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.
Heartbeat, Don Johnson (1985, Epic)
Though the TV and film actor is still best known for playing Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice and the title character on Nash Bridges, Johnson also has moonlighted on occasion in the musical business. He’s co-written songs for the Allman Brothers Band (even co-writing the 1979 single “Can’t Take It with You” from Enlightened Rogues) and Dickey Betts’ band Great Southern. At the height of his fame on Miami Vice, Johnson would begin a solo career that lasted two albums, this being the first. It’s shocking just how much rock credibility this disc has – the material includes songs penned by Tom Petty (“Lost in Your Eyes”) and Bob Seger (“Star Tonight”), while the cast of players includes Dickey Betts, Ron Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Dweezil Zappa! The disc would even give Johnson a huge Top Five hit in the arena-sized rock of the title cut, penned by Eric Kaz (Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Has No Pride,” Michael Bolton’s “That’s What Love Is All About”) and Wendy Waldman (Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last.”) Johnson’s second solo album, Let It Roll, didn’t fare nearly as well, but he would pick up a second Top 40 hit in 1988 as Barbra Streisand’s duet partner on the shockingly good and extraordinarily pretty ballad “Till I Loved You,” which, whatever you may think of Johnson and Streisand themselves, is undeniably a great piece of songwriting.
Jasmine Guy, Jasmine Guy (1990, Warner Bros.)
You wouldn’t think that a spin-off – in this case, A Different World – could survive the loss of the very character it was built around, but Lisa Bonet’s exit from the show surprisingly wound up not being a fatal blow to the sitcom at all, and the show would flourish with Whitley Gilbert (played by the lovely Jasmine Guy) as its new central character (and the love interest of Kadeem Hardison’s Dwayne Wayne). Just as surprisingly, Guy would sign a record deal with Warner Brothers during the show’s run and reveal herself to be every bit as good a singer as she was an actress. Not only can she sing, but she has better-than-normal taste in material and collaborators than your average actor-turned-pop-star [the cast of producers includes Full Force (best known for their work with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam), Oliver Leiber (Jerry’s son, and the songwriter-producer behind Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” and “Opposites Attract”), and The System’s Mic Murphy], and this disc is legitimately one of the most underrated R&B albums of the dawn of the ‘90s. She even managed to crack the Top 40 with “Just Want to Hold You,” featuring R&B legend James Ingram on backing vocals, which reached #34 but deserved to have fared even better. Sadly, this would unfortunately turn out to be the only album Guy would ever make, and she turned her attention back to acting, most notably on the TV series Dead Like Me and The Vampire Diaries, eventually reuniting with Hardison for a recurring guest role on the Disney Channel sitcom K.C. Undercover. [Check out the episode “The Mother of All Missions” for an especially funny meta reference to the pair’s sitcom past together.]
Well …, Katey Sagal (1994, Virgin)
Long before she finally became a household name by starring as Peg Bundy on Married … with Children, Katey Sagal – who’s since gone on to star in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and Sons of Anarchy in addition to providing the voice of Leela on the animated sitcom Futurama – was an aspiring singer. She was a member of the short-lived pop/disco outfit and Casablanca Records act The Group with No Name, who made just one album together, 1976’s Moon over Brooklyn; neither the album nor its single “Baby Love (How Could You Leave Me)” did much, but the group did notably appear on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert to promote it. Sagal spent much of the remainder of the ‘70s and early ‘80s working as a backing vocalist for the likes of Bob Dylan, Gene Simmons, Molly Hatchet, Tanya Tucker, and Olivia Newton-John, whose 1985 Top 40 hit “Soul Kiss” Sagal appears on. Sagal is also an official alumnus of the Harlettes, Bette Midler’s troupe of backing singers, who she sang with during 1978 and again from 1982 to 1983. It wasn’t until 1994 that Sagal finally tried her hand at an album of her own, and she surrounds herself with some top-drawer talent, co-writing with Robbie Nevil (“C’est La Vie,” “Dominoes”), David Frank of The System (“Don’t Disturb This Groove”), and Brent Bourgeois of Bourgeois Tagg (“I Don’t Mind at All”), all of whom make appearances here on this tasteful, bluesy adult-contemporary-pop affair. (Nevil and Frank also co-produce the disc along with Rupert Hine, best known for his work with The Fixx.) Even the cast of backing vocalists here is impressive, featuring such notables as the great Rita Coolidge and Jellyfish members Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning. Impressively, Sagal co-wrote all but three of the twelve songs here, the best of which is the stunningly beautiful ballad “September Rain.”
Jamie Walters, Jamie Walters (1995, Atlantic)
Best remembered for playing the boyfriend of Tori Spelling’s Donna Martin, Ray Pruitt, on Beverly Hills, 90210 in forty episodes from 1994 through 1996, actor Jamie Walters spent his time away from the show working on music, and the rocker – who plays guitar and harmonica on this self-titled affair in addition to singing – even reached the Top Twenty with this album’s appealing gospel-and-blues-tinged ballad “Hold On,” which Walters also co-wrote. [He also demonstrates great taste in outside material by covering Graham Parker’s “Release Me” here.] If that voice sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason: Walters had actually already sung lead vocals on a Number One hit years earlier: The Heights’ 1992 smash “How Do You Talk to an Angel,” which was still riding high on the charts even after the short-lived television show it came from (also called The Heights) had been cancelled.
Kiss the Sky, Tatyana Ali (1998, MJJ/Work)
We all knew – even before The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ever made its debut – that Will Smith could rap, but as it would turn out, he wasn’t the only person in the cast with musical talent. Ali – still best known for playing youngest daughter Ashley Banks on the much-beloved ‘90s sitcom – would briefly moonlight as a recording star in the late ‘90s, and her one and only album is surprisingly quite promising. Ali would even have a Top Ten hit with “Daydreamin’,” which incorporates the famous bass riff from Steely Dan’s “Black Cow.” But the greatest highlight of all here is “Boy You Knock Me Out,” an extremely fun lite-funk cut that ingeniously simultaneously samples both Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love” and Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness” and even features a guest rap from “Big Will” himself. [Strangely, the song missed the Hot 100 entirely, though it deservedly reached #3 in the U.K. Go figure.]
Don’t Touch Me There, Crystal Bernard (1999, River North)
Television veteran Crystal Bernard first came to public attention as K.C. Cunningham on the tenth season of Happy Days and Amy Tompkins on the final four seasons of It’s a Living, but the role she’s most remembered for is that of lunch-counter owner and aspiring cellist (and Joe Hackett’s eventual wife) Helen Chappel on the long-running and quite-underrated ‘90s sitcom Wings. Fittingly, Bernard’s quite musical in real-life as well and she can even claim to have co-written a song for pop diva Paula Abdul (1995’s “If I Were Your Girl” from Head Over Heels) and been Peter Cetera’s duet partner on his criminally-overlooked 1995 adult-contemporary hit “(I Wanna Take) Forever Tonight,” written by Eric Carmen. On her own, she’s made two solo discs, 1996’s Girl Next Door and this delightful 1999 disc. Bernard not only can carry a tune (and very well, at that), but her warm voice makes her a particularly appealing vocalist, comparable in many ways to Olivia Newton-John; combine that with quality songs like this disc’s “Hey” and “Don’t Touch Me There,” and you really have to wonder how in the world this album missed the Top 200 entirely. Bernard’s been strangely missing in action over the last decade, not just from the musical world but from TV and film as well, a real shame considering how multi-talented this woman is.