"Our original demo for 'Like a Virgin,' for instance, was the absolute blueprint for Madonna's record."
Billy Steinberg Selected Credits
Over his long career, Billy Steinberg has had a penchant or penning hits for female artists. Here's are just a few prime examples.
Linda Ronstadt: "How do I Make You"
Pat Benatar: "Precious Time"
Madonna: "Like a Virgin"
Cyndi Lauper: "True Colors"
Whitney Houston: "So Emotional"
The Bangles: "Eternal Flame"
The Divinyls: "I Touch Myself"
Tina Turner: "Look Me in the Heart"
JoJo: "Too Little Too Late"
Katharine McPhee "Over It"
The world was a much different place when mega-songsmith Billy Steinberg secured his first major cut, Linda Ronstadt's "How Do I Make You," in 1980. Like most aspiring writers at the time, Steinberg’s ideas were captured on a bulky multitrack reel-to-reel tape machine that typically offered less-thanspectacular results. "I’d demoed the song with my band in a garage studio in Palm Springs, where I was living at the time," says Steinberg, co-author (with partner Tom Kelly) of such pop nuggets as Madonna's "Like a Virgin," the Divinyls "I Touch Myself," the Bangles' "Eternal Flame," Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" and the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You," to name a few. "In those days, demos could actually be a bit more rudimentary-mainly because as budding writers, we didn't have access to the kind of machinery that's become the norm these days. If we suddenly decided we wanted to move a piece of the song around or if we made a mistake, out came the razor blade [to edit the tape]! Or you had to start from scratch. Tom was really good at it—still, it would be a long, tedious effort, often with questionable results. Obviously that's not an issue for anyone today.
If home recording technology has made the assembling of demos easier, as Steinberg points out, it has also made the business of song-peddling considerably more challenging than in years past. "Today, the demo basically has to sound like the record," notes Steinberg. "There are some exceptions to that rule—if you've got an exquisite ballad, it's possible to just get away with a piano-vocal demo and still have the song come across. But for the most part, A&R people prefer to have it served to them on a platter." Steinberg cites the work of veteran.
R&B hitman David Frank, producer/arranger for Christina Aguilera, Jewel and others. "When someone like David does a demo, not only do you get the song, you get the record as well. All you have to do is put the artist's vocal on and master it—and you're done. That's why guys like David have a real advantage—not only have they mastered their instruments and songwriting chops, but they also have a complete understanding of the technology of record-making."
When making demos, Steinberg suggests that songwriters try to paint the picture as clearly as possible. "Our original demo for ‘Like a Virgin,' for instance, was the absolute blueprint for Madonna's record," says Steinberg. "They're identical. In fact, if you listen to the end of our version, the little vocal licks that Tom sang as the song fades were done note-for-note by Madonna. I remember once hearing Nile Rogers saying how he didn't really care for the song when he first heard it, but he knew he could make it into a great record. Well, that's fine—but they basically just copied our demo! I mean, we were using a drum machine, they had Tony Thompson, which made it great. But it wasn't like turning a caterpillar into a butterfly!"
How does a nice Jewish boy from L.A. become co-creator of some of the most provocative female hits of the last quartercentury? "Maybe it's the lyric," grins Steinberg, who prides himself on his ability to turn a clever phrase, "but a lot of my success with Tom was due to the fact that our songs just seemed to work well for women artists. For one thing, Tom has a great falsetto. You should hear his ‘Like a Virgin'— it's incredible. His vocal on 'Alone' was so good that Heart even asked him to back them up on their recording!"
Unlike some veteran songwriters, Steinberg has managed to keep his career on track through a combination of creative adaptation and business savvy. Years ago,
Steinberg, whose father ran a successful California table-grape operation, ensured that he would hang on to most of the fruits of his own labor by starting his own publishing company, Billy Steinberg Music (Steinberg later sold the collection to Sony for a quite a few "grapes" several years back). In recent years, Steinberg has continued to enjoy further success with collaborators like writer-producer Rick Nowels, as well as Josh Alexander, with whom he wrote JoJo's 2006 platinum smash "Too Little Too Late."
Above all, Steinberg strongly believes that songwriters should try to write as much as possible, rather than getting hung up on one song in particular. "Sit down, give it your best shot," says Steinberg, "and if it sounds good, demo it. Then move on to the next one."