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.
Lovin’ Things, The Grass Roots (1969, ABC/Dunhill)
It’s not the band’s best studio album – although this disc does get off to an absolutely fabulous start with the opening triple punch of the catchy title cut, the thunderous “The River Is Wide,” and the breezy band original “(You Gotta) Live for Love” – but Lovin’ Things is one of their most underrated full-lengths, and it’s also notable for being the final album the band ever made with original lead guitarist Creed Bratton, who’d subsequently turn away from the music business in favor of a new – and, as it would turn out, quite rewarding – career in acting and would later become a scene-stealing audience favorite on the NBC sitcom The Office playing “Creed Bratton,” a fictionalized version of himself, from 2005 to 2013.
Aimin’ to Please, Mary Kay Place (1977, Columbia)
Character actress Mary Kay Place got her first big break as a writer for such notable sitcoms as M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family, eventually appearing on-screen as well and even earning an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress for her much-lauded turn as next-door neighbor Loretta Haggers on the wickedly funny soap-opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Cleverly, since her sitcom character was an inspiring country star, Columbia signed Place and had her release an album (Tonite! At the Capri Lounge) as Haggers, and the album would both get nominated for a Grammy and yield a #3 country (and #60 pop) hit with the Place-penned “Baby Boy.” Place’s second album, while not as big a commercial success, is much less novelty-oriented and is instead a more traditional – and surprisingly very good – country album (helmed by Emmylou Harris producer Brian Ahern and featuring songs by Rodney Crowell) that dispenses with the Haggers guise and allows Place to just be her charming self, and no less than Willie Nelson pops up to duet with Place on the Top Ten Country hit “Something to Brag About,” which the two would sing together during Place’s hosting stint on SNL. Other highlights include the haunting “Anybody’s Darlin’ (Anything But Mine)” is haunting and the gently-funky “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.” Place would turn her attention back to acting, popping up in countless supporting roles on both the small and big screen over the next several decades, including turns in The Big Chill, The Rainmaker, Being John Malkovich, and Sweet Home Alabama, but in 2011, fans of Place’s music were unexpectedly treated to a third disc when the Wounded Bird label unearthed Almost Grown, a shelved album that she had recorded in 1979 (with help from such talents as The Band’s Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, Nicolette Larson, and former Beach Boys Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin), and gave it a belated release.
Cheryl Ladd, Cheryl Ladd (1978, Capitol)
It shouldn’t have been an entire surprise when the actress and future Charlie’s Angel star released this self-titled debut – she had actually got her first big break as the singing voice of Melody in the fondly-remembered animated series Josie and the Pussycats. What is surprising is that this album is as decent as it is. It boasts an early version of “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” the Richard Kerr/Will Jennings ballad that Dionne Warwick would later record and take into the Top Ten in 1979 to score her biggest hit in half a decade. [Kerr himself was actually the first to record and release the song.] The album also benefits from the talents of future R&B star Brenda Russell, who, along with then-husband Brian Russell (ironically, Ladd’s future husband), wrote and sang backup on the killer – and surprisingly feisty – single “Think It Over,” which would become Ladd’s first and only Top 40 hit.
Fearless, Tim Curry (1979, A&M)
Arguably the most wickedly fun album on this list, this disc has sadly never seen an official CD release in the U.S. but is definitely worth hunting down on vinyl. Character actor Tim Curry has been in countless movies, ranging from action fare (Congo, The Hunt for Red October), fantasy adventures (Legend) family movies (Annie, Home Alone 2, Muppet Treasure Island), and dramas (Kinsey) to zany comedies like Clue and the spoof flick Loaded Weapon 1. He’s also regularly starred on the stage in plays ranging from Amadeus to Spamalot. But the role he’s most remembered for is the scene-stealing Frank N. Furter in the cult-classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so it’s no surprise that A&M offered him a recording deal not too long after the musical belatedly become a pop culture phenomenon. With the help of Dick Wagner (longtime sideman for Lou Reed and Alice Cooper) and film composer Michael Kamen, Curry would craft three delightful pop-rock discs for the label (including 1978’s covers-oriented Read My Lips and 1981’s Simplicity), but the best in the bunch is arguably this album, which boasts just one cover (Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”) and eight originals (six co-written by Curry himself), highlighted by the art-disco sounds of “Paradise Garage” and the playful, early-Bryan Ferry-like rock pounce of “I Do the Rock,” featuring David Sanborn on saxophone. “I Do the Rock” would climb to #91, becoming Curry’s lone Hot 100 entry, but the song is so immediately infectious and addictive (you will have this one stuck in your head for hours on end after hearing it) that you wonder how in the world it could have missed the Top 40.
You Broke My Heart in 17 Pieces, Tracey Ullman (1984, MCA)
The British comedienne – best known for her television series The Tracey Ullman Show (where The Simpsons first made its debut, in the form of an ongoing animated short) and the much-acclaimed Tracey Takes On – actually made her first big splash in America not as an actress, but as a recording artist, specializing in ‘50s-and-‘60s-flavored retro-pop. Though she only ever made two albums before walking away from the music world, she did manage to score a Top Ten hit in America with this album’s hit cover of Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” as great a pastiche of the girl-group sound of the ‘60s as anyone in ‘80s pop ever crafted. The cut remains one of the greatest lost singles of the decade, and its just-as-unforgettable music video even sported an amusing cameo from Paul McCartney, whose movie Give My Regards to Broad Street Ullman had made a brief appearance in.
How Could It Be, Eddie Murphy (1985, Columbia)
SNL has had its share of cast members who’ve moonlighted as serious recording stars at some point in their career. Chevy Chase and Fred Armisen, for instance, had been the drummers for psychedelic-rock band Chamaeleon Church and post-hardcore outfit Trenchmouth, respectively, long before either man ever joined the show, while John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, of course, had a surprisingly respectable handful of minor Top 40 hits as their alter-egos The Blues Brothers. But no cast member of the show has ever soared as high on the Hot 100 as Murphy, who practically single-handedly saved the show from cancellation in the early ‘80s and certainly is a contender for the title of the greatest cast member the show has ever had. Though his first two albums almost exclusively consisted of stand-up routines, this third album from the comedy legend was a purely musical affair and not a novelty-minded one, either, Eddie foregoing punchlines in favor of applying his playful, charming self to a batch of straightforward R&B tunes like “Do I,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the title cut. It surprisingly works, though, and Murphy would deservedly rocket all the way to Number Two with the dance cut “Party All the Time,” written and produced by his friend – and funk icon – Rick James. Eddie would reach the Top 40 again four years later with “Put Your Mouth on Me.” His most recent album to date, 1993’s Love’s Alright, is another all-music affair that features guest turns from both Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney – a pretty remarkable booking coup indeed! – but it’s How Could It Be that remains his most satisfying musical disc to date.