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Miami Sound Machine: 16 Best Musical Guest Stars on ‘Miami Vice’

From the Godfather of Soul to the Nuge, here are the more memorable musical greats who graced the iconic Eighties cop show


James Brown and Gene Simmons of Kiss.

Michael Putland/Getty; Chris Walter/Getty

Cigarette boats, Ferrari Testarossas, pastel suits, postmodern condos, stubble — Miami Vice, which debuted 30 years ago, helped to inspire, popularize and glamorize any number of Reagan-era trends. And when the decade was over, so was this fashionable Sunshine-State cop show: Vice's five-year run ended on cue in 1989, right as the Gipper was leaving office and Seinfeld and The Simpsons were launching. It went from defining the MTV aesthetic on network TV to instantly becoming a shorthand for the excesses of Eighties entertainment.

Music, of course, was integral to Miami Vice in every way — including its casting. Some of the series' most memorable villains were played by moonlighting musicians making their acting debuts, while a diverse cross-section of artists from El Debarge to Suicidal Tendencies were given the platform via performance scenes built into the plot. Here's a look at the show's most memorable musician cameos — the good, the bad and that WTF appearance of the Godfather of Soul.


El Debarge (“Bought and Paid For,” Season Two)

A music placement on Miami Vice was one of the more valuable forms of promotion an artist could get in the mid-Eighties; though the show never cast acts as themselves, it often wrote songs by featured performers into its plot, typically in stylized nightclub scenes that depicted them as anonymous house performers. Stepping out as a newly minted solo artist in 1985, El Debarge appeared in the Season-Two episode, performing "You Wear It Well" while Det. Rico Tubbs puts a rape victim (played by Lynn Whitfield) at ease with some uninhibited dance moves.


David Johansen (“The Dutch Oven,” Season Two)

David Johansen hadn't yet fully morphed into Buster Poindexter, the outlandish lounge lizard who'd play on Saturday Night Live in 1985 and release a string of retro-crooner albums over the remainder of the decade. But the former New York Dolls singer previewed the persona in this Vice episode, performing "King of Babylon" (from 1984's Sweet Revenge, his last pre-Buster album as David Johansen) with cartoonish aplomb during an extravagant, coke-fueled yacht party scene.


Little Richard (‘Out Where The Buses Don’t Run,’ Season Two)

Rock-and-roll pioneer Little Richard had something of a renaissance in the mid Eighties, capped by his rollicking appearance as Otis Goodnight in 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills. But the "Tutti Frutti" singer made his acting debut a year earlier in this Miami Vice episode, playing a beachside evangelist of questionable validity. Though the role was brief, it was a timely one for Richard, who was returning to show business after quitting secular music for the ministry eight years earlier.


Vanity (‘By Hooker By Crook,’ Season Three)

Don Johnson's past (and future) ex-wife Melanie Griffith was the A-list guest of "By Hooker By Crook," cast as a seemingly legitimate businesswoman revealed to be the madame of a high-end escort service. But it's Denise "Vanity" Matthews, who'd appeared in Canadian B-movies even before Prince discovered her and co-starred in ‘84 cult classic The Last Dragon, that is arguably the standout in this star-packed episode. She's the one playing the prostitute being chased around a hotel by Captain Lou Albano before disappearing under orders from George Takei. You can't make this stuff up.


The Fat Boys (‘Florence Italy,’ Season Two)

A year after they launched their acting careers in Krush Groove (and a year before they brought them to an end with Disorderlies), the Fat Boys' Kool Rock Ski, Prince Markie Dee and Buffy the Human Beatbox brought comic relief to this Season Two episode about a hooker-killing racecar driver (starring real-life IndyCar champ Danny Sullivan as the killer's son). Side note: Prince Markie Dee now works as a DJ at Miami's most renowned stripclub, King of Diamonds.


Frank Zappa (‘Payback,’ Season Two)

Zappa played a critic in the the Monkees' 1968 movie Head, and was the voice of "The Pope" in a 1992 episode of Ren & Stimpy. But like so many of the iconic artists who popped up on Miami Vice, his guest part on the show was one of his few actual "acting" gigs that called on him to play more than just a version of his musical-performer persona. He played Mario Fuente, a drug kingpin who specializes in something called "weasel dust." No word on what Tipper Gore thought of his turn here.


Gene Simmons (‘The Prodigal Son,’ Season Two)

The long-tongued Kiss bassist played Newton Windsor Blade, "the Sears and Roebuck of controlled substances" in Vice's feature-length Season Two opener. The episode featured a stacked ensemble cast including Pam Grier, Penn Jilettte and Roc star Charles S. Dutton, but it's Simmons who steals the show. You can't underestimate the pleasure of watching the man who wrote "Rock & Roll All Night" swagger around a yacht in white pajamas to the sounds of Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen."


Sheena Easton (Various Episodes, Season Four)

The "Morning Train" singer had a recurring role on the show's fourth season as Caitlin Davies, a past-her-prime pop singer whose career is magically resurrected after she meets and marries Crockett, who's been assigned to guard her during a Payola trial. The unpopular plot arc was mercifully ended when Davies was killed off after five episodes. 


Suicidal Tendencies (‘Free Verse,’ Season Two)

This Season Two episode centers around Hector Sandoval (played by Byrne Piven, father of Jeremy), a paraplegic political refugee and poet from an unnamed Latin American dictatorship. Sandoval is dodging assassination attempts after landing in Miami; he's also a playboy who won't let Crockett, Tubbs or his wheelchair stop him from making the most of his time in South Beach. Cue the exile getting drunk, hollering at chicks and slamdancing at a graffiti-strewn punk club, where SoCal hardcore legends Suicidal Tendencies wail through their classic disaffected-youth anthem "Institutionalized."


Leonard Cohen (‘French Twist,’ Season Two)

Miami Vice wasn't just a cop show for mass audiences — it was a show that catered to fans of musicians across the board. How else to explain Leonard Cohen's unlikely casting as Francois Zolan, a duplicitous French secret-service agent on the second-season episode "French Twist." BONUS: Cohen, a native of Quebec, delivers all of his lines in French. Oui, Miami.


Willie Nelson (‘El Viejo,’ Season Three)

The red headed stranger played a rogue former Texas Ranger who shows up mysteriously at a drug bust and makes away with a briefcase full of cash. His character, Jake Pierson, later redeems himself by helping Crockett and Tubbs take down a Bolivian kingpin, taking a bullet in the process. Nelson was an acting pro by this time, having already appeared in Sydney Pollack's The Electric Horseman (1979), the semi-autobiographical Honeysuckle Rose and alongside Gary Busey in the Western Barbarosa (1982). As we wrote in our countdown of Willie's greatest acting roles: "Ever the cowboy, he shuffles off Miami's mortal coil in a death scene worthy of Shane."


Ted Nugent (‘Definitely Miami,’ Season Two)

The Motor City Madman showed up in Vice's second season as Charlie Bassett, a crazed killer who uses his smoking hot, French-accented wife (played by Arielle Dombasle) as bait for a murderous con game. Nugent was uniquely suited for the bombastic role, which coincided with the release of his 1986 album Little Miss Dangerous (two songs from which appeared in the episode). The conservative rocker next appeared in John Cusack and Tim Robbins' underrated 1988 comedy movie Tapeheads but, as with all of his subsequent "roles," he was essentially playing himself.


Miles Davis (‘Junk Love,’ Season Two)

The jazz legend made his acting debut as the sympathetic smuggler-turned-pimp Ivory Jones in one of the darkest episodes of Miami Vice's five-year run. Davis brought his trademark rasp to the character, who's killed after coming to the aid of a heroin-abusing prostitute attempting to escape an incestuous relationship with her crime-boss father. Davis would appear on screen a few more times before his 1991 passing: the 1987 TV movie On The Edge; a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene in Bill Murray's Scrooged (1988); the obscure but semi-autobiographical 1991 film Dingo.


Glenn Frey (‘Smuggler’s Blues,’ Season One)

The musician perhaps most closely identified with the show was the Eagles' Glenn Frey, whose solo career took flight after his 1984 single "Smuggler's Blues" inspired one of the series' best shows. Frey played Jimmy Cole, a bush pilot perhaps inspired by real-life "Cocaine Cowboy" Mickey Munday, in the Emmy-nominated episode named after his song; though this was Frey's only appearance on the show as an actor, he contributed music to other episodes, including "You Belong To The City," which became a No. 2 single after debuting in Season Two's "Prodigal Son." Frey's stellar job as Cole led to a handful of additional acting roles (Jerry Maguire, Arli$$). He even got his own network series, CBS' South of Sunset, though it was DOA after one 1993 pilot. 


James Brown (‘Missing Hours,’ Season Four)

Vice's last two seasons coincided with a lengthy Writers Guild of America strike, leading to some stupifyingly subpar scripts. No episode was as mystifyingly bad — and ironically awesome — as "Missing Hours," which starred James Brown as an R&B star turned UFO cult spokesman and Chris Rock (making his TV acting debut) as a proto-Internet geek who may or may not be an alien. Throw in memory-erasing peanut butter, the Godfather of Soul waxing poetic in a crop circle, bargain-bin special effects and an it-was-all-a-dream cop-out of an ending, and you have one of the most perfectly awful hours of WTF TV ever made.


Phil Collins (‘Phil the Shill,’ Season Two)

A year after his "In The Air Tonight" soundtracked the single most defining musical moment of Miami Vice's first season (and arguably the entire series), Phil Collins appeared on the show as Phil Mayhem, the con-artist host of a TV game show called Rat Race. "Phil the Shill" (which also featured a young Kyra Sedgwick) ranks among Vice's funniest episodes thanks to the comic chemistry between Collins and cast goofballs Martin Ferrero ("Izzy Moreno") and Michael Talbott ("Stan Switek"). Collins even recorded a parodic theme song for Rat Race, which brilliantly bookends the episode.

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