Common Thread: The Producers Come Out to Play (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

A Song or Two, Cashman & West (1972, ABC/Dunhill)

Terry Cashman and Tommy West had previously teamed up in the trio Cashman, Pistilli, & West with future Manhattan Transfer co-founder Gene Pistilli. The trio’s debut album, Bound to Happen, failed to garner much radio play, but the song “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” would later be covered and turned into a Top Ten hit by Spanky and the Gang, and the trio would eventually score a solitary Top 40 hit of their own [1969’s “Medicine Man (Part 1)”] under the pseudonym The Buchanan Brothers. By the early ‘70s, the act had split, leaving Cashman & West to record as a duo, and the two men had a brief moment in the spotlight with this album and its Top 40-charting single, an edited version of the album’s epic centerpiece “American City Suite.” But that ambitious single has sadly been lost to time and the duo still remains best known as the production team behind the late Jim Croce’s ever-impressive run of hit singles during the early ‘70s such as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” “Time in a Bottle,” “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” “I Got a Name,” and “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.” The two men even accompanied Croce frequently in concert and on his television appearances on such shows as The Midnight Special. After Croce’s passing, the duo would continue to flourish behind the scenes, starting the label Lifesong (the name of which was also that of the duo’s third and final album) and having success with such signings as former Sha Na Na member Henry Gross (who reached the Top 40 with “Springtime Mama” and the Top Ten-charting Beach Boys sound-alike “Shannon”) and New Jersey singer-songwriter Dean Friedman (“Ariel.”) Cashman would also make a name for himself as the writer and singer behind the unofficial theme of Major League Baseball, “Talkin’ Baseball,” and would even spoof his own song in a voiceover appearance on The Simpsons, singing “Talkin’ Softball” in the episode Homer at the Bat

Where I Belong, Christopher Neil (1972, RAK)

It didn’t get released in the U.S. and was only available as a U.K. import, but this disc has the distinction of being the lone album Neil would ever make as a performer. He’d resurface in the late ‘70s as a producer, scoring his first big American hit with Paul Nicholas’ “Heaven on the 7th Floor” and subsequently producing a long string of hit singles for Sheena Easton that includes “Morning Train (Nine to Five),” “Modern Girl,” and “For Your Eyes Only” and Mike + the Mechanics’ self-titled debut (which spawned the hits “Silent Running,” “All I Need Is a Miracle,” and “Taken In,” the latter two of which Neil co-wrote), The Living Years (the title cut of which would top the American singles charts), Word of Mouth, and Beggar on a Beach of Gold. Neil would also co-produce Paul Carrack’s solo album One Good Reason (which yielded the Top Ten hit “Don’t Shed a Tear”) and would continue to be sought after as a producer in the early ‘90s, helming Celine Dion’s breakthrough hit “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” which has aged remarkably better than her later work and remains one of her finest singles.

Watch Out!, Trax (1977, Polydor)

Bassist Pete Bellotte had already scored a string of hit singles as a co-writer and co-producer (alongside Giorgio Moroder) for Donna Summer, including “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love,” by the time he and drummer Keith Forsey released this album. The album – the entire first side of which is taken up by the hilariously-titled disco excursion “Watch Out for the Boogie Man!” – didn’t sell well, but little matter: he and Forsey would continue to work together for the remainder of the decade on Summer’s records, the two even co-writing her Number One hit “Hot Stuff.” Bellotte would continue to co-write and/or co-produce several additional Summer hits, including “Bad Girls,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Walk Away” and “The Wanderer,” in addition to producing and writing most of the material on Elton John’s Victim of Love album. Forsey would go on to become one of the bigger behind-the-scenes figures of ‘80s pop, co-writing Irene Cara’s theme song to Flashdance and Limahl’s theme song to The Neverending Story, both writing and producing Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On,” and producing the Psychedelic Furs’ Mirror Moves and all of Billy Idol’s solo albums from his self-titled debut through 1990’s Charmed Life.

Got No Breeding, Jules & the Polar Bears (1978, Columbia)

Though he never did quite manage to reach the Top 40 as a performer, the name Jules Shear might still ring a bell to you – he served as the host of MTV Unplugged for its inaugural season, and he’s also the songwriter behind such Top 40 hits as the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants” and Cyndi Lauper’s “All through the Night.” Years before he tried his luck as a solo artist, Shear served as a member of the short-lived Arista recording act Funky Kings before forming this new-wave outfit, whose lineup also boasted a young Stephen Hague, who’d later become a wildly in-demand producer and co-writer in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for such alternative-pop giants as New Order (whose first Top 40 hit “True Faith” was co-written with Hague), O.M.D. (whose first Top 40 hit“So in Love” was similarly a Hague co-write), Erasure, and Pet Shop Boys.  This is the first of two albums released before the band split up; their third album, Bad for Business, was originally slated for a 1980 release but was instead shelved until Columbia unearthed it decades later and belatedly put it out in 1996.

The Dance of Life, Narada Michael Walden (1979, Atlantic)

Walden’s first big break came when he was tapped to replace the legendary Billy Cobham as drummer for the ‘70s jazz fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, and he’d go on later in the decade to play with such greats as Jeff Beck, Robert Fripp, and Tommy Bolin before starting a solo career. This fine disc, his fourth, would yield a Top Five R&B hit – and a Top Ten U.K. pop smash – with “I Shoulda Loved Ya,” but Walden would struggle to score a crossover hit on American shores as a performer and he would soon focus on producing to extraordinary results, helming such massive hits as Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “Another Night,” “Jimmy Lee,” and the chart-topping George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” “So Emotional,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Clarence Clemons’ “You’re a Friend of Mine,” Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile,” and Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” just to name a few of the many Top 40 hits he helmed during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.