Reaching for the Stars, Vol. 14

Chart Week: September 27, 1986
Song: “Heartbeat” – Don Johnson
Chart Position: #14, 6th week on the chart. Peaked at #5 for two weeks in October.

The history of pop music is riddled with vanity projects by actors, comedians, athletes, and others in the public eye who decided to leverage their fame in other mediums in an attempt to get a hit record. The 1980s in general, and 1986 in particular, were thick with these songs. Early ’86 brought us Eddie Murphy’s album. Bruce Willis recorded his The Return of Bruno album in ’86, although it was not released until early 1987. Eddie’s music was ok; he could clearly carry a tune but, as I recall, there was nothing special about his voice or his songs. He came across as being careful, offering fairly generic music that could get airplay on both white and black stations. There was always a sense that if Eddie really wanted to throw down, he could have done something so much better than this.

Willis’ album was also rather generic. His sound was exactly what you would expect: that of a guy who, after a couple drinks grabs the mic and leads a band and gets away with it because he has the most charisma in the room and his voice isn’t great but it’s not terrible either so, hey, let the guy sing a couple songs…

Smack in the middle, in the late summer of ’86, came Don Johnson’s Heartbeat album, fronted by this title track. I’ll hear this song once or twice a year and always laugh. I laugh at 15-year-old me, because, as I was into all things Don Johnson at the time, I loved this track. I laugh at America, because we bought this shit up, pushing the record to #5 and snatching up half a million copies of the album. I laugh at the lyrics, which are pretty terrible:

I don´t care what you say
You can give it away
Your money don´t mean much to me
I´ve been out on my own
Going to go it alone now
Cause that´s the way it´s got to be

I laugh at the track’s production, which has every element of bad, mid–80s pop rock in it.

And I laugh most at Johnson’s vocal efforts, especially on the song’s verses, where it sounds like he came straight off the Miami Vice set and started reciting lyrics as he would lines on the show. And now, after doing some research, I laugh at what Johnson said about the album upon its release.

“I didn’t want it to sound like something that other people designed and I just stopped by for a few minutes to do the vocals. And I made it clear to Walter that I would walk away from it if I didn’t think it was credible. I was prepared every step of the way to throw it away and walk away."

That’s some beautiful, first-class bullshit there.

But here’s the thing…his vocals on the chorus are pretty solid. I mean, there’s not much to work with lyrically. But he throws himself into those words and shouts them out much better than you would expect him to. He’s no Springsteen, Bryan Adams, or Kenny Loggins for sure. It’s not totally terrible, though. Which, I suppose, makes the song a success.

The song’s video was perfect for the era, too. Just look at Don prowling around the stage in his silk shirt! That’s Dweezil Goddamn Zappa playing some kick-ass, cheeseball guitar! The headless bass is beautiful. And if you have an actor singing, you have to throw in some segments from a “mini-film” that don’t really make sense but make grandma and grandpa say, “Oh, yes, I remember this young man. He’s on that Miami Vice program. Isn’t he married to that actress, Melanie something-or-other?”

Oh, and holy shit!: Don Johnson was not the first to record this song. Helen Fucking Reddy first recorded it in 1983. That’s right, Don Johnson decided to cover the lady who sang “I Am Woman,” “Delta Dawn,” and “Angie Baby,” all of which went to #1 in the early 70s. I’m not sure how that all came about but it’s more than a little insane.

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