Steve Dorff, composer of pop, TV and film hits

Steve Dorff
When most of us hear songs on the radio, TV, in movies or online, we typically think that the performer who sings the songs also writes and composes them. While that's true of the traditional singer-songwriters of our times including Sir Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting or Billy Joel, few know that many performers have composers or lyricists doing that part of the song for them. Take for instance the huge pop hit "Every Which Way But Loose" sung by Eddie Rabbit. That chart-topping single that got the world to hum along to in their cars for the past four decades, is actually composed by a guy named Steve Dorff. "Every Which Way But Loose" is just one of the many hit singles he wrote throughout the years.

Songs such as Kenny Rogers' "Through The Years," Barbra Streisand's "Higher Ground," and Anne Murray's "I Just Fall in Love Again," are just a few of the classic songs that Dorff created in his massive catalog that spans decades. Dorff has 20 top 10 hits and 14 Billboard number one hits. He earned an American Music Award and has Grammy and Emmy nominations to his credits. Dorff has recorded with over 400 artists.

In addition to his masterful pop songs, Dorff composed songs to popular television shows including Growing Pains, Columbo, Murphy Brown and in films such as Rocky IV, Honky Tonk Man, Tin Cup  and many others. Recently, Dorff release his autobiography titled, "I Wrote That One, Too... A Life in Songwriting from Willie to Whitney."
On Friday, March 22, Dorff brought his talents back to the Red Clay Music Foundry in downtown Duluth, Georgia -- to perform and discuss his songwriting craft. I had a recent conversation with Dorff about his career and love of the songwriting craft.

What memories do you have about the Red Clay theater?

SD: I have. It's a cool little theater. They have a cool piano there. I just walk in and we try to do venues that have baby grand pianos. The electric keyboards don't have that magic.

Ah, so you're a purist? How did you get into music? Did you take piano lessons?

SD: I'm self taught. Never took a lesson. Used to listen to my sister who was ten years older than me practice and uh, I would crawl up on the piano bench and play what I heard for six hours a day better than she could. She wanted to break my arms and fingers.

That's an incredible gift.

SD: It really is. I write about that in my book. I have a book that was released last year. I have synesthesia. As a small child, I saw colors that showed me the intervals as to what I was hearing. When I got around the instrument, I could almost see what I was playing. It started the process early in my development.

Where did you grow up and go to school?

SD: I grew up in New York and went to the University of Georgia and was a journalism major.

Coming out of UGA, how did you get into the music business?

SD: Going to school was a deal that I made with my parents: get a degree in something, anything rather than run away and join a rock band. Journalism didn't have math or chemistry, but I cut classes and went down to Atlanta. There was a music publishing company, Lowery Music that gave me my first start. I started playing in the studios and doing demos.

How do you construct songs and what inspired you to write songs?

SD: That's a good question that I don't consciously know the answer. Whether I'm in my car or in the shower or walking down the street, I would start hearing a melody hook or a lyric line or maybe in a conversation, I hear something and say that there is song there.  When I sit down at the piano, I have 75% of the song.
How do you put your songs together? Is it the melody first or lyrics or maybe it depends on the situation.

SD: It depends on the situation and the collaborator. Sometimes they will send me a lyric or melody. Sometimes we'll hash it out in the studio. It's a different process with the individual.

Can a song be written on voice?

SD: To hear the chords and the melody, you need to do that on an instrument.

So someone who has the melody hook in their head can come to you and you convert that to chords on the piano?

SD: Yeah.

Who inspired you growing up?

SD: I was always a huge show tunes fan. My sister and parents played a lot of the great classics like "Bye, Bye Birdie," "The Music Man" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Just great show tunes. That was my inspiration until I heard The Beatles. I would say that Burt Bacharach and Dave Grusin got me into arranging and production.

What was it like working with Ringo Starr after discovering The Beatles years before your recording session with him?

SD: That was a 'pinch me' moment. It was pretty cool, surreal. I was asked to write the end title song ("You Never Know") for John Hughes' last film Curly Sue. I had Harry Nilsson in mind. When we had the song and John loved it. He said, 'Yeah, Harry is good, but I hear Ringo doing it.' I asked how we were going to get Ringo and sure enough they reeled him into it. It was magical. He was a hero.

What's the difference between doing a pop song or movie score?

SD: That's a really good question because as a composer you're exercising completely different musical muscles. When writing for film, so you don't have to write lyric so you don't have to worry about word. You're kind of underscoring what's happening in that scene. There's no set time or rhythm constraints. It's more of a free flowing musical art form. When you're writing a pop song, you have a structure to write a three and a half minute song.

Who helped you get out to Los Angeles?

SD: I had $400 that I amassed and went knocking on doors. I knocked on a door that didn't get slammed in my face. It was a guy named Snuff Garrett. He asked me to play a few songs for him and I did. It was fortuitous to be in the right place at the right time. He said, 'How would you like to move to California and write for me?'

You stayed in a house in which (then Larry King's future wife) actress Shawn Southwick was living as a child.

SD: When I first came to Los Angeles, Bill Lowery who I was writing for had a very dear friend of his, Karl Engemann who was an A&R person at Capitol Records. When Karl heard that I was coming out, he let me stay at his house. Shawn was an 8 or 9-year-old girl. Karl is now in his 80s. He was involved with the Osmond brothers in Utah. Shawn reached out to me on Facebook and said, 'You need to come on Larry's show!'

What was it like to work with Barbra Streisand?

SD: Barbra is arguably the greatest female vocalist of all time in terms of record sales. She had number one albums over six decades. Probably will never be done again. There is a reason. It's that voice. She's a strong personality. She's a perfectionist. I have been so blessed to have four songs with her and on her new album with "Love's Never Wrong." Every pure songwriter like me who has written the soundtrack of people's lives. Nobody has any idea of who we really are because they just assume that's a Kenny Rogers song, a Barbra Streisand song or a Celine Dion song. No, those are Steve Dorff songs made famous by great voices. Most people don't know that. That's what my show is all about. These songs come from an organic place. If we're lucky enough, we have a great voice that brings it out into the world.

Ray Charles was another iconic figure you worked with.

SD: My experience was not a great one. I was asked to write something for the opening credits to Clint Eastwood's film and that was a duet with Ray Charles and Clint. It was more like an assignment. My association with Clint was amazing because he gave me my start in film. He wrote a nice testimonial on the back of my book.

How has it been doing these live shows?

SD: It's fun because people are forgiving. Once I start singing these songs to audiences, it's very apparent within seconds, no one has heard me on the radio. I joke about that and say close you're going to swear that you're listening to Whitney Houston sing this song and then I play a song that I wrote for her. It's endearing to hear the song played in its most organic form, the way it was intended by the writer. I think that's what is enjoyable to the audience and to hear the story between success and dismal failures that songwriters have experienced.  It's great to see in the audience people learning that I write these songs. The performing thing is new to me. I have been a studio rat for years. It's nice to get out.

Do artists approach you for a song?

SD: I just write the best song that I can and pray that someone I like want to record it. With Barbra, "Higher Ground" was written with George Green. We originally were going to pitch it to Mariah Carey.

You were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

SD: I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (June 2018) and for me it was all about having great singers do my songs and having hits. Getting into the Hall of Fame was my pot of gold. The Hall of Fame encouraged me to go out and do these songs. I'm not the face of these songs, I'm the heart and soul that created them.   

Photo from Steve Dorff


Most viewed

Condos. Cutting-edge restaurants. Trendy shopping.

Take time out for Virginia’s Shenandoah region

Flashback: Billy Joel's Sax Player (Mark Rivera profile-March 2007)