Miami Sound Machine: Remembering Don Johnson's Music Career
By Jake Rossen
Don Johnson had a problem. It was 1986, and Johnson was one of the hottest television stars of the era, starring as Miami cop Sonny Crockett on the hit NBC drama Miami Vice. Sporting pastel shirts and white suits, Johnson was a new breed of television authority figure. He had a gun, but he also had fashion sense.
Johnson's problem was not with the show, or with his shoulder pads, but the fact that he was beginning to speak about his music career and his debut album, Heartbeat. Already, Johnson was feeling the heat applied to actors who attempt to sing. It was made worse by the fact that Philip Michael Thomas, his co-star on Miami Vice, had also recorded an album, Living the Book of My Life, that had come and gone unceremoniously. Johnson wanted to be taken seriously as a singer. He wasn’t sure the media or his audience would let him try.
Before he had ever aspired to become an actor, Johnson was performing solos for choir anthems at the Baptist church in his small hometown of Galena, Missouri. The attention—and occasional quarter—he received, he later said, may have sparked his interest in becoming an entertainer. Impressing with a leading role in a production of West Side Story, he eventually won a drama scholarship to the University of Kansas and got a grant from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which led him to Hollywood. From there he took on small roles, including one in 1975's Return to Macon County, which also featured Dickey Betts, guitarist for the Allman Brothers.
Johnson had always kept one eye on the music scene, using some of the proceeds from his acting jobs to pay for demo recordings. (He could sing, play guitar a little, and write.) With Betts, he co-wrote two songs, “Blind Love” and “Can’t Take It With You,” for the band’s 1979 album, Enlightened Rogues. Throughout the 1970s, he had also hung out with The Doors and befriended Frank Zappa, getting a self-admitted education in the hedonism of the music scene without actually appearing on stage.
Johnson filmed a number of failed television pilots before scoring Miami Vice in 1984. After the show was a certifiable hit, he was at a party with CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff. The two began to discuss Johnson’s interest in music. Yetnikoff believed Johnson’s fame and ardent fan following could help make an album a hit. He signed Johnson, then 36, to a deal on the spot.
There were some obstacles. For one, Johnson had no band. To guide him through the process, he hired manager and record executive Danny Goldberg, who in turn enlisted Chas Sandford, a songwriter who had worked with Stevie Nicks and John Waite. Soon, a group of session players, including bassist Mark Leonard and keyboardist Bill Champlin, materialized. Johnson and Sandford began fielding pitches from songwriters, many of whom seemed too dependent on Johnson’s association with Miami Vice. Songs titled “Mr. Miami” and “Miami Don” were quickly discarded. Instead, Johnson pursued a contemporary rock playlist and got contributions from Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Dickey Betts. (Recording at Criteria studios in Miami, Johnson even roped in friend Whoopi Goldberg to appear on a track titled “Streetwise.”) Johnson himself wrote lyrics for “Heartbeat,” which was originally composed by drummer Curly Smith. It eventually became the title of the album.
With the help of media consultant Elliot Mintz, Johnson managed to avoid some of the baggage that accompanied actors recording albums by passing up Entertainment Tonight in favor of Rolling Stone and other media outlets that focused on music. He emphasized that music had run parallel to his acting career and charmed journalists by being self-effacing about his ambitions.
“People will say this [record] is bullsh*t and ‘the jerk ought to stay with what he does,’” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’m someone who likes to take risks.”
"Heartbeat" quickly gained airplay on Top 40 radio stations; the song's popularity was bolstered by the fact that Johnson could actually sing. One writer for the Los Angeles Times played the album for people without telling them it was Johnson. All were impressed, then incredulous when they were told who they were listening to.
Johnson’s Miami Vice schedule made it nearly impossible to tour to support the album. Instead, he filmed a one-hour musical released on VHS that incorporated all 10 tracks from Heartbeat. (It also features an appearance by Giancarlo Esposito, who would go on to portray Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.) Most of the songs focused on love, with tracks like “Heartache Away,” “The Last Sound Love Makes,” and “Can’t Take Your Memory” showcasing Johnson’s vocal talents.
“Heartbeat” made it to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1986, and Johnson experienced virtually none of the scorn reserved for actors who dared to try something different. He even performed a duet with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, '"Till I Loved You," in 1988, and released a second album, Let It Roll, in 1989. Johnson later appeared on stage in 2007 as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Mostly, however, he was content to keep his musical interests private.
Heartbeat was ultimately a respectable endeavor for Johnson, though he wasn’t quite able to completely divorce himself from the reality of being a television star. On some versions of the album’s cover, a tag line made that extremely clear. It read: “Don Johnson: The Star of Miami Vice.”