R&B Solo Albums from the Lost and Found (Part 1): Hero

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.

As the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Clarence Clemons might have seemed like an unlikely candidate to land a solo deal – and on the biggest record label of all, at that, Columbia – but it also made some sense: even if his vocal contributions on The Boss’s albums were limited to joining in on backing vocals, he could certainly carry a tune, and there was no denying his charisma and stage presence. [As great though Springsteen’s shows still are, they admittedly haven’t been quite the same since the passing in 2011 of “The Big Man,” who brought an extra sense of fun and playfulness to every show he ever played.]

1985’s Hero was actually his second solo album, following 1983’s Rescue, co-credited to the Red City Rockers, but it was a much more commercially successful outing. Mostly helmed by Narada Michael Walden (the producer behind Aretha Franklin’s massive comeback album Who’s Zoomin’ Who, Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” to name just a few of his hit credits), Hero is a wickedly fun album – never nearly as artistically ambitious as one of his famous boss’s albums, but then again, that’s not what you’d expect or want from “The Big Man,” so the playfulness and unapologetic commerciality of this album actually works very much in its favor, and Walden and Clemons do a nice job together of keeping the record light but never actually disposable, either.

There’s a cover here – a surprisingly fitting cover of the Walker Brothers classic “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” – but Hero is otherwise shockingly comprised of new originals (mostly penned by Walden in tandem with Jeffrey Cohen, though Clemons also co-writes three cuts.) “Kissin’ on U” might be laughable if it weren’t so over-the-top and Clemons so fully committed to his vocal; just the way Clemons delivers the line “Yeah! Keep kissin’ on the Big Man!” is too priceless to not make you smile against your will.

The playful bounce of “I Wanna Be Your Hero” and “It’s Alright with Me Girl” are both quite appealing, and Clemons modestly sticks to his saxophone and lets Craig Thomas takes over lead vocals on the appealing adult-contemporary ballads “Christina” and the interracial-romance-themed “Cross the Line.”

The album’s most famous cut is its opener, the sunny, bouncy “You’re a Friend of Mine,” performed as a duet between Clemons and Jackson Browne. The inclusion of Browne might be rather surprising – the legendary singer-songwriter did have a reputation in the Seventies for taking himself awfully seriously, and this song is the polar opposite of your standard confessional-singer-songwriter fare – but, then again, Browne had lightened up quite a bit by this time and had even rocked out quite a bit on early ‘80s singles like “Boulevard” and “Lawyers in Love,” and it’s fun to hear the voice of “The Pretender” let down his guard and just kick back on record with his longtime friend. Adding to the fun of the single is the unexpected presence of Browne’s then-girlfriend, actress Daryl Hannah of Splash and Wall Street fame, on background vocals. You absolutely never hear this song on the radio anymore, sadly, in spite of having been a sizable – Top Twenty, even! – hit (peaking at #18), but it’s without a doubt one of the most downright fun singles either Clemons or Browne has ever made, and it’s a real shame that it’s never been included on any of Browne’s best-of packages.