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.
Of all the well-known singer-songwriters to emerge onto the pop music landscape during the ‘70s, Stephen Bishop might be the biggest anomaly of them all. For starters, he never took himself anywhere near as seriously as, say, a Jackson Browne or James Taylor – not to say that Bishop’s material couldn’t be every bit as deep or introspective or moody, but Bishop also possessed a great sense of humor and wasn’t averse to showing it in his lyrics [Browne, for all his brilliance, is a much too self-serious songwriter to ever pen a line like “I feel like the Z in ‘xylophone’”] or peppering his discs with the occasional novelty cut like Bish’s cover of the Wizard of Oz tune “If I Only Had a Brain” or Red Cab to Manhattan’s “Sex Kittens Go to College.” [In fact, Bishop not only agreed to write and record the title theme to the big-screen-comedy classic National Lampoon’s Animal House – an appealingly silly diversion from a man best known for crafting adult-contemporary ballads – but he would even cameo in the film, securing himself a place in movie history as the sensitive folkie on the staircase whose acoustic guitar John Belushi’s Bluto smashes into pieces. Animal House isn’t even the only iconic big-screen comedy that you can spot Bishop in – he’s also taken cameo roles as a hustler in the “Catholic High School Girls in Trouble” sketch in the spoof flick Kentucky Fried Movie and as the police officer in The Blues Brothers whose watch gets broken during the car chase through the shopping mall.]
Unlike Browne or Taylor, he’s never reached the Top Ten as a performer – in fact, only one of his four Top 40 hits has even so much as cracked the Top Twenty – yet, for all his strangely modest success on the charts, he’s still much loved by audiences and peers alike – Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, and Art Garfunkel are just three superstars who have gone on record as saying they are huge fans of Bishop’s music – and is responsible for either recording and/or writing at least three separate bona fide soft-rock classics.
Even during the occasional long lulls between hit singles, he was unexpectedly still in hot demand by movie studios to write or record title themes for their films, an area most of his contemporaries from the ‘70s would seldom ever venture into. (Remarkably, Browne stayed away from soundtrack work even after his lone excursion into the arena, Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s “Somebody’s Baby,” became the biggest hit single of his career.) Bishop would top the Adult Contemporary charts (and reach #25 on the Hot 100) by singing the beautiful and timeless Oscar-winning title theme to the Dustin Hoffman/Jesssica Lange comedy Tootsie, “It Might Be You.” (Ironically, it’s one of the few songs Bishop’s ever recorded that he didn’t write, the song actually being penned by composer Dave Grusin and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman). Bishop would also be tapped to write and sing songs for Summer Lovers (“If Love Takes You Away”), Unfaithfully Yours (“One Love (Unfaithfully Yours)”) and The Money Pit (“The Heart Is So Willing”), to name just a few, while a song from his 1985 album Sleeping with Girls (strangely released only in Asia) – the tear-jerking ballad “Separate Lives,” inspired by his split with actress Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) – would be covered by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin forthe film White Nights and go all the way to Number One.
Bishop’s extensive resume of soundtrack credits means that roughly half of his best-known recordings don’t even appear on his studio albums, yet his solo records are surprisingly no less appealing for that and are still packed with all sorts of little gems. His 1976 debut Careless is a real marvel, one that sports a supporting cast that includes not just a who’s-who of the studio-musician elite (including drummers Jim Gordon, Russ Kunkel, and John Guerin, guitarists Andrew Gold, Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour, and Larry Carlton, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel) but legends like Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan, and Art Garfunkel. [Garfunkel had already recorded two of Bishop’s songs on his 1975 album Breakaway, which Bishop also appeared on, singing backup vocals on the hit cover of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” and playing guitar on his self-penned “Looking for the Right One.”]
Though the album is one of Bishop’s softest and rarely works up a sweat [even “Rock and Roll Slave,” one of three cuts featuring backing vocals from Garfunkel, ironically turns out to be a light ballad], the songwriting craft throughout is impressive and ballads like “Never Letting Go” (featuring Khan on backing vocals and later covered by Phoebe Snow), the sparse “The Same Old Tears on a New Background,” and the pretty “One More Night” (later covered by such legendary vocalists as Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis) are first-rate, while the appealing lite-disco of “Save It for a Rainy Day” – sporting backing vocals from Khan and a brief guitar solo from Clapton (the rock legend also pops up on slide guitar on “Sinking in an Ocean of Tears”) – would become Bishop’s first hit, climbing to #22.
But it’s the album’s opening cut that remains not just the most famous song from this particular album but of Bishop’s career, and that’s the #11-peaking tropical-tinged soft-rock classic “On and On.” The song’s drop-dead-gorgeous melody and light instrumentation (which includes steel guitar and marimba, along with very tastefully-arranged electric guitar fills from Andrew Gold that melt right into the mix and provide as much ambience as they do fill the space) completely masks the sadness of the lyric, while the final verse concludes with a rejected Bishop – his significant other having left him for another – on a beach, resigning himself to the vicious circle of romance and adopting a “que sera, sera” mentality, admitting, “I don’t care, I’ll just dream and stay tan / Toss up my heart and see where it lands” and confessing that “I smile when I feel like dying on and on.”