Writers: Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly
Producer: Nile Rodgers
Chart Position: #1 US, #3 UK
We continued to write maybe two weekends a month. Tom was making a living doing background vocal sessions, while I was working for my dad in the vineyards. As often as possible I would come up to LA or he would come down to the Coachella Valley, where I lived. When we wrote we just tried to write songs we liked. We weren't thinking of what was currently in vogue. We weren't thinking about who was in the studio. We were just writing songs for the love of it. And because we took that approach, I think that's why the best songs we wrote are enduring. Because we wrote as if we were writing them for ourselves as artists.
In 1983 after I-Ten was gone, we wrote a new batch of pop songs and one of them was 'Like a Virgin.' I probably wrote the lyrics to it sitting in a pickup truck on the vineyard in the Coachella Valley. I got together with Tom and I showed him the lyrics. Tom and I had become very close friends and he knew in my personal life I had been trying to extricate myself from a very difficult relationship. I succeeded in doing so and met somebody new and I wrote the lyrics: 'I made it through the wilderness/somehow I made it through/didn't know how lost I was/ till 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.'
When I put that lyric in front of Tom, who was sitting at his keyboard, he tried to write a ballad to it. But when he got to the chorus it just sounded ridiculous singing 'like a virgin' in a sensitive ballad sort of way. So we put that lyric aside and started to write something else, but eventually I kept pushing that lyric because I felt it was something special. One day, out of frustration, Tom started playing the bass line for 'Like a Virgin' using his left hand and singing in a Motown style falsetto. He was known for having this Foreigner type of high rock voice and the first things we'd written together had all utilized that instrument. So when he started singing falsetto a la Smokey Robinson, I went 'That's it. That's it.' He was just clowning around, but I said, that's perfect. So we finished the song together and then made a really good demo. Tom sang it falsetto and it really put the song across. I started submitting it to a&r people and our first responses to it were, 'Are you kidding me? No one's going to sing a song called "Like a Virgin."' Somebody said, the song is catchy, but why don't you change the title? But we stayed with what we had.
Eventually Tom and I had a meeting with Michael Ostin, (Warner Brothers Records President) Mo Ostin's son, who was an a&r man at Warner Brothers. Our main reason for meeting with Michael was because Tom and I were still clinging to the idea of making another record. We played him a couple of songs that demonstrated what we would like to do as artists. Then he asked if we had anything that might work for Madonna. They were looking for songs for her follow up record. She'd already made the record that included "Holiday" and "Borderline." So Tom and I said yeah, 'Like a Virgin,' and as soon as we said it a lightbulb went off in both of our minds. Madonna. 'Like a Virgin.' It was as if the song were hand written for her, like you couldn't come up with something more perfect for her than that. Even on that very first meeting, before she ever heard the song, I threw out the idea to Michael that you could have her wearing a wedding dress in the video and be on top of a wedding cake. It seemed so perfect.
He got back to us a couple of days later. She loved the song and she was going to cut it. Needless to say, we were thrilled, even though she wasn't by any means a superstar yet. She cut it with Nile Rodgers producing in New York. Nile Rodgers has said in interviews, when he first heard the song he didn't like it. I think it was Michael Ostin and Madonna who insisted she was going to cut the song. Tom and I weren't involved in any way with the recording process. We didn't hear it until it was done. But I can tell you one thing, she was faithful to the demo. The recording Madonna made of 'Like a Virgin' copies every little nuance of our demo. Even as our demo fades out and Tom is singing these little ad-libs, right to the fade where you can't hear anything, she copied every little ad lib.
But they released the single and one day a short time later I was driving in my car and I turned on KIIS-FM and they played it and then when it ended they played it again. It was the most requested song for weeks on the station. They would often play it twice in a row. I've never heard that happen before.
The experience I'd had when "How Do I Make You" became a hit was very intense. It was a huge thrill and a huge redemption for me. It showed me that I wasn't deluding myself. When you've never had a song cut by another artist before and you submit things and you get no response, you start to worry, well, maybe I think I'm a good songwriter but maybe I'm not. So it showed me that I wasn't just a songwriter in my own head. That I had the capacity to be a world class songwriter. But 'Like a Virgin' was 100 times more intense. For one thing, 'Like a Virgin' exploded all over the world. It was number one for six weeks. For me it was this enormous culmination of relief and excitement and it really lit a fire under Tom and me to do more and better work. We went on to have five number one songs in five years.
"True Colors" - Cyndi Lauper
"Alone" - Heart
"So Emotional" - Whitney Houston
"Eternal Flame" - Bangles
People always think because I'm in the music business I can get free tickets to any concert, but there's no truth to that. Even when 'Like a Virgin' was Number one and Madonna was on the Like a Virgin tour, when Tom and I tried to get tickets to her show when she came to L.A. it was very difficult. We would call her manager's office and they'd say we'll get back to you, we'll get back to you. We figured it was a modest enough request for us to see the Like a Virgin tour. Finally, the day before the concert they called and said we have two tickets for you. Not four, not eight, two. No backstage passes, either. They weren't even good tickets; they were in the nosebleed section. During the concert, Madonna sings 'Like a Virgin' and the roof blows off the amphitheater. Everyone in the audience is singing our song and we're ironically sitting back there where we could hardly see. Then the concert ends and we see all these paparazzi groupie type people flocking back stage with their backstage passes and we don't even have any.
I met Madonna once, very briefly. It was probably five years later. Madonna's manager was turning 50 and Tom and I were invited to his birthday party. He and his wife lived in a mansion in Bel Air. So Tom and I were standing on a terrace outside the house chatting with a guy named Steve Bray. Steve had dated Madonna and had also written a couple of songs with her, including "Into The Groove." So when she started walking toward us I thought, this is perfect because Steve Bray will make the introduction and we'll finally get acquainted with her. She was dating Warren Beatty at that time. So she's walking across this terrace with Warren Beatty and they walk up to us and Steve Bray says, Madonna, I want you to meet Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. They wrote 'Like a Virgin.' And the first thing I remember is that Warren Beatty started to chuckle because I guess he thought that it was a pretend introduction, because she must know the guys who wrote that song.
Anyway, I sort of gushingly said, "Oh Madonna, I've wanted to meet you for so long." And she said, "Well, now you did." And she grabbed Warren Beatty and walked away. And that was the end of it. Tom Kelly started laughing, cause he saw that I was kind of crestfallen and I'd set myself up for it. Part of the dynamic of our relationship was him laughing at some of my personality traits, but always in good fun.
So that was our great meeting with Madonna and I've never seen her since.
September 27, 2012.
Billy's website is billysteinberg.com.
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