30 Years Ago: .38 Special Near the End of a Chapter With ‘Strength in Numbers’
.38 Special evolved beyond their Southern rock roots to achieve mainstream success in the early '80s, and the hits kept coming in as the decade wore on — even as exhaustion and creative differences started to set in.
Though fans had no way of knowing it, the group's first incarnation was nearing the end of a chapter with its seventh studio album, Strength in Numbers. In the decade since releasing their debut, the band members had worked at a feverish pace, releasing nearly an album a year while racking up countless road miles along the way. And although the radio-friendly overhaul they'd given their sound with 1981's Wild-Eyed Southern Boys yielded immediate commercial dividends, they didn't come without difficulties.
The band's biggest problem was arguably simply keeping up with the demands of the marketplace — continuing to churn out new albums every year or two while keeping busy on the road. They'd always been open to covers and co-writers, but with Strength in Numbers, it was more apparent than ever that .38 Special were looking for outside help to stay on the charts. A number of the album's tracks boasted three, four or even five credited writers — and each song included contributions from at least one songwriter outside the band.
Using professional songwriting ringers wasn't anything new for .38 Special — they'd turned to Survivor co-founder Jim Peterik for help with their first few hit singles. But the Strength in Numbers liner notes belied a literal approach to the album's title, in terms of writing as well as recording. Producer Keith Olsen enlisted a number of session vets to bolster the band's sound, including Toto bassist Mike Porcaro and Heart drummer Denny Carmassi, and frequent co-writers included lyricist John Bettis and Bryan Adams collaborator Jim Vallance.
The result was a record perfectly in keeping with the mainstream rock sound of the era — and once again, sales followed accordingly. Released in April 1986, Strength in Numbers gave .38 Special their fourth consecutive Top 40 LP, and added another gold record to their stack of RIAA certifications. The album also included a trio of rock Top 40 singles in "Heart's on Fire," "Somebody Like You" and "Like No Other Night" — the latter of which also hit No. 14 on the pop chart.
Yet while they racked up the hits, it was getting harder to ignore how far .38 Special had come from where they started — and not necessarily in a good way. Lead vocalist Donnie Van Zant was arguably the most audible example of the evolution, seeing his singing and writing contributions steadily dwindle during the '80s as singer and guitarist Don Barnes, the creative driving force behind many of their biggest singles, took a bigger share of the spotlight.
As it turned out, Strength in Numbers would be the last full-length LP recorded by this version of the group. Barnes, along with second drummer Steve Brookins, departed the band the following year, and 1987's "Back to Paradise" — a soundtrack cut recorded for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise — served as the final .38 Special song Barnes would sing on for a decade. When the band returned for 1988's Rock and Roll Strategy, it would be with a revamped lineup that included singing keyboardist Max Carl contributing in his stead.
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