Rachel Sweet was a 16-year-old with a powerful voice reminiscent of Brenda Lee's barrelhouse alto when she released her first album in 1978. The album, Fool Around, was notable for her renditions of the country-flavored compositions of her Svengali-like producer, Liam Sternberg, as well as a riveting update of the 1960s Carla Thomas hit "B-A-B-Y." The highly irreverent label for which she recorded, England's Stiff Records, made much of her youth, marketing the sex appeal of her voice and perpetrating a jailbait sexpot image for the young singer. She recorded three more albums before abandoning music to focus on acting in movies, including Second Chance with Gene Hackman and Ann Margaret, and television series like Seinfeld. She also did cartoon voiceovers and worked as a television writer, producer, and director on such series as Sports Night, Dharma and Greg, and The Naked Truth.
Born on July 28, 1962, and raised in Akron, Ohio, Sweet's parents recognized her prodigious vocal talents at an early age. By the time she was six, she was singing in advertising jingles and appearing onstage with Mickey Rooney. She also appeared as an opening act for comic Bill Cosby in Las Vegas. In the early 1970s, her acting talent and innocent appearance won her the lead in the film adaptation of William Peter Blatty's bestselling novel The Exorcist. Conflicting rumors surround Sweet's abdication the role to Linda Blair; one is that her mother was shocked by the language (voiced by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge) and overdubbed to emanate from the young character's mouth. Another suggests that Sweet removed herself from the project due to language the young actress found objectionable.
In the mid-1970s Sweet recorded several country songs—"Any Port in a Storm," "Paper Airplane," and "The Ballad of Mable Ruth Miller and John Wesley Pritchett"—for the Derrick record label in Ohio. In the late 1970s she became the protégé songwriter and producer Liam Sternberg. He wrote and produced several songs with Sweet, including "Truckstop Queen," about a wealthy woman who waitresses "for fun" at one of the chain of truck stop restaurants she owns. Sternberg sent the recordings to the nascent English label Stiff Records, known for their offbeat humor, indifference to loss or profit, and outlandish marketing ploys.
Stiff included several Sweet songs on the Akron Compilation, which came complete with a scratch-and-sniff album cover featuring a large tire (Akron was the home of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company). Sweet's songs appeared with contributions from other Akron bands such as Tin Huey, the Waitresses, and Jane Aire and the Belvederes. She appeared on another Stiff compilation, A Bunch of Stiffs, where her songs were included with tracks by Jona Lewie and Micky Jupp.
In 1978 Stiff released Sweet's debut album, Fool Around, which featured backup musicians consisting of Stiff label mates the Rumour—Martin Belmont, Brinsley Schwarz, Andrew Bodnar, Steve Goulding, and Bob Andrews—a band that rose to prominence in the late 1970s as Graham Parker's backup. The Rumour turned out to be highly adaptable, abandoning the R&B pub-rock they were accustomed to playing in favor of more country and western–flavored playing on such songs as "Wildwood Saloon." Several tracks, however, including "Who Does Lisa Like?," "Cuckoo Clock," and "Just My Style" rock as hard as anything the Rumour recorded with Parker. Interpreting Sternberg's songs and the cover of Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y," Sweet's voice is remarkably assured for such a young singer.
Critics praised the album, although Ira Robbins and John Walker voiced their disappointment with the American release. "In its original English release, Fool Around is a great-sounding record that has Sweet voicing Sternberg's vision of the hip girl-child," they wrote in the New Trouser Press Record Guide. "The American version—remixed, re-ordered and with two different tracks—has much less vitality." Robert Christgau, the self-anointed "dean of American rock critics," disagreed, writing on his website, "Two compositions by (ousted?) svengali Liam Sternberg have been replaced on the U.S. release by prime, straightforward rockers. This makes sense. Like Tanya Tucker, Sweet thrives on simple material, and while I like Sternberg's catchy, thoughtful songs, their fussy, uncolloquial moments don't suit Sweet's hot-teen persona … Unfortunately both these songs were left on the LP, while natural Sweet stuff like "Just My Style" and "Truckstop Queen" (on Stiff's Akron Anthology) were omitted. This doesn't make sense." Nevertheless, Christgau graded Fool Around aB.…
In October of 1978 Stiff sent Sweet on a promotional "Be Stiff" tour by train to Scotland. Her backup band was the Records, a British power pop band featuring future solo stars Will Birch and Jude Cole, best known for their hit single "Starry Eyes." The tour was meant to recapture the excitement of the 1977 Stiff promotional tour that featured Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Wreckless Eric, and Larry Wallis and His Psychedelic Rowdies. Critic Allan Jones was disappointed, however, writing in Uncut: "Exactly a year ago, I was up here [Glasgow] with the original Stiffs Live Stiff Tour … I'm back now with the Be Stiff Route 78 tour, whose less stellar line-up has had critics tutting disparagingly … This is all a bit hard on the current cast—which includes teenage songbird Rachel Sweet, hoary pub rocker Jona Lewie and power poppers the Records.…"
In 1980 Sweet released her sophomore effort. Recorded without Sternberg, Protect the Innocent contained such songs as "Fool's Gold" by Graham Parker, the Velvet Underground song "New Age" by Lou Reed, "Baby Let's Play House" (made famous by Elvis Presley), Moon Martin's "I Got a Reason," Robert Palmer's "Jealous," and—the song considered to be the first British punk single (also released on Stiff Records)—the Damned's "New Rose." The album also features a seductive song written by Sweet, "Tonight Ricky," in which she mimics the come-hither breathy vocal styles of Julie London and Marilyn Monroe. The album registered with Trouser Press critic Jon Young, who wrote: "Rachel Sweet's second album showcases her impressive voice far better than her first one. With all respect to the competent band, it remains for Sweet to find a foil that will challenge, provoke and push her to new heights. If good is so easy, why not great? It's time someone knocked Linda Rondstadt off her perch." In 1981 Sweet either left or was dropped by Stiff. She remained on the label that distributed Stiff Records in the United States, however, and released And Then He Kissed Me that same year. She received airplay largely due to a duet with teen heartthrob Rex Smith, a remake of "Everlasting Love," which had been a 1967 hit by Robert Knight and an even bigger hit in 1974 by Carl Carlton. The duo also filmed a video of the song. However, the album failed to impress critics or record buyers, the same fate that befell her 1982 release, Blame It on Love, Sweet's final album.
Notable for songs she wrote herself, Walker and Robbins believed the album displayed "signs of revitalization. Though it sounds Tom Petty–influenced, Sweet wrote the entire album's worth of catchy material. She may never regain the youthful charm of her debut LP, but at least this LP shows her regaining control over her musical direction." The critics' prognostication proved inaccurate, unfortunately, and Sweet abandoned her recording career to pursue acting, cartoon voiceover work (including a rumored stint as the voice of Barbie), and directing, producing, and writing. She temporarily returned to singing in 1988 and 1990, when she contributed her vocal talents to the soundtracks of two John Waters films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby.
For the Record …
Born on July 28, 1962, in Akron, OH.
Released debut album, Fool Around, 1978; released Protect the Innocent, 1980; sang theme song of John Water's film Hairspray, 1988; dubbed singing voice of actress Amy Locane in John Water's film Cry-Baby, 1990; abandoned recording to focus on acting and tele vision writing, producing, and directing career, early 1990s.
Fool Around, Stiff, 1978.
Protect the Innocent, Stiff, 1980.
And Then He Kissed Me, Columbia, 1981.
Blame It on Love, Columbia, 1981.
Hairspray (soundtrack), MCA, 1988.
Cry-Baby (soundtrack), MCA, 1990.
Robbins, Ira, editor, New Trouser Press Record Guide, Collier, 1989.
Trouser Press, June 1980.
Uncut, May 2000, p. 146.
"Rachel Sweet," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 4, 2004).
"Rachel Sweet," Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics, http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=Rachel+Sweet (March 2, 2004).
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