This article first appeared on www.wsj.com
A few years after his 1980 hit “Steal Away,” Robbie Dupree wondered if the phone would ever ring again. For a star of one of the era’s biggest musical genres, the momentum had stopped. “There were four, five years I couldn’t get arrested,” he says.
But these days, he and soft-rock contemporaries like the bands Ambrosia (“How Much I Feel”) and Player (“Baby Come Back”) have the wind in their sails thanks to “yacht rock,” a rebranding of the smooth-music genre from the ’70s and ’80s. Mr. Dupree, long accustomed to gigs with a few hundred attendees, marvels today at crowds in the thousands at yacht rock-themed shows.
“There’s like a sea of sailor caps in the audience,” says the 68-year-old singer.
He wrapped a “Rock the Yacht” summer tour with Ambrosia, Player, the Little River Band (“Reminiscing”) and Stephen Bishop (“On and On”) on Sept. 18 before nearly 1,400 fans at a sold-out casino venue in Mississippi. Some of the acts may leave port next summer alongside Atlanta-based cover band “Yacht Rock Revue,” which drew 3,500 fans to a festival this summer.
The fans—sometimes with a glint of irony—have been clamoring for the music. On Facebook, one said Sirius XM’s summertime yacht-rock station “alleviated 30% of my rush hour traffic jam stress.” The satellite radio station went into dry dock when summer officially ended, but Sirius XM plans to bring it back next year, a spokeswoman said.
At Yacht Rock Revue’s recent Boston show, bearded chimney sweep Chris Podrecca showed up sporting a captain’s hat and a tight shirt with palm fronds showing off his boat-anchor pendant. But the 32-year-old said his connection to the music runs deep. “I appreciate the music because of my parents,” he said.
Originally known as soft rock, the family-friendly music was moored in southern California and had links to the ’70s singer-songwriter trend. The music wasn’t a critical darling, eschewed for its slick production and a perceived lack of daring, said Chadwick Jenkins, who teaches music history at the City College of New York.
There was also a coolness deficit, and the genre just about capsized in the ’80s. “A lot of my memories of this music are bowling alleys, orthodontists’ offices and waiting rooms,” Mr. Jenkins said.
Still, the light-rocking tunes emerged from a time of sharp studio work and professional musicianship, and the inoffensive sounds can mask subtle complexity.
“These are quality musicians, the chords are really smart and the hooks are just so good,” said Jason Hare, a musician and fan who wrote an extensive blog about a brand of particularly earnest, sensitive soft rock he calls Mellow Gold.
The Long Island, N.Y., resident, who has a day job in health care, focused on songs like Player’s “Baby Come Back,” which laments lost love through lyrics like “I was wrong, and I just can’t live without you.”
Peter Beckett, who co-wrote and sang the 1977 hit, said steady airplay and commercial appearances—think Swiffer ads—have kept checks in the mailbox. But he has also enjoyed the yacht rock resurgence, even if the term was mystifying at first.
“Young people today, when they mention our kind of band, they visualize us on our boats in the ’70s drinking Chardonnay, playing our guitars and sailing past Malibu,” he said. “I never owned a sailboat in my life.”
Still, the genre does have breezy undercurrents thanks to songs like Christopher Cross’ 1980 smash “Sailing.” Tapping into that theme, writer JD Ryznar picked the name “Yacht Rock” for a 12-episode comedy series he wrote and directed starting in 2005.
The show, created for a contest called Channel 101, imagined tales and rivalries behind hits from the era’s biggest acts, such as Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Toto, Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. All combined, the episodes have racked up more than 2 million page views online.
If “it sounds good on a boat, it’s Yacht Rock,” said Mr. Ryznar, 38, who also appeared in the series in the role of a thickly bearded Mr. McDonald—the soulful voice celebrated by yacht-rock fans for his myriad connections to other smooth-music artists.
Some bands and singers trying to capitalize on the yacht rock theme didn’t last as major hit makers. Take Ambrosia: The band went on hiatus for several years in the ’80s, after their original success around tunes like “Biggest Part of Me” petered out.
But they’ve been surfing the Yacht Rock wave. They played “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” in 2011 and have seen crowds swell under the yacht rock banner, bass player Joe Puerta said.
Mr. Puerta said he has no problem with the fine line between musical appreciation and irony that can come with yacht rock-themed shows. “Playing for 5,000 people who are going crazy for the music—you kind of go, ‘hey, what’s wrong with this?’ ” he said.
David Pack, the former Ambrosia singer who penned its top hits, struggles with the nautical theme. Though he said he applauds contemporaries who are finding new life in yacht rock shows, and remains an active musician who still plays his hits, too, he won’t be donning the captain’s hat.
“I guess I have to ask the question: Is the joke on us?” he said.
Nicholas Niespodziani, one of two lead singers in cover band Yacht Rock Revue, said their act is reverential. They formed from an independent-rock band after testing out the ’70s theme at a club gig about eight years ago, and have been so successful they had to spin off a subsidiary called “Yacht Rock Schooner” to keep pace with demand.
Sporting a blue leisure suit and shades, Mr. Niespodziani belted out songs like Toto’s “Africa” at the recent Boston show.
“I think people are less scared to admit they love this music,” he said.