Early solo work
In September 1981, Sting made his first live solo appearance, performing on all four nights of the fourth Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in London’s Drury Lane theatre at the invitation of producer Martin Lewis. He performed solo versions of “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle”. He also led an all-star band (dubbed “The Secret Police”) on his own arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. The band and chorus included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Phil Collins, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, all of whom except Beck later worked together on Live Aid. His performances were featured prominently in the album and movie of the show and drew critical attention to his work. Sting’s participation in The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball was the beginning of his growing involvement in raising money and consciousness for political and social causes. In 1982 he released a solo single, “Spread a Little Happiness” from the film version of the Dennis Potter television play Brimstone and Treacle. The song was a re-interpretation of a song from the 1920s musical Mr. Cinders by Vivian Ellis, and was a surprise Top 20 hit in the UK.
His first solo album, 1985’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles, featured a cast of jazz musicians, including Kenny Kirkland, Darryl Jones, Omar Hakim and Branford Marsalis. It included the hit singles “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” (backed with the non-LP song “Another Day”), “Fortress Around Your Heart”, “Love Is the Seventh Wave”, and “Russians”, the last of which was based on a theme from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite. Within a year, the album reached Triple Platinum. This album would garner Sting Grammy nominations for Album of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, and Best Engineered Recording.
Also in 1985, he sang the line “I Want My MTV” on “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. He performed this song with Dire Straits at the Live Aid Concert at Wembley Stadium. Prior to the Live Aid concert, in November 1984 Sting was part of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, which raised money for famine victims in Ethiopia.
In 1985, Sting provided a short guest vocal performance on the Miles Davis album You’re Under Arrest. He also sang backing vocals on Arcadia’s single “The Promise”, and on two songs from Phil Collins’ album No Jacket Required. He also contributed a version of “Mack the Knife” to the Hal Willner-produced tribute album Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. In September 1985, Sting performed “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The 1986 film Bring on the Night, directed by Michael Apted, documented the formation of the band and its first concert in France.
Sting released …Nothing Like the Sun in 1987, including the hit songs “We’ll Be Together”, “Fragile”, “Englishman in New York”, and “Be Still My Beating Heart”, dedicated to his mother, who had recently died. It eventually went Double Platinum. The song “The Secret Marriage” from this album was adapted from a melody by German composer Hanns Eisler, and “Englishman In New York” was about the eccentric writer Quentin Crisp. The album’s title is taken from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. The album won Best British Album at the 1988 Brit Awards and in 1989 received three Grammy nominations including his second consecutive nomination for Album of the Year. The hit song “Be Still My Beating Heart” earned Sting additional nominations for Song of the Year & Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In 1989, …Nothing Like the Sun was ranked #90 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 greatest albums of the 1980s”.
Soon thereafter, in February 1988, he released Nada como el sol, a selection of five songs from Sun sung (by Sting himself) in Spanish and Portuguese. He was also involved in two other recordings in the late 1980s, the first in 1987 with jazz arranger Gil Evans, who placed Sting in a big band setting for a live album of Sting’s songs (the CD was not released in the U.S.), and the second on Frank Zappa’s 1988 Broadway the Hard Way album, where Sting performs an unusual arrangement of “Murder By Numbers”, set to the tune “Stolen Moments” by jazz composer Oliver Nelson, and “dedicated” to fundamentalist evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. October 1988 saw the release of Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale with the London Sinfonietta conducted by Kent Nagano. It featured Vanessa Redgrave, Sir Ian McKellen and Sting in the role of the soldier.