When we think of comebacks in rock ‘n’ roll – a return to glory by a great artist who’d been written off as a has-been – we usually think of those that have become legend… Heart bounced back from a major sales slump with their biggest album to date. Meat Loaf returned to the top of the charts after sixteen years. Tina Turner came back from an abusive partnership and playing hotel lounges to emerge as the rock icon she was always meant to be. And of course there’s the granddaddy of all rock comebacks: Aerosmith, who went from diminished record sales, the loss of key members and debilitating substance abuse to an overwhelmingly successful period which ultimately lasted for decades. However, a few major figures in rock have at one point or another made a more low-key return, possibly recording a single which made it to the lower reaches of the Billboard chart (which is still the Billboard chart) or even making an appearance on a big hit by a younger artist. Here are nine examples of some of the minor – but significant – comebacks there’ve been in rock.
# 9 – Ronnie Spector (1986)
In a sense, this was two comebacks for the price of one: New York City rocker Eddie Money’s own career was in a bit of a rut before “Take Me Home Tonight,” the first single from his 1986 release Can’t Hold Back, become his all-time biggest hit. The song’s lyrics directly quote the Ronettes’ 1963 girl group classic “Be My Baby,” but Eddie Money was uncomfortable singing that part himself. Thus, invited the original vocalist, Ronnie Spector, to sing the immortal words on the track (she also appeared in the video).
Naturally, everyone hoped she’d be able to capitalize on the momentum, but a Tina Turner-level comeback was clearly not in the cards after comparatively fewer people wanted to take home Spector’s solo album Unfinished Business (even though she and Eddie Money duet again on the first single, “Who Can Sleep”). Still, “Take Me Home Tonight” did successfully introduce Spector (and the original Ronnettes hit) to a whole new generation.
# 8 – The Everly Brothers (1984)
One of the most influential acts in rock history by far, the close-harmony vocal style and approach created by Phil and Don Everly in the Fifties influenced The Beatles and countless others (in commercial terms, The Everly Brothers were the most successful rock duo of all time until Hall & Oates surpassed them in the Eighties). Still, tensions can arise between brothers who’re in the same band (as The Kinks and Oasis will no doubt testify), so The Everly Brothers split up in the mid-Seventies. However, they reunited a decade later to record the all-new album EB84, which featured contributions from Jeff Lynne, Dave Edmunds and longtime superfan Paul McCartney. The ex-Beatle wrote “On the Wings of a Nightingale” for the duo, which reached number 50 on the pop charts, while the album made it into the Top 40.
# 7 – James Brown (1985)
In the early Eighties James Brown – a.k.a. the Godfather of Soul, a.k.a. the Hardest Working Man in Show Business – remained a well-respected artist, had a cameo in The Blues Brothers and became the target of one of Eddie Murphy’s spot-on celebrity impressions (“What the f*** is James talking about?”). It seems as though Brown was in a lot of different places… just not the singles chart, where he hadn’t gotten anywhere near the Top 40 since 1976. That changed in 1985, when Brown made an appearance in the movie Rocky IV, performing the anthemic “Living in America.” At once contemporary-sounding and characteristic of classic James Brown, the song made it to the Top 5 the following February and became the last mainstream pop hit of the soul giant’s career.
# 6 – Dion (1989)
Originally fronting doo wop group Dion & the Belmonts, Dion DiMucci would become a superstar with songs like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wander” which defined the late period of rock’s initial wave at the beginning of the Sixties. Dion’s career was impeded by the British Invasion but he later made a surprisingly successful foray into folk in 1968 (“Abraham, Martin & John”) before switching to Contemporary Christian. He returned to secular rock in 1989 with the album Yo Frankie! – which featured contributions from Dave Edmunds and Paul Simon as well as the autobiographical single “King of the New York Streets” – becoming his highest-charting album in two decades.
# 5 – Peter Frampton (1996)
Peter Frampton created the defining moment in mainstream rock in 1976 with the double live album Frampton Comes Alive!, which became such a familiar presence that the movie Wayne’s World would later joke that middle America didn’t even have to buy the record, everyone was simply issued a copy. Unfortunately, Frampton’s success was slowly eroded by several far-less-popular studio albums as well as a starring role in rock’s all-time cinematic career-killer Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While Frampton would never quite return to his former glory, his 1986 release Premonition was at least well-received and produced his highest-charting single (“Lying”) since the Seventies. During this period Frampton even got to play arenas again (albeit as the opening act for Stevie Nicks).
# 4 – The Animals (1983)
In the mid-Sixties New Castle, England band The Animals (fronted by Eric Burdon) recorded classic hits such as “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which were a bit grittier than the usual British Invasion fair but also songs many people could relate to. An inhumanly exhausting workload resulted in a breakup in 1966, but the original line-up would later record new studio albums in 1977 and 1983. The latter was probably the more lucrative, with the LP Ark spawning a single (“The Night”) which peaked at number 48 and also providing the backbone for a successful tour (Burdon is the only original member now with the current version of the band).
# 3 – Dusty Springfield (1987)
As one of the comparatively few female representatives of the British Invasion of the mid-Sixties, soul pop diva Dusty Springfield made her mark with such classics as “I Only Want to Be with You,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” and particularly her last hit of the era “Son of a Preacher Man.” For nearly two decades she would manage only an occasional minor hit before suddenly turning up in the last place anyone would have expected: A record by synth pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. Springfield sang a lead part on their track “What Have I Done to Deserve This?,” which went to number 2 in not just the UK but the US as well (the Pet Shops then produced two solo singles for her, both which went Top 20 in the UK in 1989).
# 2 – Mitch Ryder (1983)
In the era between the British Invasion and psychedelia, Mitch Ryder – at the time fronting Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels – refused to let rock ‘n’ roll lose sight of its roots. At least that was the message he seemed to be conveying in several of his mid-Sixties hits, most notably “Devil with a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” a raw but soulful medley of a then-recent blues song and Little Richard’s early rock classic, which Bruce Springsteen would later adapt as a staple of his own live sets. In 1983 John Mellencamp – another American rocker clearly influenced by Ryder – stepped up to produce a comeback album for him, Never Kick a Sleeping Dog. The first single, a cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” made the Billboard Top 100 chart.
# 1 – America (1982)
Folk-rock group America – Gerry Buckley and Dewey Bunnell (plus original member Dan Peek) – first rode into town in 1972 on the classic “A Horse with No Name,” and then scored a handful of mellow Top 10 hits by the mid-Seventies including “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man” and “Sister Golden Hair.” It sort of appeared as though the group had been put out to pasture during the punk/disco/Van Halen era before America managed some hocus pocus with the uplifting single “You Can Do Magic,” which became a Top 10 hit in 1982 (as well as their last Top 40 single).
We welcome Richard John Cummins to the staff of ClassicRockHistory.com.
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