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.
Silver, Silver (1976, Arista)
This L.A. band only lasted long enough to produce one album, but their bio is remarkable. They were led by vocalist/guitarist John Batdorf, who had served in the folk-rock duo Batdorf & Rodney, best known for recording the first hit version of the much-covered Richard Kerr/Will Jennings ballad “Somewhere in the Night,” later a huge hit for both Barry Manilow and Helen Reddy. Their bassist was Tom Leadon, the brother of Eagles member Bernie Leadon and a member of Tom Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch (who would later re-form decades later at the instigation of Petty and release two albums together). The cover art of their one and only album was put together by a young artist named Phil Hartman, who’d later take up screenwriting and acting and rocket to stardom as a cast member of Saturday Night Live. But perhaps the band is best known for being the early training grounds for keyboardist Brent Mydland, who’d go on to be a full-fledged member of the Grateful Dead from 1979 until his untimely death in 1990. Though the band would only reach the Top 40 once, its lone hit, the #16-peaking “Wham Bam (Shang-a-Lang)” has remained a favorite of soft-rock buffs and was unexpectedly given new life in 2017 after being featured in the box office blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.
Starland Vocal Band, Starland Vocal Band (1976, Windsong)
This co-ed quartet’s lone Top 40 hit – the oft-lampooned chart-topping mellow pop of “Afternoon Delight” – is perhaps most famous to younger audiences for its prominent use in the uproarious Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman. But though the band – who not only won that year’s Grammy for Best New Artist but even had their own short-lived variety series on television, which featured a young David Letterman as a writer and cast member – notoriously never garnered another hit, their background is actually quite intriguing. Husband-and-wife Bill and Taffy Danoff got their first big break as Fat City, the co-writers and featured guests on John Denver’s breakthrough hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” [The Denver association would go on to pay off in dividends for the group: they’d be among a small handful of artists – including Maxine Nightingale of “Right Back Where We Started From” fame – signed to Denver’s own vanity label, Windsong.] Bill also notably co-wrote the Emmylou Harris classic “Boulder to Birmingham,” which the group does their own version of on this self-titled debut. Though the group would split in 1981, Jon Carroll would go on to become the pianist for country great Mary Chapin Carpenter on all her albums from 1987’s Hometown Girl through 2001’s Time*Sex*Love*.
Peter McCann, Peter McCann (1977, 20th Century)
McCann’s time in the spotlight was short-lived, but he can claim to have a Top Five hit single to his name as a performer, “Do You Wanna Make Love,” a wildly-melodic adult-contemporary ballad with a surprisingly muscular chorus. But it’s that single’s B-side, which is also included on this disc, that has been McCann’s most financially lucrative composition: Jennifer Warnes (best known as the duet partners of Joe Cocker and Bill Medley, respectively, on “Up Where We Belong” and “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life”) would have her very first hit – a #6 hit, at that! – with McCann’s “Right Time of the Night,” and her version remains one of the most enduring soft-rock 45s of the late ‘70s. McCann’s also responsible for co-writing “Take Good Care of My Heart,” recorded by Whitney Houston (with Jermaine Jackson as her duet partner) on her multi-platinum self-titled debut.
Appetizers, Alan O’Day (1977, Pacific)
If you’re only going to have one Top 40 hit to your name as a performer, you can’t do much better than O’Day, who topped the charts on his very first try with the playful “Undercover Angel.” But O’Day’s success shouldn’t have come as any surprise to industry insiders: he’d already amassed a string of hits to name as a songwriter that includes the Righteous Brothers’ “Rock and Roll Heaven,” Helen Reddy’s Number One hit “Angie Baby” (O'Day's own version of which is also featured on this disc) and Bobby Sherman’s “The Drum.” O’Day’s day in the spotlight as a performer was short-lived, but he’d stay in the entertainment industry and, in the ‘80s, he would score a notable gig in the television world as the composer behind most of the music featured in the much-loved Saturday-morning cartoon Muppet Babies.
Ram Jam, Ram Jam (1977, Epic)
This quartet’s lone hit single was an unlikely Top Twenty smash: a rock-and-roll re-working of the old Leadbelly tune “Black Betty.” But lead guitarist Bill Bartlett can claim to have played on an even bigger hit: he was an alumnus of the Lemon Pipers, who went all the way to Number One in 1968 with the psychedelic pop of “Green Tambourine.” Bassist Howie Blauvelt had spent the late ‘60s as a member of The Hassles, whose keyboardist was a young, pre-fame Billy Joel, while lead singer Myke Scavone would go on to join The Yardbirds.
Violation, Starz (1977, Capitol)
Piet Sweval and Jeff “Joe X. Dube” Grob, the bass player and drummer, respectively, for this late-‘70s New York hard-rock and power-pop outfit, had narrowly avoided one-hit-wonder status with their previous band, Looking Glass, who scored an American chart-topper with the still-much-revered “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” and managed just one more Top 40 hit, the #33-peaking “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne.” Starz wouldn’t be so lucky – they just cracked the Top 40 once, thanks to the similarly-#33-peaking “Cherry Baby.” But the song – which can be found on this excellent disc – remains one of the best lost 45s of the late ‘70s, thanks to its infectious chorus and unique combination of bubblegum-pop and pure rock-and-roll grit. Sweval and Grob weren’t the band’s only connection to a notable name from the ‘70s: guitarist Richie Ranno had been in the band Stories of “Brother Louie” fame, while Starz lead singer Michael Lee Smith was the brother of Rex Smith, who scored a pair of Top 40 hits with the Top Ten smash “You Take My Breath Away” and the Rachel Sweet duet “Everlasting Love” (a cover of the ‘60s R&B classic from Robert Knight) before becoming the co-host of Solid Gold. Starz is also notably a pretty fun band for vinyl buffs to collect: not only did they make delightful power-pop, but quite a few of their releases – including this album and the 45s “Cherry Baby” and “Sing It, Shout It” – were released on gold-colored vinyl.
Midnight Café, Smokie (1977, RSO)
This British quartet – one of many glam acts from the ’70s to benefit from having Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (the writers of Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Heart and Soul,” Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” and Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” to name just a few of their biggest credits) as its producers and outside songwriters – was nothing short of huge in their home country, garnering six Top Ten hits and another half-dozen Top Twenty hits. But U.S. success was mostly elusive, the band gracing the Top 40 only once, with the story-song “Living Next Door to Alice,” which has become a cult classic due to its re-emergence in clubs in the mid-‘90s – in the form of a cover by Dutch act Gompie – as an expletive-laced audience singalong. The song was only available as a non-LP single in the group’s native U.K., but luckily for American fans of the band, the U.S. edition of Midnight Café added both “Living Next Door to Alice” and “If You Think You Know How to Love Me,” which Pat Benatar would later cover on her self-titled debut album and release as her second single. (Bob Welch and Rex Smith would cover the latter song as well.) Lead singer Chris Norman could take solace in the fact that he managed to reach the U.S. Top 40 a second time – and in a very big way, at that – by serving as the duet partner of Suzi Quatro (perhaps best known to American audiences as Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days) on the Top Five smash “Stumblin’ In.”