Stephen Bishop: On and On and On

That soft rocker/balladeer, Stephen Bishop is still carrying on and on and on.  Hitting the charts in the mid 1970s, he continued on into the 1980s, on the strength of some songs for movies.  By the end of the decade he was almost forgotten but friend Phil Collins helped to get him a big album release in 1989.

Bish in his early fame

In the decades since, Bish has surfaced from time to time, released the occasional album, played some concerts, but otherwise maintained a lower profile (somewhat by choice).

Bish was that rare musician who’s soft rock tunes appealed to both middle of the road audiences and serious rockers like Eric Clapton and Phil Collins who eagerly appeared on his albums.

You might remember Bishop appeared in a classic scene in Animal House where John Belushi crashes his guitar against the wall.  Bish was friends with director John Landis who put him in the film and he contributed a song. Bish was part of the cool kids and even had a relationship with actress Karen Allen.

Bish often sings about the tribulations of love, but he never sounds wimpy.  In recent decades without a big label recording contract or marketing push, he has still marketed new product.  Like everyone else, he’s done a Christmas album, a live album and tried a big style change (Romance in Rio).  Since that dreadful 1988 album, he has for the most part opted for restrained production, usually lean, and sometimes solo, album performances. His songs are written on acoustic guitar, and much like James Taylor, he can carry an album on his voice and finger-picking guitar style if he chooses.  It works.

Few have a voice like Stephen Bishop.  It is clean, can climb to a high range and needs no production effects to help or thicken his voice.  Only at age 67 is his voice showing any signs of age.  On his newest CD, his voice isn’t as sharp or silken, nor does it seem to have the boyish range, that even a few years ago he still had.  Even at this age, he can sing with the best, but he set the bar so high that we (me) always expect it.

Here is a look at most of his work, starting with the most current.

We’ll Talk About it Later in the Car (2019)  You could imagine Bish in a piano bar singing these songs.  The piano is the dominant instrument on the album, but there are several familiar Bish guitar songs.  He uses Jon Gilutin as his producer/engineer/pianist on most of the songs and mostly, the arrangements are not overpowering.

If Bish was a rookie, recording his first album, this is the result.  He wrote most of the songs, there are a few co-writing credits and a couple of covers.  Curiously, the last song on the album, “Tinseltown” pulls out the dreaded 1989 production, not a good thing to revisit.  If you like the Bishop formula, gentle songs with his distinctive voice, you’ll like this collection. Just skip over “Tinseltown.”

Blueprint (2016)  Hard to find this album. Bishop used songs from demos recorded through the years.  He included a couple of covers, some co-written songs and the rest are his.  His production is bold, as he likes to vary his style.  “I’ll Sleep on the Plane” is a Steely Dan type song.  “Someone Like You”  is a ballad.  “Holy Mother” co-written with Eric Clapton, was a song recorded for Clapton’s August album.  “Ultra Love” an R&B flavored song, using his falsetto voice. “Slippin’ Into Love” is a hipped-up song with a groove. “My Blue Window”  is a ballad about his observations on the world today.  Also appearing is “It Might Be You” with a stronger, more upbeat groove.

Bish recording his live album

Stephen Bishop Live (2014) Bishop spotlights many of his hits, some with different arrangements.  The backing band complements him but doesn’t overpower him.  I wonder why he didn’t release a live album until so late in his career. If you like the originals, you’ll like these versions.  Close your eyes and you’ll think he’s appearing in your living-room.  My favorites are “Never Letting Go,” “Parked Cars” “Madge” and “Red Cab to Manhattan.” “Save it For a Rainy Day” has a shuffle beat, very different from the original.

Be Here Then  (2014)  This is a very interesting collection.  Bish tries some different styles including what could pass for contemporary country, as there is a gently country swing to several songs.  This set is midway between a solo approach and a full band with string arrangement.   Here, he uses a leaner instrumentation, although it is more than just his guitar.  He seems free from constraints of a record company or radio demands, because his independent release won’t be getting airplay, except for probably devoted fans streaming.  I like this set a lot.  The songs had sass and attitude without being buried in a pretentious arrangement.

Romance in Rio (2008)  Here he reworked a few of his songs like “Separate Lives,” “On and On” and “Save it for a Rainy Day” in a soft bossa nova beat, with the relaxed production of his early albums.  For me, these are fine versions, mature interpretations of very popular songs. “Separate Lives” in particular ditches the 1980s over-production. Of the new songs “Take This Empty Heart” and “Annalia” are the best.  Bish’s fine guitar playing is front and center on the album and his voice is in fine shape. Bish got a lot of flack for this album.

Fear of Massage demo 3, Demo Album 2 and Demo Album 1  (2003)  Bish empties his vault of his demos.  These are from the past several decades.  I recognize the studio gloss on some, probably dating from the late 1980s to early 1980s, for me, the worst epoch in recording history.  A few of these songs are drenched in echo and industrial synthesizers and such that convey an over-produced period.  Album 1 is of lesser quality than demo 2 or 3, which has a few very nice songs that seem more current from his bosa nova phase and have cleaner rock production.  Overall, these songs sound generic, not terrible but not distinguishable from the norm.  A couple of songs, “Finders Green” and “Before Nightfall” are really good.  These albums are for the Bish completists only.

Happy Bishmas (2002)  I’ll pass.

Yardwork  (2002)  Bish with his guitar, stripped down versions of new and past songs.  Not that many people can pull it off for an entire album.  Bish has a silky voice that his songs are built around.  He uses echo but not overdone.  Occasionally he uses harmony vocals and a second guitar, but mainly it is just him and his fingers. If you like the quieter Bish, find this album.

New songs: “Promise Me the World,” “Time Stand Still,” “Make U Mine,” “Blue Window,” “Before Nightfall,” “When You Love Too Much,” “Wall Around Your Heart,” “Hall Light”

New recordings of “On and One” “Red Cab to Manhattan” “Separate Lives” “Looking for the Right One”

Blue Guitars (1996)   Not a bad album, I found three really good songs, Bishop greatest hits type songs.  “When You Love Somebody”, “I Go Numb” and “Let Your Heart Remember” are Bish keepers.  “Dive Into the Pool of Love” is an uptempo, with slick 1990s production, not my taste.

The entire 1980s  This was a good/bad decade for Bishop.  He had great success with songs that appeared in films, but his recording career went through a downturn.  From 1980 to 1996, there would be only Bowling in Paris (1989).

Film Music  (courtesy of Wikipedia)

“Somewhere in Between” (1979) (written and performed) from The China Syndrome
“Your Precious Love” (1980) (performed with Yvonne Elliman) from Roadie
“It Might Be You” (1982), not written by Bishop, from Tootsie
“If Love Takes You Away” (1982) (written and performed) from Summer Lovers
“Unfaithfully Yours (1984)” (written and performed) from Unfaithfully Yours
“Something New in My Life” (1984) (performed) from Micki & Maude
“Separate Lives” (1985) written by Bishop but sung by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin from White Nights
“The Heart Is So Willing” (1986) (performed) from The Money Pit

Bowling in Paris (1989)  Bishop found himself popular for one-off song titles, but not in demand for albums.  It took the push of friend Phil Collins (who co-produced), along producers Gus Dudgeon (Elton John), Michael Omartian (Christopher Cross), Hugh Padgham (The Police) and Nick Launay to get this project done.  This is no mistaking the era this album was recorded, deep echoing drums (Phil Collins gated drum sound), synthesizers and industrial production sound.  The songs are drenched in period production.  The welcoming sound of Bishop’s gentle voice and acoustic guitar are buried in production sludge.  I had to listen to this CD several times to find melodic lines and hooks.  Bishop began the decade with a warm and inviting sound and ended it with the sound of his career being pounded into oblivion. Now, it wasn’t quite that bad, but Bowling in Paris is not the place to start if you are discovering or rediscovering Bish.

Red Cab to Manhattan (1980) On this album, Bishop revamped his sound.  The arrangements were leaner and more modern.  I’m biased, this is my favorite Stephen Bishop album.  Wisely, Bishop outsourced the production to Tommy LiPuma and Mike Mainieri, arranger/producers of mainly jazz artist.  The backing musicians are still the A List of L.A. and New York session work.  Clapton and Garfunkel are back, and Phil Collins makes his first appearance.

I believe this is his most accomplished and sophisticated work, so naturally, the album sold poorly and failed to dent the chart.  Strangely, “Send a Little Love My Way” failed to do anything and it may be his best written and performed song.

“The Big House”  A snapping beat and guitar riffs.  You might think this was a Billy Joel song.  Upbeat and saucy song, with great jazzy bridge and choruses.  On his earlier albums this song would have been buried in orchestration.  Here it is guitars, piano and vocals.

“Don’t You Worry”  Nice slide guitar intro, a Beach Boys-type vocal chorus.  The mix is airy and open, letting the instruments breathe.

“Thief in the Night”  This is a jazzy period piece, from the “jazz age.”  Bish loves these change of pace songs.

“Send a Little Love My Way”  Maybe the best song Bishop has ever written, it has such a memorable melodic line that try and forget it.  Great arrangement.  Inconceivable that this song did not chart.

“Let Her Go”  A rocking guitar intro with pounding piano beat.  As hard rocking as Bishop has ever gotten.  A great song.

“Little Moon”  A lovely beginning that segues into a bouncy, Beach Boys delight.

“The Story of a Boy in Love”  A great arrangement, it starts as one style and then shifts to something even better.  A soft rock arrangement but the instruments sail.  A very underrated Bishop composition.

“Living in the Land of Abe Lincoln”  A slow beginning, a cool jazz flavored song that has more than a passing touch of Steely Dan on the bridge section.

“Red Cab to Manhattan” A song with just Bishop and his guitar, but a great arrangement. A lonely horn comes in late to blow some melancholy notes.  Great tune.

“Sex Kittens Go to College” A novelty-type song, more of an excuse to toss off a rock and roll number.

“City Girl”  A soft, Art Garfunkel-type intro, high lovely voice, then turns into a harder rocking song with hard guitar riffs.  Of course, it rewinds to the easy, soft intro before it builds into a harder finish.

“My Clarinet”  The final song is an acoustic number with an electric piano accompaniment.

The remastered, re-release includes some bonus songs recorded during the sessions and demos of songs on the original album.  A nice treat because this was Bish at his most creative and successful period.

Bish (1978)  Stephen Bishop’s sophomore album, which featured lush arrangements, seemingly aimed at the Adult Contemporary Chart rather than the pop chart. The album reached number 32 and his singles barely dented the pop chart but were better received by the adult charts.  Bishop produced the album himself and used an A List of musical collaborators.

“If I Only Had a Brain” A jazzy version of this Wizard of Oz classic opens the album.  Unusual, but it shows you are in for a treat. “Losing Myself in You” A gentle soft rock love song, introducing what you would get for the next forty-plus years. “Looking for the Right One” is a Bish classic, one you never get tired of hearing, with its magic chord changes, lilting melody and sense of melancholy. “Everybody Needs Love” is an up-tempo, bouncy treatise on searching love. “Guitar Interlude” is one of the occasional transition song like “If I Only Had a Brain”.  “A Fool At Heart” is a slower burning ballad, excellent arrangement with Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole on background vocals.   “What Can Love Do” is a Nelson Riddle-type arrangement, more of a traditional pop song of a past generation. “Vagabond From Heaven” is an uptempo arrangement, Barry Manilow type, with strings and horns, and the strategically placed lead guitar.  “Bish’s Hideaway” is a cool, mid tempo, south seas flavor song with steel guitars. “Only the Heart Within You” is a smooth ballad with a synthesizer backing in place of strings. “Recognize” is Bish with orchestra backing, this seems like a song without a movie. “I’ve Never Known a Nite Like This” is a slow ballad that morphs into an uptempo swinging song with a big guitar solo on top of a horn and pop arrangement.  “When I Was in Love” is a tender ballad with string and piano backing.

Careless (1976)  This is where it began.  “On and On” and “Save it for a Rainy Day” were the defining songs that are still a part of his recording and concert repertoire. The year 1976 was seeing a decline in soft rock and a surge in disco and hard rock.  Bishop was an anomaly, his songs were well-crafted, his voice soft as a summer breeze and his arrangements a bit sentimental but endearing.  He attracted top-notch players, The Wrecking Crew and superstars like Eric Clapton, Art Garfunkel and Chaka Khan.  Other songs like “One More Night”, “Never Letting Go” and “Madge” would show up on his greatest hits collection.  This was a stellar introduction to the masses. “On and On” reached number eleven on the charts and the album a respectable 34.

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