Sunday, October 02, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Amii Stewart

Amii Stewart, 1997Amii Stewart may have one of the most recognizable smash hits of the Disco Era era to her name, but her career as a stateside Dancing Queen (or even Pop Singer) was a very short-lived affair.

Musically inclined from childhood, Stewart initially made a career for herself in the arena of dance/theater. Having taken dancing lessons after being taught to play the piano by her father, Stewart enrolled in "workshop" programs to hone her talents while still attending high school in her native Washington D.C.. Shortly after starting college, Stewart left school to work full-time with the D.C. Repertory Dance Company.

Working with the D.C.R.D.C. eventually let to other breaks, and Stewart began to make a name for herself internationally through her work as lead actress (and ultimately assistant director/choreographer) in the play Bubbling Brown Sugar which she performed in Miami, London and New York, followed by a role in the New York-staged Toby Time.

It was while in London working on Bubbling Brown Sugar, that Stewart laid down a few tracks on a lark with producer Barry Leng. Even though Stewart was a bit under the weather while auditioning, her powerful vocals must have convinced Leng that there was potential and she was offered a contract with Hansa Records. A handful of tracks were eventually recorded for future album release after her first single "You Really Touched My Heart" generated sufficient interest from the label for more material. Ariola Records, desperate for a lifesaving hit, optioned the release of Stewart's music in the American market, which at the time was fully in the sway of Disco Fever.

Working with another writer named Simon May (whose 1976 U.K. Top 10 single "Summer Of My Life" had also been a Leng production), Leng created some original songs for Stewart to sing, and began rearranging a smattering of oldie covers in a more contemporary musical vein. The first (and by far the most successful) of these covers selected for release was a rendition of Eddie Floyd's 1966 R&B classic "Knock On Wood."

Knock On WoodWhile it's fair to say that Stewart's striking vocals would probably have drawn attention to this song no matter what the production style, this production was designed from the ground up to grab attention, which is exactly what it did. While Floyd's "Knock On Wood" was a midtempo bluesy number that simmered on the radio like a sultry July evening, the Leng-produced Amii Stewart version moved like a relentless freight train, indiscriminately mowing down everything in its path. Most importantly, "Knock On Wood" just sounded incredibly huge in a dance club, with its thundering beat, oddly-creaking synthesizer lines, laser-bright horn sections, insistent percussion effects, and ominous underlying bass hum all compressed together into an explosive mix that Jeff Lynne himself would have killed to create.

Released to radio in January of 1979, "Knock On Wood" went down a storm, ultimately reaching the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for one week that April, and selling an estimated 8 million copies internationally, not to mention powering its attendant (and wisely similarly-titled) gold full-length album into the Top 20.

Seeking to capitalize on the runaway success of "Knock On Wood," another cover song from Stewart’s London sessions was selected to be the follow-up single. In retrospect, perhaps this was an ill-advised choice as the rocket-like momentum of Stewart's career vanished almost immediately when her cover of the seminal Doors smash "Light My Fire" (paired with a new song titled, er, "137 Disco Heaven" to create a medley, in effect) not only failed to match the success of its predecessor, but fell way short of the Top 40 as well, sputtering to #69 that summer. That being said, it bears mentioning that "Light My Fire/137 Disco Heaven" did far better overseas: in fact, it actually placed a slot higher in the U.K. tallies than "Knock On Wood."

Things slipped even farther when Stewart's follow-up album, Paradise Bird failed to reach the Billboard's Top 200 album chart that Christmas, instead "peaking" at #207 on the magazine's Bubbling Under list. Despite the same production team and formula of orginal songs with a few re-imagined oldies as before, there were also no hits or even almost-hits from Paradise Bird, a lot of which was blamed on the impending collapse of Ariola Records, though it should also be pointed out in fairness to them that Hansa version of Paradise Bird wasn't exactly setting the surveys afire over in the U.K., either.

I'm Gonna Get Your Love (produced by noted cheese-dancepop maestro Narada Michael Walden) nearly got Stewart's career back on the upward track again, but ultimately could only generate one song of any impact whatsoever in the hybrid duet (think "prehistoric mash-up") of "My Guy / My Girl," recorded with the recently-late Johnny Bristol. While the two singers alternated songs in the "verses" and "choruses" to cute effect, the rest was a rather horrifically-overcooked mess and the song eventually became Stewart's second (and last) U.S. chart dud, barely cracking the Top 60 in the waning summer of 1980.

PearlsFrom that point onwards, Stewart never returned to the U.S. music charts, though she eventually found herself popular enough overseas that she was able to keep a career going on that level alone. Within a couple of years, she had reached the point that her Georgio Moroder-produced 1986 album Amii never even saw the light of day on these shores (nor have any of its follow-up projects with such luminaries as Ennio Morricone, for that matter). With the writing on the wall now too big to ignore, Stewart eventually left the United States for the rolling landscapes of Italy where her multi-faceted singing talents have yielded her an ongoing career that extends to the present day.

Buy The Best Of Amii Stewart: Knock On Wood here.

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