Albums from the Lost and Found: Karla Bonoff

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.

If Karla Bonoff’s name looks familiar to you, it may be because her song “Somebody’s Eyes” appears on one of the biggest soundtracks of all-time (the nine-times-platinum Footloose), but Bonoff’s resume is so, so much more than that.

Bonoff got her start in the record industry as a member of the short-lived quartet Bryndle, who recorded a solitary 45 for A&M Records in 1970, the single’s failure causing the band’s already-completed debut album to get shelved by the label. Luckily for the group, all four members of Bryndle would go on to become major industry figures. Andrew Gold would become one of the most in-demand session musicians of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, serving as a near-one-man band on many Linda Ronstadt singles before launching a solo career that would bring him two major Top 40 hits in the late ‘70s with “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You for Being a Friend” (later the theme for The Golden Girls).  Kenny Edwards, who had already crossed paths and teamed up with Ronstadt in the late ‘60s folk trio the Stone Poneys (of “Different Drum” fame), would become Ronstadt’s full-time bass player for several decades. Wendy Waldman would retreat behind the scenes to pen hits for others, including Vanessa Williams’ “The Sweetest Days” and massive Number One hit “Save the Best for Last” and Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat.”

Bonoff, like Gold, would launch a moderately successful solo career, but it wasn’t until 1982 and the album Wild Heart of the Young (produced by her old bandmate Edwards) that she finally scored her first and only Top 40 hit as a performer with her remake of Jackie Moore’s R&B hit “Personally”  (featuring Gold on guitar, the four members of Bryndle always remaining good friends and regularly appearing on each other’s albums.) Bonoff’s career as a performer was unfortunately hampered by constant comparisons from music critics to Ronstadt, who, in fact, recorded quite a few Bonoff compositions over the years. The comparisons never completely made sense, though. Sure, the two women possessed similar voices and were both dark-haired beauties, but that’s pretty much the extent of the similarities. Ronstadt seldom ever played an instrument either on record or onstage, whereas Bonoff was an accomplished guitarist and pianist, and Ronstadt rarely ever wrote her own material, whereas Bonoff rarely ever sang anything but her own material.

You really can’t go wrong with any of Bonoff’s four solo albums, but her self-titled 1977 debut (produced by Edwards) is the biggest knockout in the bunch. For starters, it’s got a great supporting cast; all three of Bonoff’s Bryndle bandmates are here (Edwards playing on seven of the ten tracks, Gold on six, and Waldman contributing background vocals on two), while the album also boasts several of the best session men of the ‘70s (Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Mike Botts, Leland Sklar) and cameos from such members of the California-pop elite as Ronstadt, J.D. Souther, and Glenn Frey.

For another thing, Bonoff’s set of originals here is truly first-rate. “Home” had already been recorded by Bonnie Raitt on her album Sweet Forgiveness. Ronstadt had recorded three of these songs on Hasten Down the Wind, releasing two of them (“Lose Again” and “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”) as singles, both of them making the Hot 100 but neither reaching the Top 40 (though the latter didn’t miss by much, peaking at #42). Had Ronstadt not issued those two as singles, it’s likely that Bonoff would have, but instead, Bonoff and her label went with “I Can’t Hold On” as the lead-off single. It charted, reaching #76, but it’s far from being the most obvious hit here. Bonoff’s own version of “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” is a somewhat odd way to open her debut outing – if only because it’s a very slow, dramatic, heavily-orchestrated ballad – but it’s just as good as, if not superior to, Ronstadt’s own version.

Bonoff’s rendition of “Lose Again” is even better and is arguably the finest single moment in her catalog. The track features only Bonoff and her piano, but it’s so devastatingly beautiful and so emotionally powerful that it doesn’t even need any additional accompaniment to be electrifying.

The breezy and instantaneously catchy sway of “Isn’t It Always Love” would have been a fantastic choice for lead-off single, but as the second single from the album, it got overlooked and failed to chart. The album’s a little lacking for up-tempo songs, but Bonoff’s melodies are so strong that the ballads never get as tedious as they might in the hands of lesser writers, and songs like “Home” and “If He’s Ever Near” are simply lovely.

After the follow-up discs Restless Nights (1979) and Wild Heart of the Young (1982), Bonoff would lay low for quite a while, only releasing one more solo album in later years (1988’s New World), though she would re-emerge in the mid-‘90s as a member of the reunited Bryndle, the band releasing two full-lengths (a 1995 self-titled effort and 2002’s House of Silence). But artists would continue to mine her solo albums in the meantime for cover material, Ronstadt and Aaron Neville scoring a massive hit in 1989 with a duet version of Bonoff’s “All My Life,” while Wynonna Judd would top the country charts in 1992 with a first-rate cover (featuring Bonoff herself on guitar and backing vocals) of the songwriter’s “Tell Me Why” (which originally had appeared on New World).