Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article erroneously attributed the songs “Too Little, Too late” and “Give Your Heart a Break” to Steinberg’s writing partner Rick Nowels. The story has been updated to correctly reflect Josh Alexander as partner for these songs.
It wasn’t Madonna who was “touched for the very first time like a virgin,” it was lyricist Billy Steinberg. It wasn’t Cyndi Lauper who first saw “your true colors shining through,” no, it was the Palm Springs native, Steinberg. The Grammy Award–winning, Songwriters Hall of Fame–inducted songwriter also penned that delectable, Divinyls-delivered line, “When I think about you, I touch myself.” And though they all had hits with the lyric, “I drove all night to get to you,” it wasn’t Miss Lauper, Roy Orbison, or Celine Dion, it was Steinberg who was inspired to write those words because of the commute he endured driving from the Coachella Valley to L.A. to pitch his songs. “I absolutely never write for certain artists,” Steinberg says. “These are all songs about me, but, thankfully, there’s a universality to them to the point that they resonate for singers and listeners.”
Since 1980 when his first-ever recorded song became Linda Ronstadt’s Top 10 Billboard hit “How Do I Make You,” Steinberg has written the lyrics (and sometimes the music) to pop songs that have endured for more than 35 years on the radio, in the world’s karaoke bars, with contestants on American Idol and The Voice, and in commercials for companies ranging from Progressive Insurance to Chrysler.
Though his ’80s and ’90s catalog was written with his then-partner Tom Kelly, Steinberg had Top 20 hits in the 2000s partnering with Josh Alexander on the JoJo and Demi Lovato songs, respectively, “Too Little, Too Late” and “Give Your Heart a Break.” He still writes with Alexander, with whom he’s written a new song called “Painkiller” which Steinberg says is his best penned song in a decade. “Though I take pride in the fact that 10 or 15 of my songs have endured,” says Steinberg, relaxing at his Santa Monica home office that is decorated with photos of personal heroes from John Lennon to Bob Dylan to the Everly Brothers, “I’m still desperately trying to write my next hit. So I rarely sit back and just enjoy what’s already done. I’m thinking about what to do next.”
PSL: You were born in Fresno to Lionel Steinberg, a table grape grower who moved to Palm Springs when you were 8 to be near his thousand-acre vineyard operation. And also to make your mother happy, too, right?
Billy Steinberg: Yes. He and my mom, Mary, were very different types: His two interests were agricultural and politics. He was president of the California Board of Agriculture and campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, and was, in 1970, the first table grape grower to sign the initial contract with Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers. My mother had lived in New York City before she met my dad and when he brought her to his home in Fresno, it was like death to her.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILLY STEINBERG
Billy Steinberg composes at his father’s vineyards in Thermal, 1985.
When she got a whiff of Palm Springs, she realized, “This is a helluva lot more to my liking!” and we moved there in 1958. My mother, thereafter, joined the Palm Springs Racquet Club and her closest friends included Dinah Shore, Barbara Sinatra, Kirk and Ann Douglas, and she also knew Jack Benny, Truman Capote, Lucille Ball, and was quite friendly with Frank Sinatra.
PSL: Were you impressed?
BS: I would have been impressed with rock stars or baseball players, but not so much my parents’ generation of performers. I knew them pretty well, though. I used to play Scrabble with Lucille Ball after I was home from college and working for my dad.
PSL: Who won the Scrabble game?
BS: I did. And Lucy’s not around to say otherwise (chuckles). And after my first son, Max, was born I used to go to Frank Sinatra’s house. He had a room at his compound devoted entirely to his love for electric trains and he’d put on a train engineer’s cap and let my son participate. He was a lovely guy.
PSL: You’ve been playing in bands since you were 13 and writings songs since 17.
BS: Yeah, I was lead singer of The Fables and we played at Palm Springs High School dances, the Youth Center, which was across from the O’Donnell Golf Club, and at private parties.
PSL: So you had your foot in all these worlds — music, the glamour of Palm Springs, and the desert heat helping your dad run the vineyard.
BS: Unlike my father I’d always been apolitical. When I was in my 30s, I had my foot in a Palm Springs environmental issue, the Friends of the Indian Canyons. A developer was planning to build condominiums, a golf course, and a hotel in that whole area where the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians had so many of their sacred places and I saw red. I went to a city council meeting and said, “I’ve been to Europe, Asia, and New England and the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen is here in the Indian Canyons. A development doesn’t belong there.” After the meeting, myself and other like-minded people formed the Friends of the Indian Canyons and we were able to raise $19 million, get on a state bond act and affect a purchase of the land, keeping it preserved.
PHOTO BY EMILY CHAVOUS
Billy Steinberg’s song drafts for “I Drove All Night,” written in 1985 and released by Cyndi Lauper in 1989, and “I Touch Myself,” penned in 1990 and released the same year by Divinyls.
PSL: Brilliant. Time to talk music. After your Ronstadt hit, Pat Benatar recorded a couple of your songs, but the mega-break was “Like a Virgin.” You and Tom Kelly had had that song for a while, but kept being told that no one would sing it, because of its title. Then Warner Bros. executive Michael Ostin, met with you and —
BS: We played it for him and he said, “That’d be a great song for Madonna.” Madonna only had “Borderline” and “Lucky Star.” I could feel that she had something and that it was a great marriage of an artist and a song. I mean, come on: Her name was Madonna and the song had virgin in it!
PSL: Without “Virgin” having been released yet, Madonna debuted it on the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards in a show where she pretty much humped the stage of Radio City Music Hall. I understand you were horrified.
BS: There was a lot riding on that song for me and then she goes on the show and sings it doing all these unpredictable things onstage, the camera can’t even follow her, and I thought, “This could be the stake in the heart of our song!” I was wrong.
PSL: Yep, the song went on to become a No. 1 Billboard smash. Even so, you didn’t actually meet Ms. Ciccone until four years later. She wasn’t terribly lovely when you did, was she?
BS: We’d tried to write a follow-up for her, but never heard back about it. We were disappointed, but weren’t complaining because we had … “Like a Virgin.” So we’d never met her and got invited to her [then-manager] Freddie DeMann’s 50th birthday party. We were on a terrace at his house talking to Stephen Bray who’d co-written “Into the Groove” with her. Then, from across the way, we could see Madonna walking toward us with Warren Beatty, her boyfriend at the moment, in tow. Stephen says, “Madonna, this is Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly — they wrote “Like a Virgin.” I was trembling and said, “Madonna, I’ve wanted to meet you for so long!” And she said, “Well, now you did.” And with that, she grabbed Warren and walked off. Tom laughed his head off. I was a little insulted and my feelings were hurt, but it makes for a good story.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BILLY STEINBERG
Billy Steinberg and Cyndi Lauper in Finland, 1988.
PSL: What a bitch! But you and Tom were off to the races with what would become five years of No. 1 hits. Amazingly, none of the songs resemble each other.
BS: Our songs only reflect different types of music that we liked. “Like a Virgin” is Motown meets “Billie Jean.” “Eternal Flame” was like a great Beatles ballad from the “Revolver” album. “True Colors” was, lyrically, in the school of something like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
PSL: “True Colors” has become a bona fide gay anthem. You’re a straight married guy with two kids. Do you dig the song’s stature as a —
BS: As a gay anthem? Listen, when you’re a songwriter you want to hear your songs loved and sung. That’s your joy in life. So, yes, I love hearing it that way. And we got really lucky with that song. “Like a Virgin” could only have been sung only by Madonna, but “True Colors” could have been sung by anybody and it could have disappeared. But Cyndi made it memorable. Later, she and Tom and I wrote a bunch of songs together and Cyndi and I hit it off. She’s a great singer, a quirky personality, a very generous spirit, and I love her to death. Since she’s out performing “True Colors” and I’m not there to see it, she often sends me emails saying, “You have no idea how much that song means to people.”
PSL: So she thanks you. Unlike Madonna!
BS: Who probably never will. But so what?
PSL: That’s the attitude. Do you have a personal favorite lyric of your own?
BS: I do. The first verse of “I Touch Myself.” (recites it) “I love myself, I want you to love me/When I feel down, I want you above me/I search myself, I want you to find me/I forget myself, I want you to remind me.” It’s word play. And I love it that people think the song is so naughty. To me, it isn’t. The song isn’t a one-trick pony. To me, it’s not just a masturbation song.
PHOTO BY BRUCE HULSE
Billy Steinberg poses outside his childhood home in Palm Springs’ Old Las Palmas neighborhood. His parents bought the newly built home on Via Vadera in 1958 and Steinberg and his family lived there until 1973.
PSL: No, I have to tell you it’s my absolute favorite of yours. I can never, ever play it just once, I always have to spin it three times in a row. Besides your Cyndi and Bangles collaborations, you also hooked up with one of my idols, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, on five songs for 1994’s The Last of the Independents, including another solid hit of yours, “I’ll Stand By You.”
BS: Out of all the artists I’ve worked with, Chrissie is the one I know best and the relationship I care about the most. She’s who presented us at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction in 2011. We email each other frequently and have a great, running rapport.
PSL: She can be a wild one. Any crazy stories?
BS: When we first met, she hadn’t had a hit in a while and was hungry for one. She and Tom and I worked our butts off. And she got that hit in “I’ll Stand By You.” The wildest times I had with Chrissie were later in London, when we went to write another batch of songs. We accompanied her on many perfume-buying and chocolate cake–consuming ventures. And Chrissie’s from Ohio and Tom’s from Indiana, so they’re both that sort of “hardy American stock,” while I’d be more of the “neurotic Jew boy” to them. So, oh, my god, the two of them would gang up on me. One time, I walked into a room and Chrissie jumped out from behind some curtains with a knife like she was going to kill me. They were constantly trying to fuck with me.
PSL: They bad! Okay, wrapping up, tell me: What do you hope your legacy is?
BS: I’d like for people to say [of me], “There’s a significant body of work there. They weren’t just songs that came and went. They wrote great pop songs that endure.” That’s what means something to me.
PSL: What makes “baby Billy” the happiest?
BS: You mean the one that started out as a fan? The one who loved the Everly Brothers and the Teddy Bears and Ricky Nelson and Sonny James as a kid? I’ll tell you: It went beyond just, “I was a kid and I loved these records.” It was something more. I fell way in love with pop music as a kid. So when I put that needle down on “All I Have To Do Is Dream” and the Everly Brothers started singing, “Dream, dream, dream, dream,” I felt OK. For the two minutes and 20 seconds that the song lasted I felt really good. Music for me has been more than just liking it, it’s needing it. It’s kind of, if you will, my drug. I mean, a high school buddy of mine came to my house in Brentwood last night and what did we do? We went into the room where I have my record collection of 78s, 45s, and LPs, and I DJ’d and we listened to eight or 10 John Lennon songs. It was just awesome. I had a band called Billy Thermal that existed from ’78 until ’80 and we had a song that was never recorded called “I’m Your Baby,” and it has a line in it that goes, “I’m a 29-year-old 9-year-old.” And, in some ways, I think I’m a 67-year-old 7-year-old now. And that’s just fine with me.