TAXI’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for 2017 Steve Dorff (left) answering a question during his Keynote Interview with Michael Laskow.
Interviewed by Michael Laskow
Michael: Thank you, and thanks for being here. Let’s get this Rally started.
We’ve only given a few Lifetime Achievement Awards during the 21 years we’ve been doing the Road Rally. To earn one, you have to do something really exceptional—something that very few other musicians have done.
This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient has done something that less than a handful of people on the planet have done, which is … he’s done it all. And yet, he’s not exactly a household name. He’s always been the man behind the curtain. Steve Dorff is one of the most successful songwriters and composers of the last three decades. He’s written more than 20 Top Ten hits for Pop and Country artists including Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Blake Shelton, Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers, Ray Charles, Ann Murray, Whitney Houston, George Strait, Dolly Parton, Judy Collins, Cher, Dusty Springfield, Ringo Starr, and Garth Brooks. That’s the short list. I edited that! Steve has created scores for TV shows including the hits Growing Pains, Murphy Brown, Murder She Wrote,and Reba. Steve has also scored 28 feature films, including Any Which Way But Loose, for which he wrote the title song. He has also started writing for musical theater, including the hit show Josephine. He is also a pretty decent keyboard player, and by his own admission, a pretty terrible singer. Steve has been honored with more than 40 BMI awards, an American Music Award, an NSAI Songwriter of the Year Award, as well as three Grammy nominations and six Emmy nominations. If all that wasn’t enough, he has had 12 #1 hits, over 400 songs recorded by notable artists and super stars from all over the world. And in his spare time, he conducts the occasional orchestra for scoring sessions. He just released his first book two days ago, and it’s called I Wrote That One Too, very appropriately. I just found this out right before I hit the stage—Steve was just nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I told you he’s done it all, so let’s have a listen to some snippets of his work.
[Medley of songs plays]
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my distinct honor to present TAXI’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 2017, to Mr. Steve Dorff! [applause]
Steve: Thank you. I’m overwhelmed. This is amazing. Thanks.
I told you this would be a big crowd. You deserve it. You guys [in the audience] know I love to prepare well. Steve just asked me, “You actually read the book?” Yes, I read the book; I’ve got Post-it Notes all over it; I read it cover to cover. It’s really good. Any songwriter will love this book. But I want to let the audience know this whole moment, this award started—like many things in Los Angeles—over sushi. There’s a sushi restaurant about two minutes from the TAXI office. Sometimes I just go to lunch by myself just to get away from the world. Sitting at the sushi bar and I look over and see this dude and I said, “You look familiar.” I used my best “pick-up line” and I said, “Are you in the music business?” He said, “Yeah, I am. Are you? You look kind of familiar too.” We chatted, we talked about life and love and all the people we both knew in the industry, and started talking about our kids, and probably did about 15, 20 minutes on the kids. We had a little bonding moment.
Steve’s got a son who’s an actor… a big actor. He said to me, “Oh, you know who I am? Nobody knows who I am, everybody knows the other Steven Dorff, my son.” I thought that was really funny. Anyway, he’s a man that clearly values his family, and that means a lot to me.
So I can’t talk about family without mentioning something tragic that happened almost a year ago. Your son Andrew passed away, which I didn’t know until we had lunch a couple weeks ago, and obviously I am horribly sorry about that. I’m guessing it was devastating for you and Callie and Caitlin and Steven. Your son was a songwriter—a hit songwriter. Why didn’t you talk him out of the industry?
I tried! I actually talked him out of a singing career. But he was a great writer; his legacy is he just celebrated his fifth #1 hit with Rascal Flatts, and there’s more to come. He’s got a great catalog, and that’s his legacy.
"I’ve never really subscribed to that write every day-thing. That doesn’t work for me."-Steve Dorff
When you guys would hang out as father and son did you…?
We never talked about music. Football, girls…more girls.
Did you guys ever co-write?
Yeah, we did. We’ve written a few. Andrew is a lyricist, so it made it easy. Because that’s the tough part for me, is what to say once I have the melody.
At lunch, I said something about rejection, and you said, “Rejection? I still get rejected about a hundred times a week.” I can’t believe that somebody at your level…
I got rejected just the other day—yesterday!
What was her name? [laughs]
Barbra Streisand, to be perfectly honest. You win some, you lose some.
What was the circumstance? Can you talk about it?
I’ve written a song for her new project that she’s going to start in December. I had an idea for a second one—I should have quit while I was ahead—demoed up this song and played it and she didn’t like it.
I always say that our catalogs are kinda like icebergs. I know that sounds crazy, but you only see 15% of an iceberg above water, and the other 85% nobody ever sees. So if I can get 15% of what I’ve written recorded, that’s pretty cool.
You have a reputation, whether you realize it or not, as being one of the nicest guys in the business. I’ve never heard anybody speak about you in any terms other than, “Wow, he’s a nice guy”—really glowing stuff. And you don’t run into that a lot in our industry. How did you become so successful without doing it on the backs of other people? What’s your secret?
I don’t think there’s a secret. I just kinda do what I do and roll with the punches. I’ve been very focused ever since I can remember. This is the only thing I know how to do well. I can’t hang a picture on the wall straight. I tried building a stereo shelf once, and I took half a wall down. So I stick to the piano, because it’s a safe haven for me.
Do you do it every day?
So do you wait for the muse to show up?
Pretty much. I’ve never really subscribed to that write every day-thing. That doesn’t work for me. I’ve got to feel like I have a great idea and try to make every song recordable.
Do you know when you’re minutes into something if you’ve got a potential winner, and conversely, do you sense when you have a stinker?
Yeah, and I know that if I’ve got something that’s OK and nice… Obviously I’ve been doing this long enough to where I know that if I finish something, it’s OK. But you do know when you have something that’s surefire…or at least I do.
What percentage of your stuff is done with just you solo? What percentage of it is done collaboratively?
I would say about 80% of what I write is with collaborators.
Mostly on the lyric side on their part?
Why do you think that your lyrics aren’t good enough to stand alone that you bring in a collaborator? Is it just inspirational to have like a team member working with you?
Yeah, and over the years having worked with some of the great lyricists. It’s a separate talent, it really is. It’s the Paul Williams and the John Bettises and the Marty Panzers. They have a signature to the way they write lyrics, and that’s really hard to do. And I’ve been blessed that I’ve gotten to write with the best.
Does it ever go in reverse where somebody will call you up…? Are there lyricists that are at that level that are really good that just sit down with a piece of paper, write a lyric and then go to a guy like you and say, “Drop some music in”?
Yeah, with Marty it’s always lyrics first. With some collaborations it’s music first, and then with some we just sit in a room bang our heads against the wall and try to come up with something.
It’s funny, so many of the people that I know that are your level… I really can’t think of another writer that I know that works like you do. Most of them, like the Nashville folks, they will go to writing meetings once, twice, three times a day. They’ve got their regular routine. The only other person that I think that I’ve ever spoken to that’s been at your level that superseded you a little bit was Lamont Dozier.
I’ve written with Lamont. He’s a trip.
He sat right there in that chair and he said, “I feel like God pours the songs into my head and it just comes out of me.”
And Lamont will sing. When I’ve written with Lamont, I’m usually at the piano, and he’ll just say, “Play some chords.” And I go, “Why? What chords?” And I do, and then he starts singing something, and he’s got a hook, and he’s so unique in his singing style too, you know. It just transports you right back to The Supremes or The Four Tops. So the two or three things we’ve written together have been a lot of fun.
"Music and images was as natural to me as breathing. I just look at the picture and it tells me what it’s supposed to sound like."-Steve Dorff
So you never write at targets? You never hear through the grapevine that Barbra Streisand’s working on a new record and sit down and kind of push yourself because you know her style and what appeals to her?
Yeah, with Barbra I have, but very seldom do I target when I’m writing. After I’ve finished a song, I’ll think about who might this be good for? But when I’m writing, I’m just trying to write something meaningful… just trying to write a good song. And then the fun of it for me is getting it across the finish line with either an artist or putting it in a movie. I would say 95% of the time I’m just writing to write.
[Said to the audience] Don’t do what he does. [laughter]
I’m always encouraging these guys [in the audience] to work, work, work. You are that extremely rare person that’s just like, “Eh, it just comes to me, and I’ve had like a zillion hits.”
Well, I’ve had years where I’ve written 50, 60, 70 songs, which is a lot for me. And then I’ve had years where I’ve written 12. This year I just really—because of what happened with Andrew—for six months I didn’t feel like writing anything. And I was working on the book, which was very therapeutic for me. But recently I started writing again, and I think I’ve written five songs this year, and three of them are already getting recorded. So at least I know I can still do this.
You told a great story in the book about the chase scene in Smokey and the Bandit, the TV version. I think they made a TV version of Smokey and the Bandit.
Yeah, I did a series of movies for [director] Hal Needham called Bandit, based on that. I scored it with a 35-, 40-piece orchestra every week. They were two-hour movies of the week, back when movies of the weekwere in vogue. It was always fun. I had great players, and one day Hal came by the studio and he wanted to hear something. So I played him this big chase scene with Smokey and the guys in the car, and they’re going through mud, and they’re going through trees, and they’re jumping over a river, and the cops are chasing them. And I had a pretty hot little thing motoring along, and he stops me and he says, “This isn’t working for me.” I said, “Really?” He said, “There’s only one way to move a car down the road.” And I asked, “What’s that? How is that?” And he said, “With a banjo.”
And he’s not musical, right? He’s just knew the banjo was…
No, he was a stunt man, and a great director. I mean, he’s directed a zillion movies. So I called George Doering and I said, “Can you come back and put a banjo on this cue?” And he did, and I mixed it, and sent it over to Hal’s office, and he called me and he said, “Perfect.”
So, who knew? All it needed was a banjo.
I should carry one around in my back pocket.
So because you do these two very different disciplines… That’s one of the things that has always fascinated me about you is that I really can’t think of another songwriter who is a pure songwriter, and also does scoring, and you’ve done instrumental cues! You have really done it all. How does your workflow differ, because in the world of scoring or writing cues, you can’t wait for the muse to come? That’s a prescriptive process.
No, you can’t. I was very fortunate, as a young kid I musicalized everything I did. If I was in a snowball fight with my friends, I would be the one standing in between five of my friends getting pelted with ice in my face, and I’d be musicalizing it. So naturally I just assumed that everybody musicalized everything—like we all see and we all hear, and we all smell and taste—and I would ask my friends, “How did you hear that?” Or if the windshield wipers were going in the car and it was raining, I’d have a symphony going on in my head and I’d say, “How did you hear that, Mom?” And she’d look at me like I was from outer space.
So writing for film was why I came to California. That’s what I wanted to do, because writing to pictures and images, music and images was as natural to me as breathing. That’s a gift, or whatever you call it, that I had. Writing songs came after that. So when I started to do film and television work, I was kind of back in my safe place. Writing songs is actually harder for me than scoring, because I don’t have to worry about lyrics, and I don’t have to worry about time signatures. I just look at the picture and it tells me what it’s supposed to sound like.
To this day do you still feel that way? That scoring or doing instrumentals is easier for you than songs?
You know, it’s all difficult, and it all does take a discipline. And you are exercising two separate sets of musicals. Writing songs is a formula and a set thing that you’re confined to. Writing music for film—and especially working with orchestras—it becomes much more difficult in terms of you’ve got a lot more to think about.
How do you develop that skill? I don’t know if we’ve had this discussion, but I worked in New York, and I recorded some big sessions with guys like Mike Small… And it blows me away that guys at that level can go, “Bar 43, tuba; you’ve got a rub on the G.” It’s like how do they hear that? How did you develop that aspect of what you do? Were you trained for it? Did you read books about it?
No. I’ve never had a music lesson in my life. I was thrown out of every music class I tried to take. Go figure. I talk about it in the book. I had this experience as a young kid, and I still have it. It’s called synesthesia. I didn’t know what it was, but I was telling my friend one day, who happens to be a psychiatrist—and no, I wasn’t going to the psychiatrist—and I mentioned how I would as a young kid when I would hear music or be creating music in my head, how I would see lights and colors, which represented to me the intervals. I know it sounds very crazy, but it’s a… And he just said, “Oh, Synesthesia.” And I said, “What’s that? Am I gonna die?” He explained to me that it’s a cross-wiring of senses. I think he mentioned that about 5% of the population experiences it. Some people can taste coffee and all of a sudden everything will turn green. It’s that kind of a thing. Well, for me, music triggered these plasma bubbles, which is what I call them. It’s kinda like in a lava lamp, except they don’t go up and down, they kind of went this way. And I think that helped me, to answer your question, when listening to music and when I decided this is what I… When I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Phil when I was seven years old, I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was just a process of hearing; I just hear this stuff. I heard the instruments before I knew what they looked like.
How do you translate that into conducting?
I’m a horrible conductor. All my friends tell me they have no idea how any orchestra can follow me. [laughter]
Don’t miss Part 2 of this interview in next month’s issue!