Rachel Sweet

TrackAlbum
Truckstop QueenThe Akron Compilation
B-A-B-YFool Around
Cuckoo ClockFool Around
JealousProtect The Innocent
Baby, Let's Play HouseProtect The Innocent
Tonight RickyProtect The Innocent
Billy And The Gun... And Then He Kissed Me
Party Girl... And Then He Kissed Me
HairsprayHairspray OST
Please, Mr. JailerCry-Baby OST

Rachel Sweet photo 1

 

 

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Rachel Sweet playlist

 

 

Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

Rachel Sweet’s career seems as if it was, and I’m sorry for doing this, short but sweet. But in reality, she was a performer for a lot longer than it seemed. She began singing in contests at the age of three in 1965. She must have been somewhat good at that young age, as she won a garage door opener in one of the contests. Which isn’t bad for a three-year-old. She was recording commercials by age six. And at twelve she had toured with Mickey Rooney and opened for Bill Cosby in Vegas. From 1974 to 1977, she switched to trying her hand as a country singer, releasing five singles without an album. One of them, We Live In Two Different Worlds, reached #96 on the country charts in 1976. To my ear though she sounded like a 13-year-old trying to emulate Loretta Lynn. It was fair as classic country goes. But not worth a Toppermost.

In 1978, she switched to rock ‘n’ roll, and between then and 1982 she recorded four albums, and placed two songs on The Akron Compilation. There was also a low budget musical called Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, also featuring Judd Nelson, that was never released into theaters, although eventually showing up on HBO some time after the fact. She completely stepped away from the entertainment world to obtain a degree in French and English Literature from Columbia University in 1988 before recording the soundtrack title song to the movie version of John Waters’ Hairspray the same year. She followed that up with two songs on the soundtrack of the Waters film Cry-Baby in 1990.

After that she hosted a show on the Comedy Channel, did voice work and even had a minor role on an episode of Seinfeld. And she recorded the theme song to the Nickelodeon series Clarissa Explains it All in 1991.

Since then she has become a very successful comedy writer and producer with credits on the shows Dharma & Greg, George Lopez, Hot In Cleveland, 2 Broke Girls and The Goldbergs among others.

In another time, say in an era like the early 1960s when teen girls could bust out with songs like B-A-B-Y, she might have been a much bigger star. I also think Stiff Records really made a mistake promoting her as a Lolita-esque young singer instead of a rock and pop singer. The image they tried to project I think required her to try to revive her career path when she left Stiff for Columbia.

Anyway, away we go with a short primer on the musical career of Rachel Sweet. The Little Girl with the Big Voice.

A number of labels descended on Akron in late 1977 and early 1978 after Devo signaled perhaps something new and different coming out of the region. One of those labels being Stiff Records. Sweet was never really part of what became labeled as the Akron Sound, of which I wrote a book on for full disclosure. The man producing her at the time, Liam Sternberg, was part of the Akron Scene. Sternberg had some success with girl singers in groups over the years, probably peaking when he wrote Walk Like An Egyptian for the Bangles. Stiff, instead of signing any specific group, instead greenlighted The Akron Compilation. I think it’s fair to say roughly 70% of the songs on the album were recorded by someone who wound up recording at least one album for a major label. But Rachel Sweet, with her two songs, was the only one to wind up on Stiff.

One of those two songs never really struck me as being special, but Truckstop Queen may just be my favorite Rachel Sweet song. I said earlier she sounded as if she was a 13-year-old girl recording Loretta Lynn songs, which just didn’t work. But somehow here, at just 15, she was able to deliver the understanding it took to bring home the song. It has a fantastic bass line with a borderline new wave feel, and Sweet’s voice has changed from a child’s to a young woman. It’s a winner.

Stiff signed her and released her first album Fool Around in October of that year. The album featured the single B-A-B-Y. which cracked the top 40 in the UK, but didn’t make much noise here in the US. I clearly remember seeing the album for sale, about 20 minutes from where she grew up, with a sticker on it promoting it as ”With the UK hit”. It’s updated for the late 1970s, but really still has the feel of the original Isaac Hayes written and Carla Thomas sung 1966 Stax Records hit. A catchy tune, but just not right for the times here. Cuckoo Clock from the same album might have been a better lead single if Stiff wasn’t hellbent on shopping her, as I said, as a Lolita type singer. The song was certainly more of a punk influenced one written by Sternberg. It had a bit of an edge, and I may be hearing things, but gave the suggestion that she wasn’t really happy with the way labels worked.

The first album had seven songs by Sternberg on the UK version and 5 on the US version, as well as having him produce. He was nowhere to be found when the second album, Protect The Innocent, came out a little over a year later. The cover suggested a marketing shift from a Lolita teenager to a bad girl teenager. But it was akin to the marketing for the initial release.

New producers and songs by Lou Reed, Graham Parker, and others. Including four songs by the not yet eighteen Sweet. The music is certainly harder, much more of a rock album than the first one. It has been long rumored the backing band was Fingerprintz, and Jimme O’Neill from that band did have a songwriting credit. Protect The Innocent had some great highlights. The song Jealous started with an amazing drum and guitar intro suggesting the new direction, even though the album had a few cuts pushing forward Stiff’s original idea of how they saw Sweet. Regardless of that, it’s a great rocker.

Baby, Let’s Play House is a fine cover of the 1955 Elvis single that was his first appearance on any national chart in the US. But similar to a few other good songs it can’t help but make me think she would have been a much bigger star in another era. Tonight Ricky, a Sweet penned tune is a song that seems oddly out of place on the album. It has a bit of a jazz swing to it and she isn’t belting out the lyrics. It touched the “We are too young” theme that showed so much on her early work. But it is probably my favorite cut on the album.

She moved to Columbia and released … And Then He Kissed Me. The album was a new set of producers and more tweaking of her sound. She still had her big voice energy, but there was sort of Phil Spector mixed with 80s synthesizers sound vibe going on. There was a version of Shadows Of The Night, that was a big hit for Pat Benatar a year or so later. Sweet’s version is good, in fact I prefer the song without the over the top arrangements in Benatar’s version. The title track of the album was another 60s remake that the label pushed to little success. And the hit of the album, Everlasting Love, with Rex Smith, did very well in the states. But listening to it now it just reeks of 1980s cheesiness.

But for me the two highlights were once again Sweet penned songs. Billy And The Gun is very much a song that tells a story, it’s wonderfully cinematic. Which is different from the previous songs she had penned. It also has a quiet low boil sort of intensity to it. She isn’t belting out the song as much as singing it. Party Girl was more of a pop tune than she was used to, it comes across as a song sung from perhaps a big sister to someone who wants to be a party girl. It’s ear candy.

The fourth album, Blame It On Love, seems to want to move Sweet into the category of sexy 80s pop siren. Her vocals are great, but it doesn’t really choose to offer what Sweet had done best in the past; songs with hooks, and songs that are good solid rock. Instead, it deep dives into some of the worst clichés of 1980s pop. Sadly, it was her last album.

After stepping away for a few years she came back with a couple songs on the soundtracks of John Waters films. The first, being the title song to Hairspray, which Sweet herself co-wrote. As I’ve said a couple of times in this piece it is a change for her, perhaps that was a reason she never really caught on. Also, the somewhat girlish voice from six years ago had really changed into a woman’s voice. She didn’t belt out the song as much as sing it, which is something that shows up in a couple of my favorites of hers. She also seemed much more confident as a performer. Waters must have liked it as well, because in 1990 Sweet contributed two songs to his film Cry-Baby. Please, Mr. Jailer is a great song, and again the maturity in her voice was on display. It makes you wonder if she hadn’t really walked away from singing what her career might have been like. But as she has a very successful one as a television writer and producer it has worked out well for her. I just would have liked to have heard what an adult Rachel Sweet could have done with her musical career.

 

Rachel Sweet at Discogs

Rachel Sweet – B-A-B-Y: The Complete Stiff Recordings 1978-1980

Rachel Sweet biography (Apple Music)

Calvin Rydbom’s latest book is “The Akron Sound: The Heyday Of The Midwest’s Punk Capital”. He is the vice-president and archivist of the “Akron Sound” Museum and vice-president of freelance archiving firm Pursue Posterity. He has published a number of music-related articles and was elected to the Society of American Archivists steering committee on recorded sound before being promoted to website liaison. Some of Calvin’s other toppermosts are on the Dead Boys, Bizarros, Rubber City Rebels and Tin Huey all from Ohio. He has also written about many non-Ohio acts for this website including Chuck Prophet, Nanci Griffith and Charles Mingus.

TopperPost #855

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 15, 2020

    I remember Rachel from the ads for new Stiff records in the NME in the late 70s. Had a vague memory of her records but hadn’t remembered quite how good some of them were. Her voice on “Truckstop Queen’ here is extraordinarily powerful for someone so young. As you say, a pity she did not continue making records.

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Apr 18, 2020

      Well Andrew, considering her net worth currently sits around $90 million dollars I think she probably is happy with her choice to move behind the camera.

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