Billy Steinberg - "Like A Virgin"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Billy Steinberg.

"Like A Virgin"

Artist: Madonna
Writers: Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly
Producer: Nile Rodgers
Label: Sire
Year: 1984
Chart Position: #1 US, #3 UK
When Linda Ronstadt covered "How Do I Make You" from the band Billy Thermal's only album in 1981 and turned it into a Top 10 hit, all of a sudden its author, the band's leader Billy Steinberg, became a viable songwriter at the age of 30. But if not for his massive breakthrough a few years later with "Like a Virgin," co-written by Tom Kelly, he might still be in his father's grape business.
Billy Steinberg:I met Tom Kelly in August of '81 at a party given by producer Keith Olsen, who had recorded two of my songs with Pat Benatar. I had never done much co-writing, but I suggested to Tom that we try writing together. Tom did a little checking on me, and when he found out I'd written "How Do I Make You" he decided it would be worth his while, because he'd liked that song. Tom had written "Fire and Ice" for the same album. Right away we realized we had a certain ability to write together. But we didn't write any hits for a couple of years. One thing that was a bit of a distraction was that we got signed as artists to Epic records. We called ourselves I-Ten. But that record didn't meet with any success.

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.

Here is Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly's demo of "Like A Virgin." That's Tom singing in his falsetto. Madonna incorporated the same vocal style, including the little "hey"s and "oooh"s, in her recording.

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.

She recorded the song and it was set to be the first single off her next album, but her first album kept yielding these hits: 'Borderline,' 'Holiday,' 'Lucky Star' - so they kept pushing back the release of 'Like a Virgin.' But then, when she was asked to sing at the MTV video awards, she chose to sing 'Like a Virgin' even though the song hadn't been released yet. She went on TV and sang this song with this provocative title that no one had ever heard before and she rolled around the stage. Tom and I were watching it on television and we thought, oh, we're doomed now. This is an embarrassment. This is never going to succeed.

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.
Billy Steinberg's #1 Hot 100 Hits"Like a Virgin" - Madonna
"True Colors" - Cyndi Lauper
"Alone" - Heart
"So Emotional" - Whitney Houston
"Eternal Flame" - Bangles
After 'Like a Virgin' Tom and I felt that Madonna would be receptive to wanting another one of our songs. Or want to cowrite a song with us. We wrote what we felt was a great follow up and showed it to Michael Ostin, but she didn't elect to do it. We would call Michael frequently to ask if she'd want to cowrite but she never did. I've always thought she was perhaps a bit resentful that her signature song was written by somebody else and she had no part of it. If I'm not mistaken, her people tried to get her on the song as a cowriter or to get a piece of the publishing and we just said out of the question. We boldly stood our ground and we didn't give it, because we felt, there's no way they're going to drop it from the album, it's too good of a song.

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

More They're Playing My Song

Comments: 10

  • A. from VancouverThe demo sounded like Prince. Madonna ruined it.
  • N. from Wncthe madonna version should've been the demo and the demo version should've been the single.
  • Rocco from MinneapolisWait. Wasn't this song supposed to be sung by another Artist? I thought the story was something about a man in the hospital and Madonna snuggled around the guy trying to get his approval for Like A Virgin to be given to her to sang. Am I thinking of a different story? I swear I read something like this back in the 80's...?
  • Radioman970 from GeorgiaWell, you wrote 1 song for her. Not 4 or more... lol Maybe that's it.

    Great stories. And even with the negative bits, I still have the major hots for Madonna. What can I do?
  • Dj DjNot surprised to see how someone you help make famous wouldn't give you the time of day. I hope you made a [*oops*]load of royalties from the song.
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdBack in 1984, I was a senior in high school. In watching the Like a Virgin today, it looks pretty tame (maybe except for 'riding' the dress on the stage). But more than 25 years ago, that performance was groundbreaking and pretty shocking.
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdWow, for Madonna to do that, that was messed up. Who knows, maybe she was having a bad night. But you'd think she'd be able to at least talk to the guys who wrote one of her most successful songs. :(
  • Pierre Labellereally enjoyed reading this article not a madonna fan but love to hear about the real people in music
  • Robert Martin from Connecticut It is just another example of how nice people get screwed over! She could not acknowledge the people who helped make her. I always new she was conceited. Nice to know stories like this. I have used your website on & off for years. Thank You
  • ZiggyWow that is so messed up.she's such a madonna!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Alice Cooper

Alice CooperFact or Fiction

How well do you know this shock-rock harbinger who's been publicly executed hundreds of times?

Christopher Cross

Christopher CrossSongwriter Interviews

The man who created Yacht Rock with "Sailing" wrote one of his biggest hits while on acid.

Director Paul Rachman on "Hunger Strike," "Man in the Box," Kiss

Director Paul Rachman on "Hunger Strike," "Man in the Box," KissSong Writing

After cutting his teeth on hardcore punk videos, Paul defined the grunge look with his work on "Hunger Strike" and "Man in the Box."

Michael Schenker

Michael SchenkerSongwriter Interviews

The Scorpions and UFO guitarist is also a very prolific songwriter - he explains how he writes with his various groups, and why he was so keen to get out of Germany and into England.


RamonesFact or Fiction

A band so baffling, even their names were contrived. Check your score in the Ramones version of Fact or Fiction.

Gilby Clarke

Gilby ClarkeSongwriter Interviews

The Guns N' Roses rhythm guitarist in the early '90s, Gilby talks about the band's implosion and the side projects it spawned.