September 28, 2005
Q. Can you tell me about your musical background in your own words, including your early influences, any musical training you may have received and how you began your career in the music business?
A. As a child I fell in love with hit records. I started collecting records really avidly and this was in the late 1950s. Some of my early favourite records were like "All I Have to do is Dream" by the Everly Brothers, "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson, "Little Star" by The Elegants, "Come Softly To Me" by The Fleetwoods. Those were some of the early songs that kind of got me excited about collecting records and listening to songs. Then when I was in junior high school, I guess I was thirteen or fourteen years old The Beatles came out and I just got so excited. When I heard "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" and "Please, Please Me" I just couldn't believe how I felt for those songs. Then the Animals came out with "House of the Rising Sun", The Kinks came out with "You Really Got Me", The Rolling Stones came out with "The Last Time", The Zombies came out with "She's Not There" and The Yardbirds came out with "For Your Love". The natural thing was to start a rock band. So I formed this band called The Fables and that was in Palm Springs, California Πthat"s where I grew up. We used to play at the youth centre dances, the high school dances and private parties. We were just like a cover band, playing all those songs and others like them. I didn't play an instrument at that time and I was the lead singer in that band and then another band that came after that. It wasn't until I was eighteen years old that I started to play the guitar and at that same time I went off to college. I went to Bard College in upstate New York and I wasn't in a band there, but I was writing songs day in, day out.
I was a literature major and was writing a lot of poetry and I found I could bend those poems I was writing into song lyrics. I also found there was a much more receptive audience; a female audience in particular, to songs than there was to poems. So, I got into writing songs and I guess my earliest songs were influenced by a much softer style of music, like Donovan and Bob Dylan and even early Tyrannosaurus Rex, which turned into T.Rex. It was a flower child, hippy era and my earlier songs were sort of folksy songs written during that era. Then after college I moved back to California and I started to work in my father's farming business and this was now the late '70s and I was still writing away, writing my songs and making demos when I could. Then music they were calling new-wave came out, like Blondie, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I was very influenced by that and other groups like that. In fact, the song "My Sharona" by The Knack was really exciting to me in a similar way to the very early Beatles" songs. I started to write songs that were much more aggressive and sort of rock and I put together a band. The band was called Billy Thermal and Thermal was the name of the middle town where my family's farm was located. We used to play in clubs in L.A. even though I was living down in the Palm Springs area. We used to commute up to L.A. and play small clubs and showcase type clubs in the L.A. area, which was in '78, '79. We got signed by the famous record producer Richard Perry and he had his own label at that time, called Planet Records. We went in and made an album for Planet Records. Simultaneously, the guitar player in my band played one of our demos for Linda Rondstadt and she heard a song called "How Do I Make You" that I had written and she recorded that song. In 1980 it was a top ten hit in the US pop charts and that was my very first cover. That's how I got my start as a song writer.
Q. Did you then begin to record independently from Billy Thermal?
A. The record that we made for Planet [Records] was never released and we sort of had a falling out with Richard Perry. In the meantime two of the songs I had written for Billy Thermal were also recorded by Pat Benatar and one was recorded by my childhood hero Rick Nelson. I started to feel like there wasn't much future for my band and our group broke up. I was thinking how exciting it was having that hit record, that big hit for Linda Rondstadt. It was fun to hear one of my own songs on the radio. I thought, well, how am I going to write some more hit songs? So, in August of 1981 I was in Los Angeles. The Palm Springs area is incredibly hot in the summer months, so I rented a house in Pacific Palisades, which is near Santa Monica. I just came up to L.A. with the idea of getting out of the heat and to try to do some networking in the music business. I really didn't know very many people. I wasn't from Los Angeles. In spite of the fact that I'd had the covers with Linda Rondstadt and Pat Benatar and that I'd made this record for Planet Records, I didn't really know too many people. So, I had a little list of people, like who I was going to call. One of the people on the list was Keith Olsen. Keith was a very successful record producer and he would have to be considered most famous for not only having produced the first Fleetwood Mac album that had Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks on it, but also famous for the fact that he introduced Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham to the British members of Fleetwood Mac and that's how that great group was formed. So I called Keith. He had produced two songs of mine for Pat Benatar, but I had never met him. I introduced myself over the telephone and he said, яh yeah, you're one of my favourite song writers and I thought, well, that's nice I was very flattered because I wasn't even sure he'd know who I was.
He coincidentally was having a house warming party at a house he had just moved into. He invited me to that party. So, I went and took along my acoustic guitar, which in retrospect was sort of a little bit of a bold thing to do because when most people in the music business go to a party they don't think they're going to schlep along their guitar and sing their songs. I was sort of still excited about the work I was doing and not very savvy about the way the industry worked and the ways that people might behave at a Hollywood party. So, at that party Keith Olsen introduced me to a guy called Tom Kelly. That was August of 1981. Tom had been in a band called Fools Gold and he had made an album. Tom was a very capable musician and he toured playing bass. He knew the guys from The Eagles and he knew Dan Fogelberg and he knew the members of Toto and he had worked extensively with all those different groups. When I met Tom he was earning a living as what they call a session singer. He was doing background vocals for projects ranging from Barbra Streisand to Motley Crew. The big producers in L.A. would call Tom when they needed background vocals. Tom has a very high voice and he's got very good pitch. So, he was making a good living at that but he also wrote songs. He had co-written a song that was recorded by Pat Benetar. I had never co-written, so I don"t know for what reason I think I suggested to him that we try to write something together. Maybe Keith Olsen had planted this in my mind or had mentioned it to Tom and me together, but I don't remember how exactly the idea of us co-writing had come up - we just agreed that we would give it a try. Tom comes from Indiana and he and I are sort of opposite types. He plays golf, I play tennis, I'm sort of very driven and a neurotic Jew in a very stereotypical sort of way and Tom would be a little more relaxed. We sort of complimented each other, but at the same time we're so opposite. We found that we liked the exact same music when we were kids.
We knew all the same songs and we could sing them together. Tom knew all the chords to all The Beatles' songs and all the Everley Brothers' songs. So we started writing songs together and when we started to write I don't think either one of us had an idea of who was going to do what in the song writing collaboration. I was used to writing chords and melodies and lyrics and Tom sort of admitted that writing lyrics was his least favourite thing to do. I said, "Well, that's no problem, I like to write." I had written poetry and was a literature major. Writing was always something that I was good at. Another thing I noticed whenever we started to work together was that Tom was a much more accomplished musician than I was. He could do an absolutely stunning Brian Wilson impersonation. He could do all the high harmonies and all the falsetto stuff that Brian did in The Beach Boys. His ability to write songs with more inventive chord structures than the ones I had written was inspiring. I"m a very limited musician. I can play Buddy Holly songs and stuff like that. When we started to write I realised, I'm better at writing lyrics and he's better at writing chords. So our roles started to become defined and the first songs we wrote together weren't all that impressive, but they were fun. We had fun doing it Πthat was the important part. Then in 1983 we wrote the song "Like a Virgin" and that sort of changed everything in our lives.
Q. Can you tell me about the song writing process for "Like a Virgin"? Did you write the lyrics and Tom wrote the music?
A. I was living and working in the desert and I had a red Ford pickup truck and I used to drive it around the vineyard that my father owned. I always kept a notebook and a pen by my side. I just remember writing the lyrics for "Like a Virgin" or at least a sketch of them in the pick up truck.
Q. What inspired the lyrics?
A. At that time I was very happy to be involved in a new relationship with a woman I had met and I was relieved to have extricated myself from a very difficult relationship and I think that inspired the lyrics, щ made it through the wilderness, Somehow I made it through, I didn't know how lost I was until I found you, I was beat, Incomplete, I'd been had, I was sad and blue, But you made me feel shiny and new, Like a virgin. In writing those words I guess there were two things involved. One was the absolute chronicling of an important event in my life and the other thing was writing a song. If I was just writing a diary of what had happened to me in my life I don't think I would have used those exact words. I was aware that I was writing a song lyric when I wrote "Like a Virgin" I remember there was a little spark right when I put that down I said to myself, "That's a good hook!" At another time a year or two later I remember feeling the same thing when I wrote the line, "Your true colours are beautiful, Beautiful like the rainbow." A lot of people say to me, "When you write something do you know that it"s going to be a hit? and I would say, "Usually, no." But I just remember specifically "Like a Virgin" and "True Colours", even before a note of music was written, it felt like I had something really potent. A lot of people that I've worked with through the years have found it very curious that I have this process of wanting to write the lyrics before the music. Some people are comfortable with it. Some people say that they've never done it but they're willing to give it a try and some people absolutely refuse. They just say, "I can"' do it!" The fortunate thing for me was that Tom really loved it. He found that by having a title and a verse lyric and a chorus lyric written before he even started working on the music was inspiring to him.
Instead of it being limiting he found it really inspiring. It somehow helped him to find melodies and chords that could be inspired by the words. That was a lucky thing for me because not only did Tom have this great melodic gift, but he liked working from the process that I had already established. If he was someone that had the exact same melodic gift that he had, but insisted on all of the melodies and that the chords come first - I really wouldn't have been able to do that. Some lyricists prefer to work that way and excel at it. I don't. So it was very fortunate for me that Tom liked starting with the lyrics.
Q. Do you recall giving the lyrics to "Like a Virgin" to Tom and what his reaction was?
A. First of all, when Tom and I would get together to write, it would never be like I would give him the lyrics. It was never like a Bernie Taupin/Elton John situation, if I understand how they work. Tom and I would always write songs together even if he was going to write the majority of the melody and most of the chords. Still, I think we had a kind of chemistry together, where it just worked best if we were in the same room together. I can't think of any song we wrote together where I just gave him the lyrics. It just didn't happen. We always sat down in a room together with the idea that we were writing a song together because that would give me a chance to add to the lyric I'd written or subtract from it.
Q. So, did you take your journal notes that you had written for "Like a Virgin" along to the studio and expand on it?
A. Yeah, I had the lyrics I'd written and I think I probably just had the first verse lyric and the chorus lyric. Also I remember adding bits to the verse and just changing a few little bits.
Q. Are there any particular changes that you recall making?
A. No, it was pretty much there. The thing that is interesting is that Tom and I were not getting together to write a song for Madonna. When we wrote that song we'd never even heard of her because even her first album, that had "Holiday" on it, wasn't even released I don't believe. We were just getting together to write a song. That's true of all the hits we wrote unless we were writing with a member of a group, like writing "Eternal Flame" with Susannah Hoffs obviously that was for The Bangles. But other songs that we wrote together like, "I Drove All Night" or "Alone" for Heart or "True Colors"; we were just trying to write songs that we liked. It's a song writer issue. Some song writers write best when they're aiming for a certain artist. They like to be told, "We're looking for a song for Kelly Clarkson, write me a song for Kelly Clarkson." Then they get together and that's what they're working at. Tom and I never did that. We wrote songs just for the joy of it. We were drawing on the influence of the music we loved. We loved The Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Holland/Dozier/Holland songs that were written for Motown, we loved Smoky Robinson, Al Green and the Everly Brothers. So all this different music that we loved would influence what we were writing.
But with "Like a Virgin" I put the lyric in front of Tom and he starts reading the lyrics in sort of a serious voice, "I made it through the wilderness," and even before he got to the chorus I think his hands were on the piano and he starts singing, "I made it through the wilderness," and he's singing it almost like a ballad. It sounded pretty. Tom's got a real musical gift like I said, but then when he got to the chorus lyric it just sounded ridiculous. I mean "Like a Virgin" was kind of a bold thing to say and a sexy thing to say and it's not like a sober serious thought at all. I would always have several lyrics and we put that song aside and started something else. But I knew that it was a special lyric because, it was special for me because it was so personal and when something is so deeply personal it usually means that it's real, so it's sort of indisputable if you make something up you can always question it's validity. But if it's something that's based on something integral in your life you don't have to worry that it might be false. I knew it was a real sentiment and I knew it had a great title. In my mind it was a great title because I liked poetry and I liked playing with words. I liked the idea of writing something that was cutting edge and exciting so I knew I had something good there. So, I probably pulled the lyric out for the second time or the third time and he [Tom] would take another crack at the music. Eventually out of frustration he started playing just the bass line and I think it was sort of influenced by "I Can"t Help Myself" by The Four Tops or "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson. It was just that type of bass line. I don"t think it was a copy of another song. He started to sing the lyrics falsetto. We're talking about something that happened in about five to ten seconds. It wasn't something that was discussed. He just started playing the bass line and singing the lyrics in falsetto out of frustration and I just shouted, "That's it!!!" and he goes, "That, what?" and I said, "That's the right way to do the song!!!"
We would always use a little tape recorder when we were writing so we wouldn't lose any ideas, so it was recorded. I had to convince Tom that it wasn't silly because at the time he had been writing a lot of rock music and Tom has a really powerful voice where he can sing like Mick Graham from Foreigner, he could really belt out the rock songs. We hadn't been writing anything that was R'n'B influenced. So, all of a sudden he's playing this sort of Motown bass line and singing like Smokey Robinson. It was just so much fun to hear it that I said, "That"s it!!!" It didn't take him long to embrace the idea himself, because it was him singing he was the one to be a little more embarrassed for about five seconds. But once the two of us agreed that's where we were going with the song, it was just written very quickly. I just remember we made a very simple demo of it. We had a recording studio at Tom's house. It was an eight track recording set up and a Linn drum machine. Our demo was very simple. It was just that bass line, some synthesizer parts and this sort of skipping drum beat and that was it. The first thing you would be struck by is exactly how Madonna's record is exactly like the demo. As soon as Tom started playing that bass line and singing falsetto "Like a Virgin" became the song everyone knows. The ballad thing had been left in the dust. When we made the demo, it had everything on it that's on the Madonna record. Her record is just copied from demo.
Q. How did the song get in to the hands of Madonna?
A. We completed making the demo and we said, "What are we going to do with this song?" We had some contacts in the music business and we sent the song to several people. I don't remember who, I have no recollection. But I know the song was rejected by several people and I know a couple of people said to me, "It's catchy, but no one's going to sing a song with that title."
Q. What do you think the A-and-R people reacted that way?
A. I mean even today how many artists are there out there who would record a song called "Like a Virgin"? I think the female artists that were popular at that time before Madonna came out, I can't even remember who they were: Pat Benatar, Linda Rondtadt, Kim Carnes, Olivia Newton John, Dusty Springfield, if you were to have a list of those artists in front of you and if you were to say, "Well, could they have sung 'Like a Virgin'?" You would probably say, "No, they couldn't have." So for a short time there we were stuck with a song that we knew was good, but didn't really seem like it was going to be very easy to place. We scheduled a meeting with a guy named Michael Ostin. Michael's father Mo Ostin was the head of Warner Bros records and Michael was one of the top A-and-R people in his father's A-and-R staff and he came to Tom's house. At that I can't remember whether he came to either consider Tom and me as a recording act or if he was just looking for songs or both. But he came over and I remember we played him at least a half a dozen songs before we played "Like a Virgin". Then when we did play him "Like a Virgin" his eyes lit up and he said, "That would be a great song for Madonna." By the time we met with Michael I knew who Madonna was. My girlfriend at that time was an aerobics instructor and she used to use the song "Burning Up" to teach. I liked that song "Burning Up". I thought there was something really undeniably kind of fresh and melodic about it in a simple way. I liked that and I guess I had heard "Holiday". I knew who Madonna was and I think Tom maybe knew who Madonna was or maybe didn't. I don't know. Michael was immediately convinced that "Like a Virgin" was going to be a great song for Madonna.
Q. And what did you think about that?
A. I thought it was a great idea. I even think we started scheming about it right there on the spot and I really think I said to him right then and there, she could sing it wearing a wedding dress.
Q. Do you think Michael ever passed that on to her?
A. You know, he may have or it may have been such an obvious thing to do that she thought of it too. I don't want to take credit for that. I just know that I said it at that time. Then we did hear back that she liked the song and wanted to record it and we were thrilled.
Q. What did you think of Nile Rodgers' involvement in producing your song?
A. At the time, Tom and I were not exactly famous song writers. I had written a top ten hit for Linda Rondstadt and he had written a hit for Pat Benatar. We had a few covers but neither of us had what you'd call a huge famous song. So, I don't think anyone was too interested in what our opinions were of how the song should be recorded or by whom. I don't remember being consulted about it. All I knew is that Michael Ostin had the song and that Madonna was going to record it. He called us at some point and said, "Would you like to hear her recording of it?" Obviously we said "Yeah," I mean at that point in time we had never met Madonna or Nile Rodgers. To this day I've never met Nile Rodgers and I met Madonna once for about fifteen seconds. People often say, "What was it like to work with Madonna?" You know I never worked with Madonna.
Q. What did you think of the song when you finally heard it?
A. Tom and I both liked it a lot. We were really happy with it. We were really flattered because there were little things on the demo that we did that she imitated that went way beyond that went way beyond what most artists imitate from a demo. For example, on the end of the song when it goes, "Like a virgin, Feels so good inside, When your heart beats, When you hold me and you love me." That whole part was what you heard on our demo when it was fading into the distance. You'd have to turn the volume on the amp up as you could to even hear that stuff. So she copied every little thing. On the demo on the chorus it went, "Like a virgin," and in the background I went, "Hey!" Tom was singing it and I went "Hey!" and that was on our demo. So like every little thing was copied and I'd be the first one to tell you that other songs that we wrote like "True Colors" where the demo and the record is black and white. Our demo of "True Colors" is nothing like our demo. Hers is a different animal. It's a different thing altogether and she did a brilliant, very creative arrangement and all credit to Cyndi. In the case of Madonna, I mean I love the Madonna record. I think she sang it great. I think Nile Rodgers produced it well. No one could dispute the fact that they copied our demo down to the last thing.
Q. What's your opinion about that? Do you think that sometimes you just can't improve on perfection so to speak?
A. I'm glad they copied it. I think that when something's right why change it? The biggest difference between our demo and her record is that one has a guy singing falsetto and the other has got Madonna singing it.
I mean that is a really big difference when a guy is singing a song, but when a really, really sexy woman is singing the lyric it takes on a completely different meaning. I mean, when a girl named Madonna starts singing "Like a Virgin". Tom Kelly singing it falsetto is one thing but when Madonna sings it it's another thing because of the visual of looking at someone who looked like Madonna did at that time singing that lyric it was just like a lightning bolt.
Q. You briefly mentioned that you met Madonna rather fleetingly.
A. Tom and I met her several years later, I don't remember exactly. Madonna"s manager was a guy named Freddy DeMann and he was having a big party for his fiftieth birthday. Tom and I were invited to that party and that's where we met Madonna - the only time we ever did meet her.
Q. Were you and Tom able to give her any feedback about "Like a Virgin"?
A. I don't think she was interested in feedback. We met her and she was with Warren Beatty. I was introduced to her and Tom and I were there together and I said, "Madonna, it's great to meet you. I've wanted to meet you for so long," and she said, "Well now you did," and walked away. So there was no feedback. There was nothing like, "Great song guys!," or "What are you doing now?" None of that.
Q. What did you think about that at the time?
A. Well, I was devastated. Of course Tom thought it was hilarious. He thought it was really funny because he saw how excited I was to meet her and then how crestfallen I was and he couldn't help but laugh. I was okay with that I guess.
It didn't take long for me to think it was funny too.
Q. At what point were you aware that the song would make it on to the album, that it would be the title track for the album and the lead single? And were you excited about that?
A. Needless to say, I was really delighted that they chose it as the title of the album and the first single. I remember I got a promo copy of the album and it was milk white vinyl and I remember taking that vinyl out of the sleeve and it was this big white record. It just was a beautiful thing. I was spending a lot of time in L.A. at that time and I remember the pop station was and still is Kiss FM. I remember when "Like a Virgin" came out it was so popular and it was so requested that they used to play it twice in a row. The song would end and then they'd just play it again. Every day for six or seven weeks it was the most requested song for so many weeks. That was just fun. What more could a song writer hope for?
Q. And when the song hit #1 on the Billboard charts can you remember where you were at the time?
A. I don't remember, but I remember being elated.
Q. And what did you think of the controversy that surrounded the song and Madonna?
A. Well, I know a lot of people used to come to me and say, "On account of you, my daughter asked me what the word virgin meant." I got that a lot. I just thought it was fun. The whole thing was just fun.
Q. Madonna would debut "Like A Virgin" to the world at the MTV VMAs in 1984. Did you see that performance? What did you think of the reaction she got?
A. The timing is very interesting because she cut the song and they had the album in the can and they sort of had a release date for it and they kept having to push it back because "Borderline" came out and it was a hit an then "Luckystar" came out and it was a hit. They kept thinking her first album was going to die and they'd have this thing ready. But the first one just refused to die so they kept pushing it [Like a Virgin] back and I think they thought that by the time the MTV Awards came out the album would be out, but it wasn't. So, there she was on national television singing a song that wasn't even released yet called "Like a Virgin". Tom and I were told that she was going sing it at this awards ceremony. Usually someone would do that as a promotional thing when a song is already out. She could have very well gone on that award show and sang her hit "Luckystar" because that was on the radio at the time. In retrospect it was strange that she even sang "Like a Virgin" because the song wasn't released and the album wasn't released either. She could have safely sung "Holiday" or "Luckystar" or another song that people knew. When she performed it on the show, Tom and I thought this was our big chance to get a hit and there she was on the TV and it seemed very improvised. It didn't seem like it had been rehearsed because the camera didn't seem to know what she was going to do. I just remember that she was tumbling around on the ground and the camera seemed to catch her at an odd angle and it was sort of showing her thighs and I thought to myself, "Is this good or is this bad?" I didn't know what to think and I was just hoping that it wasn't going to ruin our song's chances.
Q. "Like A Virgin" has been performed on many of Madonna"s spectacular world tours as everything from a Middle-Eastern arrangement on her "Blond Ambition Tour" to a Marlene Dietrich inspired performance on "The Girlie Show Tour". Have you ever seen her perform live and if so, how does it make you feel watching Madonna perform that classic song that you co-wrote?
A. I think I've been to two of her concerts. The first one was called the "Virgin Tour". That one I must say, Tom and I were really kind of miffed. We really felt like we were part of this phenomenon. So, we called Freddy DeMann's office and asked if we could get some tickets to the "Virgin Tour". They said, "We're not sure if we're going to have any tickets. Call us back." So I called back a week later and they said, "We don't really know what's going on. Call us back a week later." And I'm thinking to myself, "We wrote 'Like a Virgin'. Why would they not accommodate us?" So then I called back like three days before the concert and they said, "We have some tickets, but you have to pay for them," I said, "I don't mind paying for them." So we paid for the tickets and they were like terrible seats. I remember we were way in the back. Anybody who had bought tickets would have had better seats than we had. We didn't have any backstage passes either. I remember all these people that were dancers and people that did her make-up and all these people were like way at the front and we had terrible seats with no backstage passes. I thought that was tacky! On that concert she just basically played it like it was on the record, but then the next tour I saw her perform it at must have been the Middle Eastern thing with the bed and I thought that was really cool too. I don't feel that she should perform the song the same all the time. I liked it when she changed it. I always feel sad when I hear she's doing a tour and not singing it at all. I think on her last tour she didn't sing it at all.
Q. What impact did the success of "Like a Virgin" have on your career, if any?
A. Tom and I just kept doing what we were doing. We just kept writing songs - the best kind of songs we could write. We didn't think, "Now we've got a formula, let's write more songs like that." We wrote four #1 songs after "Like a Virgin"; "True Colors" (Cyndi Lauper), "Eternal Flame" (The Bangles), "Alone" (Heart) and "So Emotional" (Whitney Houston) and I don't think that any of those songs are anything like the other. We wrote "I Drove All Night" (Cyndi Lauper) and that was a hit, we wrote "I Touch Myself" (The Divinyls) and that was a hit. I mean they're all different. I could tell you each one of those songs what it derives from. Not that they derive from individual songs, but they come out of things that we love. So I don"t think that "Like a Virgin" changed our song writing style. I think it changed our confidence level and I think also it changed the fact that we had more access to record producers and managers and A-and-R people. People were more excited about getting a Steinberg/Kelly song. So that was good.
Q. Can you tell me what you are currently working on today?
A. Well, Tom and I aren't writing together any longer. Tom is for the most part, you could say retired. He has a new born baby boy and he plays a lot of golf. I'm writing songs just as feverishly as ever. I have a new song writing partner - a fellow named Josh Alexander. He's in his early twenties and I'm in my fifties so we're quite different in age. But we're off to a really good start. We've been writing together for about two years and we have the new single for an artist named Fifi Dobson and we have three songs on her album. We have a song that is going be the next t.A.T.u. single - the song's called "All about Us".
We have three songs that are coming up by a group on Warner Bros called The Veronicas and we have a song that we're producing for a young artist here called Jojo and she's had a bunch of big hits. If I have any determination at all, it's that I want to write some more songs that have the impact that "Like a Virgin" has had.
Q. Madonna is often recognised for being incredibly clever about the artists that she collaborates with or whose material that she chooses to cover. What do you think that it was about your song that made Madonna want to record it?
A. I would say two things. Madonna recorded the song because she liked it as a song, a total song - the melody, the lyric, the style of music. I think Madonna's from Detroit. Motown is from Detroit and "Like a Virgin" is very Motown influenced. It's easy to see why just as a piece of music and melody it would appeal to her. I think above and beyond that the lyric had the impact that she was looking to make. She was somebody willing to sing that lyric and a fearless person who wanted to do rebellious things and make a splash and the song sounded like a hit and gave her the opportunity to make that splash.
Q. Madonna is often hugely underrated for her song writing and producing, which is perhaps her finest talent. What do you think this is?
A. I've followed her career. I wouldn't say that I would go out and buy every CD but I hear the singles and I know that if you were to look at a list of Madonna's hits, she has co-written the majority of those songs. Songs like "Like a Prayer", "Live to Tell", "Into the Groove" and "Music" and they"re wonderful songs.
I think people mistakenly think that she just adds her name on as a writer and she doesn't really write the songs, but I happen to know, because I know people who have written songs with her, that she is writing the lyrics and the melodies for those songs. She's really a fabulous pop song writer in her own right, aside from being Madonna an icon or whatever; she's a great song writer and should be perceived as such.
Q. Would you ever want to work directly with her and write with her?
A. Well, of course I would. Rick Nowells is a very close friend of mine and Rick wrote some songs with her a number of years ago. When he was writing with her, he and I were doing a lot of collaborating and I remember being very, very envious that he was asked to write with her. Not that he was asked to - I think he proposed it to her. However it happened, that he was going to be writing with her and that I wasn't involved, that she wasn't write with me or that I couldn't write with her - I just remember being extremely envious. Tom Kelly and I tried everything we could to propose co-writing with her in the aftermath of "Like a Virgin". We were just never able to put it together and if she ever wanted to write a song with me at any given time I'd love to do it. But, I"m certainly not going to hold my breath. Rick and I were writing a lot of songs together right around the time that he was working with Madonna and I remember thinking, "God, why can't I be part of it?" I really wanted to be there.
Q. Madonna is due to release a documentary about her last concert tour called "I'm Going to Tell You a Secret". She has been at the top of her game for over 20 years now. What do you think is her secret?
A. You might call some artists a one trick pony and they do one thing and either the public gets tired of that one thing or the artist stops being able to do that one thing. Madonna has in my mind one of the great pop singing voices. I think that Diana Ross was often underrated as a singer because Diana Ross is no Aretha Franklin, but she was the perfect voice for those Supremes songs. In the same way Madonna is very underrated as a singer. People always say, "Well, Cyndi Lauper could really sing, but Madonna couldn't really sing, or people would say, "Whitney Houston can really sing, but Madonna can't sing." But to my ear Madonna has a perfect pop singing voice in the same way that Diana Ross had a great pop singing voice. I think that Madonna had a lot of things going for her and it kept it going - her looks, her ability to write or find great songs. Whether it was a song she was writing or a song like "Like a Virgin" or "Papa Don't Preach" - she came up with great material. I think the dance element on her songs is something that the public loves. There are brilliant artists out there like Amy Mann or people like that who don't have that fun factor in their music. You could dance to it [Madonna's music] and it was fun and she has always been able to inject some of her personal feelings or angst into her material but I think first and foremost she has a great pop singing voice and you can dance to the music and its fun. She"s also one of the great beauties of the 20th century - that didn't hurt either. She just kept it going by changing.
It's the big cliche that she reinvents herself but in truth she was able to adapt to different styles and to different producers, whether it was Nile Rodgers or William Orbit, or whoever she was working with, she always managed to get the best out of people and moved on and got the best out of someone else. I think for all those reasons she"s had a long career.