Bobby's One Hit Wonders: Volume VII: Bonnie Tyler - It's A Heartache
By: Bobby Peacock
Wales is not a country that one thinks of when one thinks of country music artists. But, believe it or not, at least one Welsh native has hit the country charts: Bonnie Tyler, whose "It's a Heartache" became her only Top 40 country hit in 1978.
Born Gaynor Hopkins, Tyler listened to Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and Motown. She entered a talent competition at age 17 and rose through the ranks, eventually getting spotted at a Swansea club by producer/songwriters Ronnie Scott and Steve Wolfe, who got her a deal with RCA. Early on, Tyler did have a bit of rasp to her voice, but it was balanced out with a slight tremolo and a phrasing not unlike Olivia Newton-John. "Lost in France," with its "ooh la las," indeed sounds like something Olivia would've put out not long after "Let Me Be There." While this song and "More Than a Lover" didn't chart stateside, they were both moderate hits in the UK, and enough to get her on a tour of Europe.
Tyler hit the pause button on her career briefly to recover from some vocal cord surgery. During the recovery process, she inadvertently yelled in frustration, thus damaging her vocal cords enough to create a much more husky, raspy tone to her voice. After being complimented by her band on her new singing voice (which critics compared to a female version of Rod Stewart), she carried on with her career as usual. So perhaps that vocal change was a blessing in disguise. (Who would've thought that getting angry over forgetting to take strawberries to her brother would be such a defining moment in one's life?)
Her first chart entry with her "new" voice was Scott and Wolfe's "It's a Heartache." It had previously been cut by both Juice Newton and Ronnie Spector (of the 1960s girl group The Ronettes), but neither of their versions took off. Juice's version, in particular, seems rather lethargic, while Ronnie's was too smooth to leave an impact. But Tyler's gravel gave the song passion, making lyrics that look simple on paper ("It's a heartache, nothing but a heartache / Hits you when it's too late, hits you when you're down…") far more than the sum of their parts — clearly, she sounded like someone who knew her way around a heartache.
While I had known for quite some time that "It's a Heartache" crossed over into country, I would never have guessed 1978 as its peak year. After all, 1978 was sort of a "last gasp" before the huge shift into solid country-pop territory during the first half of the 80s. The end of the year saw the likes of Crystal Gayle and Barbara Mandrell making hits out of their own slicker confessions, even if Emmylou Harris had already launched a successful counterpart with her bracing take on Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles of Wine." Even the males were shifting over to the pop edges, with Ronnie Milsap and his keyboards leading the pack.
After "Heartache," Tyler looked poised to be a one-hit wonder on almost all charts. Between then and 1983, she had no other Hot 100 entries, although a couple of her songs "bubbled under," and only "Married Men" made #35 in the UK in 1979. (Oddly, she also got a #86 country peak out of "My Guns Are Loaded" in the same timespan.) She finally got back on track with 1983's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which certainly would not have become a country hit — largely in part to the massive production of Jim Steinman, best known for his work with Meat Loaf. Between the wall of sound around her and the outright wailing of the chorus, "Total Eclipse" was quite far-removed from the simplicity of "Heartache." Tyler hit the US pop charts four more times before decade's end, getting her last American Top 40 with the keyboard-heavy "Holding Out for a Hero" from the Footloose soundtrack. Since then, she has continued to put out albums, and occasionally manages a hit single in Germany of all places, but the closest she's come to country in the years since is covering Lonestar's "Amazed" on her 2003 album Heart Strings — and even then, her version is still poppier than the original.
In so many ways, "It's a Heartache" seems like a bit of a fluke on her résumé. It was likely her only country hit because it was one of the few songs she put out that had any semblance of country to it. Something like "Total Eclipse of the Heart" certainly would've never shared air time with Anne Murray or Janie Fricke. But at the same time, the songs from "Eclipse" onward show Tyler getting increasingly comfortable with her raw, gravelly voice. And if "Heartache" is a fluke, it's a very enjoyable one that captures an interesting artist at a turning point in her career.