Songwriter Interviews

Jon Carroll of Starland Vocal Band

by Carl Wiser

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When he's in the studio or on tour, Jon Carroll doesn't reveal his secret: he was a member of the Starland Vocal Band, who brought us that smash hit of the '70s, "Afternoon Delight." You know, the song about a daytime romp that was titled after an item on an appetizer menu (see the Songfacts entry for the full story).

The four members were paired off, Abba-style, with their main songwriter Bill Danoff married to Taffy Nivert, and Jon coupled with Margot Chapman, whom he later married. The band lasted four years and four albums, with the headiest times coming in the aftermath of "Afternoon Delight," when they won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist and got their own variety show.

After Starland burned out, Jon became a solo artist, songwriter, and musician for hire. Highlights include writing the Linda Ronstadt hit "Get Closer" and touring as a keyboard player/vocalist with Mary Chapin Carpenter. As Jon explains, "Afternoon Delight" has not been all skyrockets in flight, but he's damn proud of it.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Have you always made a living in music?

Jon Carroll: Yeah.

Songfacts: So, you never had to stock shelves or swing a hammer?

Carroll: I get teased because of that. Mary Chapin Carpenter, with whom I still play, we were riding down an elevator in a hotel where we were playing, overhearing a corporate conversation, and she broke bad on me by saying, "You've never had to sit in a chair and listen to that kind of stuff."

I said, "I'm sorry Mary Chapin... am I being indicted for not ever having an office job? Is that what this is?" [laughs]

Songfacts: This all happened when you were very young. How old were you when you accepted the Grammy award?

Carroll: 19.

Songfacts: Geez.

Carroll: Yeah, I'm reminded of how old I am every year at the Grammys because they've been around as long as I have, so at the 19th Annual Grammy Awards I was 19.

I was 18 when we first started to get together. Washington, DC was really happening. Guys like Tim Hardin and Tom Waits would come in through a club called The Cellar Door, which was a sort of hub for songwriters. And the songwriters, the ones that took me under their wing, were Bill and Taffy.

They came out of the folk thing, and I came out of an R&B thing from Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I grew up until I was 12. I moved up to DC and those were the songwriters I glommed onto as far what this whole songwriting thing was about. Emmylou Harris had just left DC and gone to LA, hooked up with Brian Ahern, and she was a friend of Bill and Taffy. We co-wrote a couple of songs with her for Starland's second album. We did four albums - few people know about the second, third and fourth, which is a shame because they're good records, especially the second and fourth ones.

Songfacts: I'd like to hear about how "Get Closer" happened and what inspired the song.

Carroll: It was in the year right after Starland broke up. I had been working a lot in a studio in Springfield, Virginia, right outside of DC, Bias Recording. They had, and still have, a great piano. I was on a session there, and on the way out I stopped at the piano because I had this riff going through my head, and I started playing [plays piano].

I don't know why it ended up landing in 7/4 like that, which is an odd time signature but not as odd as a lot of people make it out to be. But before I realized that, Bob Dawson, who was the engineer on the session, hollered out from the control room, "What's that?"

I said, "It's just this riff," and then he said, "Man that's a cool riff, don't forget that." So, I went home and that was in my head.

There's all these different types of songs that come to you, but sometimes the nugget of them just comes from somewhere. In my head, I was hearing a kind of Leiber and Stoller shout, a call-and-response type of thing. I'm sure other songwriters do this as well, especially in R&B, but when you're grooving on something and you know where you want the vocal to be, you just start chiming and hollering phonetical things that aren't words. I was hollering and I started recording it the next day on a hand-held.

"You want love," that was the dog-bark of the tune, and then "Get Closer" was just because it felt good phonetically. It started from there.

As for the riff, the Pointer Sisters were having a hit with Bruce Springsteen's "Fire." I didn't realize this until later, but that's the rhythm. [plays piano to demonstrate - listen below]



And all it is, is eight beats, two measures, but the last quarter note of the second measure is forsaken in the interest of expedience. I call that an A.D.D. figure: you don't have the patience to wait for that extra quarter note before starting over. Somebody said, "I really like that because it makes the next line closer - you're getting closer to the next line."

The riff was something I didn't want to depart from because it felt so good, so I figured I'd depart by just changing the key and having the verses in a different melodic rhythm but have the bass stay the same rhythm. It brings it down to another key - it goes to the key of C from F, so that way it brings the melody out from that upper wheelhouse into more of a narrative.

It's got that thing that good party records have, which is starting with a chorus and then departing to the verse - the second act kind of starts with the first verse when you start with the chorus like that.

I've written many songs that have a lot more to say than that one, but when Linda Ronstadt recorded it, she didn't do the second verse, which was:

Why you laying on all that macho stuff?
Don't you think she's already had enough?


She didn't do that verse and my version has a horn break in it that they changed around. They wrote something else, which was fine with me. There's a funny story around that. Russ Kunkel played on her record. He was "drummer to the stars" - he played with Jackson Browne and James Taylor and everybody in the world out there. He was the LA rock and roll session drummer, and he played on the second Starland Vocal Band record, Rear View Mirror. After the "Afternoon Delight" record, we did that second record in LA at the Record Plant - that first one we did at A&R Studios with Phil Ramone in New York.

Russell was Margot's first cousin. Margot was the other gal in Starland Vocal Band, and of course, I was totally fixated on her because she was enchanting. I ended up marrying her - we were married until 1990 and our son is Ben Carroll, who is out in LA now. So, when we were in LA, we got to have her cousin Russell playing on our record, which was kind of a treat.

Bill started his own publishing company after the group ended - he had been with Cherry Lane Music the entire time up until then. Bill's company was a publishing company but they were also acting as my manager at the time, because they were trying to find a record deal for me. I had this cassette with four new songs on it, one of which was "Get Closer."

His company was making forays - promotional forays, networking forays - out to the West Coast, and one of the nights he was out there, he was together with Emmylou, who was our buddy here in DC. He, she and Linda Ronstadt were just hanging out, drinking wine, and listening to stuff, and Emmy asked what I was up to, because the group had broken up. He said, "It's funny you should ask, I have this cassette right here. You wanna hear it?"

Photo by Mary Chapin Carpenter
It had three tunes on it, including "Get Closer," and Linda immediately perked up when it played. She said, "Has anybody heard this? Is anybody interested in this at all because I really love this, it's great."

Bill said he took it to the Pointer Sisters because he noticed the similarity with "Fire," but when Linda got interested in it, they put it on hold. So, he personally put it in Linda's purse, and then she brought it to her producer, Peter Asher.

The song was on hold for about a year. We were checking in with Linda's people as much as we could without being pests to find out what the status of "Get Closer" was, because she had said that she liked it and she was going to record it. Well, they did cut it but we didn't know if they liked it or not. We checked in with Russell to find out what was going on, and he said, "You know, it's got this weird time signature which I really love but some of the guys are nervous about it, so we tried straightening it out and cutting it in 4/4 instead of 7/4, which is really 4 plus 3 over 4, and then we cut another one with a drum machine and all this stuff."

I said, "OK, at least you're giving it every chance it's got."

It turned out, all of those questions were answered with the best kind of yesses:

Yes, they cut it
Yes, it's gonna be on the album
Yes, it's gonna be a single
Yes, it's the title of the album

It surprised me that it was the first single because I looked at the record as soon as they sent it to me, and Jimmy Webb had a song on there called "Easy For You To Say," which I thought was the killer record of the album. It was like all the songs Karla Bonoff recorded that were just transcendently great. But they chose "Get Closer" as the first single.

After it was out, Margot and I went up to Russell's house above Sunset Boulevard... one of those houses up in the hills. We had to step out to go buy a bottle of wine or something, and Russell says, "Come on Jon, ride with me down the hill, it'll be fun."

I hop in the car and we're winding down the hill, heading down to the store, and all of a sudden, he pulls over on the side of the road, like something out of a David Lynch movie - it scared the shit outta me - he just pulls over on this gravel, scenic overlook. He says, "You gotta tell me the truth. How do you like it?"

"How do I like what?'"

"You know what I'm talking about. How do you like 'Get Closer'? It's your song and we recorded it and I wanna know what you think about it."

I went, "Oh shit, don't do this to me, Russell."

Because frankly, I have no detraction to offer whatsoever about Linda Ronstadt recording a song that I wrote. He was asking me to look a gift horse in the mouth. I kept begging out of the question because I didn't want to get into what I didn't like about it, but that's what he wanted to hear.

He says, "Alright, if there was one thing that you'd have different - I mean, we cut it with a drum machine..." [They ultimately opted for the version with Kunkel's live drums.]

I said, "No, I love that - you stayed true to the time signature, so thank you for sticking with the 4 plus 3 thing."

"Ok, what don't you like about it? There's gotta be one thing..."

I said, "Don't do this."

He says, "Come on, I'm not starting this car back up until you tell me."

So, I said, "Alright, the break. I like my break better - the one with the horn line."

He says, "I do too."

He was so sincerely concerned with how I felt about their version of it - I thought it was just so lovely of him.

You know what the best version of that record is?

Songfacts: What?

Carroll: It is a Johnny Carson Tonight Show appearance. She's wearing a frilly black dress and all of the guys in the band plus I think Kenny Edwards were singing backup with Rosemary Butler, Billy Payne playing the piano, Danny Kortchmar and Andrew Gold playing guitars, Bob Glaub on bass and Russell playing drums. Linda sang it exactly the same as the record, and they were all dug in and killin' it.

Songfacts: Yeah, I had a theory that they chose it as a single because they wanted Linda to be on MTV, but Peter Asher set me straight on that - he said it had nothing to do with it, they just liked the song.

Carroll: I had never heard that before, but we hung out with her a couple of times during the time she was recording it. The essence of her ethos at the time, artistically was, and I quote, "This is the last record I'm doing for kids. This is it." So that album has the dubious distinction of being the last rock and roll record she made. After that, she made jazz standards records and did Mariachi music. She was a trend setter there. She was the first rock and roll singer that decided to do a record of standards.

Perhaps it hardened her resolve if her people were clamoring to MTV-erate her.

Songfacts: How do you remember your time in Starland Vocal Band?

Carroll: Starland was quite a frustrating four years. We did four records but it was like we were running with ankle weights on the whole time because we weren't taken seriously. Jerry Weintraub [their manager] treated us like a convenient plug-in element for whatever was going on in other schemes. That's how we ended up doing the TV show instead of a promotional tour after our second album - a follow-up to an album that had a #1 single on it two weeks in a row. I'm as proud of "Afternoon Delight" as if I'd had to live it down.

Songfacts: What do you mean by that - you're as proud of it as you had to live it down?

Carroll: I'm very proud of it, and all the folks who love that record love it up and down. I'm so happy that it is the one that was a hit because it was always fun to sing it. We never got tired of singing "Afternoon Delight."

At the Grammy Awards where we won Best New Artist and Best Vocal Arrangement, which I am very proud of because it was one of my roles in the group, Morris Albert comes up to Bill at one of the receptions, and he says, "You wrote 'Country Roads' and 'Afternoon Delight.' Will you write me a song? I'm so tired of singing 'Feelings.'" I thought, that's kind of sad, man.

But "Afternoon Delight" is not the kind of record for someone who wants to be perceived as a bad-ass rock and roller. It's not cool to like that record, right? I was 18 when we recorded it, and it came out and I couldn't believe that they chose it as a single. Of course, I'm an idiot, because I was 18. You know the Mark Twain adage: "Young men think old men are fools; old men know young men are fools." Now I'm an old man, and yes, I'm a fool.

But I didn't know at the time. We had another record on that album called "Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll!," and to me it grooved better and I could wail on it. I thought it would be the first single because it rocked - I kind of liked it. "Afternoon Delight" was the first? Are you serious?

And then we went on the road with John Denver for three tours that he was nice enough to bring us onto at the last minute. Of course, when you take into account it was his record label we were on, it was a wise business move. But he did have to be talked into it.

Bill and Taffy Danoff wrote "Take Me Home Country Roads" with John Denver and sang backup on the song. Denver was a heavy hitter with RCA Records, with his own vanity imprint, Windsong, which Starland Vocal Band joined when they got their deal with RCA.
It was Windsong Records and that label was owned by John and Jerry Weintraub and Milt Okun, who was our producer and publisher at the time, so I suppose there was some conflict of interest there. But basically, we were all on the same team one way or another. The promotional guys at Windsong asked us if we would be willing to do some glad-handing and some radio station visits and some cocktail parties with rack-jobbers. We said "sure," and I gotta say we did it really well because there were four of us and each of us were loquacious and we liked people. Margot was pretty shy the whole time but that was her role in the group - she was kind of the mysterious dark one. Taffy was kind of a cross between Bette Midler and Grace Slick, and Bill was the mastermind songwriter. I was the vivacious kid who looked like Kristy McNichol.

When you're opening for a big tour like that, you need 40 bullet-proof minutes of a set that works every night. You sing the same songs, you say the same things, you have the killer lines. We were doing the 40-minute set that had "Afternoon Delight" about the fifth song in, and then we stayed out for an extra encore type of a song, and it was "American Tune," which was this a capella arrangement I did of a Paul Simon song for the four of us to sing. We would stand on the turntable that John stood on, raised in the round stage of these big colosseums, and we would face east, west, north, and south and sing it. No one had seen anything like that. It was actually pretty cool.

We would check out Cashbox and Billboard to see what radio stations added "Afternoon Delight." After a show in Cincinnati, we visited a station and saw people calling in to request it. It was like in the rock and roll movies when you see somebody go on the road, and they're playing something that everybody really likes, and all of a sudden, it's on the radio and it's a hit record. It was pretty cool, and it was a hit record on July 4, 1976. It was #1 in the country.

Songfacts: And it took on a life of its own after that. It was used on Anchorman and it became one of these songs that kept going as opposed to one of these flash-in-the-pan hits that just disappeared.

Carroll: Yup, they're still playing "Afternoon Delight" but they're not playing "Moonlight Feels Right." [by the band Starbuck] I don't mean to deride anybody's record because I love "Moonlight Feels Right." There was a Rolling Stone article years ago where the writer was embedded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the "Learning To Fly" video shoot out in the desert, and they were debating whether "Afternoon Delight" was Starbuck or Starland. Stan Lynch bounds into the trailer at the tail end of the debate and says, "Oh God, the top of the heap of wimp rock," or something like that. I remember reading that just going, "What the fuck?"

Here's another example of culturally what it was and what it is. I was doing one of my runs in the afternoon somewhere in Wisconsin, and I was listening to John Fugelsang's show on Sirius XM on the Insight channel. They played "Afternoon Delight" and his sidekick, Frank Conniff, says, "You know, this record gets a bad rap. This is really great... a really musical record." Frank Conniff has already won my heart because he's a huge Laura Nyro fan, but they were singing the praises of it up and down.

When I'm on tours, I always know the day when word gets out that I was in Starland Vocal Band. I feel it as soon as I walk in the stage door. And sometimes they'll take it a little far. We had a tour manager that just kept making jokes, and it was like, Dude, are you done?

But the real verdict that made me feel so great is when we were doing one of our final retro-spasms [Jon's term for a nostalgia show]. The last one we did was one of those PBS fundraiser things: Soft Rock of the '70s. It was the only one where we had to lower the key, which really pissed me off.

The one before that was Oprah Winfrey's '70s Jukebox. We were all in the green room, and no one's allowed onto the sound stage until it's your slot to do your song. Other acts on the show that day were Rose Royce "Car Wash," McFadden and Whitehead "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," Alicia Bridges "I Love The Nightlife," and Morris Day and The Time, which is one of my favorite groups of all time. We were going on last that day, and I got the uh-oh feeling huge. Bill never got it. Bill says, "Really, you're worried about that?" And I said, "Yes man, Morris Day and The Time - that's one of the funkiest groups, and McFadden and Whitehead, I love those records." He was like, "Yeah but we had our record too." And I said, "Yeah but we were doing the record they made fun of on Good Will Hunting." I felt we were perhaps being set up to be the butt of a joke.

Jon when he looked like Kristy McNichol
It's always contextualized in some ridiculous way, which always pisses me off a little bit, but it also makes me aware that there's something endearing about it. Of all the usages of it, my favorite was Malcolm In The Middle when they're finally getting out of the house and the boys are finally sorted out and Mom and Dad are going out on their own. She's got her leg up on the dashboard of the Dodge Caravan, and she's shaving it.. She's all lathered up and the radio is on playing "Afternoon Delight."

Anyway, that day, I'm in the men's room being anxious and in comes Jerome [Benton] from Morris Day and The Time. He says, "I just love that record man. The singing on that is so great, the harmony is so great and it's such a fun song." That made me feel better.

For some reason, I had it in my mind that we were gonna follow all those funky R&B acts and sing what is not an R&B or funky record at all. We weren't allowed to see the audience until it was time to do it, and then we came out and the song started up and the crowd just went ape-shit. I'm very proud of the song but I really had to live it down.

Songfacts: Did you actually play on it?

Carroll: Yes, Bill and I both played on it. We actually recorded another version of it at RCA about six months prior because we got the record deal and we had a bigger budget to do a whole album. We had gone in and cut it as a single side because Bill and Taffy owed two or four sides on their RCA deal, which got bought up by the new deal. But we cut it once and we kind of went in without much direction, but we had been playing it live. Bill played 12-string and I played acoustic 6-string.

We were at A&R with Phil Ramone and we were sitting in chairs and we were playing that, and it was the first time in my life where it was that wonderful door-opening of making a record as opposed to playing something live, which is, "Let me work on this riff to make it just right and play it exactly right."

We all worked a long time coming up with what the "skyrockets" should be. We thought about making it a sound effect, but we didn't want it to be too gimmicky. And Danny Pendleton, who played pedal steel with us the whole time we were a group and was one of the original members of Emmylou Harris' band when she was in DC, he said, "Why don't I just turn on every pedal I've got and just go, "Whirrrr." And as soon as he did it, it was clear to everybody that was it.

In Anchorman they go, "Skyrockets in flight... pe-ewwww." That brought "Afternoon Delight" into the vanguard of that particular generation culturally. That and The Simpsons.

Songfacts: That's great stuff.

Carroll: Vocal groups are a lot of fun. I got a vocal group right now. People love to hear people singing in harmony - there's no two ways about it.

Songfacts: Do you still perform this song when you go out and play?

Carroll: No. I don't. I never have. First of all, it's a vocal group song and the only rendition that I've ever heard that was done respectfully in terms of the musicality was this group Lake Street Dive. They did a really fun video, and they've got some amazing singers in that band.

I actually did do it one time. It was a solo show I was doing in Ohio. Do you know who know who Don Dixon is?

Songfacts: No.

Carroll: Don Dixon had a group in the '70s called Arrogance. He's a great artist and musician who's also produced tons of artists like R.E.M. and The Smithereens. He and his wife Marti Jones were sort of the darlings of the '80s New Wave scene. They were kind of like Sonny and Cher in the New Wave songwriter years. They live in Canton, Ohio, now. But the show I did out there was called Dixon's Basement and it was really great - kind of a black box singer/songwriter series. I sang "Afternoon Delight" with Don, Marti, and their daughter, Shane. We just did a verse and a chorus, and the crowd went crazy.

That's the only time I've done it that way. You need four singers to do it right, because it needs to have the harmony. Sometimes in my shows, I'll sing it like a duck or something.

May 29, 2018
Hear Jon's original version of "Get Closer" on joncarroll.org - a live version is below
The three archive photos are used with permission from Bill Danoff, who has a treasure trove of photos and stories at billdanoff.com



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Comments: 5

  • Mpc from Washington DcJon, your talent is eclipsed only by your humility and gentle soul. Your heart of gold shines through everything you do, on and off the stage.
    Just so very fitting that you had the #1 on the Fourth of July of our country’s bicentennial. A wonderful, enduring memory of a gentler time.
  • Dj from Phoenix, AzAfternoon Delight is an American classic song. It brings people back to that time in their life Everytime they hear it. My Dad loved that song so much he bought a Chevy van and customized it (he totally rocked it out) and named it afternoon delight. That was one of the best summers off my life. We took our van to the drive in movie and hooked up the boat and went out on the lake and listened to afternoon delight along with so many other great sounds of the 70's. My dad passed away in 2012 but everytime I hear that song he is with me and that great summer comes flooding back to me with so many great memories. Nothing to live down Jon Carroll you and Starland Vocal Band created a hall of fame song that makes people feel good and will always for generations to come.
  • Piperh Pierson from Florida It’s great to read this find out that Jon didn’t actually hate all his time with Starland and read his admittance that he liked Starlands 1979 release 4x4;Bill Danoff didn’t like that album
  • Tony Brice from Lafayette, GeorgiaCarroll said that Linda Ronstadt is the first Rock and Roller who did an album of standards. Ringo Starr released "Sentimental Journey" in 1970.
  • Betty Schuler from Alexandria, VirginiaThis has been a helluva great step back into music history for me; especially since Afternoon Delight is my all time favorite song!! Awesome interview!?
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