In 2004, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the song Like A Virgin, we put together and article with its story through the years. Now, in 2006, we finally had the chance to have a chat with Billy Steinberg, the author of the song, who spoke to the MadonnaTribe team about this signature Madonna song and about other timeless compositions he wrote for the likes of Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles and Mel C among others.
Follow us through this interview with Billy, to discover the qualities a song must have to stay "shiny and new" through decades.
MadonnaTribe: Hello Billy, it's great to have
you here at Madonnatribe for this chat. So, when did you realize you wanted
to be a songwriter?
Billy Steinberg:Well, I started writing songs at Bard
College in upstate New York. I was 18 years old. It was 1968.
Before that, I sang in rock bands and a blues band, but we did
cover songs, not originals.
MT: How did you meet Tom Kelly, your co-writing
partner on so many songs?
BS:In the summer of 1981, I was living in the
desert in southern California, near Palm Springs. I was working
in my dad's table grape business. I was also writing a lot of
songs. Some of those songs included "How Do I Make You"
which was recorded by Linda Ronstadt, and "Precious Time"
and "I'm Gonna Follow You" which were recorded by Pat
Keith Olsen, who produced Fleetwood Mac, was also Pat Benatar's
producer. He introduced me to Tom Kelly.
MT: Along with him you wrote one of the
most popular songs ever. "Like A Virgin".
Browsing an old interview in which you spoke about the song you
mentioned it was written in 1983. You were driving around in your
pickup truck and got the idea for the song out of a personal experience.
Can you tell us more about that day you came up with the lyrics?
BS: In 1983, when I wrote the lyrics for "Like
A Virgin", I was very happy because I had extricated myself
from a very difficult relationship and was enjoying a new one.
I felt like a virgin.
I wrote the first verse lyric first, starting with "I made
it through the wilderness." I didn't start with the title.
But after I wrote the line, "you made me feel shiny and new",
the title "Like A Virgin" popped into my head.
Right away, I knew it could make a startling song and I was excited
about working on it with Tom.
MT: Are there some alternate
lyrics you didn't use in the end?
BS: There are some alternate lyrics that we didn't
use in the end. Mostly junk. For example, "Ask my friends and
they'll tell you it's true. Nobody's had what I'm giving to you."
MT: I heard that the song was originally intended
as a ballad, is that true?
BS: No, the song wasn't intended as a ballad. I
had no pre-conceived idea about the music.
It's just that when Tom read the first verse, it sounded romantic
and serious and his first instinct was to approach the music as
a ballad. But I knew that that was the wrong approach.
When I told him so, he tried something else. After doing this numerous
times, he became frustrated and started playing the "Like A
Virgin" bass line and singing in falsetto. I yelled, "That's
it!" After that, the song was written quickly.
That's really fascinating. Even though you completed the song in 1983, it took a while
for you and Tom to "place" the song, as many artists and
record labels turned it down, probably not getting both the sense
and irony of it.
Can you tell us more about "that struggle"?
Sometimes a song will only "fit" one artist. "Like
A Virgin" is one. When we submitted it for other artists, we
were told that "no one will sing a song with that title."
One A&R guy suggested I re-write the lyric.
MT: How did the song reach Madonna? You once declared you
were very lucky that Madonna came along...
BS: Michael Ostin, a Warner Brothers record
executive, came to our studio to hear what Tom and I were writing.
He loved "Like A Virgin" and said he would play it for
MT: The song had its first
big exposure at the first MTV Awards in 1984.
Were you anxious about how Madonna would perform the song live and
about how the public would get it?
BS: Tom and I were shocked
by Madonna's performance of "Like A Virgin" at the MTV
Awards in 1984.
It didn't seem at all rehearsed.
The camera awkwardly followed her as she rolled around the stage,
exposing her voluptuous, but slightly-pudgy body.
I guess we worried that it would doom the song. But Madonna and
"Like A Virgin" were unstoppable.
MT: Did you expect the song would reach number one on the
US chart and stay there for six consecutive weeks?
How do you feel about that?
BS: When "Like A Virgin" reached #1 and
stayed there for 6 weeks, Tom and I were ecstatic. It was a dream
MT: As writers both Tom and you
really believed in the song's potential at the time Madonna recorded
it, but could you imagine it would keep its freshness intact through
decades and become such a classic?
BS: It surprises me and pleases me that "Like A Virgin"
continues to breathe. The Britney, Christina, Madonna thing was
MT: As the song starts, the first
notes really call to mind "I Can't Help Myself" by Motown
act The Four Tops.
Madonna herself mixed the two songs in her Who's That Girl tour
back in 1987.
So, was the arrangement of "Like A Virgin" really inspired
by the Four Tops or was it just a coincidence?
BS: The bass line to "Like A Virgin"
was inspired by "I Can't Help Myself". And, as I said
before, when Tom started singing, he sang in a falsetto that was
inspired by Smokey Robinson's vocal style.
Songwriters are always influenced by the things they love.
MT: As you know "Like a Virgin"
was "re-invented" by Madonna in many of her live shows.
There's the poppy version of her first Virgin Tour from
1985, the sexy version on the bed from the Blond Ambition
tour in 1990 and the "Like a worgin" homage to Marlene
Dietrich in her Girlie Show from 1993.
Actually, from the first buzz about this next summer's Confessions
Tour, there is a chance Madonna will re-invent the song yet
Do you have a favourite Madonna version of "Like A Virgin"?
BS: I don't have a favorite Madonna version.
Recently, I heard her sing it with an acoustic guitar accompaniment.
It may have been her playing the guitar. It sounded great.
I just hope she includes it in her next live show. I am always disappointed
when I hear that she is touring and doesn't sing "Like A Virgin".
MT: One of the biggest homages to "Like A Virgin"
can be found in Baz Luhrman's musical masterpiece Moulin Rouge.
The film shows "Like A Virgin" makes a perfect Broadway
number. What do you think of that version? Do you like it?
Were you surprised to find "Like A Virgin" in Moulin
Rouge and on its soundtrack?
BS: I was pleased that "Like A Virgin"
made its way into Moulin Rouge. In general, I am not a
lover of musical theatre, so, musically, it wasn't my favorite version.
But, overall, I thought it was hilarious.
Speaking about Broadway did you and Tom ever consider writing a
full musical or pop opera?
BS: Andrew Lloyd Webber once asked me to collaborate
on a musical theatre production. I even flew from Los Angeles to
London to discuss it with him.
Ultimately, I decided not to pursue it.
As I said, I don't really like musical theatre very much. Also,
I prefer to write my lyrics first, ahead of the music.
while on the subject of covers, I don't know if you are aware of
it, but there's a brand new country and western version of "Like
A Virgin" released this year by German based group Texas Lighting.
It is really
amazing how this song can be adapted to every music genre, including
country. What do you think of it?
BS: I wasn't aware of the country version, but
I just checked it out on the Internet.
What can I say, the girl with the ukelele is no Madonna.
MT: Aside from "Like A Virgin", did you
and Tom write other songs that you wanted to submit to Madonna?
It's never too late...
BS: Tom and I wrote a follow-up song for Madonna,
called "In The Darkness".
We gave it to Michael Ostin but I don't know if she ever heard it.
Madonna seems to always move in a direction away from where she's
You created signature songs for both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, what
do you think about the fact they were considered rivals in the 80's?
BS: Madonna and Cyndi emerged around the same time. I didn't
ever really consider them rivals.
They are both great, but very different from each other.
You and Tom wrote the splendid "True Colours" that was
recorded by Cyndi on her album of the same name. What inspired you
to write such poetic lyrics? Is it true you had to re-write part
of the lyrics?
"True Colors" was partially written for my mom. The original
first verse lyric was:
You've got a long list
With so many choices
With so many voices
And your friends in high places
Say where the pieces fit
You've got too many faces
In your make-up kit
me to re-write it, by saying that the chorus was universal, while
the original verse was about a specific person. He was right.
Oh yeah, that is so true.
amazing song of yours is "I Drove All Night", what is
the exact story behind that song?
In the early '1980's, I lived in the desert, in the Palm Springs
area. I made a lot of trips to Los Angeles and back.
"I Drove All Night" was inspired by that drive.
Consider the lines "I had to escape, the city was sticky and
cruel" and "
I was dreaming while I drove the long straight road ahead".
MT: "I Drove All Night" was
the first single from Cyndi Laupers's "A Night To Remember"
album but there is also a version by Roy Orbison. Who recorded it
BS: Tom and I wrote "I Drove All Night"
as a homage to Roy Orbison.
We both loved Roy's songs, like "Oh Pretty Woman", "Crying",
"In Dreams" and "Running Scared".
When we met Roy, we suggested he put his vocal on our demo of "I
Drove All Night". At the time, he didn't have a recording contract.
Roy came to our studio at Tom's house. He sang two takes of the
song. Tom and I were in awe, as he effortlessly sang our song even
better than we had ever imagined it.
Later, we played our original demo, with Tom's vocal on it, for
Cyndi in New York. She liked it and cut it. It was a Top Ten hit
After Roy died, Tom and I played his version for Jordan Harris,
who was Roy's A&R man. Jordan loved it and gave our tape to
Jeff Lynne. Jeff did a great job producing the song.
Because Roy had passed away, Jeff used the vocals that Tom and I
recorded in Tom's house.
MT: Oh, so that recording is really unique. It
was great that the homage you intended in the first place had a
chance to happen.
Recently Celine Dion also revived the song again using it as a single.
Were you surprised by this?
BS: I wasn't surprised that Celine recorded "I
Drove All Night" because I submitted the song to her A&R
man, Vito Luprano.
Celine had already recorded another song of mine, "Falling
Into You", which I co-wrote with Rick Nowels and Marie Claire
MT: "Eternal Flame" by the Bangles is another
great ballad you co-wrote with Tom Kelly. It has beautiful lyrics
that are inspired by a light you saw as a child in a synagogue in
Can you tell our readers more about the story behind it?
Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, came to my house to write a song with
Tom and me. She loved a song that Tom and I had written for Cyndi
Lauper, called "Unconditional Love".
Susanna wanted to write something like it, melodic and Beatle-esque.
She was telling us about a Bangle visit to Graceland and an eternal
flame for Elvis. That reminded me of the eternal flame in the synagogue
when I was a kid.
I knew it would work as a title and I wrote the rest of the lyrics
With Tom you also co-wrote a song with Donna De Lory, Madonna's
long time friend and backing vocalist, who's also a friend of our
How was working with her?
Donna de Lory is a great singer and dancer. She is fun to be with
and to work with.
MT: Since the mid 90s
you co-wrote songs with Rick Nowels. Among the recent collaborations
with him there's "I Turn To You" by Mel C.
How is working with Rick, a guy who among other things had the chance
to work with Madonna.
BS: Rick Nowels and I were friends
for almost ten years before we ever wrote a song together. Before
I met Rick, I met his wife, Maria Vidal. She is a wonderful singer
and songwriter, too. She wrote one of my favorite songs, "Summer
Rain" which was recorded by Belinda Carlisle. But, I prefer
Maria's version of the song.
Rick is a great songwriter. I particularly am a fan of his acoustic
I am very proud of some of the things that Rick and I have written
together, particularly Celine Dion's "Falling Into You".
We recently wrote three songs that are being recorded by Leigh Nash,
from Six Pence None The Richer. The new songs include "My Idea
Of Heaven" and "Nervous In The Light Of Dawn".
What are you currently working on, and what shall we expect from
Billy Steinberg in the near future?
BS: About 2 years ago, I started working with a young guy
named Josh Alexander. He is an amazing talent.
He's one of those "perfect pitch, started playing Chopin at
age 4" guys.
He has a wonderful melodic sense and an intrinsic understanding
of what makes a great pop song tick. We have recently collaborated
on songs for T.A.T.U. ("All About Us"), The Veronicas
("When It All Falls Apart" and "Leave Me Alone"),
Jojo (soon-to-be-released "Too Little Too Late" and "How
To Touch A Girl") and Fefe Dobson ("Don't Let It Go To
Your Head", "This Is My Life" and "The Initiator").
We have a lot of other stuff in progress with some very interesting
and cutting edge new artists like L.P., Alaina Beaton and Jack.
As a successful author with many hits under your belt, what advice
would you give to young talents who approach songwriting?
BS: Advice to young songwriters: tune in to your unconscious.
Capture everything on tape because what pops out first is often
best. Allow yourself to be inspired, but don't imitate. Hang in
Thanks a lot Billy for stopping by at MadonnaTribe and for giving
all of us so many incredible lyrics. It is always great to feel
"Like A Virgin".
to read the original article celebrating the 20th anniversary
of "Like a Virgin
written by MadonnaTribe
For more information about Billy Steinberg
please visit his official website www.billysteinberg.com
Portraits courtesy of Billy Steinberg used by permission.
This interview © 2006 MadonnaTribe