Music News

Happy Birthday, Don Johnson!

We can credit Donnie Wayne "Don" Johnson (born December 15, 1949) with a number of things -- a checkered acting career, a series of checkered romances, and a checkered music career. Inevitably though, the role for which he will be best remembered is his portrayal of Sonny Crockett, the fashion-conscious, designer suited, neatly-coiffed detective who took the lead role in Miami Vice.

Indeed, from 1984 to1989, Johnson and the show in which he starred captivated television audiences worldwide and captured Miami -- and indeed all of South Florida -- as an exotic, pastel-toned, high-stakes, high adventure wonderland in which crime was rampant but the good guys were good-looking and ever vigilant. Naturally, there have been shows set in our parts over the decades - beginning with Flipper and Surfside Six and on to Glades, CSI Miami, Burn Notice and the instantly forgettable remake of Charlie's Angels -- but no show better summed up the allure of these parts than the mesmerizing Miami Vice. Likewise, no actor better exemplified the sun and sin attitude with more savvy and style than Don Johnson.

It could also be argued that there's never been a television show before or since (Glee being a possible exception) that could boast a better integration of music, image and cinematography than Miami Vice. Taking its cue from the still fledgling MTV, the show birthed a soundtrack that became an instant hit and actually became synonymous with the show itself. The "Theme from Miami Vice," a cutting edge instrumental composed and performed by Jan Hammer, claimed the Number One position on the charts, while at least two other songs included on Miami Vice album -- Eagle Glen Frey's "You Belong to the City" and "Smuggler's Blues" -- both found regular radio rotation. Even the recycling of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" proved a major plus, as the song efectively added to the show's atmospheric set-ups. Given the fact that musicians also guest -starred on the show, Miami Vice found a perfect mesh of sounds and style. 

For his part, Johnson proved an able accomplice. While his acting career had been less than stellar up until that point -- his main credits being the psychedelic western Zachariah, the titillating semi-documentary The Harrad Experiment and the surreal sci-fi flick A Boy and His Dog -- he found a perfect alter-ego in Sonny Crockett, not only because he shared his character's confident and charismatic demeanor, but because he could claim a modest musical background that helped integrate him into the show's pop posture. In the late '60s he had been a member of a band called Horses, which also included future members of Kingfish, one of Bob Weir's frequent touring ensembles. He later parlayed his fame from Miami Vice into additional musical forays, which included two albums, Heartbeat (1986) and Let It Roll (1989). "Heartbeat", the title track from that debut LP,even managed to climb all the way to reached to Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

Notably too, Heartbeat featured an all-star backing ensemble that included Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and Ron Wood, along with Bob Seger and Tom Petty sharing the songwriting credits. Then again, Johnson had gotten used to running in super star circles, having collaborated with Gregg Allman and Dickie Betts the decade before, and even claiming a songwriting credit for a pair of songs that appeared on the Allman Brothers album Enlightened Rogues. 

Still, it was the musical relationship that surfaced on his second solo album that caused the biggest sensation. Barbra Streisand proved not only an unlikely singing partner but a romantic liaison as well. The two dated in the late '80s, and although the relationship was relatively brief, there were rumors that they were actually engaged. Whether or not that was true is a matter of speculation, but if the duet they shared on the song "Till I Loved You" (the lead track on a Streisand album of the same name) was any indication, James Brolin might have reason to wonder.

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Lee Zimmerman