The Numero Group has made its name by compiling and reissuing the works of the underdogs — great artists who suffered from unfortunate setbacks, regional superstars who recorded on shoestring budgets and then self-released on tiny labels. Ned Doheny’s Separate Oceans is nothing like that. For starters, Doheny is the heir of an oil tycoon. The bulk of the songs on Separate Oceans were recorded for either David Geffen’s Asylum or Columbia Records with the cream of Los Angeles’s studio musicians. Superstars like Graham Nash, Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt sing backup. Although none of Doheny’s own recordings sold significantly in America, some did well on English dancefloors and Japanese airwaves. He’s not exactly an underdog.
Doheny’s soft pop falls under what we now call yacht rock, albeit at its most soulful. As the liner notes to this collection of highlights from his three ’70s albums plus demos and alternates points out, Doheny’s strongest shot at a commercial breakthrough, 1976′s Hard Candy, hit the market only three months after Boz Scaggs’s Silk Degrees, which “filled Columbia’s white-soul smash quota.” Like Scaggs, Doheny mixes the smooth with the sublimely syncopated, although sometimes via melodies that extend beyond what he can comfortably sing: The evidence is in his previously unreleased reading of “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me,” which he fumbles slightly.
Chaka Khan, however, nailed it: Her sassy interpretation rightly topped the R&B chart in 1981. The version of “To Prove My Love” that became a cult hit on London’s “rare groove” club scene hailed from his Japan-only 1979 LP Prone, and was quasi-instrumental: Its nearly wordless vocal no doubt helped it cross the language barrier and made Doheny’s race irrelevant. The full lyric take, which is included here, crowds the track: It’s that slinky rhythm, produced by Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MGs, that matters.
Doheny attained his first break as a guitarist; he initially backed a pre-stardom Jackson Browne. But his greatest success was as a songwriter. Former Partridge Family star David Cassidy never again dared anything as racy as “Get It Up for Love,” a slinky seduction subsequently recorded by the Average White Band with Ben E. King, Motown’s Táta Vega, and Doheny himself. The ballad he co-authored with Average White Band bassist Hamish Stuart, “A Love of Your Own,” may have only been a mid-level hit for AWB in 1976, but it’s lived on as a deserved soul standard through interpretations by Millie Jackson, Melissa Manchester, ex-Shalamar frontman Howard Hewett, J. Holiday (titled “Sooner You Get to Love”), and the Three Tenors of Soul.
It’s quite likely that his economic security enabled Doheny to create such comfy funk: Its charm lies in the breezy way his melodic gifts float across his hardworking collaborators’ assured rhythms. His tunes are carefree because, unlike his session players, Doheny didn’t need to be making this stuff, nor asserting his personality to claim his place in the world — he was simply born into it. That’s why such diverse singers could all do his songs justice. “A Love of Your Own” epitomizes his universality: Its vision of love as a shelter from the cold is so warm and inviting that it practically sings itself.