By 1979, Loretta Lynn had been recording country music for almost 20 years, with some 50 albums to her credit. The first female artist to be nominated for — and to win — the CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1972, Lynn’s string of major solo hits was accompanied by five Number Ones with duet partner Conway Twitty. The pair also logged four chart-topping LPs as a duo between 1973 and 1976.
Also in 1979, Lynn was preparing for the big-screen adaptation of her autobiography, Coal Miner’s Daughter, published three years earlier. The story of her spotting actress Sissy Spacek in a photo and then proceeding to mention during several TV appearances and interviews that Spacek would be playing her in the film, well before the Carrie star had even accepted the role, is a legendary one, but Lynn’s instincts about the choice certainly proved correct — the film was a huge box-office and critical success, earning Spacek an Academy Award as Best Actress.
Forty years ago this month, Lynn was involved in the release of another feature film, but both Lynn’s participation and the film itself have flown well under the radar. That could, perhaps, have something to with the dubious distinction of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, a film about a failing basketball team, being marketed as an “astrological disco sports spectacular,” a tag that doesn’t quite scream, “Let’s get Loretta Lynn on the soundtrack!”
Nevertheless, the country queen is featured on the album, alongside a slew of R&B heavyweights, including the Four Tops, the Spinners, and the Sylvers. Titled “Is It Love, Must Be Love,” the duet, according to news reports at the time, was initially planned to feature Lynn singing with romantic soul crooner Teddy Pendergrass. A recent biography of the late singer Phyllis Hyman, who also appears on the soundtrack, reveals that Philly sound innovator/ producer Thom Bell had originally planned for her to record the track with Pendergrass for the film’s LP. In the end, and for reasons unknown, Lynn recorded the soulful piano ballad with Seattle-born singer-songwriter Frankie Bleu. Born Frank Butorac, Lynn’s partner on the middle-of-the-road tune had been a member of the pop-rock band Gabriel and would also pen songs for Eddie Money and Curtis Mayfield, among others. His contributions to The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh also included “Moses’ Theme,” named for the film’s lead character, played by NBA legend Julius “Dr. J.” Erving.
Additionally, the album featured songs by 92-year-old ragtime pianist Eubie Blake and the aforementioned Phyllis Hyman, with the latter contributing a track titled “Magic Mona,” which takes its name from astrologer Mona Mondieu (Stockard Channing), who encourages the losing team to regroup with players all born under the sign of Pisces (hence the title). Channing, fresh from her success as Rizzo in Grease, was cast after Cher dropped out. The film also stars Margaret Avery, Fame’s Debbie Allen, comedian Jonathan Winters, and a number of other pro basketball players taking the court.
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh was a box-office bomb, earning mostly negative reviews and a reputation as one of the worst sports-themed films of all time. The soundtrack, however, is regarded as an overlooked gem of smooth Seventies soul. Tracks from the film have since been sampled by a number of hip-hop acts, including Flatbush Zombies, who incorporated “Is It Love, Must Be Love,” in “Chuch,” a track from their 2012 mixtape D.R.U.G.S. The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh made its debut on CD in 2016 in an expanded edition, giving Loretta Lynn fans a chance to hear a sparkling version of one of the rarest cuts in her vast catalog.