Among the many joys of listening to music are those surprises that sometimes produce a bit of unexpected magic — such as can occur when an artist makes a unbilled guest appearance on someone else's recording as a special guest.
Suddenly, the listeners are experiencing something they had no idea was coming.
I'm not talking about the big-name collaborations that are billed that way, great as some of those are, such as when Diana Ross & the Supremes teamed up with the Temptations for their hit recording of "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me." It shot to No. 2 on the Billboard charts and an album of their collaboration, called "Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations" climbed to No. 2 on the album charts. Another album, the soundtrack from their "TCB" television special did even better, making it all the way to No. 1.
When most listeners heard "I'm Going to Make You Love Me" for the first time, they were well aware they were hearing a collaboration between Motown's two biggest groups. (Yep, I know the Supremes started out as simply the Supremes, but by the time of "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," Diana Ross had demanded — and had her demand granted — that the group be billed as Diana Ross & the Supremes, despite the excellent vocal contributions from the other two members of the trio, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong.)
I'm also not referring to the billed collaborations between two individual artists, such as when Stevie Nicks teamed up with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" — a song written by Petty and Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell and recorded as the debut single from Nick's first solo album, "Bella Donna."
"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard Pop Charts, but it was billed on the record sleeve as by Stevie Nicks with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Even without the billing, Petty's distinctive voice and the sound of the Heartbreakers would be immediately discernible to their many fans.
Even a song such as "Beer for My Horses," the hit collaboration between Toby Keith and Willie Nelson that spent six weeks at No. 1 on the country music charts and also rose to No. 22 on the Billboard Billboard Pop Charts, was released with both artists' names, as in "Toby Keith, featuring Willie Nelson."
I'm talking instead about those collaborations that required a little guesswork, maybe a little mystery, when trying to remember "Where have I heard that voice before?" Those where the guest artist remained unbilled, on the recording, at least for awhile.
One of the most renowned unbilled performances is when Mick Jagger turned up for a guest vocal on Carly Simon's mega hit, "You're So Vain." Although Jagger received no billing on the original record, his distinctive voice sounds through the track.
Sometimes, guest artists can be difficult to identify, if their vocal contributions are buried too deeply in the mix. That's certainly not the case here, because when Jagger comes in to join Simon on the chorus, singing the lines "You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you," his vocals are higher in the mix than Simon's — at least to my ears.
I once said something to a friend about Jagger singing with Simon on "You're So Vain." He not only was surprised to hear it, he remained a little skeptical. I told him the next time he heard the song, give the chorus a closer listen.
I still remember my own surprise the first time I heard the song and Jagger came chiming in to join Simon. Of course, that only added to the speculation that Simon had Jagger in mind when she wrote the song about a vain person — but there were plenty of other potential suspects, most of them her former romantic partners. Speculation often centered on actors Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, along with singer/songwriters including Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens and her ex-husband, James Taylor.
A few years ago, Simon revealed that at least one of the verses was indeed about Beatty — but she cunningly kept the mystery going by saying the other verses might be about others.
Regardless of who Simon is singing about on "You're So Vain," it remains one of the most successful examples of a singer joining a recording as an unbilled guest artist, with the recording peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Another famous unbilled collaboration is when Dire Straits released the band's super hit, "Money for Nothing" — at least from the performance angle. Sting famously joins in the song on the recording, saying "I want my MTV." While his voice would be instantly recognizable to most fans of The Police, he's not identified as a singer on the label of the original hit single by Dire Straits, .
Instead, Mark Knopler kicks off the song with his funky guitar riff, joined by the rest of the band, as Knopler sings about two workers in a department store complaining about what they perceive as the easy life of rock stars. "Money for Nothing" proved the breakout hit from Dire Strait's hugely successful album, "Brothers in Arms," careening to No. 1 in the U.S. Ironically, although the computer-animated workers in the video are complaining about rock musicians while seeing a music video on a bank of television sets in a department store, "Money for Nothing" also won the award for Best Video at the 1986 MTV Awards.
Another irony: Sting's contributions to writing the song are minimal, since Knopler said the lyrics were based on an actual conversation he heard between workers at a department store where he was shopping. Sting later made some lyrical contributions to "Money for Nothing," but reportedly said he did not want a songwriter's credit. However, his publishing company did, since it, along with Sting, would benefit from his share of the songwriters' royalties.
So even though Sting is not listed as a performer on the original record label, he was listed as one of the song's writers. Knopler has been quoted as saying he didn't mind. After all, the "I want my MTV line," from Sting likely contributed to the song's heavy rotation on the still burgeoning MTV network at the time.
Sting didn't join Dire Straits on any of the band's tours in support of the song and the album "Brothers in Arms," which also generated another huge hit for Dire Straits with "Walk of Life." That's because Sting sang and played bass in his own band, The Police, along with guitarist Andy Sumners and drummer Stewart Copeland.
Still, those few lines Sting generated for "Money for Nothing" has continued to garner him continual songwriting royalties for years — making it instead "money for something."
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.