Producer Aaron Spelling was riding high on his latest comeback. The producer of such '70s classics as The Mod Squad and Charlie's Angels, Spelling returned in the early '90s, creating new prime-time soap operas for the still newish Fox network based on the lives of young people in the ultra-swank areas of Los Angeles, starting with the mega-successful Beverly Hills 90210 and later with its spin-off Melrose Place.
But lost somewhere in the annals of '90s pop culture history, sitting deep in the dusty vaults along with yellowed copies of Sassy magazine, episodes of Roundhouse and Stüssy clothing, is an Aaron Spelling soap that has been long forgotten.
The Heights was a short-lived series that told the story of a group of 20-somethings trying to make their way out of their blue-collar existence with the power of rock--well, soft rock, really, but who's counting?
I take it back. I just noticed the Hüsker Dü t-shirt. There was nothing soft about these guys. They were punk as fuck. Bob Mould probably reverted to a child-like state listening to them, shitting his pants and weeping openly.
The show starred a bunch of nobodies (unless you count the black guy from Swingers). Also cast was singer/songwriter Jamie Walters who, naturally, played the earnest and tortured lead singer/songwriter, Alex, who, in the show worked in a grocery store. (Jeez, no wonder this show failed--it's an Aaron Spelling show about poor people.)
Born in Boston, Walters began his career, appropriately enough, in a jeans commercial for Levi's 501s. Later came appearances in the movie Shout and a guest spot on the awesome '80s show Quantam Leap. It wasn't until The Heights that he was able to meld his love for music and acting into one tasty molten chocolate cake of hackneyed songwriting and Tiger Beat-ready good looks.
Below is the clip from the show that features the song "How Do You Talk to an Angel?" coming together as the outsider, Alex, busts out the power ballad to end all power ballads. This clip has it all: the stutter stop while Alex gets the chords just right, a 40 year-old lead guitar player who looks like Yngwie Malmsteen and dresses like Peter Buck in the "Losing My Religion" video, a keyboardist who looks like Balki from Perfect Strangers, a sexy chick saxophone player (?), the token black bass player with dreads, sweet 90s fashion (note the girl's hat with the flower...I wonder if she bought that at Benetton or The Limited?), quick cuts to faux-8mm footage of the band just kickin' it, and of course, everyone looking at each other with shock and awe as they mold an unrehearsed song no one has heard before into a polished power ballad.
Fucking sweetness all around.
The series only lasted 13 episodes before being canceled in November 1992. But the show's cancellation was met with a heavy dose of irony when "How Do You Talk to an Angel?" played by the show's fictional band (read: probably just Jamie Walters with some studio musicians) hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 only a week before the cancellation.
But while America said goodbye to everyone else on the show, Monsieur Spelling saw something special in the eyes of young Walters: a terrible actor who could shake up season 5 of his increasingly stale high school turned college turned young professionals series. Walters soon joined the cast of 90210 as Ray Pruit (one 'T', his mama couldn't afford the other), a wannabe singer-songwriter from the wrong side of the tracks who doesn't fit into the mold of Beverly Hills and strikes the fancy of Donna (played by Spelling's daughter, Tori).
As the season progressed, Ray began showing signs of abusive and unfaithful behavior towards Donna buoyed by his alcoholism and the fact that Valarie Malone (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) was way hotter than his girlfriend. Walter's character was written out of the episode when Ray, three sheets to the wind, pushes Donna down the stairs, then after apologizing, leaves to get help for his condition and continue with his musical career, never to be seen again. There was something about a lawsuit in there too, I think. At the time, the rumor was that Tori Spelling had been going after Walters to date her, but Walters had shot her down and this was the reason for his character's quick exit from the show. What baby wants, baby gets, I guess. That story probably has no merit whatsoever, but I like it just the same.
In 1999, someone found Walters living under a bridge and interviewed him about his departure from the show and he had this to say (note the overuse of the word "like," fella was made for that show!):
At first he was like this sort of like the underdog he was this guy from the wrong side of the town, who didn't fit in with the Beverly Hills kids but he had his music and he was honest and all this stuff. And then they started twisting him into being like this abusive evil boyfriend. I was like you either have to change the character or you have to let me off the show, because I'm going out and I'm like trying to sell tickets on our tour, and there's like teenage girls out there who think, like they really think I'm an abusive guy, you know, and they'd hold up signs saying like 'leave Donna alone' and that's like so not what I wanted.Still, Walters managed to squeeze one more hit as a solo artist with 1994's "Hold On," a song from his eponymous solo debut that sounds so much like "How Do You Talk to an Angel?" it's practically a sequel. Listen to the song and tell me "Hold On" isn't to "Angel" what The Bourne Ultimatum is to The Bourne Supremacy--overlaps and all (note: I mean this analogy only in reference to the similarity of the content, not the quality). Both songs are basically just '80s monster ballads with early-mid '90s production, and are easily as fun as any of Poison or Extreme's softer stuff. But it's the immense power of both ballads that would make one Mr. Big ashamed to leave the house. Warning: playing both at the same time could be lethal. I don't want to say on what scale, but the words "nuclear holocaust" spring to mind almost immediately.
The video for "Hold On" is best viewed through the eyes of Beavis and Butthead, who grow so tired of the song, they decide to play a new card game, "Bunghole Surprise."
Sidenote: It should also be noted that my first exposure to "Hold On" was on a free Tommy Hilfiger promotional CD entitled The Tip, which also featured Inner Circle, Screaming Cheetah Wheelies and All-4-One, among others. I probably got it after buying a pair of sweet Tommy brand jorts.
So after "Hold On" reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and Ray's run on 90210 ended, Walters faded into the obscurity from whenst he came, acting in a few direct-to-video and TV movies and releasing two more albums in 1997 and 2002 that didn't even come within a thousand miles of charting.
But the story of Walters has a happy ending. Contrary to popular belief (well, what I stated earlier) Walters is not currently living under a bridge, or even in a trash can. Bucking the Hollywood trend once again (maverick?), Walters was not content to rest on his laurels and attempt to make it with his music on the road or in crappy TV and movies (or maybe he just couldn't). Instead, Walters learned a trade--he became a paramedic and firefighter for the Los Angeles County and later city fire departments.
Good on ya, Mr. Walters. (Is it bad that I hope you make a comeback and tour all the casinos under the name "James Walters"?)
Download: The Heights - How Do You Talk to An Angel?
Download: Jamie Walters - Hold On
Buy his latest album