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Special Interview: Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly Elected Into the Songwriters Hall of Fame

By Dale Kawashima
Neil Portnow
Tom Kelly (left) and Billy Steinberg, in the mid-'80s.
(photo by Glen Wexler)

When they wrote together during the 1980s and 1990s, Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly were among the most successful, renowned songwriters of this period. This Los Angeles-based team co-wrote five #1 hit singles, including "Like A Virgin" (for Madonna), "True Colors (Cyndi Lauper), "Eternal Flame" (the Bangles), "So Emotional" (Whitney Houston) and "Alone" (Heart). The duo also wrote several more Top 10 hits including "I'll Stand By You" (the Pretenders), "I Touch Myself" (the Divinyls), "I Drove All Night" (Cyndi Lauper), and "In Your Room" (the Bangles). Separately, Steinberg also wrote the hit "How Do I Make You" (for Linda Ronstadt) and Kelly co-wrote the hit "Fire And Ice" (Pat Benatar).

Now on the eve of their induction June 16 (2011) into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (the ceremony will be held at the Marriott Marquis Ballroom in New York City), Steinberg & Kelly took time out for this interview to discuss their great songwriting team, and tell how they created several of their memorable hit songs. Notably, other acclaimed songwriters who are being inducted this year into the Songwriters Hall of Fame are Allen Toussaint and John Bettis (in the non-performer category), and Garth Brooks and Leon Russell (in the performers category).

Here is the new Q&A interview with Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly:

DK: How did you two meet and start writing together?

Kelly: Billy and I met at a house-warming party that (hit producer) Keith Olsen was hosting. Keith is an old friend and he produced Pat Benatar and many other artists. We both had cuts with Pat Benatar ("Fire And Ice," "Precious Time") but we hadn't met yet.

Steinberg: Keith invited me to this party and I was happy to attend. At the time, I was living in the Coachella Valley (about a two-hour drive from Los Angeles) and I wanted to build my music contacts.

Kelly: I started talking to Billy and we hit it off. Keith's manager Bob Buziak was at the party, and he said that Billy and I ought to write together. Billy brought his guitar to the party, so we ended up in Keith's basement, singing and playing guitar.

DK: Which song was the first that you wrote together?

Steinberg:  It was a song called "Just One Kiss" which was later recorded by Rick Springfield. Before I started writing with Tom, I hadn't really collaborated before. I mainly wrote for my band which was called Billy Thermal. These songs were written in a more  intense, personal style. When Tom and I first started writing together, we had to figure out how the collaboration would go. It took me a little while to realize that my role was mainly writing lyrics. I realized Tom was a superior musician and he wrote wonderful melodies. I could contribute some music, but my strongest ability was writing lyrics.

Clive Davis, Jennifer Hudson, Neil Portnow
Pictured (l-r): Billy Steinberg, Chrissie Hynde of the
Pretenders, and Tom Kelly. They wrote the
Pretenders' hit, "I'll Stand By You."

Kelly: For me, there wasn't an adjustment period. I didn't like writing lyrics, so it was great to have Billy as a lyricist. My songwriting output improved tenfold because the lyrics were now written as quickly as the music.

DK: With your songwriting process, did you write the music or the lyrics first?

Steinberg: I would write the lyrics first, and then we'd work together, with Tom writing the music and I would contribute ideas (to help perfect the song).

DK: That's interesting that the lyrics would be written first.

Steinberg:  I understood song structure, so I knew how to write lyrics to fit a song form. Early on, I wrote poetry first, then I started putting poems to music. I eventually learned how to put lyrics into a good song structure. When I met Tom, I was still writing the lyrics first; I would show up at Tom's house with a group of lyrics.

Kelly: At first, I thought writing a song with the lyric first might be constricting. But it turned out to be easy.

DK: Which one of your songs was the first to become a hit?

Steinberg & Kelly: "Like A Virgin."

DK: How did you write this song?

Steinberg: It started with the lyric; I was driving around in my pickup truck and came up with the idea for the song. The idea came out of a personal experience. I had been in a difficult relationship, and when it finally ended and I met someone new, I wrote the line, "I made it through the wilderness...I was beat, incomplete, I'd been had." All of the lyrics just poured out.

Kelly: I especially related to the lyric at the time, since I was going through a tough divorce. Initially, I tried to compose a ballad or midtempo song to accompany the lyric, but it wasn't working. Out of frustration, I started to clown around, performing the song in an uptempo, Smokey Robinson-style, with falsetto vocals. Lo and behold, it worked.

DK: Early on, you formed a group named I-10, which released an album on Epic Records.

Steinberg: After we were together for a year, we decided to form a band called I-10. Tom and I had both been artists before. I-10 was mainly Tom and I recording an album with studio musicians.

Neil Portnow & Diane Warren
Billy Steinberg
(photo by Bruce Hulse)

Kelly: One of the songs from our I-10 album was called "Alone." A couple years later we recorded a new demo of "Alone" and submitted it to Heart (which became a #1 hit). The new demo was much better than our I-10 version.

DK: I love your song "True Colors." How did you write this song?

Kelly:  Billy brought in the lyric and I wrote the music pretty fast. The chorus lyric was beautiful, but the verse lyrics were abstract and not very commercial; he had written the lyrics about his mom. I asked Billy to make the lyrics more universal.

Steinberg: There exists in the world a group of songs which have words of encouragement, like "Lean On Me," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "I'll Be There". They have a special place in the world, because most songs are love songs. These songs are special--songs about encouragement or cheering someone up. What Tom recognized was that the chorus had the theme of universal encouragement, but that the first lyric I wrote was more specific; it was mainly about my mother. Tom had good comments; he said, "why not write new verses, that can be from one person to another?"

I like to write lyrics in a stream-of-consciousness way; it has a certain authenticity to it. "True Colors" was the first time I was faced with rewriting something--I didn't know how to do it. So it took some time to get it right.

DK: How was the song placed with Cyndi Lauper?

Kelly:  I have a longtime friend named John Baruck; he's a manager who now works with Irving Azoff.  I played John the song and he loved it; he said he could pitch it to Cyndi Lauper. John was close friends with Lennie Petze, who was Cyndi Lauper's A&R exec at Epic Records.

Steinberg: It was beyond my dreams that Cyndi would record "True Colors". I had a wish list, and she was at the top. These were artists that I would actually buy and listen to, that I loved creatively. Cyndi had just had a massive breakthough with her debut album (She's So Unusual). She was so artistic and at a great stage in her career. We were fortunate that Cyndi recorded "True Colors" and gave it an artistic interpretation. The song could have come across as more generic, but her version was quite different and very artistic.

DK: Your song "I'll  Stand By You" has become a standard. How did you hook up with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders to write this song?

Steinberg:  Jason Dauman (an entrepreneurial music pro) came to me and he said, "how about if I set up a collaboration with you and Tom, and a famous artist?" I suggested Prince, Bob Dylan and Chrissie Hynde--three people whose I music I loved but never expected to work with. Then he wrote a letter to Chrissie Hynde's manager at the exact time when she was interested in trying new ideas like co-writing. It was amazing; she got on a plane from London to L.A. and she came to our studio to work. This was in 1993.

Neil Portnow & Herbie Hancock
Tom Kelly

Kelly: The first song we wrote with Chrissie was called "Love Colours." At first, it was a bit intimidating writing with her. "I'll Stand By You' was the third or fourth song we wrote together. Billy and I both loved writing with Chrissie.

DK: Tom, you usually produced the demos and often did the singing. Did you mostly play all the instruments, or did you bring in other musicians?

Kelly: We often brought in a guitar player. I played most of the instruments, but I'm not a lead guitar player. In those days, the demos didn't need to be as fully produced as they do now. Nowadays, the demo almost has to sound like a master. Our demos were simple and seemed to work fine.

Steinberg: I noticed that on all five of our #1 hits, Tom played all the instruments on the demos. Susannah Hoffs sang the demos of our hits with the Bangles, and we brought in background singers for the "True Colors" demo. But interestingly, Tom was the only musician on these five demos. It's not just that Tom's a great musician. It says that when the song is really good, it doesn't need too much embellishment. When you have a well-written song, then less is more.

DK: Congratulations on being elected into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How did it feel to receive this honor?

Kelly: It was overwhelming. We were up against many great songwriters; it was a surprise. We're excited about going to New York for the induction ceremony (at the Marriott Marquis Ballroom). I wrote to Chrissie Hynde and asked if she could sing "I'll Stand By You" at the ceremony. We were happy that she said yes. And even better, she said that she wanted to come back with us to L.A. to write new songs! She said she wants to write a classic new song.

Steinberg: We're honored to be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Usually in the music industry and in the press, it's the artist who receives more recognition than pure songwriters like us. So we're very pleased to be honored as songwriters.

     
   
 
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