Strange Bedfellows: The 5 Unlikeliest Duets in ’70s and ’80s Pop

The ‘70s and ‘80s were a golden era for duets. Particularly in the few years surrounding 1980, it seemed like the most popular recording artists were constantly recording hits with each other. In the early ‘80s, Paul McCartney hit No. 1 with both Steve Wonder (“Ebony and Ivory”) and Michael Jackson (“Say Say Say”), and he and Jackson also had a No. 2 hit with “The Girl Is Mine.” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks…the list goes on and on.

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The prevalence of hit duets in the ‘70s and ‘80s made superstar collaborations seem normal, but on occasion, there were pairings that made listeners do a double take. These five in particular seemed awfully…novel when they were released, even though each ended up being a hit single and/or a track from a popular album. Whether or not they seem so odd now, at the time few music fans saw these combinations coming.

1. Olivia Newton-John and The Tubes, “Dancin’

Actually, this pairing still seems pretty bonkers. This track was on the soundtrack album for the 1980 film Xanadu, which also paired Newton-John with Electric Light Orchestra, Cliff Richard, and Gene Kelly. While those collaborations were novel in their own right, at least all of those acts were well-established superstars. In 1980, The Tubes were barely on the fringes of mainstream popularity, and they had yet to score a Top 40 hit. And at this point, their sound was somewhere between New Wave and punk, whereas Newton-John was one of the most popular pop artists around.

The contrast between them was played up in the song (and in the scene in Xanadu where the song was used). Newton-John’s verses are performed in a swing style with a big band backing her, while The Tubes’ parts are done in a harder rock style. When Newton-John and The Tubes are brought together toward the end of the song, they (somehow) work together perfectly.

2. Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)

If you think Streisand was an odd duet partner for the ‘70s disco queen, she just might have agreed with you prior to recording this song. Even though Streisand had already had a No. 1 hit with a disco tune, “The Main Event/Fight,” “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) still took her out of her comfort zone. Nonetheless, both she and Summer liked the song, and once they started working on it, they were able to finish it within a matter of hours.

Superstar collaborations sometimes wind up being less than the sum of their parts, but in this case, both of these powerful vocalists shine—both when blending together or taking their turns belting out the lyrics individually.

3. Run-DMC and Aerosmith, “Walk This Way

The idea of mixing rap and rock was still considered revolutionary when this remake of the Aerosmith original was released in 1986. Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels explained to Loudwire that he and Joseph “Run” Simmons were in the studio rapping over the opening measures of Aerosmith’s version, and Rick Rubin—who was co-producing the future masterwork they were working on, Raising Hell—walked in on their impromptu performance and suggested they rework the song, complete with Aerosmith’s involvement. McDaniels and Simmons were reluctant, and even after recording the track for the album, they didn’t want it released as a single.

Fortunately, for them and for fans of rap and rock, the label ignored those wishes. The cover went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 8 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart. Raising Hell was the first of three Top 10 albums for Run-DMC on the Billboard 200, and the single rejuvenated Aerosmith’s career.

4. Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?

One year after Aerosmith jump started their career with a duet, ‘60s star Dusty Springfield made a long-awaited return to the Top 40 with this No. 2 hit collaboration. Oddly enough, the Pet Shop Boys’ label, EMI, suggested getting Streisand as their duet partner for the song, but the duo pushed to work with Springfield, who was one of vocalist Neil Tennant’s favorite singers.

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The pairing is brilliant, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Springfield take the lead on a chorus written by the late legend Allee Willis, who is best known for having co-written “September” and “Boogie Wonderland” for Earth, Wind & Fire. The genius of choosing Springfield for this song is especially clear in the outro, where she gives just the right hint of uncertainty in the line I’m gonna get through, right? The last syllable of that line turns the tune from a bitter breakup song to one that’s possibly about reconciliation.

5. Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin, “Separate Lives

This might not seem like such a strange pairing, but when this song came out on the White Knights movie soundtrack in 1985, Collins was ubiquitous and Martin was anything but. Thanks to a string of hit singles from No Jacket Required, plus “Against All Odds” from the movie of the same name and his duet with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey, “Easy Lover” (all coming out in the preceding months), you were bound to bump into Collins on the airwaves.

Martin, on the other hand, had yet to release an album, and had released one non-charting single, the Stevie Nicks-penned “Sorcerer,” from the Streets of Fire soundtrack. (Nicks also provided backing vocals for the song.) Collins’ star power helped to launch this duet to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. While Collins continued to churn out hits both on his own and with Genesis, Martin would yield only one more Top 40 hit: ”Night Moves,” from her self-titled debut album.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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