Common Thread: 24 Surprisingly Appealing Albums by Famous Actors (Part 1)

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. 

It’s not often that the entertainment industry produces someone who is equally as successful as an actor as they are as a musician, though there are certainly exceptions. Will Smith, of course, was simultaneously, at the dawn of the new millennium, both the biggest movie star on the planet and a red-hot rapper, racking up three Number One hits, a Top Ten hit, and three additional Top Twenty-Five solo hits all while starring in such box-office blockbusters as Independence Day and Men in Black. (He’d already, of course, done this sort of thing before, simultaneously starring as TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air while racking up pop hits like “Summertime” with his partner DJ Jazzy Jeff.)  Like Will Smith, Brandy successfully juggled her role as the star of TV’s Moesha with a lucrative career as a pop star with such hits as “The Boy Is Mine,” “Have You Ever?” and “What About Us?” Bette Midler has both nine Top 40 hits to her name (three of which reached the Top Three!) as well as two Oscar nominations for her roles in The Rose and For the Boys. Legendary pop singers Barbra Streisand and Cher would win Oscars for their roles in the films Funny Girl and Moonstruck, respectively. Rick Nelson spent most of the ‘50s and ‘60s doubling as both one of the stars of the family sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and arguably the biggest rival on the pop charts to Elvis Presley, racking up an astounding thirty-five Top 40 hits during his career, nineteen of them Top Ten hits! Donald Glover is a twin threat, stealing scenes on the sitcom Community while also reaping critical acclaim (and, eventually, a massive crossover hit in “Redbone”) for his rap albums as Childish Gambino, while Jared Leto is equal parts movie star and pop star, earning an Oscar for his role in Dallas Buyers Club while also racking up alternative-rock hits as the leader of 30 Seconds to Mars. Former teen idol Annette Funicello racked up pop hits like “Tall Paul” and “Train of Love” while also making a name for herself as Frankie Avalon’s co-star in a lucrative franchise of sun-and-surf-tinged films like Beach Blanket Bingo, while modern-day teen idols like Miley Cyrus and Drake would ultimately shake their beginnings as the stars, respectively, of Hannah Montana and Degrassi: The Next Generation to become massive pop stars. Mandy Moore and Hilary Duff, in contrast, would revive their flagging careers as pop stars by focusing on acting and starring, respectively, in television’s This Is Us and Younger. But there are plenty of other actors out there who either began their careers in Hollywood as musicians before quickly turning their attention elsewhere or quietly moonlighted as recording artists in their free time to modest or fleeting success at best, and many of the artists featured here even reached the Top 40 with songs that have sadly been forgotten to time. You might be surprised to know that some of these albums even exist! 

The Tarriers, The Tarriers (1956, Glory)

Both of this New York folk trio’s Top 40 hits were Top Ten smashes: “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” featuring the group as accompanists to folk singer Vince Martin, climbed to #9, while their cover of the calypso standard “The Banana Boat Song” (better known as “Day-O”), included on this self-titled debut, did even better, going all the way to #4. But bigger things were in store for its members in later decades: Erik Darling would form the folk trio The Rooftop Singers and rocket all the way to Number One in 1963 with the song “Walk Right In,” while Alan Arkin would branch out into another arena altogether and try his hand at acting, appearing in such beloved films as The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Catch-22, The In-Laws, Argo, Wait Until Dark, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Glengarry Glen Ross and even picking up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Little Miss Sunshine
[Arkin’s musical talent is apparently genetic: his dad, David Arkin, co-wrote Three Dog Night’s Number One hit “Black and White”!]

On a Sunny Afternoon, Tony Perkins (1957, RCA)

There’s a bit of comical irony in the fact that an actor best remembered for his legendary role as the creepy killer Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho actually spent much of the late ‘50s recording such easygoing albums as this one. Perkins would even reach #24 with the delightful 1957 non-LP single “Moonlight Swim,” which the King himself, Elvis Presley, would cover on the soundtrack to Blue Hawaii. Both this album and its follow-up, 1958’s From My Heart, are, like many of the pop albums of the time, full of standards like “Miss Otis Regrets,” “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and “The More I See You,” but the material’s well-chosen and Perkins is a shockingly good and charming singer – certainly not quite on the level of, say, a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett or Nat King Cole, of course, but this disc is every bit as relaxing as your average album from any of those three artists and Perkins does a remarkably fine job of acquitting himself here. 

On the Way Up, Ann-Margret (1962, RCA)

She ultimately became much better known as an actress, going on to star in such notable films as Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, Carnal Knowledge, Grumpier Old Men, and Any Given Sunday, but RCA really tried their best to push Ann-Margret as that rare performer who was as much of a threat as a pop singer as an actor. It wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful promotion, and Ann-Margret can legitimately claim to have a sizable pop hit – and a very good one, at that – to her credit, 1961’s #17-peaking “I Just Don’t Understand,” which is included here. The rest of the disc is nearly every bit as appealing, and cuts like “What Am I Supposed to Do” and “Slowly” are very much worth listening to.

Shelley!, Shelley Fabares (1962, Colpix)

Her recording career was short-lived, but she probably didn’t mind: Fabares has gone on record as saying she didn’t consider herself a singer and was opposed to the idea of trying her hand as a recording artist but was coaxed into it by the producer of the family sitcom The Donna Reed Show, on which she played daughter Mary Stone. (Her co-star, Paul Peterson, was simultaneously similarly sweet-talked into going into the studio to make a record and would have hits with the songs “My Dad” and “She Can’t Find Her Keys.”) Luckily for pop fans, Fabares caved in and subsequently topped the charts on her very first try with the timeless ballad “Johnny Angel,” included here alongside such other appealing fare as “Where’s It Gonna Get Me?” and “Very Unlikely.” [Her second hit, the #24-peaking “Johnny Loves Me,” appears on her second and final album, The Things We Did Last Summer.] Fabares would go on to marry producer/songwriter Lou Adler, the founder of both Dunhill Records (whose first 45 release would be by Fabares) and Ode Records. [She’s now married to former M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell.]  But she’d give up music for good after two singles on Dunhill and return to acting full-time, most notably going on to play Craig T. Nelson’s on-screen wife on the long-running sitcom Coach.    

The Yellow Balloon, The Yellow Balloon (1967, Canterbury)

While it may seem as if today’s pop landscape is overflowing with more teen-actors-turned-pop-singers than any other prior era (i.e. Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Hailee Steinfeld, Ariana Grande, etc.) and it may very well be, the ‘50s and ‘60s also had their fair share of teen stars from the small screen who would cross over to the Top 40, including Ricky Nelson (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet), who would ultimately become better known as a musician than he ever was as an actor and would rack up an astounding thirty-five Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1972, former Mickey Mouse Club cast member Annette Funicello, Patty Duke, Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson (both of The Donna Reed Show and the former of whom would even top the charts with the enduring “Johnny Angel”), and Johnny Crawford (The Rifleman). It was far less common for a teen actor to cross over into the musical world as anything other than a singer, but former Mousketeer Don Grady – still best remembered for playing Robbie Douglas on My Three Sons – did exactly that, taking a more backseat-type role as the drummer for this late-‘60s pop/rock band, whose former members had included Daryl Dragon (The Captain & Tennille) and Mark Andes (who’d go on to play bass for Spirit, Firefall, and Heart). Mind you, the band sadly got more attention for Grady’s involvement than it did for its music, but their music was quite good (their lone album even sported a pair of songs written by Jill Gibson, who had co-written songs for Jan & Dean and briefly replaced Michele Phillips in The Mamas & the Papas) and the band would deservedly reach the Top 40 with a song also named “Yellow Balloon.” The band split up shortly after, but Grady continued to work in the entertainment industry behind the scenes as a composer for the next few decades.

Peggy Lipton, Peggy Lipton (1968, Ode)

Ode Records – founded by Lou Adler – wasn’t the most commercially successful of labels, but their roster was certainly a fascinating one; their biggest success story was the legendary Brill Building songwriter Carole King, who became a multi-platinum superstar with the release of the wildly influential Tapestry, but its other artists included Merry Clayton (best known as Mick Jagger’s sparring partner on “Gimme Shelter”), Don Everly, Jan Berry (of Jan & Dean), Cheech & Chong,
Tufano & Giammarese (of The Buckinghams), and Lipton, still best known for her role as Julie Barnes on TV’s The Mod Squad. Lipton can not only sing, but she can also write (in fact, her self-penned “Honey Won’t Let Me” is one of the best songs here) and she also has fabulous taste in outside material, even covering a pair of Laura Nyro tunes (“Stoney End” and “Hands Off the Man (Flim Flam Man).” [Unfortunately, her best Laura Nyro cover of all, “Lu,” was only released as a non-LP single, as was her lovely remake of Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” You can find both on Real Gone’s stellar 2014 Lipton compilation The Complete Ode Recordings.]  Lipton would go on to marry Quincy Jones, and their daughter Rashida (quietly quite musical herself, having sung backing vocals on several Maroon 5 albums) would later star in the sitcoms The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Angie Tribeca, the last of which Lipton has appropriately made several guest appearances on as the mom of the title character played by Rashida.