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.
Skylark, Skylark (1972, Capitol)
This Canadian pop outfit – fronted by Donny Gerrard and Bonnie Jean Cook – had just one American hit of note, the Top Ten ballad “Wildflower,” which has been covered by everyone from Johnny Mathis and the O’Jays to Color Me Badd and Silk. [The word “wildflower” technically doesn’t appear in the song, it should be pointed out, though the song’s chorus closes with the line “She’s a free and gentle flower growing wild.”] But the band is historically significant for serving as an early training ground for the band’s keyboardist (and Cook’s then-husband), who’d go on to become one of the most wildly successful behind-the-scenes songwriter-producers in all of pop music: David Foster.
Cross Country, Cross Country (1973, Atco)
This short-lived trio made only one album together, but the disc did give the group a minor Top 40 hit in their radically slowed-down cover of Wilson Pickett’s soul classic “In the Midnight Hour.” But Jay Siegel and brothers Mitch and Phil Margo technically already had four other Top 40 hits to their credit as performers: the three men had comprised three-quarters of The Tokens, the ‘60s vocal group best known for their enduring 1963 Number One hit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
About Us, Stories (1973, Kama Sutra)
Stories’ lone brush with Top 40 success came about when they covered a song by the British rock/soul band Hot Chocolate (of “You Sexy Thing,” “Emma,” and “Every 1’s a Winner” fame and who had yet to score an American hit themselves at that point): the funky “Brother Louie” – a tale of interracial romance that would later be employed to great comical effect in the Ashton Kutcher/Bernie Mac movie Guess Who – would go all the way to Number One. Ironically, the cover was such an afterthought on the band’s part that it didn’t even appear on the earliest pressings of this disc (the band’s second album) and was hastily added to the end of the second side on all subsequent copies. Though the band would fade from prominence shortly after, latter-day guitarist Richie Ranno would later re-surface in the late-‘70s power-pop band Starz and have a hit with “Cherry Baby” while bassist Kenny Aaronson (who had previously played alongside the future Marky Ramone in the band Dust) would go on to become a wildly in-demand session musician in the ‘80s and ‘90s and also do a stint as one of Joan Jett’s Blackhearts. But Stories’ most famous alum of all is its founder, Michael Brown, who as the keyboardist of the ‘60s band The Left Banke, already had seen some action on the charts with the Top Twenty hit “Pretty Ballerina” and the harpsichord-laden Top Five hit (and enduring oldies-radio staple) “Walk Away Renee.”
Ian Thomas, Ian Thomas (1973, Janus)
This Canadian singer-songwriter reached the U.S. Top 40 just once as a performer, thanks to the distinctly Neil Young-like number “Painted Ladies,” which made it to #34 and is featured on this self-titled debut. But he was a bona fide superstar and a regular fixture on the charts in his native Canada for nearly three full decades, both as a solo artist and as the member of the ‘90s band The Boomers. In the U.S., his profile would taper off quite a bit after the success of “Painted Ladies” but he’d pop up on American television as a musical guest in 1981 on the sketch-comedy series SCTV – the cast of which featured his brother Dave Thomas (best known for playing the beer-guzzling, touque-wearing “hoser” and Great White North co-host Doug McKenzie), who even reached the U.S. Top 40 himself with the novelty single “Take Off.” (Pretty impressive, eh?) Ian would also be responsible for writing many an American hit in the early ‘80s: America would cover his song “Right Before Your Eyes,” while Santana would have a Top Twenty hit with his song “Hold On” and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band would reach #22 with “Runner.”
All American Boy, Rick Derringer (1973, Blue Sky)
He’s never quite been a household name, but he’s certainly worked with plenty of them. This disc – Derringer’s first as a solo artist – features his first and only Top 40 solo hit, the classic-rock-radio favorite “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.” But Rick had already had a trio of Top 40 hits in the ‘60s as the lead vocalist and guitarist for The McCoys, best known for their Number One hit – and enduring party classic – “Hang on Sloopy.” Derringer would later go on to produce several albums for the Edgar Winter Group , including their commercial breakthrough, the multi-platinum They Only Come Out at Night (featuring the hits “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein”), and would join the band outright beginning with the album Shock Treatment. Derringer would unexpectedly re-emerge on the charts in the ‘80s as the lead guitarist on Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and as the producer of Weird Al Yankovic’s first six albums.
I Can Help, Billy Swan (1974, Monument)
Swan went all the way to Number One with the title cut from this album and never made the Top 40 again, but the former Graceland employee and Kris Kristofferson bassist (in fact, the organ Swan plays on “I Can Help” was a wedding gift from Kristofferson and his wife Rita Coolidge) actually has more than one claim to fame: he’s the songwriter behind Clyde McPhatter’s 1962 Top Ten hit “Lover Please,” as well as the producer behind Tony Joe White’s 1969 Top Ten hit “Polk Salad Annie.” Swan would re-emerge in the ‘80s as a member of the supergroup Black Tie alongside Eagles alumnus Randy Meisner and Bread alumnus James Griffin.