Award-winning songwriter offers a glimpse behind the process
Some people join a band because they love to get up on stage and perform. Not Steve Dorff. The award-winning songwriter played in his share of bands as a teenager, but he did it mostly because he wanted to find a way to get his songs played, and — more specifically — to give the shapes and colors and sounds in his head a way of taking form out in the world. Since he was a baby, Dorff had been experiencing music as a sort of visual show of shifting 3-D blobs. In his memoir, I Wrote That One, Too, Dorff describes closing his eyes and seeing what he calls “plasma bubbles.” Dorff has spent most of his career writing songs — many of which became big hits by artists like George Strait, Barbra Streisand, Christopher Cross, B.J. Thomas, Glen Campbell, Celine Dion, Eddie Rabbit, and others. He’s also written theme music and soundtracks for TV shows and movies, as well as composing for Broadway. Dorff will take a semi-rare turn on the stage himself when he comes to High Point to perform his songs and tell stories about how they were written and the sometimes circuitous route they took making their way onto a record. I spoke to Dorff last week by phone from his home in Nashville.
Dorff grew up in Queens, New York. In his memoir, Dorff said that for as long as he can remember he’s had powerful visual experiences of music, sometimes envisioning the sounds he was hearing as if they existed in a realm of color and shape, and sometimes experiencing visual stimuli, like the sight of snowballs flying at him, as if they were a series of sounds, with corresponding rhythmic and melodic values.
“When I close my eyes and listen to music, I visualize what it sounds like,” Dorff told me. “It’s kind of cosmic, but that’s what it is.”
Later he learned that there was a term for this type of sensory double-dipping or cross-wiring — synesthesia. Seeing sounds, tasting colors: these types of phenomena have happened to numerous artists. Dorff calls it a gift, and one can imagine that it might allow for a type of concentration and musical focus that is far more heightened than what your average listener experiences. It helped that Dorff had a preternatural ability to realize the sounds he heard in his head when he sat down at the keyboard.
One of Dorff’s first attempts to land a career involved going to what had been the epicenter of the songwriting universe, the Brill Building in New York City, where people like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and Doc Pomus had written some of the big hits of the 1950s and early ‘60s. But Dorff’s timing was a little off since the golden age of the Brill Building had more or less passed by the mid-’60s after the arrival of the Beatles and Dylan had transformed the landscape for songwriters.
“It was a case of being at the right place at the wrong time, I guess,” said Dorff about his attempt to plug into a recently past era of songwriting glory.
“Growing up, listening to Broadway show music, and listening to those songs and loving theater songs, I just loved great songs and great melodies as a kid, and so when I started thinking about writing songs, the only role models I had were Sintra and Judy Garland,” said Dorff by way of explaining how his tastes were possibly a smidge retro when he was a teenager.
Dorff ended up joining some bands, moving to Baltimore for his last year of high school and eventually going to college in Athens, Georgia.
“I just wanted to create my own songs and get other people to do them,” he said. “I knew that from an early age.”
That knowledge, and Dorff’s talents, got him publishing deals while he was still a teenager. And work in Atlanta led to work in Los Angeles, which is where Dorff made his career and his home for about 40 years. Dorff’s songs include “Every Which Way But Loose,” “Hypnotize The Moon,” “I Cross My Heart,” and “You’ve Been Leaving Me For Years.” If you want to have your mind blown, go to Dorff’s website and look at the photo gallery of him hanging out with legends like Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Charlie Rich, Dusty Springfield. Donna Summer, George Martin, Jimmy Webb, Gene Autry, Lionel Ritchie, Smokey Robinson, and dozens of others of pop music icons.
The idea of writing a book and getting out on stage to tell the stories behind the songs came as a result of Dorff’s being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Most people imagine that the singer singing a song on the radio is the person who wrote the music, or that the song just came out of nowhere. The idea that someone like Dorff might team up with a lyricist (as he does most of the time) and write a song that gets shopped around, pitching a song for Mariah Carey, say, before it gets taken up by a different singer with a totally different style.
“A lot of people are very surprised at the stories and the behind-the-scenes life of these songs,” Dorff said. He’s compared his role as a songwriter — someone who is heard but rarely seen — to that of “the man behind the curtain,” and these shows give him a chance to give people a glimpse into the process.
In his memoir, Dorff makes the case that finding a good writing partner is one of the keys to the art of songwriting, and he seems especially attuned to the importance of being open to each collaboration as a unique creative interaction with its own particular rhythm, color, and feel. But after all the esoteric variables get put aside, Dorff said this humble reminder about the core truth of songwriting: “At the end of the day, we’re all just singing or writing about either love found or love lost.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Steve Dorff at High Point Theatre, 220 East Commerce Ave., High Point, on Friday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. $20/$25.