In Memory of Brian Howe

A good pinch hitter in Bad Company, the British singer helped the band remain vital after Paul Paul Rodgers ditched the lads for Jimmy Page in the mid-80s

RIP Brian Howe (Art: Ron Hart)

Stepping into the shadow of a famous frontman — or woman — is always a tricky proposition.

Ask Sammy Hagar, who famously subbed for David Lee Roth in Van Halen. Or Phil Collins, who had the dubious distinction of taking over for Peter Gabriel at the helm of Genesis. Or better yet, query the all but obscure Ray Wilson who pinch-hit for Collins in an ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the band while on life-support in the mid-90s. Likewise, spare a thought for the singers that helm Journey, Styx, Yes, and any number of other ‘80s era bands attempting to keep a lingering legacy intact.

Brian Howe, who died May 6th from cardiac failure, had an unusually tough time of it when he assumed Paul Rodgers’ role as lead singer of Bad Company. It was an unenviable task made even more difficult due to record company pressures and a subsequent series of personnel changes that altered the band’s sound significantly. Howe, who had played with a few otherwise obscure outfits in his native U.K., caught his first lucky break when an audition tape he sent to Atlantic Records caught the attention of a label rep who then recruited him as lead singer for Ted Nugent. Stung by the terms of a contract that wasn’t to his liking, he eventually opted to go solo. Fortunately, fate intervened when Foreigner’s Mick Jones introduced him to Bad Company’s Simon Kirke and Mick Ralphs, who, at the time, were in need of a singer for a resurrected Bad Company following Rodgers’ fling with the Firm, a short-lived partnership with Led Zeppelin ex-guitar ace Jimmy Page.

Howe’s entry into Bad Company was a risky move at best, given the band’s former superstar status and string of early successes. Howe, however, gamely met the challenge, although it took a couple of albums with Howe at the helm before the band regained its footing. The first effort Howe was engaged in bore the unfortunate title Fame and Fortune, a record that found the revamped group vying for a more commercial, keyboard-oriented sound. A further series of personnel changes resulted in Dangerous Age, an album which fared far better due to its harder edge and a style that found a fit with rock radio and the fan following of MTV.

 

VIDEO: Bad Company Toronto 1989

Not surprisingly, it spawned a series of mainstream chart contenders, among them the massive ht “No Smoke Without a Fire.” That, in turn, was followed by Holy Water, an album that managed to return Bad Company to its million-selling status as well as a successful reign on the airwaves. Success was sealed with Here Comes Trouble, yet another million-selling effort which reaped a pair of modestly successful singles in “How About That” and “This Could Be The One.”

Ultimately, Howe had succeeded in accomplishing a feat that few artists are ever able to attain, that is, rebooting a band by imbuing his own imprint. Howe’s vocals captured the signature sound of a hard rock template that found a cozy fit with radio’s then dominant AOR (“album oriented rock”) format. He literally helped reinvent Bad Company by transforming them from the scrappy, rough-hewn combo they once were to a streamlined, arena rock ensemble fully capable of tackling the challenges posed by a newer era in the ‘80s. It gave the band an extended lifespan, and although it resembled its earlier incarnation mostly in name only, it added to a history that brought new fans into the fold.

Bad Company: The Brian Howe Years

Howe left Bad Company in 1994 due to frustration with his bandmates’ apparent unwillingness to come up with fresh ideas. He then relaunched his solo career in 1997 with Tangled in Blue, the first of three individual efforts. Two other outings would follow — Touch in 2003 and Circus Bar in 2010. Although the albums garnered a smattering of positive reviews, Howe’s career failed to fully reignite. He was living in Florida when he died in the ambulance enroute to the hospital. It seems his career might be best summed up by the lyric to the Bad Company hit that preceded him, a song called “Shooting Star.”

 

“Don’t you know that you are
A shooting star
And all the world will love you
Just as long, as long as you are”

Brian Howe was 66.

 

VIDEO: Bad Company “Holy Water”

 

VIDEO: Bad Co. at the Seminole Hard Rock

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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