Kevin: Former sockless ‘80s bad boy Don Johnson turns 68 years old today, and rather than slowing down, the one-time “Miami Vice” leading man is instead in the midst of a surprising and entertaining stretch of his career, as a supporting player who pops in and adds his fun and laid-charisma to films such as “Machete,” “Django Unchained,” “Cold in July,” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” (which CJ and I reviewed in October and declared one of the best films of 2017). While this momentum looks to continue next year with a supporting role alongside Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn in “Brawl …” director S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up “Dragged Across Concrete,” we are still waiting for Johnson to gift us with another album following the one-two punch of “Heartbeat” and “Let it Roll” in the late 1980’s.
As we wait for that day to come, we can still tide ourselves over with our “Miami Vice” Sing-Off from last January, in which we pitted Johnson against his co-star Phillip Michael Thomas to determine whether Crockett or Tubbs had the best musical chops. While the following music is not exactly timeless it is definitely awesome, and so is Don Johnson, so let’s celebrate his birthday today by rocking out as if former “Running Man” freedom fighter Dweezil Zappa was backing us up on guitar.
(Originally posted Jan. 26, 2017, and updated below.)
Kevin: During its brief but influential run on NBC in the 1980’s, “Miami Vice” could claim credit for a number of trends: popularizing the no-to-socks/yes-to-pastels men’s fashion style that has obviously stood the test of time, bringing a sexier MTV-influence to the formerly stodgy police procedural format, and making Phil Collins cool for five minutes:
But despite a soundtrack packed with Top-40 hits from artists such as The Police, Foreigner, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Billy Idol, U2, Dire Straits, and Peter Gabriel, the one thing the series could not do was turn Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from TV stars into music stars. It wasn’t for a lack of trying though, as both released their own albums at the height of the show’s cultural influence. How did their efforts fare, and does their music stand the test of time? Let’s take a look and see who comes out on top:
As the bigger breakout star of the show, Don Johnson received the red carpet treatment for his debut album “Heartbeat,” enlisting an All-Star team of musical collaborators including Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, and Barbra Streisand. With that kind of support, how could the resulting album be bad?
Well guess what, it’s not. As far as celebrity singers go, Johnson is at least in the league of Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, and the Bacon brothers, and the album mostly plays to his strengths. As befitting the star, any of the songs would be at home on a typical episode of “Miami Vice,” and if you are a fan of “Smuggler’s Blues”-era Glenn Frey then you’d enjoy this as well. But if we have to single out one song from the album to highlight, of course it would be the eponymous hit “Heartbeat”:
Even though it was a Billboard Top 5 hit in 1986, “Heartbeat” is apparently considered something of a joke now, to the point where a 1999 MTV special featuring Jon Stewart and Denis Leary declared it the worst video of all time and banned it from future airplay on the network. Well screw that, as far as I’m concerned this song rules. It’s pounding synthesizer beat and Johnson’s growly intensity on vocals has made this a staple of my playlist any time I need to get my blood going at the gym.
Now the same cannot be said for the accompanying video. Apparently it was part of an hour-long HBO special that linked the videos for all the songs into a mini-movie, which is why “Heartbeat” keeps cutting to footage of what appears to be some kind of war movie that inexplicably features a quick shot of Paul Shaffer. Worse is the original footage, which features Johnson rocking out like your dad at karaoke after a few beers, as well as a couple of backup dancers who barely seem to be making an effort. Plus no one has ever looked cool standing next to Dweezil Zappa.
Either way though “Heartbeat” set the bar pretty high. Did Johnson’s co-star surpass it?
Philip Michael Thomas
Perhaps Johnson spared no expense on his album because the Tubbs to his Crockett had already released his own album the year before, “Living the Book of My Life,” although it sold poorly compared to “Heartbeat,” and for good reason. Although Thomas has the kind of voice that would fit right in with Earth, Wind & Fire or The Gap Band, and most of the songs have that “sitting by the fire with your special lady” type of feel – apart from an unfortunate detour into reggae – none of them have the catchy hook of “Heartbeat.”
If the album is remembered at all today it is for the accompanying video for the song “Just the Way I Planned It”:
If nothing else he easily defeats Johnson in the number of backup dancers, plus he put up the cash for a strobe light and smoke machine, which is nice I guess. With his Indian-inspired dance moves you could also credit Thomas for jumping on the Bollywood phenomenon very early, even if you can’t credit him for coming off as super masculine in this.
So yeah, I think it’s clear that Don Johnson is the musical master of “Miami Vice.” But hold the phone, we have a last-minute challenger for both of them: a young Bruce Willis, who made an early appearance on the show as a wife-beating weapons dealer in the episode “No Exit,” before parlaying his “Moonlighting” fame into a questionable attempt at a singing career with “The Return of Bruno” and as pitchman for Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers:
Apparently Bruce using a wine cooler as a microphone was such a hit that Seagram’s significantly upped the budget for their next commercial, which is more entertaining than all of “Hudson Hawk”:
But while we already ended our “Last Boy Scout” Round Table with Bruce singing his Top 5 hit cover of “Respect Yourself,” let’s see him in action live:
That voice! Those dance moves! The chemistry with the middle-age female fans! Making a popping sound with his mouth! Sorry Don and Philip, but that’s the kind of showmanship that expensive musical collaborators or smoke machines just can’t beat. You may have been the stars of “Miami Vice,” but Bruce obviously has the lasting musical legacy.
And just to end on a high note, enjoy Bruce giving Sharon Stone “something she’s never had before,” a delicious Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler of course:
Post Script: Johnson was also a triple threat as an actor, singer, and director, as he stepped behind the camera for four memorable episodes of his TV show, including Season 3’s “By Hooker by Crook,” which in typical “Miami Vice” fashion features top-40 hits from musical acts such as Steve Winwood and Simply Red, and a diverse group of guest stars including Vanity at her hottest:
Johnson’s former wife at her most “Working Girl”-ish:
George Takei as a villainous mob boss:
And wrestling star Capt. Lou Albano as his enforcer:
It also showcases Johnson’s ability to somehow pull off even the most absurd of ‘80s fashions: