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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

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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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