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.
The San Diego-born folk singer-songwriter John Stewart (the brother of Mike Stewart, the drummer for the folk-pop quintet We Five, who had a major Top Ten hit in 1965 with “You Were on My Mind”) had the good fortune in 1961 to replace original member Dave Guard in one of the most successful groups in all of folk music, The Kingston Trio (best known for their 1958 Number One hit “Tom Dooley”). The group, whose success on the singles charts had been gradually waning for the previous several years (indeed, each of their Top 40 hits between 1958 and 1961 charted lower than the one immediately before it), was rejuvenated by the lineup change, and the trio would go on to have four more major hits with Stewart in the fold: the folk classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Greenback Dollar,” the Top Ten hit “Reverend Mr. Black,” and “Desert Pete.” But Stewart’s biggest hit of all during the Sixties wasn’t as a performer but, rather, as a songwriter: the Monkees took his song “Daydream Believer” all the way to the top of the charts for four weeks in 1967.
Stewart’s post-Kingston-Trio solo career took a while to catch fire; his first seven solo albums generally met with positive critical reviews but only modest sales. Following the 1975 RCA outing Wingless Angels, Stewart would sign a new label deal, re-emerging in 1977 on the then-hottest label in the business, Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records (then riding high on the success of the Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, Eric Clapton, Yvonne Elliman, Player, Smokie, and the soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever and, later, Grease). Just as crucially, Stewart would be paired up for his second album for the label, 1979’s Bombs Away Dream Babies, with no less than Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac (who were just coming off of the biggest-selling album of their careers with Rumours). With Buckingham producing, playing guitar, and singing backup and Nicks also providing backing vocals, Stewart was almost assured of a hit (and, indeed, the album would reach the Top Ten), but it also helped that his latest set of songs was also a very strong one, highlighted by the clever Top Ten single “Gold,” which was very musically reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” recast as a shuffle (fittingly, Nicks’ unmistakable vocals feature prominently on the song’s chorus) while the song’s lyrics were a satire of the record business.
Stewart scored an additional two Top 40 hits from the album, the Johnny Cash-meets-Bruce Springsteen sound of the dramatic “Lost Her in the Sun” (imagine the Man in Black covering “Badlands”) and the light-disco of the guitar-heavy epic “Midnight Wind” (which also prominently features Nicks, whose vocal contributions here echo her intense performance in her own similarly-paced “Stand Back”).
The album even sports some surprising cameos from the likes of the man Stewart had replaced in the Kingston Trio, Dave Guard, on “Comin’ Out of Nowhere” and veteran TV/film actress Mary Kay Place (then basking in the success of her Emmy Award-winning role as Loretta Haggers on the soap-opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman) on “Over the Hill,” while the album also benefits from the use of excellent session players such as drummers Mike Botts and Russell Kunkel on “Gold” and “Midnight Wind,” respectively.
Surprisingly, Dionne Warwick’s career was nearly every bit as cold as Stewart’s during the bulk of the Seventies. Only Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, and Aretha Franklin could claim to have been bigger female solo stars than Warwick during the ‘60s, and Dionne amassed an impressive twenty-two Top 40 hits between 1963 and 1970, nearly all of them penned by the legendary songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and produced by Bacharach. But two huge changes completely derailed her success: first, after ten years of recording for Scepter Records, she split the label in 1971 for a new deal with Warner Brothers, and much more fatally, Bacharach and David would part ways shortly after, leaving Warwick without her creative team. Shockingly, Warwick’s tenure with Warner Brothers failed to yield a single Top 40 hit, though Warwick would manage to score a Number One hit during the decade by appearing with the Spinners on their 1974 duet “Then Came You” on the Atlantic label.
But Dionne’s luck would change after she left the Warner Bros. fold in favor of a new deal with the Clive Davis-owned Arista imprint. Davis would team her up with the label’s biggest-selling act, Barry Manilow, who would produce Warwick’s first album for the label, 1979’s Dionne, which would become both her highest-charting album in ten years and her first album to go platinum. Though it would strangely end up being the only album Manilow would produce for her, it was an inspired pairing, and Manilow helped her update her sound in a way that seemed far more elegant and tasteful than calculating or ill-fitting.
The song selection alone makes the album tower over anything she had made since the ‘60s, thanks to such solid cuts as the sweeping ballad and Top Five hit “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” previously recorded by Charlie’s Angels star Cheryl Ladd on her self-titled debut and penned by Richard Kerr and Will Jennings. (If Jennings’ name looks familiar, it should: he co-wrote nearly all of Steve Winwood’s solo hits, as well as Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It”, Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong”, Whitney Houston’s “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” and Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”).
Even better is the lovely, sultry slow-burning disco of “Déjà Vu” (penned jointly by frequent Manilow lyricist Adrienne Anderson and R&B legend Isaac Hayes), which would reach the Top Twenty. Even the surrounding album cuts are of higher quality than those on Warwick’s other albums of the Seventies, and songs like the vibrant “Who, What, When, Where, Why” (written and originally recorded by Rupert Holmes of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” fame) and the handclap-laden disco of “Out of My Hands” are so catchy and irresistible that you wonder why they weren’t issued as singles in their own right.
In hindsight, it’s a shame that Warwick and Manilow didn’t continue to work together, because Warwick’s early ‘80s albums were fairly forgettable (with the exception of the Bee Gees-produced Heartbreaker and its excellent Top Ten title cut) and it wasn’t until her late-‘80s run of hit duets (the Elton John/Stevie Wonder/Gladys Knight collaboration “That’s What Friends Are For,” the smooth-as-silk Kashif duet “Reservations for Two,” and the wildly underrated Jeffrey Osborne duet “Love Power”) that Warwick would truly find her footing again and put out anything quite as enticing and graceful as “Déjà Vu” and “Who, What, When, Where, Why” were.