Songwriter Steve Dorff, the Man Behind The Curtain
You know Steve Dorff even if you’ve never seen him or heard his voice on the radio. You know Steve Dorff because you’ve heard Kenny Rogers sing “Through the Years,” Mel Tillis croon “Coca-Cola Cowboy,” Dusty Springfield sing “Let Me Love You Once Before You Go,” David Frizell and Shelly West sing to each other that “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” or Whitney Houston sing “Take Good Care of My Heart.” Dorff has also written the scores for television shows such as Murphy Brown, Growing Pains, and Reba, as well as for films such as Any Which Way but Loose.
Dorff has written over four hundred songs recorded by a wide range of artists, from The Tams to Willie Nelson to Tom Jones to Melissa Manchester, and he’s been honored with more than 40 BMI Awards, and in June he will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. This class of songwriters includes Bill Anderson, another songwriter who, like Dorff, spent some time at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, and who shares a love of baseball.
Dorff now steps out from behind the curtain in his new memoir, I Wrote That One, Too…: A Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney (Backbeat Books). Dorff tells an entertaining story, so reading his memoir is like sitting down in a hotel bar or a studio with him and listening to him regale you with tales of his songwriting life. He chronicles his life from his childhood in Queens, NY, through his days playing with a bad band in junior high to his days at the University of Georgia to his first job with the inimitable industry great Snuff Garrett. Even as a child, he tells us, he recognized that he “didn’t listen to music in the traditional way that most people do. My ears would always focus on what the instruments of the orchestra were doing … . I was far more interested in what countermelodies the strings or bass might be playing, the use and registers of the woodwinds … for me, the real emotion of a record came from these backing elements.” His head, Dorff writes, was “filled with musical onomatopeias,” and he would follow this music in his head to a life in songwriting.
Dorff has a story for every artist he’s worked with, from the difficulties he faced working with an intractable producer on Reba to pulling an all-nighter in the studio with Dusty Springfield recording “Let Me Love You Once Before You Go.” Working with songwriter Bobby Tomberlin led Dorff to Bill Medley, with whom he had already worked on the song “Friday Night’s a Great Night for Football,” and songwriter Bill LaBounty; Dorff suggested that Medley record LaBounty’s song “Sit Down and Hurt” for Medley’s new album. On that same album, Medley recorded the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” and Brian Wilson and Phil Everly sang background vocals on the song. An epic experience, according to Dorff, having a “Beach Boy, an Everly Brother, and a Righteous Brother, all singing together.”
Dorff’s entertaining memoir is filled with stories like this, and it joins Bill Anderson’s Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music (Georgia) as a riveting story of the life behind the songs.
I spoke with Steve Dorff by phone recently as he was traveling to Athens, Georgia, to be honored by the library at the University of Georgia.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
I was doing one of my “Evenings with Steve Dorff,” where I’m playing my songs and telling the stories behind them, and there was this literary agent in the audience there that night. She came up to me after the show and suggested I write a book. I told her I can barely write a four-minute song (laughs), so I wasn’t sure I could write a book. She said, “let me see if I can get you a book deal,” and she did. That was about two years ago, and it took me about a year to write it.
Where did you get the title of the book?
I was using the title “Through the Years” because it was one of my most recognized song titles and described the book. My editor didn’t think it was lively enough, so my editor suggested “Yeah, I Wrote That Song, Too.” I would never say that, so I was reluctant. I tell this story early in the book where my friend Steve Buckingham and I are at a hotel bar listening to the band, and they sing one of my songs. He tells the singer that I had written that song; ironically, they played four of my songs in a row, and after each song he would say, “He wrote that one, too.” So, for the book we dropped the “yeah” and called it “I Wrote That Song, Too,” and I was comfortable with that.
What was the hardest part of writing the book?
Organizing all the chapters and trying to remember a lot of the details. I spent a lot of time going back into my archives and searching for details, like who played on what recording and who might have been in the studio during a certain recording. I called on so many of my music friends, and they’d remind me about the details of little conversations that happened. They’d say, “You remember that time …” when I didn’t remember that detail at all. It was fun. Writing this book was very cathartic.
Did you read other music memoirs as you were preparing to write yours?
Springsteen’s book; Jimmy Webb’s memoir; a Dusty Springfield biography. I didn’t read a lot of books to use as models for mine, but I did read these by and about people I admire and whose music means so much to me.
Can you describe some of the changes you’ve seen in songwriting and the music industry since you started?
Well, yes, the advent of electronics and technology have changed music so much and music publishing and songwriting. Songwriting is not as organic now. Songwriting was a very organic thing that came from the heart; when I write, I sit down at the piano and look at a blank page. I still come from that organic place of creating. I use those other tools to augment my music, of course, but I don’t use them to write songs.
Can you talk a little about your songwriting process?
I often come up with a tune when I’m away from the piano. I come up with them at the oddest times in the oddest places and then go to the piano and play what I hear. The song’s pretty much written when I sit down at the piano. As I say in the book, I have experienced synesthesia since I was very little.
Is there anyone you have worked with you’d like to work with?
Every artist brings something special and unique. I’d love to work with Josh Groban; I love his voice. Ben Platt: he’s in the theater and he’s a terrific singer. Andrea Bocelli. Demi Lovato: I love the way she sings.
What’s your favorite mistake?
Well, I write about the road not taken professionally in the book. But the one thing I would have not had happen is the death of my son, Andrew, on Dec. 19, 2016. That’s been hard. I do feel so fortunate to have been blessed in my life.
What advice would you give young artists who want to become songwriters?
Write what you know. Be prepared to pick yourself off and dust yourself off over and over before you get a song accepted. Get out in front of people.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to being more the face of my music. People know the songs, but they don’t know the songwriter. I’m enjoying getting out in front of people and educating them that there are guys like me who didn’t get into this business to be a performer but to write songs. I’m like the wizard behind the curtain in Oz who’s written the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives.