Saturday, December 11, 2010

Madonna: Interpreter

She may have sang "Holiday," but as an interpretive singer, Madonna was probably no Billie Holiday. And yet, particularly early in her career, an interpretive singer is precisely what she was. Here are some of the major Madonna hits that Madonna did not write:

"Holiday" (Curtis Hudson/Lisa Stevens)
"Borderline" (Reggie Lucas)
"Like A Virgin" (Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly)
"Material Girl" (Peter Brown/Robert Rans)
"Crazy For You" (John Bettis/Jon Lind)
"Dress You Up" (Andrea LaRusso/Peggy Stanziale)

Those are some pretty big hits right there. Indeed, who are these people? Let's start at the start.

In 1983, Madonna was recording her eponymous debut album with Warner Bros producer Reggie Lucas, after Sire Records green signaled it when her first single "Everybody" became a club hit.[2] However, she did not have enough material for the album.[3] Lucas brought two new songs to the project and John "Jellybean" Benitez, a DJ at Funhouse disco was called to remix the available tracks ... It was Benitez who discovered a new song written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of the pop group Pure Energy.[4] The song, titled "Holiday", had been turned down by Phyllis Hyman and Mary Wilson, formerly of The Supremes.[5] After the vocals were added by Madonna, Benitez spent four days and tried to enhance the commercial appeal of the track before the April 1983 deadline.[3][5] Just before it was completed, Madonna and Benitez took the tape over to their friend Fred Zarr's apartment in Brooklyn.[5] Zarr added a piano solo in the intermediate section of the track.[4]
So let's hear it for John "Jellybean" Benitez and Fred Zarr. Unfortunately, there is no Wikipedia hyperlink for Curtis Hudson, Lisa Stevens, or even Pure Energy as a group. It turns out that one of the greatest pop songs of all time was apparently written by a bunch of nobodies. Albeit nobodies with royalty checks that are probably larger than my yearly salary.


Wikipedia doesn't tell us much other than that it was "written and composed by producer Reggie Lucas" - the producer of Madonna's debut album. Maybe it does sound a little too harmonically complex for a young Madonna. By comparison, to learn that she wrote "Everybody" is not especially shocking.

"Like A Virgin":
"Like a Virgin" was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Steinberg explained that the song was not only not written for Madonna, it was not even written for a female singer but was inspired by his personal experiences.[1]

"I wasn't just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was saying ... that I may not really be a virgin — I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people — but I'm starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it's healing all the wounds and making me feel like I've never done this before, because it's so much deeper and more profound than anything I've ever felt.[1]"
Or it could mean you feel like you're being fucked for the first time. Either way it works.
In mid-1984, Madonna met up with producer Nile Rodgers at the then Power Station studios in New York.[3] Rodgers initially did not want Madonna to record "Like a Virgin", as he felt that the lyric 'like a virgin' was not a terrific hook, according to him it was not an all-time catch phrase.[1] Madonna did not care about the song either, after hearing the demo, she thought that it sounded "really stupid and retarded". Later, Madonna had second thoughts, "It's weird because I couldn't get it out of my head after I played it, even though I didn't really like it. It sounded really bubble-gummy to me, but it grew on me. I really started to like it, [...] But, my first reaction to it was, 'This is really queer.'"[4] Rodgers credits Madonna with recognizing the song's potential, he later said: "I handed my apology to Madonna and said, 'you know... if it's so catchy that it stayed in my head for four days, it must be something. So let's do it.'" Hence the song was finally recorded.[1][4]

Steinberg reflected on the recording process and commented that: "When Madonna recorded it, even as our demo faded out, on the fade you could hear Tom saying, "When your heart beats, and you hold me, and you love me..." That was the last thing you heard as our demo faded. Madonna must have listened to it very, very carefully because her record ends with the exact same little ad-libs that our demo did. That rarely happens that someone studies your demo so carefully that they use all that stuff. We were sort of flattered how carefully she followed our demo on that. It was the perfect union, I knew it from the first day in the studio. The thing between us, man, it was passionate, it was creative. [...] Madonna was sometimes temperamental during the recording, everyone told me she was a terrible ogre, but I thought she was great.[5]"
Well, she's got one vote in her corner at least.

"Material Girl":

According to Wikipedia, Peter Brown is an artist, songwriter, and record producer who popularized the ARP Synthesizer and helped found House Music in the '70s. His song "Do You Want To Get Funky" became "the first gold 12" single in history." I guess a lot of people wanted to get funky. Here's what Brown had to say about a slightly more famous creation:
"We were trying to write a song for her and we were brainstorming for some musical direction that seemed to suit her. I was driving home when I started humming the chorus to a song. I could hear the whole thing in my head as if it were a finished record. It was all there in a flash, music and lyrics. Living in a material world, living in a material world. It is the one and only time a song has come to me like that - like a gift from heaven. I remember forcing myself to sing it over and over while I made my way home so as not to become distracted by something else and forget it completely. When I got home I quickly played and sang it into a recorder to lock it in. There was her song."
And there was your songwriting career.

"Crazy For You":

John Bettis bears the noble distinction of having written the lyrics to both a major Madonna song and a major Michael Jackson song ("Human Nature"). Jon Lind is responsible for Earth, Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" and Vanessa Williams' "Save The Best for Last," a song that will forever give me the depressing junior high school dance creeps. But who could have predicted that behind the seemingly banal surface of "Crazy For You" there lurked an epic artistic struggle?:

The ballad was released as the first single from the soundtrack of the 1985 film Vision Quest, a coming of age drama about a wrestler played by Matthew Modine.[1] Producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, and music director Phil Ramone was aware of the then unknown Madonna, who was just signed to Sire Records. Ramone took her for dinner at his house in Carolwood Records, where she played some of her music videos. Ramone and the other Warner executives present there, were impressed by Madonna's self-possession and fishnet-crucifix style.[2] So they decided to test her voice in a New York studio. Peters was impressed with Madonna and assigned Joel Sill, an executive in charge of music at Warner Bros. Pictures, to handle the recording of the two songs for the film.[2] Sill sent the script of the film to Bettis and Lind.[1] After going through the script, Bettis wanted to write a song about the situation, where the main characters – a young boy and a girl boarding at a house – dance together at a nightclub.[1]

He elaborated,"We were noodling around and 'Crazy for You' was something that Jon was singing over that section of the song. It was really descriptive of the scene in the film. [...] After that, I was out on vacation out in the desert and [Sill] called and said Phil Ramone was in love with the song and wanted to cut it on Madonna. [Laughing] 'Borderline' was out at that time and I said, 'Excuse me? This is for Madonna? Really? Can she sing a song like this?' Jon and I were surprised at the choice of artist at the time, if you want to know the truth."[1]

After Sill let Bettis and Lind know that Madonna was singing the song, some time elapsed before either of them heard anything from Warner Bros. Records. In between, they went to one of the recording sessions and were not impressed with the process of recording the song.[1] Bettis commented, "We went to one of the sessions, and to be honest, that particular session did not go all that well. [...] Jon and I were depressed about the way the song had come out. We heard nothing else about it and we were a little nervous that the song was going to be dropped from the picture."[1] Bettis went to England to work on the 1985 fantasy film Legend with music producer Jerry Goldsmith. It was there he received a call from Lind, who informed Bettis that a new version of "Crazy for You" was recorded and was made ready for a single release.[1] Bettis was surprised and went over to Lind's house, where he warmly received the new recorded version of the song. It had a different arrangement from the demo version, and the arrangement was done by composer Rob Mounsey who rearranged the original track and added the background vocals. Bettis said: "We owe a big debt of gratitude to [Mounsey]. He really made a hit record out of [the song]."[1]
Yes, Rob Mounsey, without your tireless sacrifice, where would we be? In a world without "Crazy For You"? No, I can't even think of it.

"Dress You Up":
"Dress You Up" was the last song to be included on the Like a Virgin album. Producer Nile Rodgers had initially asked songwriters Andrea LaRusso and Peggy Stanziale to write a chic-styled song for Madonna.[1] However, the writing took time, since both LaRusso and Stanziale were busy with other projects.[2] When the lyrics of the song was submitted, Rodgers rejected it as there was no time to compose a melody and record it for the album. However, Madonna liked the lyrics of the song, and persuaded Rodgers to include it on Like a Virgin.[2]
And when Madonna likes a song, it goes on the album.

So what's the verdict?

1) Some of the most famous pop songs of the '80s were written by some very obscure people.

2) Even though she did not write these songs, Madonna certainly made them her own. So much so that no one would even dare to think of the possibility of their having originated from the talents of anyone else. No one ... other than Little Earl, that is.


Herr Zrbo said...

"...he felt that the lyric 'like a virgin' was not a terrific hook, according to him it was not an all-time catch phrase"

- he probably should have been fired right then

"Vanessa Williams' "Save The Best for Last," a song that will forever give me the depressing junior high school dance creeps"

- funny enough, I don't think I've actually heard this song since a junior high dance

"Ramone and the other Warner executives present there, were impressed by Madonna's self-possession and fishnet-crucifix style."

- in other words, they thought she looked slutty and they wanted to sleep with her

Little Earl said...

Oh Zrbo, we really do make an excellent team.