September 21, 2020

When Fictional Bands Led an R&B and Soul Music Revival

In my last post, I mentioned a fictional singer (Bruce Willis’ Bruno Radolini) and a fictional band (the claymation California Raisins) who found fortune and fame in the eighties by revisiting sixties R&B and soul music classics. Together with the Elwood Blues Revue and one or two others, they made up a very narrow sub-genre of eighties popular music: fictional artists who made a splash singing old Motown and Stax songs. I’d be remiss if I didn’t explore the sub-genre a bit further here.

The  very real phenomenon of fictional acts leading an R&B and soul music revival, which was largely confined to the middle to late years of the decade, says a whole lot about where we were at the time: about the rise of nostalgia as big business, the increased synergy between different types of media (and between media and advertising), and the Reagan-era focus on style over substance. Mostly, though, it’s just weird and kind of fun. So, without further ado…

The Return of Bruno, Bruce Willis (1987)

In early 1987, HBO aired a mockumentary / concert video featuring Moonlighting star Bruce Willis as fictional blues singer Bruno Radolini. With contributions from the Temptations and Booker T. Jones, The Return of Bruno spawned both a Top 20 album and a Top 10 single, a cover of the Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself” with June Pointer of the Pointer Sisters. Curiously, the album was released by Motown Records, suggesting the label was working overtime to capitalize on the sixties R&B and soul nostalgia then in full swing.

You might think The Return of Bruno was a straightforward case of a TV star trading on his celebrity to get a vanity project off the ground. But nope. This was no Don Johnson’s Heartbeat. Bruce Willis’ music career followed a slightly more circuitous path: His breakout role in Moonlighting first led to a deal with Seagram’s wine coolers, for whom he sang and danced his way through a series of TV ads, which then opened the door to the HBO special and Motown album. Only in the eighties.

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” The California Raisins (1987)

Another one from the “Only in the Eighties” file: a TV commercial featuring claymation raisins singing the Marvin Gaye classic spawns four albums, two TV specials, a Saturday morning cartoon and even a computer game. Buddy Miles, accomplished drummer and singer with the Electric Flag, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and the Buddy Miles Express among other entirely respectable acts, sings lead, giving him his highest-charting album since Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles! Live! in 1972.

Ironically, the California Raisins campaign eventually fell apart because many raisin growers felt they were contributing more to it than they were reaping in benefits. In 1994, disputes between raisin giant Sun-Maid and other growers, including over Sun-Maid’s attempts to limit how the characters appeared on other brands’ packaging, led to a halt in funding for the campaign, as well as to the disbanding of the California Raisin Advisory Board, the state marketing commission responsible for it. A sad end to an otherwise cheery slice of pop culture.

Satisfaction, Justine Bateman and the Mystery (1988)

Family Ties star Michael J. Fox made a movie—1987’s Light of Day—in which he played a singer in a struggling bar band. So why couldn’t his TV sister, Justin Bateman, do the same? Satisfaction, released the following year, found Bateman and her group (including Julia Roberts, in her first major role) thumping through early rock and roll songs and R&B and soul standards. Among these: the Stax Records hits “Knock on Wood” and “Mr. Big Stuff,” as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Notably, Blues Brothers guitarist Steve Cropper, member of the Stax house band in the sixties and co-writer of “Knock on Wood,” “In the Midnight Hour” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” among other classics, produced the soundtrack album.

Maybe the best thing to come out of Satisfaction is the following formulation from the Los Angeles Times review of the flick. Describing its curiously anachronistic leanings, Michael Wilmington wrote: “This is a movie—supposedly about an ’80s rock band—where the songs date from the ’60s, the language and sexual attitudes suggest the ’70s and the plot is pure ’50s.”

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