The First Bobby Hart Solo Album kicks off with a song called “Funky Karma.” If you were able to read that sentence with a straight face, then congratulations, you will probably love this album. And if you giggled, then bear with me, because there’s a lot to appreciate about this album, even if you can’t take it completely seriously.
Originally released in just a few European countries in 1980, The First Bobby Hart Solo Album has now been reissued by 7a Records. (Monkees fans will appreciate the label’s name, a reference to a famous bit of “Daydream Believer” studio chatter.) It finds the prolific co-writer of bubblegum classics like “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” and “Last Train to Clarksville” channeling breakup angst and a deep love of R&B into a surprisingly dark and very adult album.
Lyrically, the songs range from the cliché (disco-dancing femme fatales are frequently setting Hart “on fire,” leading inevitably to lines that end in “higher” and/or “desire”) to the bizarre (“a cynic in a clown’s attire”), with plenty of reminders that these songs were definitely written in the late 1970s (“do our own thing/let the freedom bells ring,” and my personal favorite, “The Sagittarian moon makes me crazy”). But Hart has an excellent R&B voice, and delivers every word in a deep and soulful baritone, drawing upon his childhood love of gospel music to make even the most awkward lyrics sound sincere. He’s backed throughout by a band of talented musicians, and Victor Vanacore on keyboards, Larry “The Mole” Taylor on bass, and a tight horn section, featuring “Blue Jay” Patton on saxophone, deserve special mention.
“Funky Karma” is a true product of its time, with melodic hints of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and the Bee Gees’ “More Than A Woman,” and “what goes around, comes around”-type warnings that foreshadow Hart’s later spiritual awakening. The album continues in the disco vein with “I’m On Fire,” featuring wailing falsetto backing vocals, a great groove, and a few unsettling sex moans. The slinky keyboards of “I Can’t Fight It” wouldn’t sound out of place on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and while “(You’re Breaking My Heart) Street Angel/I Get Crazy” takes 13 minutes to do what the Police did in three with “Roxanne,” it does so with lush, soaring layers of vocals and keyboards.
A highlight of the album is “Hurt So Bad,” a reinvention of Hart’s first songwriting success. Written by Hart with Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein, “Hurt So Bad” had been a hit for Little Anthony & the Imperials, and Linda Ronstadt released her own hit version of the song the same year as The First Bobby Hart Solo Album. Hart slows the tempo to a seductive crawl and delivers a gritty, bluesy vocal, transforming the classic pop song into something new.
The 7a release of this album includes three previously unissued tracks. “You Can’t See Thunder” and “Runnin'” are welcome returns to a more upbeat sound, and their hooks hint at Hart’s poppy past, but “I’m Just Taking The Long Way Home” finds Hart back in soul ballad mode, and closes the album on a note of weary desperation.
The First Bobby Hart Solo Album is available now from 7a Records.