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.
They only ever released one album, and they didn’t even bother to go on tour to promote it, either. Naturally, the album stiffed as a result, and the band split as a formal entity shortly after, although its two principal members would continue to work together as songwriting partners for years to come. Yet the self-titled debut from Airplay is historically significant for marking the lone on-disc collaboration as front-and-center performers between two of the biggest behind-the-scenes giants in all of ‘80s music – men who, as hard though this might be to believe from looking at this unintentionally hilarious album cover, are also responsible for writing more than one winner of the Grammy trophy for Best R&B Song. (No, really!)
So who are these guys? If the man on the right looks vaguely familiar to you, there’s good reason for that: it’s a very young David Foster, who’d by this point already made a small name for himself as the former keyboardist for Skylark (“Wildflower”) and the producer of Alice Cooper’s From the Inside (which spawned the hit “How You Gonna See Me Now”) and the very underrated Hall & Oates albums Along the Red Ledge and X-Static. Foster would go on to both produce and co-write a plethora of hits for the likes of The Tubes (including both of their only two Top 40 hits, “Don’t Want to Wait Anymore” and “She’s a Beauty”), Chicago (including “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “You’re the Inspiration,” and “Will You Still Love Me?”), Peter Cetera (“Glory of Love”), Boz Scaggs (including “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” “JoJo” and “Breakdown Dead Ahead”), John Parr (“St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)”), and Kenny Loggins (“Heart to Heart”), even scoring a solo hit himself – albeit an instrumental one – with the love theme from St. Elmo’s Fire. He’d go on to even more success in the ‘90s, becoming a Grammy darling by co-producing such adult-contemporary blockbusters as Natalie Cole’s career-rejuvenating Unforgettable … with Love, Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” and “Because You Loved Me,” Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart,” and Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” and “I Will Always Love You.” [He’d later pop up on TV with great frequency, both via the reality shows The Princes of Malibu and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and via his role as a guest judge or mentor on programs like Popstars, American Idol, and Celebrity Duets.]
The man on the left is much more low-profile but no less accomplished. By the time this record was released, Jay Graydon (a longtime in-demand session guitarist who had played the immortal guitar solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg”) had already taken home his first Grammy for Best R&B Song by co-writing – along with Foster and their mutual friend Bill Champlin, who would become a member of Chicago just a few years later – the massive Earth, Wind & Fire hit ballad “After the Love Has Gone.” Graydon would later go on to co-write such sizable hits as George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” (another Best R&B Song winner), DeBarge’s “Who’s Holding Donna Now,” Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis’ “Friends in Love,” and Al Jarreau’s “Mornin’” and would also produce all of Jarreau’s albums from 1980’s This Time through 1984’s High Crime and the Grammy-winning Manhattan Transfer albums Extensions and Mecca for Moderns. [Just as interestingly, he’d also – along with Mr. Mister frontman Richard Page – co-write the theme song for the Nell Carter-starring ‘80s sitcom Gimme a Break!]
While not pictured on the album jacket, there is a third officially-credited full-time member of Airplay, singer Tommy Funderburk, who alternates lead vocals with Graydon and who’d go on in the late ‘80s to co-write (with Martin Page) the final Top 40 hit Starship ever had, the extremely underrated power ballad “It’s Not Enough.” The remainder of the instruments on the disc are helmed by an all-star cast of session musicians, including four members of Toto (Jeff and Steve Porcaro, Steve Lukather, and David Hungate) and a pre-solo-career Ray Parker, Jr. (then still the lead singer of Raydio of “Jack and Jill” and “You Can’t Change That” fame).
Given the sort of adult-contemporary pop that has always been Graydon’s and Foster’s forte as songwriters, it’s a bit surprising, then, that Airplay begins on as loud a note as it does with the hard-rocker “Stranded,” co-written with Tom Kelly (who, with Billy Steinberg, is responsible for co-writing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Heart’s “Alone,” the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You,” the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and “I Drove All Night”) to name just a few of his biggest hits). Though the track has a brief acapella intro (Kelly joining his co-writers on backing vocals), the guitars and drums muscle their way in shortly after and never quite let up, and the cut is arguably the most fiery of all the tracks on the disc. [Check out the below video of Jay Graydon playing the song live decades later with an all-star cast that includes Toto's Joseph Williams and Steve Porcaro, Mr. Mister's Pat Mastelotto, and Chicago's Bill Champlin.] “Leave Me Alone,” with its oft-comical lyric, is little more than a fun and playful throwaway, but it rocks nearly just as hard.
But the disc is most often at its best when Graydon and Foster hew closer to the soft-rock they’ve written so well for others. The lite-disco of “She Waits for Me” is a rare instance of a composition from the pair that actually starts with its chorus, but it’s easy to see why – the hook is one of the album’s most infectious and lures you into the track right away, while the insistent piano pounce of “Cryin’ All Night” – one of three tracks here co-written with Steve Kipner, later to co-write Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break,” Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” Dream’s “He Loves U Not,” Natasha Bedingfield’s “These Words,” and The Script’s “Breakeven,” among other sizable hits – is just as appealing. The shimmering ballad “It Will Be Alright” slows the tempo down considerably, but the chorus and keyboard licks of the song foreshadow the vibe and melody of one of Foster’s best co-writes of all, Chaka Khan’s criminally underrated “Through the Fire,” from her 1984 massive crossover album I Feel for You.
You’re certain to recognize the closing cut even if you’ve never heard the album before – it’s Foster and Graydon’s own version of one of their most famous compositions and a song they had originally offered to – but was turned down by – Daryl Hall & John Oates before Earth, Wind & Fire snatched it up – “After the Love Has Gone.” Though the verses of Airplay’s version are in a different key than those in the more famous version, the arrangements are otherwise remarkably similar; while the Earth, Wind & Fire recording is undeniably both the superior and definitive version of the song (Philip Bailey’s trademark falsetto is certainly missed here, as are those lush Earth, Wind & Fire harmonies), the Airplay version is wildly intriguing in its own right since you’re getting to hear the song performed by its very composers the way they’d originally written it.
But the album’s undeniable highlight – and a savvy choice of single – is another cover of a song Foster and Graydon (along with Kipner) wrote for another artist: in this case, “Nothin’ You Can Do About It,” which was recorded by the Manhattan Transfer on their 1979 career-reviving Extensions. [Strangely, the Transfer’s version was released as a promotional single to radio without commercial copies ever being pressed up for the public.] The song had been a rather unlikely excursion into pure adult-contemporary pop for the jazz-influenced quartet, but it makes perfect sense within the context of this album, and the songwriters’ love for the composition is obvious from the lively performance. Why the song wasn’t a bigger hit is a bit of a mystery, as it’s reminiscent in several ways – both lyrically and melodically – of a brighter and snappier version of Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love,” which had been a Top Ten smash the year prior. But then, perhaps it’s for the best that this album didn’t catch on with the public – we’d have been denied a lot of great music if Graydon and Foster had become too busy to take on production and writing projects for other artists like Khan, Benson, Jarreau, Scaggs, and the Tubes, all of whom were sufficiently well-established at radio to ensure that their readings of Graydon and Foster’s songs would indeed get – pardon the pun – airplay.