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Don Johnson: Yes, He Can Really Sing

August 24, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

MIAMI BEACH — Don Johnson is leaning forward on the couch in his fifth floor office at the luxurious, beach-front Alexander Hotel. He's been talking easily for more than an hour about his restless childhood . . . failed marriages . . . drug abuse . . . alcoholism . . . enough partying and casual sex to fuel the most hedonistic episode of "Miami Vice."

But that's the past, he says. He's a changed man, trying to use his TV success as a springboard to all the things he's been wanting to do ever since leaving his Missouri farm roots--like make a record album.

Sonny Crockett making a record album?

There's the specter of all the Celebrity Pop wonders: Kojak . . . Wonder Woman . . . Starsky's pal Hutch . . . Keith Partridge . . . young Mark McCain from "The Rifleman" . . . Kris Monroe from "Charlie's Angels" . . . and--oh yes--Grandpa McCoy.

But surprise: Don Johnson's no joke.

He's a creditable, mainstream pop-rock singer whose borderline tenor/baritone voice combines some of the appealing, if melancholy romanticism of Jackson Browne with the Everyman anxiousness of Glenn Frey. There is echo on his voice in places on the new album, but that's not uncommon in today's recording world. Johnson has solid pitch and acceptable control.

We're not talking Ray Charles, Elvis Presley or Stevie Wonder here. Johnson needs to develop more vocal character, but he's a legitimate pop entry who would have deserved a record contract even if he weren't America's reigning male sex symbol.

Unlike the album by "Miami Vice" partner Philip Michael Thomas that sank without a trace, Johnson's musical move is off to a fast start. His first single, "Heartbeat," was added to more Top 40 radio station playlists the week of Aug. 11 than any other record in the country: 102, according to trade publication Radio & Records. Last week, 80 more stations began playing the single----a mid-tempo rocker written by Wendy Waldman and Eric Kaz. An Epic Records spokesman described the reaction as "virtually unparalleled for a debut artist."

I played an advance tape of his album--which arrives in stores Monday--for a dozen or so friends, without telling them who was singing.

Some had quarrels with the music itself, calling it too conventional. But everyone liked the voice. Then I showed them the tape box with Don Johnson's name on it. Jaws dropped. Eyes widened. One guy winced.

"You've got to be kidding," was the most common response. "You mean that Don Johnson."

At 35, Johnson has an aura of invincibility. His golden brown hair is cut in a summer, spikey style that makes him seem younger than in the old "Vice" episodes.

It's 11 p.m. and Johnson already had spent a dozen hours on the "Vice" set, but there's no sign of fatigue as he sits in his office at the hotel. The only items on the glass-top desk are a phone, a few letters, a list of messages. No clutter.

Johnson is relaxed, talking about tabloid topics like divorces and drugs because he's talked about them before--often. The walls are filled with nicely framed covers from Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone, US, TV Guide.

"I learned long ago that if you tell the truth, you can't get into trouble, no matter how outlandish it is," he explains. "It's when people think you are lying to them that the trouble begins . . . and it is the same with the media."

He laughs heartily--something he does frequently. By punctuating the darkest story or most disarming joke with laughter, he seems to suggest that the secret to dealing with pressure and fame is to not take anything too seriously.

The same point is driven home by the first magazine cover you see when entering the office: Mad Magazine. The drawing is of a glamour-boy Don armed with--not the requisite gun in holster--but a portable hair dryer.

It's during this causal mood that a question breaks his rhythm. The most revealing song on the album, also titled "Heartbeat," is a melancholy reflection on lost love called "Can't Take Your Memory." Sample line: "You can throw away reminders of you and me / But you can't take your memory / No, you can't take that part of you from me."

The question, simple enough: Why did he write the song?

Johnson stares at the tape recorder for the first time during the interview--and asks that it be shut off. He feels self-conscious talking about the song: "I can see someone thinking, 'Awww, the poor little rich boy.' "

But he is reminded that this interview is supposed to be about his music--and that it'll be easier for people to take his music seriously if they know the emotions behind it.

Johnson gradually warms to the question. He doesn't object when the tape then is finally turned back on.

He explains he liked the mood of the song written by drummer Curly Smith, but felt it needed different words. So, he carried a tape of the song with him, trying to think of new lyrics.

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