There’s been magic in Bonnie Tyler’s career. Trouble is, it’s the kind of magic that’s usually seen in disappearing tricks. The onetime club singer from Wales, who bolted to stardom in 1978 with her searing, raspy rendition of It’s a Heartache, all but vanished once her song dropped off the charts. “I was taking a bit of a nosedive,” concedes Tyler, now 32, in her chirpy lilt.
No longer. Backed by a new manager and a new record label, Tyler has pulled out of her plummet and is flying higher than ever. Total Eclipse of the Heart, her powerful seven-minute rock single, has topped Billboard’s Hot 100 (climbing two notches higher than Heartache ever did) and is fast heading toward two million in sales. With the recently released single Take Me Back, it has propelled her album Faster Than the Speed of Night into a four-way dogfight with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the Police’s Synchronicity and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health at the top of the charts. She has also just finished recording a sound-track cut for Footloose, a Herbert Ross film due in February, as well as a new song written by Giorgio (Flashdance) Moroder for the movie Metropolis. This time around Tyler’s presence seems certain to linger.
Much of the credit for her comeback belongs to Jim Steinman, 33, the songwriter and arranger who first put Meat Loaf on America’s turntables. Though Steinman initially turned down an offer to produce Tyler’s album, he did agree to listen to some demo tapes she had recorded. “I always thought she had a great voice,” he says. “She reminds me of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, probably my favorite male rock ‘n’ roll singer. Her voice isn’t pure or smooth. It sounds ravaged, like it’s been through a lot. It’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.”
In April 1982 the pair met in Steinman’s New York apartment. “He got straight down to business,” recalls Tyler. “He said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and played Creedence’s Have You Ever Seen the Rain? Then he played Goin’ Through the Motions by Blue Oyster Cult. He didn’t tell me until later that if I hadn’t liked those songs, he wouldn’t have entertained producing me because he’d have realized we weren’t thinking on the same terms.”
Both songs appear on Speed of Night, featuring the backing of pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, guitarist Rick Derringer and Steinman’s grandly fustian wall-of-sound production. The album’s big hit, Total Eclipse, was written by Steinman simply to “show off” his new singer. “I never thought it had a prayer as a single,” he reflects. “It was an aria to me, a Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion. I wrote it to be a showpiece for her voice.”
The voice Steinman regards so highly got much of its grit in the clubs of South Wales. One of six children born to a pensioned steelworker and his opera-loving wife, the former Gaynor Hopkins (she named herself Bonnie Tyler in 1974 because she liked the way it sounded) grew up listening to the music of Tina Turner and Janis Joplin. At the age of 17 she answered a newspaper ad for backup singers at a local club, eventually married the club’s manager and in 1973 settled into a three-bedroom home in Swansea, Wales that she and husband Robert Sullivan still occupy. Always husky-voiced, Tyler developed nodules on her vocal cords because of her busy six-night-a-week schedule as a club singer. In 1976 she underwent throat surgery. Although recovery took four months her voice returned stronger—and rougher—than ever.
It was a voice much of the world would hear two years later. For Tyler, however, It’s a Heartache turned into a headache when she found herself locked into a musical format that was more country than rock. “I was a bit cheesed off,” she says of the management team that held her under contract and wrote most of her material. “I didn’t even like it as I was recording it.” Discouraged, Tyler gave up performing during the last 18 months of her contract and stayed at home playing rock tapes and plotting a new course.
These days, while her husband tends to the two discos, the pub and the restaurant the couple owns in Wales, Tyler is looking ahead to a second album with Steinman. If scheduling holds, she will follow that record next year with her first American tour since 1978. And that, she insists, will give the Yanks a chance to see some real magic onstage.