As the frontman of Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry wrote many of the songs for one of the most creative, stylish, and best art rock groups of all time. But he has also enjoyed a hugely successful parallel career as a solo artist where his elegant, sophisticated, and versatile voice has been exquisitely showcased on a vast array of intelligent interpretations of classic songs as well as new additions to his immaculate songbook.
Such were the creative juices flowing from the North East English singer-songwriter that, for large parts of the 1970s, he was simultaneously making music with Roxy Music and carving his own way in the world. While Ferry’s vocals and songwriting graced both and his solo releases regularly featured band colleagues, musically these two outlets were often poles apart. The group, especially in their pioneering, early days when Brian Eno was among their ranks, trod an avant-garde, experimental path that inspired many of the new wave acts that followed them. By contrast, the best Bryan Ferry songs have provided a platform for his more pop tendencies, both as a songwriter and with classy covers that stretch from pre-war standards to pop, rock, soul, and blues classics.
This split was made immediately apparent by his debut solo album, released just a year after Roxy Music’s breakthrough hit “Virginia Plain.” Exclusively made up of covers, it includes an eclectic mix of 1960s pop, Motown, and the 1930s evergreen “These Foolish Things,” which also served as the album’s title. While there are no original songs here, his talents as a songwriter are clearly evident. Ferry does not just sing these songs, he reinvents them.
That first album provided a musical template for Ferry’s solo output, although his own songwriting gradually came to the fore, particularly after the break-up of Roxy Music.
There are few artists who have not only had phenomenally successful careers within a group and on their own, but have managed to create clear, distinct identities for both. Ferry is that rare exception, which speaks volumes about his extraordinary talents as a songwriter, musician, and vocalist.
Bryan Ferry's best cover songs
(A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, The ‘In’ Crowd, Let’s Stick Together, The Price Of Love, I Put A Spell On You)
Released just a month before Roxy Music’s third album Stranded, These Foolish Things was Bryan Ferry’s solo debut. It showed Ferry to be a smart and imaginative interpreter of other artists’ best songs. A case in point is a radical reworking of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Ferry brings a joy and exuberance to Bob Dylan’s protest lament, lifting the tempo and turning it from a folk anthem into a mainstream pop song that gave him a first solo UK Top 10 hit. It marked the first of numerous occasions when he delved into the Dylan songbook.
Having paid homage to his soul music heroes with two Motown covers on his first album, Ferry extended the theme on the follow-up Another Time, Another Place where Sam Cooke and Ike & Tina Turner songs appeared alongside a punchy, menacing version of the Dobie Gray smash “The ‘In’ Crowd.” The album opener landed Ferry a second UK Top 20 entry and showcased his versatility reworking songs from different genres.
The covers policy continued to reap rewards for Ferry who hit what remains a solo peak on the UK singles chart with his reworking of Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together,” which was also the title of his third album. Climbing to No. 4 in the summer of 1976, his upbeat, sax-driven take of the vintage rhythm and blues number was supported by a video promo featuring his then-girlfriend Jerry Hall lip-synching the yelping female vocals that occur about two-thirds of the way through the recording.
On the same album, Ferry included “The Price Of Love,” a song little known in the US where it failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 but a British No.2 hit for the Everly Brothers. Ferry’s version has a similar, uplifting vibe to his Wilbert Harrison cover, which it followed into the UK Top 10.
While his solo focus increasingly switched to recording self-penned songs, the 1993 album Taxi was made up almost entirely of covers by writers as diverse as Goffin & King and Lou Reed. Most memorably, he totally reconstructs Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” transforming the rhythm and blues standard into what sounds like a Ferry original.
The Suave Crooner
(These Foolish Things, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, You Are My Sunshine, You Go To My Head, As Time Goes By)
It is an illustration of his broad musical palate that, in the same year that Roxy Music issued their experimental (and some say best) album For Your Pleasure, Bryan Ferry was putting together the song “These Foolish Things,” which featured on his debut solo album of the same name. This faithful take of the 1930s standard highlighted Ferry’s deep affection for pre rock ’n’ roll tunes.
Certainly this kind of repertoire perfectly suits his rich, elegant, and seductive voice, while matching the suave, sophisticated and gentlemanly image he portrays. Another great example is his enchanting reworking of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” a 1933 Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach from the Broadway musical Roberta, but which Ferry would have known as a teenager as a single by The Platters. Featured on his second album Another Time, Another Place, it became a UK Top 20 for him in 1974, 15 years after the US vocal group’s recording had topped the chart.
Reflecting a defining image of the star on its cover, where he is dressed in a white tuxedo and posing by a Hollywood pool, his sophomore set extended its cultivated theme with the inclusion of a second 1930s evergreen. His sensitive reading of “You Are My Sunshine” builds beautifully from just piano and voice to full band. “You Go To My Head” from the same era is given a modern twist on the Let’s Stick Together album and became a Top 40 hit.
As he further matured, this type of repertoire suited his singing style even more, as evidenced by a 1999 cover of “As Time Goes By,” which was originally part of an intimate album made up entirely of 1930s songs.
1980s Pop Star
(Slave To Love, Don’t Stop The Dance, Windswept, Kiss And Tell, Is Your Love Strong Enough?)
Roxy Music split in 1983, just after they had finally achieved major success in the US with their eighth and final studio album Avalon. The popularity of the album, whose ten songs were all written or co-written by Bryan Ferry, provided the perfect relaunch platform for his solo career, but this time without the distraction of the band. At least initially, it marked a new direction for him, away from covers and focused entirely on his own songwriting.
This new era began in style with the 1985 album Boys & Girls, which featured some of his most commercial, radio-friendly material and took him to No. 1 as a solo artist for the first time in the UK. Its masterful first single “Slave To Love” set the scene. With its swaying, samba beat, the song became one of his signature songs, reaching No. 10 in the UK and two months after its release was performed by him at the Live Aid concert in London.
Written with long-time Roxy collaborator Rhett Davies, who co-produced both Avalon and Boys & Girls, the album’s second single “Don’t Stop The Dance” continued in the same stylish vein as “Slave To Love” with a pop sheen that took it to the edge of the UK Top 20 and became a US adult contemporary hit. The set’s high-quality material also included “Windswept,” featuring David Gilmour on guitar.
Ferry's second post-Roxy album Bête Noire was boosted by the addition of several writing partners, including Johnny Marr of The Smiths and Patrick Leonard, fresh from having worked with Madonna. However, it was Ferry alone who penned the cut “Kiss And Tell,” which gave him a first-ever US Top 40 solo hit and helped to take the album to No. 63 on the Billboard 200 chart, matching the career peak of its predecessor.
Chronologically slotted between the two albums is “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” which featured on the soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s movie Legend starring Tom Cruise and became a UK Top 40 hit in its own right. Like “Windswept,” it includes David Gilmour on guitar.
The best original Bryan Ferry songs
(This Is Tomorrow, Tokyo Joe, Sign Of The Times, Can’t Let Go, Don’t Want To Know)
While his early solo albums were heavily focused on his talents interpreting other people’s work, Bryan Ferry clearly knew how to write a great song. With Roxy Music, every original song on the group’s eight studio albums was written or co-written by him. Nonetheless, away from the band, it was not until his fourth album that his own writing fully emerged on a solo release.
In Your Mind was issued in early 1977 shortly after Roxy Music had begun a four-year hiatus. The break meant that his solo work was no longer in competition with band releases for new compositions, resulting in an album made up entirely of Ferry originals. It stands as one of his strongest studio sets with highlights including the singles “This Is Tomorrow” and “Tokyo Joe.” With its rock elegance and intelligent lyrics, “This Is Tomorrow” provided a powerful opener for the album and delivered the artist another UK Top 10 hit. “Tokyo Joe,” meanwhile, was one of his catchiest songs yet, owing its inspiration to the James Cagney movie Footlight Parade in which the star sang a song called “Shanghai Lil.”
The 1978 album The Bride Stripped Bare followed his breakup with Jerry Hall, which resulted in a highly personal album. Its increased emotional intensity both lyrically and musically included the self-penned opener “Sign Of The Times” where a raging and charged Ferry sings of “the bride stripped bare of all we despair. We’re cut but we don’t care.” On the set's second song “Can’t Let Go” Ferry sings about “a madness in my soul” in one of the rawest and best vocal performances of his career.
Following the 1980s albums Boys & Girls and Bête Noire, Ferry’s solo career went full circle with 1993’s covers set Taxi, but on the following year’s Mamouna his songwriting was reawakened. It also provided the intriguing prospect of working with Brian Eno for the first time since Roxy Music’s second album two decades earlier. Eno’s presence is notable on the ambient and techno feel of the opener “Don’t Want To Know” where the Roxy reunion extended to the band’s Phil Manzanera, one of five guitarists to feature on the song.
Just like numerous other artists who were an indelible part of an iconic band, Bryan Ferry’s work with Roxy Music too often overshadows what he has achieved away from the group. But his solo output is a treasure trove of countless and often under-explored gems.
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