Tidbits: When Good TV Stars Make Bad Music

Well, alright, not all of it turns out badly. But mostly it does. You'll see it again and again; a television personality skyrockets to stardom in a hit TV show, and the first thing the handlers want to do is release a record. TV shows don't stay on top forever. Strike while the iron is hot.

In recent years, one that comes to mind is Hilary Duff, who starred in the Disney Channel's Lizzie McGuire series. Her records were a slickly-produced blend of poppy dance/rock, and on the strength of her popularity and some decent songs, each of her albums scored #1 or #2 on the Billboard LP charts. The first two went multi-platinum, while the third was merely a disappointing gold record. Party of Five starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt made some albums just a few years prior to Hilary, equally overproduced, but for some reason these largely tanked. A song called "How Do I Deal" peaked at #59 in 1999, and that's as high as she got in the U.S. For some reason, Jennifer the singer sold quite well in Australia, going top ten with most of her releases.

Both Duff and Love-Hewitt bring Britney Spears to mind, which recalls Christina Aguilera, also of Mickey Mouse Club fame. But these artists were never household names on television, and it can't be said that the television show brought about the record deal. It may have helped in these cases, but we have a feeling Spears and Aguilera would've made music with or without The Mickey Mouse Club. In any case, their recording careers began well after their television careers.

Speaking of the The Mickey Mouse Club, Lisa Whelchel was a Mouseketeer prior to her starring role on The Facts of Life. At the peak of that show's success in 1984, Whelchel released a Christian music album. It was only modestly successful in terms of sales, but it was a reasonable enough production to receive a Grammy nomination in the Inspirational category. Oddly enough, it was Whelchel's only record.

Another early '80s breakout TV star was Eddie Murphy, who retained the legendary Rick James to produce his first musical effort. James' production was flawless and catchy, which combined with the fact that Murphy could carry a tune, a song called "Party All The Time" rocketed to #2 on the Billboard charts. Of course if you delve a little deeper and listen to the pointless lyrical, the unremarkable vocal style, and the overprogrammed backing track, you realize pretty quickly that this song would not have reached #2 if it had been recorded by anyone other than a super hot media star. Murphy made another album in the same high-altitude vocal style, which didn't fare nearly as well. Decades later he's made some recordings for movie soundtracks -- singing in a natural, Eddie Murphy voice -- and the results are surprisingly good. Too bad his discography includes "Party All the Time."

Not all of the bad TV star recordings turn into hits. Two more from the 1980s come to mind, the first and possibly worst from that decade being Larry Hagman's "My Favorite Sins" released in 1980. This is probably one of the best examples of the biggest TV star on the planet being rushed into the studio to capitalize on his or her fame. Few stars have ever been as big as Hagman's "JR Ewing" was in 1980; the star-maker machinery even produced a brand of beer named after the Texan. A really bad record is a really bad record, and even JR's fame couldn't sell "My Favorite Sins."

The second most ill-conceived TV star recording from the 1980s was probably Tina Yothers, whose star power was nowhere near that of Hagman's. Yothers was 3rd or 4th banana on a show called Family Ties, but that was a strong enough vehicle to result in a record deal. The single "Baby I'm Back in Love Again" does everything a pop single was supposed to do in 1987, which is to say that it was bad. Combine a drum machine with what sounds like an automatic piano line, add an occasional canned horn flourish, and then be sure to engineer the vocal track so that it has no character whatsoever. If Tina had been Eddie Murphy, the song would've been called "Party All The Time" and it would've sold. She wasn't, and it didn't.

Perhaps the recording engineers should've squeezed and distorted Yothers' voice a little more; they might've come up with something like the vocal on a top five song called "Heartbeat" that supposedly was Don Johnson. Johnson was the hyper-cool Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice, and in 1986 he was so popular that he simply had to release an album. He did, and it sold extremely well. His vocal...well it probably started off as his vocal. The final product sounds like a marginal power vocalist recorded through a very long drainpipe. At times the keyboard carries the melody on "Heartbeat," the vocal is more like harmony. Johnson released another album in 1989, but by then the whole loafers-sans-socks Miami Vice vibe had cooled considerably, and the album quickly faded. But he wasn't done; Don became a Barbra Streisand boy toy and recorded a duet of "Till I Loved You" with the great Babs. Johnson's performance on that record is perplexing: Just as soon as you start to think "hey maybe this guy can sing" -- he slides to a note that you probably haven't heard on a record before. Oh perhaps we're being too harsh. Actually the record sounds like what it is: A great pop vocalist who wanted to do a duet with her hopelessly unqualified boyfriend.

Turn your TV dial back ten years before Don Johnson, and John Travolta's Vinny Barbarino character was hotter than hot. Playing the lead "sweathog" on Welcome Back, Kotter, Travolta was a likable, instant sex symbol. Handlers couldn't get Travolta into the studio quick enough; he had already made a few records prior to his meteoric rise to fame. They did, and the resulting saccharine recordings provided a clear explanation of why his earlier singing efforts didn't sell. But now that he was Barbarino, the market made sure his mediocre music marched up the charts. "Let Her In" roared quickly to #10 on the Billboard charts in 1976. This was quickly followed by "Whenever I'm Away From You" (#38) and "All Strung Out On You" (#34). The latter song was a decent number, and might've been memorable in more capable hands.

At this point you might be wondering why we're panning Travolta's solo vocal efforts, particularly since he sings on one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time. His vocals in Grease are performed as a character; he's acting a role and singing in character. Those vocals are not great, but the performance is great -- and hence the vocals work. The difference is that John Travolta is a great actor, and merely an average singer. Working as an actor, he made the role his own, and his vocals fit the character.

Perhaps a year or so after Travolta marched up the charts with "Let Her In," a couple of actors were on the upside roller coaster of fame with a show called Starsky and Hutch. The role of Hutch was played by David Soul, an actor who actually got his start by singing on the Merv Griffin show. Hence he thought he was a singer, and his TV popularity paved the way to an album. Many Americans must've been as confused about Soul's vocal talent as he was, because they pushed "Don't Give Up on Us, Baby" to #1 in April, 1977. In case you don't recall, it sounds like a typical TV star record, with a typically thin vocal. To his credit we have to point out that Soul's voice isn't molded, muted, nor disguised; it leads the song and is therefore a lot more genuine than most TV-star recordings. It still gets airplay on oldies and adult contemporary programming.

Soul followed "Don't Give Up on Us" with a single called "Going In With My Eyes Open," which made it to #54. A disappointing follow-up, but we can assure you that it only made it that high because it was recorded by the guy from Starsky and Hutch. The label then released "Silver Lady," but that again sold only to David Soul fans and topped out at #52. Across the pond, however, Brits must've heard something they liked, because they pushed "Silver Lady" to number one. Although Soul had the hits, he certainly wasn't the most successful TV-to-music creation of the 1970s; that honor has to go to David Cassidy.

Like the 1960s prior and the 80s to follow, the 1970s had its share of TV stars who absolutely tanked in the recording studio. Possibly the most notorious flop in the 1970s was the record career of The Brady Bunch cast. This show was a massive hit -- it even backed up to the wildly popular Partridge Family, and the Partridge albums sold gazillions. The Bradys were teen heartthrobs, and Florence Henderson was a phenomenal vocalist. How could they miss?

If we could only count the ways.

If you're a huge TV star and you have true vocal talent like a David Cassidy, you'll sell boatloads of records. If you can sing and have a unique sound like David Soul, you'll top the charts once or twice. If you can carry a tune like Eddie Murphy, you'll sell a reasonable number of records. If you're a Don Johnson or a Tina Yothers, the engineers have to manipulate the sound to make it listenable, and you'll sell a few records. If, however, you are patently bad at singing, you'll enjoy the same success as the Brady kids: None at all.

Brady Bunch producers, however, were not swayed by the lack of vocal talent, nor by the lack of Americans willing to buy a Brady Bunch record. They pressed on with an album called "It's a Sunshine Day" to support a television series called The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which served only to showcase just how bad the problem was. Florence Henderson is certainly talented, but she's no Dinah Shore. She simply couldn't carry a half dozen teenagers who sang off-key, and it didn't help that Robert Reed moved like a dance academy drop out.

Somehow the Brady troup managed to cut not one but three record albums, so they undoubtedly take the cake for the most musical drivel to spring from a hit television show. If you really must know just how dreadful it was, here's a sample of Greg and Marcia trading lines in a song called "Sugar Shoppe" :

The 1970s were heady days for TV stars who wanted to make music. Some of the others made the Brady Bunch efforts look like finely crafted art. Telly Savalas was on top of the world in the mid-1970s thanks to his role on Kojak; his self-titled album featured a number of ghastly takes on pop standards such as "Something" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin." He opened the dustjacket commentary with "People know that singing is not my bag," and the album drove home his point. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall also put out an Odd Couple album, but they had the sense to recognize that they weren't great singers; the pair hammed it up on songs like "You're So Vain" and created a fun extension of their on-screen personalities.

Back up a couple years, and the world was treated to an album by William Shatner during his Captain Kirk fame. On The Transformed Man Shatner didn't really sing as much as over-act his way through some hits of the day. The man is such a larger-than-life personality that it's hard to know whether or not his efforts were tongue-in-cheek. Some of the recordings are so over the top that they've become cult classics, "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds" being the best known.

As you can see, the recordings that result from meteoric television stardom generally falls into three categories. The first type are from the actors who want to be singers, and record original music (David Soul, Tina Yothers, Don Johnson). The second type are the recordings made mostly to cash in on fame (Telly, The Odd Couple). The third, which we haven't really discussed, are the "soundtracks" that spring from TV shows based on a musical storyline. Examples of these include Hanna Montana/Miley Cyrus, The Partridge Family/David Cassidy, and The Monkees. In these types, the actors clearly have musical talent, and were cast in the role because they could carry a tune and had musical stage presence. So they don't really apply to our discussion in this edition of Tidbits.

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featured performance

This is one of the few successful "serious" musical efforts by a television actor. It's David Soul performing "Don't Give Up On Us" from the late 70s; a song that soared all the way to number one on the Billboard charts. Would this song have been successful at any other time, by anyone but a wildly popular tv star? We doubt it. Despite all the problems, this is one of the best tv-star efforts since the medium was invented. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

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One TV Star singer who is hard to fit in any single category is the late Ricky Nelson. Like David Cassidy, Nelson certainly had a musical pedigree, but that wasn't a requirement for his role. Like John Travolta, his first records were intended to take advantage of his popularity as a teen idol. But in Nelson's case something totally unexpected happened, he was a much better musician than actor, and his music career far surpassed his acting career. Nelson indeed has a secure place in the pantheon of American pop music. His success is the sort that the actors who make "serious" records aspire to, but none have achieved. Even Hilary Duff, for all her multi-platinum success, is quickly becoming a footnote in the history of American pop.

In our "Forgotten Gem" column this month we talk about David McCallum, the one recorded actor who had the good sense to refuse a vocal recording. Although lacking Nelson's talent, his musical pedigree was arguably even greater, and he recorded a successful series of instrumental albums.

Also in our "Forgotten Gem" column we mention another actor, who despite soaring international popularity, refused to cash in and sing on record. Yet he later sang on a multi-platinum album recorded by one of the most successful pop performers in history.

Any guesses?

One of the most prolific shows to spawn musical efforts was the 1970s hit Happy Days. The main stars on the show -- Ron Howard, Henry Winkler -- recognized that their talents were in acting and directing, and turned down record offers. One producer said publicly, "if only Fonzie were willing to sing." When it was pointed out that Winkler said he couldn't carry a tune in a steamer trunk, the reply was that it didn't matter, the record would sell anyway. Howard, for his part, had performed some minor vocal parts for The Music Man movie soundtrack, a recording that continues to sell to this day. He also refused to make a record. Producers steamed.

What happened next was completely unexpected. A British record producer saw this tug-of-war playing out, and decided to cash in on the Fonzie craze despite the fact that he had no connection to the show. A studio group recorded a hastily written track called "The Fonz Song," and rushed out an album called Fonzie, Fonzie, He's Our Man filled with all sorts of lyrical references to Happy Days. The album sold despite the utter lack of any legitimate connection to the show, and no visual references to any of the trademarks or characters. It was in no way an attempt at artistic music, simply an effort to cash in.

Happy Days producers, as stated above, were apoplectic that they couldn't put out a record of some sort. As the show continued to soar and even the minor characters became stars, they tabbed Anson "Potsie" Williams as a vocalist. Williams, perhaps the only cast member who could hit most of the notes he tried for, willingly went the John Travolta/Don Johnson route. He recorded serious, original songs, and was even given vocal slots on the show. His most successful seller was "Deeply," a mawkish ballad that has the musical significance of a Buick commercial. Fortunately for America, Williams eventually realized that he also was better suited for the acting business, and currently is a highly regarded director for the small screen.

Of course if Potsie could sell records, logic dictated that Ralph Malph could also. And so Donny Most made his attempt at a serious album in 1976, opting for a dance sound. The record stiffed badly.

As roles came and went on Happy Days, one was actually filled by a legitimate musician, Suzi Quatro. Quatro, an edgy rocker-guitarist, had a hit duet with Chris Norman on "Stumblin' In." Scott Baio was another addition to Happy Days in its sunset years. By 1982 he was a bonafide heartthrob, and released a pair of "serious" albums that charted briefly and soon vanished.

Happy Days had a couple of spin-offs, one of which spun its own record. That would be Laverne & Shirley, who had enough sense to make a non-serious music/comedy record in the same vein as the earlier Odd Couple record. The album sold about as well as could be expected; Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams are natural talents who made an enjoyable, but definitely dated LP.

So who's our multi-platinum artist?

The answer is Henry Winkler, who steadfastly refused to make a record album. In 1977 he was a guest of Neil Diamond's at the Greek Theatre, where Diamond was recording a series of concerts for a live album follow-up to the classic Hot August Night from 1972. During a singalong in "Song Sung Blue," Neil had the audience singing the refrain, and invited his guests to jump onstage. The first was Helen Reddy, who waved to her adoring fans, and then offered a few bars of the song. Next he called on Winkler, who was at the top of his game as the Fonz. The audience roared, and Winkler couldn't resist a request to offer up a few lines in Fonzie's style. Tossing in a trademark "heyyy...." the segment was a treat for fans. It went on the album, and the album went multi-platinum.

And so that's how a tv star who -- having refused to make a record -- just happens to sing on a classic, multi-million selling album of American pop.

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, focusing on pop artists who shifted to country and vice-versa, please click here.