MadonnaTribe meets Billy Steinberg
Back in 2006 MadonnaTribe had the chance to meet Billy Steinberg and ask him about his signature Madonna song and about other timeless compositions he wrote for the likes of Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles and Mel C among others.
Eight years later, as “Like A Virgin” turns 30 years old, we got in touch with Billy again and talked about what has happened in the recent years, more “Virgin” covers, and his latest works. Follow us through this interview with Billy, to discover the qualities a song must have to stay “shiny and new” through three decades.
Hi Billy, welcome back to MadonnaTribe. “Like A Virgin” turns 30 this week, how does it feels having such an important role in a song that defined Pop culture for three decades?
It is gratifying to me that “Like A Virgin” is still relevant and listened to.
Let’s get back to when it all started – how did you realize you wanted to be a songwriter?
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.
How did you meet Tom Kelly, your co-writing partner on so many songs?
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 Benatar.
Keith Olsen, who produced Fleetwood Mac, was also Pat Benatar’s producer. He introduced me to Tom Kelly.
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?
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.
Are there some alternate lyrics you didn’t use in the end?
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.”
I heard that the song was originally intended as a ballad, is that true?
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.
How did the song reach Madonna? You once declared you were very lucky that Madonna came along…
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 Madonna.
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. Was the arrangement of “Like A Virgin” really inspired by the Four Tops or was it just a coincidence?
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.
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?
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.
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?
When “Like A Virgin” reached #1 and stayed there for 6 weeks, Tom and I were ecstatic. It was a dream come true.
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?
It surprises me and pleases me that “Like A Virgin” continues to breathe.
Madonna herself re-invented the song in many of her live shows. Do you have a favourite Madonna version of “Like A Virgin“?
I have only seen Madonna in concert once and that was during the “Virgin Tour” in the mid-1980’s. I know that she has, over the years, experimented with different arrangements and approaches to performing “Like A Virgin“. Her fans want to hear it and she probably re-invents it to keep herself interested.
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“.
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?
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?
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.
Thirty years later there’s still a girl at the beginning of her career, wearing a crucifix on her neck, and singing in the streets of Venice. Let’s talk about Sister Cristina‘s “Like a Virgin”. Tell me all about it!
Last month, I heard Sister Cristina’s version of “Like A Virgin” for the very first time . I also watched her video. I love both her recording and her video.
When Tom Kelly and I wrote the song, we were aware that the song had two sides — a sexy side, utilizing the provocative word “virgin”, and a more serious side because the song documents an event in my personal life where I felt rejuvenated by a new relationship after extricating myself from a destructive one.
Madonna’s version of “Like A Virgin” definitely mined the sexy side of the song. Sister Cristina exposes the heartfelt content of the lyric. It’s ironic that Madonna chose to shoot her video of “Like A Virgin” in Venice, Italy. At the time, it seemed completely random and ridiculous to me. But now, with Sister Cristina’s Venice video, it seems wonderful that both videos, conveying such different sentiments, were shot in the same location.
You created signature songs for both Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, who were often compared at the beginning of their careers – what are your thoughts about the whole “Cyndi vs Madonna” thing thirty years later?
Cyndi and Madonna were compared because they became popular at the same time. I don’t think that they have much in common. I think of Cyndi’s music as arty-pop. Madonna’s best records were dance records.
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
Tom convinced 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 yes, that is so true.
Another 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”.
“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 first?
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 for her.
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.
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?
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 D’Ubaldo.
“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 California.
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 around it.
With Tom you also co-wrote a song with Donna De Lory, who’s been Madonna’s backing vocalist for a long time. How was working with her?
Donna de Lory is a great singer and dancer.
She is fun to be with and to work with.
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 was working with Rick?
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 guitar playing. I am very proud of some of the things that Rick and I have written together, particularly Celine Dion’s “Falling Into You“.
In 2011 you and Tom Kelly were inducted to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame – a much overdue recognition if you ask me! How did it feel to receive this honor?
Tom and I were very happy to be inducted in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. It was a memorable night because Chrissie Hynde inducted us. Tom and I have written many songs with Chrissie, including “I’ll Stand By You“. She is an amazing singer and writer, as well as being a unique and lovely person. It was very generous of her to come to New York City for the event.
What you’ve been busy with since our last chat? I remember you were just starting a new songrwriting collaboration…
For the past 8 years, more or less, I have been collaborating with Josh Alexander. We have written some hits (“Too Little Too Late” by Jojo, “Don’t Hold Your Breath” by Nicole Scherzinger and “Give Your Heart A Break” by Demi Lovato). We have a brand new song that we wrote for Demi that I think has the potential to be a big hit. Fingers crossed!
Finger crossed indeed!
As an author with many hits under your belt, what advice would you give to young talents who approach songwriting?
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 there.
Have you ever thought of writing another song for Madonna?
If you had the chance to, how would it be? What title would it have?
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 been.
I wish she had recorded other Steinberg/Kelly songs. We tried to submit songs, but Madonna never seemed interested. We even tried to arrange a co-write, but it never happened.
And what’s next from Billy Steinberg?
I still love writing songs!
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”.
For more information about Billy Steinberg please visit www.billysteinberg.com.
The original version of this interview first appeared on MadonnaTribe.com on April 13, 2006.