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Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Lifetime Achievement Award
TAXI's Michael Laskow (left) reads a passage from Steve Dorff's book, and we're judging from the look on Steve's face that it might have been the part about Clint Eastwood showing up to be his partner in a tennis match with Merv Griffin.

Editor’s note: We’re repeating the introduction so readers who didn’t see it last month have some context about our Keynote Interview subject, Steve Dorff.

This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient is Steve Dorff. He 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.

How do you translate your lack of formal music training into conducting?
I’m a horrible conductor. All my friends tell me they have no idea how any orchestra can follow me. [laughter]

How can you stand up there and conduct an orchestra without knowing what each instrument’s part is supposed to do?
I’ve watched Bacharach do it a few times, and I said, “I can do that.” [laughter] Just kind of give the upbeats, give the downbeats, wave your hands, have a sweater around your neck ... perfect. [laughter]

The truth is, with great musicians, they’re not looking at you half the time anyway, except for dynamics. It’s just kind of fun. I don’t always conduct...

So, what you’re saying is it’s like air-guitar?
Yeah, yeah. I play amazing air-guitar.

What does it feel like to be up there in front of an orchestra of incredible musicians?
I did a movie in London with the London Symphony about 12 or 15 years ago, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, because when I asked them to take an “A,” the oboe played an A and then everybody starts tuning up. It’s just a cacophony of a wall of sound. Then, when you started the first cue, I heard this—we had 94 pieces—and I heard that first chord and I just started crying like a baby, because it was so emotionally moving. And I’m thinking, “How in the hell has this happened? How did I get here?”

I talk about it in the book: Manifest destiny has been a big part of my life, and I do believe in it. I’ve manifested in my mind things that I’ve wanted to accomplish and wanted to do, and somehow, miraculously, a lot of those things have happened for me. Now, I also wanted to play shortstop for the New York Yankees and hit a 475-foot home run out of Yankee Stadium, but I didn’t manifest that one too well. [laughter]

"I heard that first chord and I just started crying like a baby, because it was so emotionally moving."

One out of two ain’t bad. Going back to the conducting thing, do you ever feel like a fraud because you’ve never played cello...
No, you know what? I’ve done it so much I know what I’m doing. And I’ve written the stuff, so I know what the trombones are supposed to be doing; I know when the French horns are a bar or two beats early; and I work with the best of the best musicians who are also very self-motivated to correct things. It’s nothing for a Gail Lamont, the great harpist, to say, “Hey, Steve, check bar 63, I think the oboes are playing the wrong note.” Thanks, Gail.

Always picking on the oboe players. Harpists are finicky, aren’t they? [laughter]

OK, now we’re going to get to the inevitable part of the conversation, which is all about Merv Griffin and drugs. How many of you are old enough to remember The Merv Griffin Show? Wow, it’s amazing how many people don’t know. Merv Griffin was one of the great talk-show hosts for 20 years, probably.
He and Johnny Carson were pretty much it.

So, you met Merv Griffin, you end up going up to his house and talking about producing a record for him...
Well, I didn’t realize it, but he was trying to pick me up. I was conducting for Tanya Tucker at Caesar’s Palace, doing The Merv Griffin Show. I was offstage talking with a buddy of mine, and I felt an arm around me.

Was it Harvey Weinstein? [laughter] Sorry, I like to keep these things topical.
It was Merv, and I was so excited. I mean, I had only been in California for about six months, and Merv Griffin was like my mom’s favorite. He said, “I love that song. Did you write that?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I’m gonna do an album; do you have anything that you think might be right for me?” And of course, like an idiot, I said, “Oh, I’ve got like dozens that would be great for you.” And he invited me up to his suite—the presidential suite at Caesar’s Palace—and I was thinking, surely he sees my wedding ring. By the way, I have four kids. And I went up there and went in and there were a whole bunch of guys in bathrobes offering me weed and other things. And I said, “Nah, I’m just hear to play some songs.” But when I played him this one song, it all of a sudden it became very professional. He said, “Play that again,” and he started singing along with me. Then he said he wanted me to do that song with him. And he said, “In fact, I want to do a whole album with you.”

Back then, the artists would do covers of like a Bee Gees hit or a Beatles song, and I said, “Yeah, I love that stuff. Let’s do it.” So he gave me my first shot at producing an album. And I never did the drugs, and I adjusted my wedding ring a lot. We actually became good friends over the years, and I would see him from time to time at events, and he was always very sweet.

Yeah, by all accounts he was an awesome guy. I was so in shock when I read that, I almost called you at home that night to go, “Are you serious? I can’t believe Merv Griffin.”

I’m just gonna read this part from the book. By the way, the photographs are worth the price of the book. Even if you don’t like to read, just buy it for the pictures.
The book is really just the genesis. I had been doing these “evenings with Steve Dorff,” where everybody goes, “Who?” I just sit at the piano and tell stories and try to perform some of these songs. So this woman came up to me one night and said, “You don’t sing very good.” And I said, “Oh, thanks.” She said, “But I love your stories, you should write a book.” And I said, “Write a book? I can barely write a four-minute song, how am I gonna write a book?” She was a literary agent, and she said, “No, you’ve gotta write a book. You’ve got to write a memoir. Your stories are fun, and they are engaging and quirky.” So I said, “Great. Give me a book deal and I’ll write a book,” thinking that this is never gonna go anywhere. And bingo, six months later I’m knee-deep in trying to remember half of these crazy stories that I’ve had the experience of living. So that’s really what the book is. It’s just a journey of really cool stories.

It’s not a typical like... It’s not salacious or anything, but I read it in three nights.
It’s a music-business story. It’s a story about a guy who came to California knowing nobody and somehow got to work with some of the greatest artists of any generation.

Steven Dorff
Road Rally attendees lined up to get autographed copies of Steve Dorff's new book, I Wrote That One, Too...

So in the book you say, “A week later, Merv invited me up to his house in Pebble Beach to get the keys and go over the material.” Not the keys to the house, the keys to the songs. Just want to throw that out there—four kids and all. “The house was spectacular, overlooking Pebble Beach Golf Course. That must have cost a couple bucks—on the Pacific Ocean. It was a palace. I flew up from Burbank on his private plane, and he had one of his assistants meet me at the airport for the short drive to his home. Merv and I spent a day going over songs, getting keys and discussing arrangement ideas and schedules. Merv was an avid tennis player, and the next morning I asked if we could take a break from working on the songs to go and play a doubles match with a couple of his tennis buddies.

I told him I played a bit, and after breakfast we made our way over to one of his friend’s nearby castles to play some tennis. Merv and his friend and I were volleying for a while, while we waited for the fourth to show up. “Ah, here he comes,” said Merv. I looked over, and here comes a tall good-looking guy who ends up being my doubles partner—Clint Eastwood. How ironic that it was Clint who years later would give me the musical opportunity of a lifetime. But for that couple of hours, nothing was talked about except good and bad tennis shots.”

So this is kind of the story of your life. You’re a little bit like Forrest Gump in that you turn up in these places and it’s like songs fall into your head—not unlike Lamont—and you end up on Merv Griffin’s private jet, smoking weed with his bathrobe boys, whatever. And then you’re on a tennis court with Clint frickin’ Eastwood as your doubles partner, who later says, “Hey, you got a song...?”

Well, no, years later—maybe seven years later—I got a call to write a song from a music supervisor. They were in a panic. A big artist, arguably one of the biggest artists in the world, had written a song for one of Clint’s movies, and Clint didn’t like the song and he threw it out. So the music supervisor on the film called me and said, “I need a song by tomorrow morning.” And I said, “Oh, OK. What...?” He said, “All I know at this point is it needs to be called ‘Every Which Way but Loose,’ and it’s about a guy who travels around in a pickup truck with an orangutan and fights people for money.” [laughter]

So I called Milton Brown, who is a longtime great lyricist in Mobile, Alabama, and I woke him up—it was two hours later there, like one o’clock in the morning—and he said, “Somebody better have died.” And I said, “No, Milton, I have this assignment, I’ve got to write something by tomorrow.” He said, “Well, call me back in the morning.” And I said, “No, we’ve got to do it now.” And we wrote it over the phone in about 30 minutes, and I went in the next day and played it for the music supervisor who called Eastwood, who said, “Come over to the Malpaso office on the Warners lot. So we met at the soundstage. I had had no time to demo it, so I just sat at the piano and here comes Clint in a white T-shirt.

Did he remember you from the tennis game?
No, and if he hadn’t been Clint Eastwood, I probably wouldn’t have remembered him either. And I didn’t say anything, I just played the song. I was nervous; I didn’t know if it was good or not. I just played the song and he just said, “Play it again.” And I played it again. He had an entourage with him, and he said, “That’s the song.” Then he pulled me over and said, “Have you ever scored a movie?” And I was this close to saying no, and in that millisecond of a hundred milliseconds I changed my mine and said, “Well, I sure would love to.” I didn’t lie. And he said, “OK,” and that was my big break.

"I went up there and went in and there were a whole bunch of guys in bathrobes offering me weed and other things. And I said, 'Nah, I’m just hear to play some songs.'"

Amazing story, Forrest. [applause]

I gotta tell you guys, again, the book is a bunch of stuff like that and you just go, “How does anybody get that lucky?” By the end of the book I was sitting there thinking this was not an accident. Steve was in those places to have those things happen, because he put in the hours and did the work to get himself there.
Yeah, I would say, because I’m asked a lot. Because I have been very lucky, but I do think to some degree you have to make your own luck in this business...or in any creative business, whether you’re a screenwriter or an actor or an actress or an orchestrator or a guitar player trying to do sessions. It takes a lot of skill, and it takes a lot of luck, and it takes a lot of being at the right place at the right time, and what I call happy accidents. And sometimes a happy accident can be that my hand goes to the wrong note and I’m not hearing the chord that I was hearing, but I go, “I like that.” And sometimes I’ve based a whole song around a happy accident that I had no idea what I was doing. So I think there are elements of that and elements of luck, but the there is a lot of rejection and a lot of disappointment—far more of that that I’ve experienced than the happy accidents. It’s that 85%-15% thing that I talk about.

Right, the under-the-water part of the iceberg. So how do you deal with the rejection? Maybe all rejection feels the same, but I would imagine that rejection from a Barbra Streisand-level artist...more?
No, I think handling rejection is up to the individual. Some people just can’t handle it. And I always tell people if you’re not prepared to pick yourself up and dust yourself off about 150 times a week, it’s probably not the right business. Because some people don’t do well with rejection, and some people just let it slide off the back and on to the next. I think fortunately—and maybe my mom instilled that in me—I’m able to... You know, I get disappointed and I think, well shit, you missed that one, but I always feel like the next day I’ll come back with something and try it again.

Do you ever worry when you experience rejection that it’s over?
Every job I do. After every job I do I think it’s the last one I’ll ever do.

Maybe that answers the question you and I were talking about at lunch when I said, “Do you have any clue why, when you go to the ASCAP or BMI Awards and somebody wins an award, 13 writers come up onstage?” It’s like, no, I don’t get that either. Almost everything you’ve written has been maybe with a single co-writer, or two at the most. Maybe that’s why those guys that write with 13 people write with 13 people, because it’s some sort of insurance policy.
No, I think the business has changed so much with the advent of technology, and literally anybody can just create something just by hitting one note on a keyboard that does everything for you, and the songs that go up and down the charts that you never hear again. Yeah, I think anybody today is capable of having a hit or two. Sustaining a career takes a little more doing.

Don’t miss Part 3, the final part of this interview in next month’s issue!