No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.
Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds”, our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.
*”That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.
Let’s get high…
David Lasley’s Best Album: Missin’ Twenty Grand (1982)
Background: If you have listened to the radio or been exposed to pop music at any point over the past 50 years there’s a good chance you’ve heard David Lasley’s voice. But unless you are a hardcore James Taylor fan, for whom he served as backup singer for decades or a loyal devotee of the West Coast sound, his name might not be familiar to you.
David Lasley has a ridiculous voice, a strikingly soulful, scenery chewing falsetto that is part ’60s girl group, part Motown diva Mary Wells, with a smidge of Smokey Robinson thrown in for good measure. It’s one of those “who/what the hell is that” kind of voices. But honestly, even those esteemed descriptors don’t quite nail its otherworldly essence. And so when I innocently caught wind of him one Sunday morning during good old Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 show back in April of 1982, I was a little teenage confused about exactly who a voice like that could be attached to.
The David Lasley song Kasem played, at #36 with a bullet, was a lustrous West Coast ballad called “If I Had My Wish Tonight”. As its sentiments were desperate, unrequited and supremely passive-aggressive it landed with perfect precision in my emotional teenage wheelhouse. Which meant I just had to have it. The universe somehow heard and arranged for my wish for “Wish” to be manifested with surprising speed and weirdness. Exactly one week later I found the actual album the song appeared on in a thrift shop. A freakin thrift shop. No, seriously. What a promo of a just released pop album was doing in a small dusty knick knack and moth haven in my Long Island hometown I will never know. At the end of the day I have to put it down to that great and mysterious pop music guardian angel-tooth fairy-benevolent spirit that drops and delivers songs into our lives when it thinks we’re ready or maybe need them the most. For whatever blessed reason, the spirit wanted me to meet this David Lasley guy. The album was called Missin’ Twenty Grand aka MTG and it only cost me a $1 or so ( I still have it, that’s it up top, complete with big promo hole in the corner).
My first listen of MTG was (quietly) revelatory. Not because the style of music itself was unfamiliar or particularly adventurous but because I’d never heard such overtly queer sentiments on a mainstream adult pop album before. There was talk about “lovers” and men being “fine”. There was a song with euphemistic title of “Roommate”. It was weird to me, I mean it was a soft rock record. I was a naive suburban teenage girl who up until then had gotten all her edge and exposure to “otherness” via the rock gods. Bowie’s taunts and Freddie Mercury’s winks (sidenote: not counting my fantasizing that Olivia Newton-John was singing about a girl in her 1977 hit Sam because that was just between me and her). Anyway that was the sum total of my exposure to musical queerness. On MTG , David Lasley’s songs were nothing like the garish, glittery anthems of the aforementioned legends, they were grown up, civilized, AM radio ready soft rock songs. I was not a worldly kid in 1982 and this kind of blew my mind. It seemed downright subversive to me. “Wow”, I remember thinking, “this is so cool”…yes, that was as deep as the processing and emotional absorption went. Cool.
David (in blue) & Arnold McCuller backing up James Taylor in 1977
By the time of MTG‘s release David was already a very well-established, in demand session singer and songwriter (check out his immense list of credits here)…but “back-up singer” is hardly representative of what he was actually doing on the ton of recordings he was a part of. Try this fun experiment after you read this essay;
Listen to MTG (links at the bottom of this piece). Follow it up with this random sliver of stone cold classics for which David provided “backing vocals”; Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”, Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker”, Chic’s “Everybody Dance” and Cher’s “Take Me Home”.
Basically, once you are familiar with his voice and go to listen to almost any of the myriad of songs he’s sung back-up on, he’s all you are going to hear (my personal favorite moments are his high decibel “heaveeen’s” and “ecstasyyy’s” in “Take Me Home”). And oh yeah, he’s also written some pretty famous songs including this diamond below from an album that sold 8 million copies…
He also co-wrote this and this, yup. Gorgeous, supreme and evergreen.
From 1976-77 Lasley was part of a pop soul trio called Rosie who released a couple of albums on RCA but failed to hit the charts and subsequently broke up. Following that he embarked on a solo career, releasing a total of 7 solo albums, with his trilogy of ’80s releases, MTG, Raindance (1984) and Soldiers On The Moon (1989) serving as the artistic pinnacle. And I should point out that 1982’s MTG, was technically Lasley’s second album as the previous year had seen the release of a collection of demos entitled, yes, Demos. But as Demos was not so much a lean, mean radio friendly machine as it was a curio/showcase to attract potential collaborators, MTG has long been regarded as David’s official debut album. And so the handful of glowing and esteemed reviews it garnered rightfully refer to it as just that. Speaking of which…
This glowing NY Times review had a painfully accurate title…
Not everyone expresses love and/or approval in the same way…and with that I welcome you to the wonderful world of actual MTG reviews from 1982. On the one hand you had outright effusive stuff like Don Shewey’s piece for the Boston Phoenix where he declared “If I Had My Wish Tonight” to be “a mini-masterpiece”.
Then there was venerable Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s begrudging word salad of a blurb which starts off semi-ominous but then turns the table with a twist ending:
Great falsettos like Smokey Robinson and Clyde McPhatter flow uphill, while lesser ones like Maurice Gibb and Russell Thompkins settle for the formal panache and expressive limitation of acknowledged artifice. Lasley certainly doesn’t flow, but he doesn’t settle either–his struggle toward full emotional range sounds forced at first, but then willed, which is different. Playing head voice for homosexual angst rather than love-man tenderness or androgynous affect, he sets his colloquial confessions to pristine studio soul backup completely appropriate in a concept album about a white guy in love with black music. B+
Didn’t see that B+ coming right ? But the coolest and most glowing commendation by far came courtesy of Stephen Holden in his NYT review (depicted above). Check out this little nugget:
The wide-open emotionality of Mr. Lasley’s singing, combined with his confessional lyrics and the way his tunes blend the style of Motown with more sophisticated Broadway and Hollywood influences, recalls the pop soul style of Laura Nyro’s classic late-60’s albums.”Missin’ Twenty Grand,” one feels, ultimately belongs in the same very exclusive league.
Yeah, you read that right. Holden is suggesting that MTG should be held in the same regard as the legendary Laura Nyro’s finest work specifically her Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry albums. Two genuine, dyed in the wool, desert island worthy classics. That is some serious freakin’ praise to be showering on a debut album.
Not that any of the accolades and attention from high places ended up mattering. In terms of generating interest and igniting sales, none of the critical acclaim ended up meaning a damn thing. The initial success of “If I Had My Wish Tonight” aside, MTG didn’t even manage to scrape into the Billboard Top 200 album chart.
Meet #36 in Billboard pop Top 40 in April of 1982…
Why It’s His Pet Sounds: Now as it happens Lasley loved both of those aforementioned Nyro albums that MTG got compared to in the NYT. In fact, during a 1985 interview with The Advocate he mentioned that back in the day, he’d listened to them “obsessively”. The simplest way to characterize MTG is as a slick early ’80s LA take on Laura’s ’60s broadway boho style. It’s the confessional, lushly melodic, soulfully cinematic sound of the city served up by someone who is as infatuated with soul songs about infatuation as Laura was. It’s the best lovelorn coming of age musical about a white gay kid with an otherworldly voice growing up in Detroit in tumultuous ’60s you’re ever gonna hear.
But while MTG is overtly, adoringly Nyro-esque, it also possesses a tinge of that contemporary early ’80s flavor, striking some of the same sonic chords as Rickie Lee Jones. Meaning you are not only surrounded by sweet hooks and heart on the sleeve heartbreak but by a bunch of idiosyncratic characters out on the street, acting out the action. Just as Rickie introduced us to her Chuck E, Eddie and Louie, David brings along his Charlie, Mrs.Brown and Willie ( If you don’t want him, he’ll “have him, he Will-eeee”). And so MTG is essentially a love letter, to Laura, to soul music and to the Detroit he grew up in, perfumed with a sweet ‘n’ sleek early ’80s sheen.
As mentioned earlier the 3 albums he released in the ’80s remain the high point/gold standard of his solo work. While the two that followed MTG, Raindance ( produced by Don Was) and Soldiers On The Moon are home to some gorgeous things, neither are as consistently good as the debut. In other words, they’ve got some filler. You could create a classic album by combining the best parts of both (can we talk about this and this, because good lord)…but as great as that might be, and it would, the cherry-picked melange still wouldn’t hold a candle to MTG as a whole.
I’d hoped that there would be a video of David tearing it up live on one of the tracks from MTG that I could insert here but there aren’t any on YouTube. While this sucks it also gives me an excuse to share this staggeringly wonderful video of Chaka Khan performing “Roll Me Through The Rushes” which David co-wrote with Lana Marrano, his former bandmate in Rosie and features on their first album (hear it here). Enjoy.
Her name is Chaka and she is here to slay you …
The Songs: By the way the album’s title is a reference to the fabled Twenty Grand nightclub in Detroit (1958-1976) where multitudes of legendary R & B acts performed and David and his sister often sang at as a teens. In an interview with James Taylor Online, he described the album as “kind of the story of us growing up and listening to R&B records and singing in black nightclubs”.
Despite the scenery chewing enormity of David Lasley’s voice, MTG does not come booming out of the gate. In fact the first track is maybe the most subtle and polite thing on the whole album. “Got To Find Love” has a yacht rock/West Coast style groove, James Taylor on backing vocals and, okay, some sexy sax™. It’s slick and smooth and honestly its main purpose is to ease us gently into the forthcoming vocal rollercoaster ride which begins with that desperate doll of a single “If I Had My Wish Tonight”. This lament of lopsided love is actually a cover of a track written by Dave Loggins (Kenny’s actual second cousin) and Randy Goodrum that appeared on the former’s 1979 self-titled album. With its light-hearted piano flourishes and ostentatious, yup, sax, the original version has a distinctly TV theme song-ish vibe (hear it here). As such it positively withers when stood next to the glamorous desperation and desire of Lasley version. Speaking of which, you know who arranged the strings on the MTG version, the ones that pull the song to the sky? Freakin’ legend Arif Mardin. And that’s Bonnie Raitt helping out on the backing vocals. Add in the soaring Lasley vocal and yeah, it’s not exactly what you’d call a fair fight ( sorry original). While I wouldn’t go so far as to call “If I Had My Wish Tonight” a masterpiece, like the review referenced earlier did, it is an undeniably gorgeous slice of early ’80s soft rock that still sounds exquisite 40 years later.
With its soulful, sweltering Laura Nyro summer in the city vibe,“On Third Street” offers an assortment of vivid vignettes from Lasley’s teenage years when he was performing around Detroit with his sister. The song struts and swings with genuine joyfulness whilst poking fun at his own youthful innocence and naivety. Dealers, drag queens, unscrupulous lowbrow music biz sharks ( that’d be “Mrs. Brown”) are all alive in and on Third Street. The vocal line he serves up to describe getting treats at the “the english muffin factory” is criminally sweet, with its “Hot BREAD in the hot SUMMER, it was BETTER without BUTTER“. The words he chooses to stress within the lyrics bring to mind that little party trick Aretha Franklin used to employ to transcendent effect on her more upbeat songs. If you want to hear it in action, just check out her 1969 version of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” right here. Listen to the words she chooses to accentuate. “Ink stains”. “Clinging”. “Binds”. “Cursing”. It is so perfect and clever and the kind of thing only the most instinctive and preternaturally gifted singers can do.The whole performance is just endlessly, utterly crazy genius….and David does this same thing all through “On Third Street”. He grooves and struts and shreiks, boldfacing words in the way only the best know how to do (“whole fuckin’ thing is insane!”).
Here’s that piece of hot bread we were just talkin’ about..
“Treat Willie Good” possesses a similarly Nyro-esque flavor but, added bonus, it also sounds like some lost and fabulous answer song to The Marvelettes eternally slinky Motown classic “Don’t Mess With Bill” (hear here). In the previously mentioned 1985 interview with The Advocate, David said that “Treat Willie Good” wasn’t necessarily what it seemed on the surface; “Everyone took it as such a gay song and I didn’t set out deliberately to write it that way ‘I’ll have him I will-ee, I’ll be his friend until he comes back to you’. I didn’t mean have him sexually, I really didn’t. It just sang so well”. Of course that’s exactly what it sounds like and part of what makes it such a beguiling thing. The whole Lasley vocal toolbox is on display here, cooing coyly one minute, getting all rapturous and loud the next then closing things out with some perfectly syncopated ad-libbing.
There are a couple of slow burning cover ballads to temper MTG’s pop-ified confections.There’s a torchy version of James Taylor’s “Looking For Love On Broadway” a deep cut from his multi-platinum 1977 album JT. And okay, soft rock hot take coming, Lasley’s take is better than JT’s, doing away with the aw-shucks shuffle of the original version and replacing it with a far more languorous and soulful arrangement. He takes a similar sonic approach on Clyde Otis’s prescient and powerful, “Take A Look”. Its instrumentation is more than suitable for last call and the vocal is crazy, resembling both a Miles Davis’s horn solo and a Prince style plea for love. The song was originally recorded and crushed/owned/blessed by, yup, Aretha Franklin in 1964. And while the eminently wonderful Wilson Pickett and Natalie Cole both recorded fine covers, Lasley’s version is the only one that even gets close to that Lady Soul stratosphere.
The euphemistic “Roommate” percolates with genuine bitterness (as inspired by the titular character’s supremely selfish ways) and features a neat cameo from Pete Townshend (!) who serves up some uncharacteristically subtle background riff-age. Despite its swoon-some recurring bridge,“Roommate” is MTG’s most pissed off track. Countering that and representing the teary side of the story is “Never Say”, a wistful, handsome West Coast slow groove, stacked with prayers, clever lyrical turns and read between the lines nudges like this:
Two boys walk along and I think they look like brothers, my friend turns to me and says I wonder if they’re lovers, one’s a little older and he looks a lot like me, I wonder why it takes so long for everyone to see…
As someone who actually noticed these kind of things, I can confirm that back in ’80-81-82, roughly 99% of the male artists occupying that same soft rock-West Coast-Adult Contemporary sound space that Lasley was, were singing about one particular thing. Yes, you guessed it, high school girls. It mostly involved reminiscing about their interactions with them when they themselves, middle aged guys were high school boys, emphasis on the mostly. I’m telling you, this was an actual thing (if this confuses you, I wrote a bit about the phenomenon as it relates to the genre here). I am bringing this up only to drive home how disarming it was at the time to hear David Lasley romping in those same musical environs and singing about men, boyfriends and hot boys.
By the way, in addition to “If I Had My Wish Tonight”, both “Got To Find Love” and “Treat Willie Good” were released as singles. Forgive these wrinkled, questionably carpeted photos below, they were the only visual evidence I could find that this actually happened. Neither track charted.
Welcome to lazy record label art direction 101…
While MTG’s penultimate track “Where Is Charlie And Joanne” has an exceptionally breezy melody and is swathed in a plush, pillowy production, it is also unerringly sad. Friends leaving and splitting up, emotional inertia, loads of wistful longing and regret, it’s all in there. In other words, it feels miserable but it sounds gorgeous, Lasley’s vocal in particular which comes across more like a slow, distant (heartbroken) siren than a tearful human person.
With its bouncing, effervescent Rickie Lee Jones flavored pop stylings “Take The Money And Run” might seem like an odd pick for the esteemed role of “the closer”. Written by late songwriter Don Paul Yowell, it’s not an adventurous, experimental all-consumingly epic summarizing all that’s come before. No, it’s a light, bright ‘n’ tuneful piece of candy with an ever so faint hint of ’60s girl group and/or Motown in its bones. It’s home to a pretty bewitching melodic twist preceding the chorus and Lasley serves up a pretty fabulous vocal, running like the wind one minute then even faster the next. But despite its breeziness, there is something about it that suggests the shop shutters being pulled down and Lasley bidding an affectionate goodbye as he drives off into the sunset. And so yeah, it really is the perfect song to wrap up the Missin’ Twenty Grand experience.
In Conclusion: There are a few specific ways you could characterize David Lasley’s career. He was one of James Taylor’s most beloved backing vocalists. He was an in demand session singer who performed on a ton of evergreen hits. He was a gifted songwriter who composed some genuinely superfine megahits. And, okay, he was a one hit wonder. All of that stuff is true…but know what else? He made a grown up, non-rock, openly queer pop album suitable for AM radio at a time when that just wasn’t done, when the common practice was for gay artists to maintain the illusion of heterosexuality if they were purveying that more adult brand of pop or soul. From Luther Vandross, who was a close friend and colleague of Lasley’s to Mom’s choice, Barry Manilow, no one dared to step over the line. Hook-filled and infectious, soulful and emotional, Missin’ Twenty Grand had that universality that all the best pop albums did but was not remotely coy or secretive about its sexuality.
David Lasley’s voice is an outrageous, head-shakingly amazing instrument. When he sings ‘And be thankful to the lord up above, he SENT you Willie’s love to love‘ in “Treat Willie Good”, well, that is one utterly ravishing crazy good slab of singing. And Missin’ Twenty Grand is full of moments like that one. It’s just a fab old record full of soulful sweetness. It’s David Lasley’s finest recorded hour, it’s his Pet Sounds.
Hear it here! : You can listen to the whole album on Spotify below (FYI: tracks 12-15 come from Raindance, David’s 1984 follow-up LP). You can also buy the cd over at Discogs, where there are plenty to be had (and you should have it)!
Update: David Lasley passed away on December 9, 2021. He had experienced significant health challenges over recent years. He was amazing and just want to encourage everyone to seek out all his beautiful work. Rest in peace David 🌼