John Stewart’s third album for RCA Records, “Wingless Angels” (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) would be the most expensive and lushly produced of any of his solo albums over his career. Coming off two previous RCA albums that, although they were critically acclaimed and held in high regard by fans, did not sell in numbers the label expected. If only the album had the sheen, say of fellow colleague and friend, John Denver’s albums, it might sell in similar numbers, so the thought must have been by the label. Unfortunately, throwing huge amounts of money at a production whose content was not as focused as “California Bloodlines”—or even RCA’s “Cannons in the Rain”—proved to be a mixed blessing.
While the album produced at least one blockbuster number, “Survivors,” other lesser recordings detracted from the impact of what might have been a great album. One of the songs that was designed to be a hit for adult MOR, “Hung on the Heart (of a man back home)” did not climb the charts. Nonetheless, the heavy investment in production that incorporated a large string section and echo chamber on John’s vocal gave the song an eerie, ghost-like quality that was hypnotic.
Producer Nik Venet (who earlier produced “California Bloodlines”) said John Stewart should never be backed by strings, then did an about-face and engaged heavy orchestrations on “Wingless Angels.” Was this move due to an order by RCA? Or was it Venet’s decision alone? The problem with the orchestrations may have been that the arranger, although talented, was not right for John Stewart, such as John Andrew Tartaglia or Jimmie Haskell (who both had previously arranged for John’s recordings) would have been. “Wingless Angels” was missing an Aaron Copeland/Virgil Thomason American Music sensibility that Tartaglia or Haskell would have incorporated in their arrangements.
Being burned by the heavy type of orchestration incorporated in “Wingless Angels” recordings must be at least one of the reasons none of John Stewart’s subsequent recordings never featured anything more orchestral than a single violin or a horn or saxophone.