosy, which was fronted by a young Roger Hodgson (who would later shoot to fame as one of the two lead singers of Supertramp) and also included a young keyboardist named Reginald Dwight, who would soon change his name to Elton John and become one of the most iconic rock stars of all. Argosy would only release one single, and Olsson would subsequently do stints as drummer in both Uriah Heep (“Easy Livin’”) and the Spencer Davis Group (“Gimme Some Lovin’,” “I’m a Man”) before Elton lured him away to serve as drummer and backing vocalist in his own band, Nigel providing the drum work on every album from 1972’s Honky Chateau through 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy before Elton decided to overhaul his band and let both Olsson and bassist Dee Murray go. (Both Murray and Olsson would return to Elton’s band in the early ‘80s, and Olsson has continued to play with the legend intermittently ever since, impressively playing his two-thousandth show with Elton in November of 2014.)
What not many Elton fans realize, though, is that, during the late ‘70s, Olsson kept busy by not only doing session work but turning the spotlight on himself. He’d already made one low-profile solo album, 1971’s Nigel Olsson's Drum Orchestra and Chorus, but during his years away from Elton, he would make four more solo discs, two self-titled outings (one in 1975 for Elton’s label Rocket and one in 1978 for Columbia) and two discs (1979’s Nigel and 1980’s Changing Times) for Columbia’s newly-acquired subsidiary Bang (previously home in the ‘60s to the McCoys (“Hang on Sloopy”), Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Derek, and the Strangeloves and more recently home to disco band Brick (“Dazz”) and future R&B superstar Peabo Bryson.)
It was during this stint with Columbia that Nigel would connect with Bang’s most prominent recording artist of the ‘70s, a singer-songwriter named Paul Davis, who’d already racked up a string of Top 40 hits including “Ride ‘em Cowboy,” “Superstar,” “Sweet Life,” and the sultry ballad and deservedly massive Top Ten hit “I Go Crazy,” which would set a record at the time for the most weeks spent on the Hot 100. Davis would produce Olsson’s self-titled outing for Columbia, but the album failed to garner much attention and no hits were forthcoming. Rather than let their good work go to waste, Davis went back into the studio with Olsson to cut some additional material, and they combined the new songs with the best songs from the previous disc to create 1979’s excellent Nigel.
The album would briefly turn Olsson into a star in his own right, the album unexpectedly spawning two Top 40 hits. The Carl Storie-penned ballad “Dancin’ Shoes” isn’t very comparable to Elton’s own music – instead, it’s more akin to the kind of first-rate mellow adult-contemporary ballads like “I Go Crazy” that had become Davis’ own forte in recent years – but it’s suited for Nigel’s voice perfectly, and the combination of singer and song made for an irresistible concoction that would climb into the Top 20, peaking at #18.
The album boasted several other fine cuts, including a surprisingly good cover of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” (which Olsson was more than familiar with; he’d actually served as the drummer on an early version of Turnstiles before Joel decided to re-cut the entire album with his touring band) and appealing self-penned ballads like “Living in a Fantasy,” “Part of the Chosen Few,” and “You Know I’ll Always Love You,” which reveal that Olsson – who strangely never co-wrote any of Elton’s songs, although guitarist Davey Johnstone occasionally did – could actually write, too, and fairly well, at that!
But the album’s biggest highlight next to “Dancin’ Shoes” is that song’s follow-up single, a remake of the 1961 hit “A Little Bit of Soap” by R&B group The Jarmels. Davis had already attempted his own cover of the song several years earlier upon first signing to Bang, but it had missed the Top 40. Olsson’s version would climb to #34, but one listen to it makes you wonder why it didn’t do even better. Paul and Nigel slow down the tempo of the song and infuse it with a whole bunch of deliciously gooey synths, the song culminating in a slippery synth solo that just adds to the playfulness of the cut. Just when you think the track can’t get any more charming, a multi-tracked Olsson sings his heart out over the final moments, injecting some wildly catchy background vocals over the fade-out that were absent from the Jarmels version, which, in contrast, ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note and lacks the emotional depth of Olsson’s version. It’s one of the rare ‘70s singles that actually takes a ‘60s classic and improves on it.