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When Bruce Willis scored a top ten hit in America


With his recent announcement that he would be stepping away from acting following his diagnosis with aphasia, Bruce Willis‘ remarkable on-screen career has entered a period of re-examination. Willis was best known as one of America’s foremost action stars, but his more nuanced performances in films like The Sixth Sense and The Fifth Element have been praised as well. Willis was far more versatile than he ever got credit for, and that versatility actually extends beyond his work in film.

For a brief period during the mid-1980s, Willis also tried his hand at pop stardom. Taking on the persona of Bruno Radolini, a slick blues-pop harmonica player, Willis half-winkingly dipped his toe in the world of music to see if anyone wanted to hear him belt out old-school soul songs. As it turned out, there was a high demand for Willis’ unique brand of whitebread R&B.

Willis’ strategy was simple: take classic songs from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s era of Motown and Brill Building songwriting, throw some 1980s production gloss over the top, and see what would happen. Most of his debut LP, The Return of Bruno, is ridiculous vanity project schlock, but one cover was a little more inspired than the rest.

That was Willis’ take on The Staples Singers number ‘Respect Yourself’. Originally released by the family soul outfit in 1971, the Staples Singers’ version landed at a more-than-respectable number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Over a decade later, English pop trio The Kane Gang recorded a cover that topped out at number 12 on the UK Singles Charts. Shortly afterwards, Willis delivered his own version of the classic track.

Willis had enough sense to bring in June Pointer to make the song a duet. The song and parent album were part of a comedic HBO special that Willis produced at the time, also titled The Return of Bruno, where Radolini appears as a legendary bluesman who influences the likes of Ringo Starr, Elton John, Brian Wilson, and Joan Baez. Knowing Willis’ eventually ascension to action star status, it’s a wild reminder that Willis was originally viewed as a comedic actor.

Willis’ version of ‘Respect Yourself’ turned out to be a hit, leaping all the way to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1987. The only songs keeping it from number one were Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ at the top spot, Huey Lewis & The News’ ‘Jacob’s Latter’ at number two, The Jets’ ‘You Got It All’ at number three, and Linda Ronstadt’s duet with James Ingram, ‘Somewhere Out There’, at number four.

Willis took a more serious turn with his follow-up album, 1989’s If It Don’t Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger. By that point, Willis appeared to have little interest in seriously continuing his music career, instead opting to return to acting full time. One more album, 2001’s Classic Bruce Willis: The Universal Masters Collection, followed, but Willis kept his musical appearances to brief guest spots, including covering Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ on the Rugrats Go Wild soundtrack.