Steve Dorff (Growing Pains theme, "Through The Years")

by Dan MacIntosh

Steve Dorff, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018, has a number of hits to his credit, "Through the Years" (Kenny Rogers), "Fire In The Morning" (Melissa Manchester), and "I Just Fall In Love Again" (Anne Murray), among them. But his song you know by heart is probably the Growing Pains theme, "As Long As We Got Each Other." He also did music for Murder She Wrote, Murphy Brown and Major Dad. On the film side, he also wrote "Every Which Way But Loose," a hit for Eddie Rabbitt that was the title song from the popular Clint Eastwood movie - the one with the orangutan Clyde.

In this interview, Dorff tells the stories behind many of these songs, and explains why he writes 25 songs a year instead of 250.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): You've written a lot of songs for movies and television. That seems like kind of a niche market. How did you get started writing those types of songs, and was there one particular song that got your foot in the door?

Steve Dorff: The market and the genre of music for television has changed so drastically from the time I got in it. I was a songwriter and was scoring film and television. There were a handful of guys that had written hit songs and also understood the mechanics of scoring for the orchestra for television and film back then. So, when I was asked to do a pilot for ABC TV, which was Growing Pains, that was really the first theme that was kind of a pop song, where I got pop hit recording artists - B.J. Thomas and Jennifer Warnes – to record it. So that was the catalyst for me being asked to do that many times over the years.

Shows like Just The Ten Of Us, which was the spin-off for Growing Pains, My Sister Sam, Murphy Brown, all those television shows back then wanted theme songs, so that was the beginning. Then I branched into movies because I had really good relationships with Gary LeMel at Warner Bros., who was head of music for the studio. And when there was a film project that came along that he needed a song for, I was one of the guys that got the call to try to come up with something. And certainly, Every Which Way But Loose, the Clint Eastwood film, which was my first #1, that didn't hurt. So, for me, it was always about being afforded the opportunity to write something for those projects. And fortunately, I came through most of the time.

Songfacts: Talking about the Growing Pains theme song, you had no idea B.J. Thomas and Jennifer Warnes would be singing that, right?

Dorff: No, I had no idea. In fact, when I saw the pilot, I didn't think it had a snowball's chance in hell of going on the air, let alone running seven seasons and being a #1 show. You just never know whether a film or a television show is going to be a hit or not.

Actually, when I first played that song for the producers of the show, they had suggested Frankie Valli to sing it. We thought about that for a bit, but I had had a relationship with B.J. - he had recorded some of my songs - and I just think his voice is so unmistakable. I just didn't think that Valli was the right fit at the time. Thankfully, B.J. wanted to do it, and then we had a hit record with B.J. and Dusty Springfield.

Songfacts: So, Jennifer Warnes is the female vocal with B.J.

Dorff: For the show. For the fourth season of the show, we replaced her with Dusty Springfield to do the record.

Songfacts: A couple of A-list singers, right there.

Dorff: Absolutely.

Songfacts: You've written for so many types of music – rock, pop, R&B and country – and I wonder what kind of music you love the most. Is there a style where you feel like that's your style?

Dorff: Listening to music and writing it are two different things. When I'm in my car – and I don't listen to music much because I'm doing it almost 18 hours a day – I love to listen to instrumental film music like Dave Grusin, Bacharach. Those are my inspirations. Theater music. I love great old theater songs. That's my style in writing. I think I now have my own signature – little things I do with chords and voicings that have made my own sound.

Obviously, I love the Beatles, too, but I don't really listen to a whole lot anymore because I'm doing it so often. I like to listen to sports or the news when I'm in the car most of the time.

Songfacts: Let's talk about "Through the Years," a huge it for Kenny Rogers. Do you recall the experience of writing that song, and was it inspired by any true-life stories?

Dorff: I wish I could tell you "yes." I recall it vividly because I wrote a whole chapter about it in my book [I Wrote That One, Too...]. I wrote that song with Marty Panzer. I wrote that song, I'd say, in about 12 minutes. I know that because I yelled into my wife at the time, "How long until dinner's ready?" And she said, "About 15 minutes."

Marty Panzer, who had just shown me the lyric, was over for dinner and we went into the back room and wrote the song before dinner. It was one of those that just kind of fell out of the sky.

Songfacts: What was the response from Kenny Rogers' people?

Dorff: Kenny was actually the third or fourth person that was approached with that song. Barry Manilow and Mac Davis passed on it. Glen Campbell passed on it. Those were the notable ones. Lionel Richie had heard the song and loved it and played it for his people and that's how it happened [Richie was Kenny Rogers' producer at the time]. I got a phone call from Gene Page, that great arranger, who called me and said, "Congratulations! We just cut your song with Kenny Rogers, and it sounds amazing." So, it was one of those nice surprises.

Songfacts: You said you've never been good at predicting which shows would be a hit. Have you ever written a song that you just somehow knew would be a hit?

Dorff: Yes, I think so. I wrote a song called "I Just Fall In Love Again" that was a big hit for Anne Murray, recorded first by Karen Carpenter, and then by Dusty Springfield before Anne cut it, and Anne had the big hit with it. I always thought that was going to be a monster, from the minute we did the demo.

But some of them take longer than others. A song called "I Cross My Heart," that was a huge hit for George Strait, and I knew that was a hit. It took eight years to get it to the right voice. I always say that what makes the recipe for a hit is a great song with the right voice. It's got to be a great marriage between the artist and the song. In the case of "I Cross My Heart," it took longer than I had hoped, but I have songs right now that are waiting to happen.

Songfacts: Is there a story behind the song "Fire In The Morning"?

Dorff: It was a song I was really happy with. My friend Steve Buckingham was producing an album with Melissa Manchester. He called me and said, "Do you have a great song for Melissa? I sent him two songs, and "Fire In The Morning" was one of them. He called me and said he loved it. He played it for Clive Davis, and Clive loved it and Melissa loved it.

Songfacts: How often do you write songs with particular vocalists in mind? Can you think of instances where that happened?

Dorff: Almost never. This past year, I was asked to write a song for Barbra Streisand's new album Walls, and it was kind of a specific song that she wanted to sing about. A specific topic. And so, Marty [Panzer] and I sort of channeled our best Barbra Streisand and wrote a song called "Love's Never Wrong," and it's on the album. Very rarely do I sit down and actually say, "Hey, I'm going to write a song for George Strait today." I just try to write the best song I can and leave it up to the song gods to put it in the right voice.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Cowboys And Clowns," which is a great title. Did the title come first?

Dorff: It actually did. That was a title that Snuff Garrett gave me. He wanted a song called "Cowboys And Clowns" for a movie called Bronco Billy, which was Clint Eastwood. Larry (Herbstritt) and Gary (Harju) and I wrote that for the movie, and Ronnie Milsap recorded it. We thought it was a great opening title song, and Clint decided to put it over the end credits. So, he did, and Milton Brown and I wrote another song called "Bronco Billy," which played over the opening credits. Ronnie Milsap did both of them.

Songfacts: How often do the producers and the directors and actors interact with the folks that write the songs?

Dorff's son, Stephen, is an actor whose credits include True Detective, Star and Blade.
Dorff: The producers and the directors, in most cases, they're very involved with the music in the film. They want the best possible outcome for their film or TV show, so they're definitely in the kitchen helping cook things up once we have the song and we're deciding who's going to do it and where it's going to play in the actual film.

Songfacts: And some directors are more musically inclined than others. I know Clint Eastwood loves jazz, so he really appreciates music, and then I've always really enjoyed Martin Scorsese films because he loves music. Who are some of the people in Hollywood that appreciate music more than others?

Dorff: Well, for sure Clint. And Burt Reynolds did. Several projects I worked with Burt, he was very involved with the music. Most creative guys like that are music fans and they have their favorites. John Hughes loved music. I did a song for his last movie, Curly Sue, which was the end title and I had Harry Nilsson in mind to record it, and then John wanted Ringo [Starr], so we ultimately got Ringo to do it. One of the biggest thrills of my career was to get to produce one of the Beatles.

A lot of the TV producers and directors I've worked with have been very musical and had their fingerprints on who does what and what music plays where. And then, on occasions, I've worked with directors that have said, "You do it," and given me license to do what I thought was best for the song and best for the show.

Songfacts: When have you written songs where you had to step out of yourself and get into a character that wasn't like you?

Dorff: There was a lyric by Paul Williams, who I wrote a really cool song with for Rocky IV. It's called "Double Or Nothing." We wrote that song, and it was recorded by Kenny Loggins and Gladys Knight. Paul wrote this lyric, and I just did the music to his lyric, so what it was saying didn't have my life experience in it. It was probably more Paul's. So, being the composer on a lot of these songs, where I don't have an imprint on the lyric, those don't really carry my life experiences as do certain others.

Songfacts: Do you like collaborating?

Dorff: Oh yeah. I collaborate 95% of the time on songs. As opposed to when I'm writing scores. That's just me at a piano because I don't have to think about words. I don't have to think about the constraints of three-and-a-half minutes or time signatures. It's pretty much an open palette for me to do whatever I want.

Songfacts: What are some of your favorite experiences in writing scores?

Dorff: A Western that I did called Rose Hill, for Hallmark Hall of Fame. I was afforded a big budget for the Western. It was pretty much the same for Blast From The Past, which was a feature with Alicia Silverstone. Every project has its own character and has its own shape of music that kind of dictates to me what it should be.

Songfacts: When you go to the movies, do you ever get distracted by the music?

Dorff: That's a good question because I do find myself listening to the score in a lot more detail than the average moviegoer. I really pay attention to the music because it's such an important part of the process. It's what I do, so of course that's something I pay a lot of attention to. I don't think I get distracted from the story. I just really zero in and focus on what the music's doing for the picture. When the music's not right, or it's annoying to me, it really ruins the movie.

Songfacts: Who are some of the songwriters that inspired you?

Dorff: John Barry, the British composer who did a lot of the James Bond movies, as well as Out Of Africa. I love John Barry as a composer. I love his orchestration and his sense of melody. Dave Grusin, same thing. I think Grusin is as good as it gets. Songwriters that have inspired me, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jimmy Webb and certainly Lennon and McCartney. I would say those were my biggest inspirations.

Songfacts: Are you the kind of writer that treats your work like the writers in Nashville do, where it's almost like a day job where you write every day, or are you the kind that waits for the inspiration to hit?

Dorff: I'm pretty much the latter. Nashville writers, they're in there four or five days a week writing 250-300 songs a year. I have never been able to do that. I feel like, when you're writing that much, you're manufacturing the same ideas sideways, and over and over. My writing has always been when something hits me. Either musically, or someone will say a phrase and I'll go, "Whoa! That's a cool song idea," and then that's when I'm in the car or I'm in the shower singing something to that phrase, or I start hearing it. If I write 25 songs a year, that's a big year for me. So, I pretty much write when the spirit moves me.

Songfacts: Are there any songs you would characterize as the ones that got away? Songs you thought should have been huge or should have been, maybe, given more attention.

Dorff: Absolutely. A song called "Take Good Care Of My Heart," which was on Whitney Houston's first album. We came very close to having that released as a single. I was thrilled to be on the album. It was a duet with Jermaine Jackson. It's been recorded several other times since, but Whitney's version should have been a hit single. But for political reasons, or because of radio or record company promotion men, sometimes things do fall through the cracks.

Another song, "Miracle" by Celine Dion, which was the title of her lullaby album, that's a song that could be a classic if it had its shot at radio. That's just the nature of the business. As songwriters, we all have those. You just have to be thankful for the ones that did make it to radio and did get the chance to be exposed to the masses. At the end of the day, that's what makes a hit.

Songfacts: Focus on the victories, and not the defeats.

Dorff: And I don't really count them as defeats. I'm staring at a Whitney Houston certified 21-million-copy albums plaque. Most people would only dream about being on records that have sold that many copies. I've been so blessed to have the greatest voices of this generation, or any generation, record my songs. So, how can I possibly be disappointed?

January 6, 2019
Further reading:
Interview with Paul Williams
Interview with Jennifer Warnes
Interview with Jimmy Webb

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Kevin Kiley from New JerseySteve co-wrote my favorite Bettye LaVette song. Before I Even Knew Your Name (I Needed You) was on her 1982 Motown album Tell Me A Lie, produced by Steve Buckingham.
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