Common Thread: Rare Performance Turns from Famous Producers (Part 4)

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. 

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Southern Nights, Allen Toussaint (1975, Reprise)

Strangely, this wildly influential New Orleans R&B legend has never had a hit single to call his own in spite of making some very excellent albums, but his songs have been covered by – and even occasionally become big hits for – just about everyone else in the business. Glen Campbell would score a Number One hit with his cover of the title cut from this album, which also features Toussaint’s own version of “What Do You Want the Girl to Do,” which would be covered on both Boz Scaggs’ and Bonnie Raitt’s next studio albums (Silk Degrees and Home Plate, respectively). Toussaint’s also responsible for writing such notable Top 40 hits as Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-in-Law,” Al Hirt’s “Java,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can” and “Happiness,” Three Dog Night’s “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues),” and Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” “Ride Your Pony” and “Holy Cow” and such beloved album cuts as Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream,” Little Feat’s “On Your Way Down,” and Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley.” But Toussaint has fared just as well as a producer, and his credits in that arena include such hits as LaBelle’s chart-topping enduring disco classic “Lady Marmalade,” Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”

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I Don’t Speak the Language, Matthew Wilder (1983, Private I)

Often mistaken as a one-hit wonder, Wilder actually reached the Top 40 as a performer twice. (His second hit was the #33-peaking “The Kid’s American.”) Wilder’s best-known song, the deliciously bouncy Top Five hit “Break My Stride,” was given new life in the ‘90s after Puff Daddy incorporated the song’s primary hook into the chorus of his massive Number One hit “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” [Both of Wilder's hit singles can be found on this delightful album.] But you may be surprised to learn that the rap song wasn’t Wilder’s only significant contribution to Top 40 radio in the late ‘90s: No Doubt brought him in to produce their multi-platinum sophomore effort Tragic Kingdom (and its hit singles “Don’t Speak,” “Just a Girl,” and “Spiderwebs.”) Wilder would also go on to be a much-utilized songwriter and producer in the world of teen-pop, writing and producing cuts for the likes of Christina Aguilera (“Reflection” from Mulan), Miley Cyrus (“G.N.O. (Girls Night Out)”), and Kelly Clarkson (the criminally underrated “Beautiful Disaster,” which RCA inexplicably opted not to release as a single in spite of arguably being the best song on her debut album Thankful.)   

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Don’t Disturb This Groove, The System (1987, Atlantic)

This techno-funk duo didn’t really catch on to the pop audience until this disc, its fourth, but they had their fans within the industry. Robert Palmer had covered their song “You Are in My System” on his album Pride and had a minor pop hit with the cut, while Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, and Steve Winwood had utilized David Frank as a keyboardist on the massive hits “Sussidio,” “I Feel for You,” and “Higher Love,” respectively. Frank and vocalist Mic Murphy finally had a pop hit of their very own with this album’s fabulous and extremely underrated Top Five-charting title cut, a sun-splash of synths flowing atop a lazy, Al Jarreau-like jazzy groove and Murphy’s soulful vocal. It’d sadly be the duo’s only Top 40 hit and the duo would split at the end of the ‘80s, but Frank would re-emerge in a very big way at the end of the ‘90s, serving as the co-writer and co-producer of a handful of massive teen-pop hits, including Dream’s “He Loves U Not,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” and 98 Degrees’ “The Hardest Thing.”  

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Just Visiting This Planet, Jellybean (1987, Chrysalis)

John “Jellybean” Benitez has had two Top 40 hits as a performer – 1985’s “Sidewalk Talk,” written for him by (and featuring a cameo from) his former girlfriend Madonna, and 1987’s “Who Found Who,” sung by featured vocalist Elisa Fiorillo, later to score a hit of her very own with “On the Way Up,” co-written by Prince – but he’s better-known for his role as one of the most in-demand remixers of the ‘80s, in addition to also having produced such hits as Madonna’s “Holiday” and “Crazy for You” and Whitney Houston’s “Love Will Save the Day.” 

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Breakfast Club, Breakfast Club (1987, MCA)

Technically, this dance-pop band is a one-hit wonder, but few one-hit wonders have as interesting a bio as these guys, not in the least since their original drummer was Madonna. (No, really!) Their lone Top 40 hit, 1987’s “Right on Time,” rocketed all the way to #7 and helped land the band a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. (The winner that year would be their label-mate Jody Watley.) The band’s appealing frontman and founder Dan Gilroy – despite having no prior experience in acting – would shortly after be tapped to play the male lead in the Disney Channel film Mother Goose Rock’n’Rhyme, a fun, star-studded children’s movie musical with cameos from literally dozens of famous television actors and pop stars ranging from Paul Simon, the Stray Cats, Debbie Harry and ZZ Top to Garry Shandling, Katey Segal, and Harry Anderson. (Gilroy – who had briefly dated Madonna during her tenure with the group – would subsequently go on to date the film’s female lead, actress Shelley Duvall of The Shining fame.) Drummer Stephen Bray would have even greater success in the ‘80s as a producer, most notably for his former girlfriend and bandmate Madonna, both co-writing and co-producing her hits “Into the Groove,” “True Blue,” “Express Yourself,” and “Keep It Together,” co-writing “Angel,” and co-producing “Papa Don’t Preach.” [Bray would also both co-write and co-produce the Top Ten hits “Cross My Broken Heart” for the Jets and “Baby Love” for Regina.] Tragically, Madonna would stop working with Bray after Like a Prayer, but Bray would re-emerge on the music scene in 2005 as the songwriter behind the Broadway musical adaptation of The Color Purple, picking up a Tony nomination and a Grammy for his work on the play. 

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Last of the Runaways, Giant (1989, A&M)

Dann Huff was one of the industry’s most in-demand session guitarists when he decided to put the spotlight on himself and, alongside brother David, formed the hard-rock band Giant, which had a hit right off the bat with the Top Twenty power ballad “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” featured on this debut disc from the band. Though the band lasted just one more disc before splitting (they’ve since reunited and issued two more studio discs, one with Dann and one without), Dann would find a new lucrative career in the ‘00s as a country producer, helming all of Rascal Flatts’ albums between 2006’s Me and My Gang and 2014’s Rewind, three albums from LoneStar (including Lonely Grill, the album that yielded the major pop crossover hit “Amazed”) and all of Faith Hill’s albums since 1998’s Faith (which finally broke the country chanteuse into the pop mainstream via the Top Ten smash “This Kiss.”) Proving his versatility, Huff would even get tapped to co-produce the Megadeth albums Cryptic Writings and Risk.

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Version 2.0, Garbage (1998, Almo)

Band frontwoman Shirley Manson may naturally command most of the attention in this group, best known for such hits as “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains” (both found on their self-titled debut) and this album’s utterly brilliant singles “Special” (which boasts a nod to the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town” in its closing moments), “I Think I’m Paranoid,” the Beach Boys-interpolating “Push It,” and “When I Grow Up,” but true alternative-rock diehards are just as fascinated by this band because of its legendary drummer, Butch Vig, whose place in rock and roll history has safely been secured via his role as the producer of such legendary albums as Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. He’s also produced such albums as Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown, Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light and Sonic Highways, afi’s Sing the Sorrow, Soul Asylum’s Let Your Dim Light Shine, Sonic Youth’s Dirty, and L7’s Bricks Are Heavy.