The songwriters tell the stories behind penning The Kinks' "You Really Got Me," Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive," Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," and more!
The Songwriters Hall of Fame will recognize The Kinks' Ray Davies, Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds, Donovan and other tunesmiths at its gala in New York on June 12. Billboard spoke with this year's class of honorees about their hit-making memories.
Ray Davies of the Kinks knew "You Really Got Me" was special when it "was the only song, really, that stopped the Beatles fans chanting when we opened for them." Donovan recalls when "sunshine" – as in the title of his hit "Sunshine Superman" – was British slang for LSD. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons says he had "no idea" that "Radioactive" would connect the way it has. And Sony Music chairman/CEO Doug Morris learned early in his career what it's like when an act hits it big, after he wrote "Sweet Talkin' Guy" for the Chiffons, and heard it all over the radio in New York City.
Ray Davies of the Kinks, "You Really Got Me"
"I was living with my sister in Highgate [north London]. I was about 15 and trying to write some songs. The first was called ‘Tired Of Waiting For You,' which is kind of a riff-driven thing, and then I wrote a more aggressive version of that, which became ‘You Really Got Me.'
"The Kinks' first two singles were picked by the record company [Pye]. We'd tried ‘You Really Got Me' out on stage six months before we recorded it, and we knew we had something really special because of the way it went down live. It was the only song, really, that stopped the Beatles fans chanting when we opened for them in Bournemouth.
"It's a very simple melody, almost a Gregorian chant. The way we played it was so magnetic. It wasn't a virtuoso track, it was a basic riff, with a melody popping over the top and a crucial key change that was different for its time.
"The sound of the guitar was almost as loud as the sound of the vocals, which was unknown for records, and still is, really. The riff was all-important, and the chanting was almost primal, so in retrospect, it was the start of hard rock."
As told to Paul Sexton
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, "Radioactive"
"When I wrote Radioactive, we'd been a band for two and a half, maybe three years. We were at that point so many bands get to -- where we're playing small clubs and filling them, but to break out at that level is a difficult thing. I was questioning my own career choice. I really wanted to have a family at some point and be able to support them, and still do what I love. So it was a difficult time. I'm a really up and down person; I've always struggled with depression.
"I was writing in the studio with Alex [da Kid, producer]. We knew we wanted something that was heavy. I've always loved songs that present a beautiful and sensitive subject in a heavy way. So we came up with this heavy beat and instrumental that just felt like an awakening. It expressed a feeling that was happening with me, so I started to write the lyrics and the melody.
"In truth, the song is about becoming self-empowered and saying, I'm happy with who I am, happy with the choices I'm making. It's about sweating off all the dust and grime of self-doubt and judgment, and embracing who you are.
"I was just writing for myself at the time, I had no idea it would resonate like it has. The most amazing thing is, I don't think you could ever realize how much your music could have an impact on people when you're playing at that lower level. To be at this point where we are getting letters and emails from someone who was at their lowest, saying our music inspired them and gave them hope. It's incredible to think about. You can affect people all over the world."
As told to Cathy Applefeld Olson
Donovan, "Sunshine Superman"
"The song was talking about the bohemian world I came from that was happening quite strong, [even] before 1966, of art, literature, philosophy, music and poetry. ‘Sunshine' was a slang word for the then-legal LSD. Expanded consciousness came into it, and I intended to bring meaningful lyrics, tools of self-change and social commentary into pop songs. I saw how it could be done. The Beatles were a great inspiration, and we became fast friends.
"So ‘Sunshine Superman' is a love song for my muse, Linda Lawrence, but at the same time I was blending classics and Latin, folk music and poetry in one song.
"We were in Abbey Road [Studios], and writing three songs every day, so it came very fast. I would play songs, and [producer] Mickie Most would say ‘That's the single.'
"[Creative companion] Gypsy Dave and I went off to Greece with about three quid in my pocket. The phone rang, and Ashley Kozak, my manager, said ‘Get yourself back to Athens, you've got a first-class ticket to London. ‘Superman''s released and it's No. 1 all over the world.'"
As told to Paul Sexton
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, "Me and Mrs. Jones,"
(co-written with Cary Gilbert).
Gamble: "We were rolling. Everything we saw or everybody we talked to, we looked for a song in it. And this was no exception. We used to go to a little bar downstairs from our office. An elderly gentleman, a judge, used to come in there every day. Not long after him, a young girl would come in. We watched them quite a few times and the idea came."
Huff: "It was like watching a movie play out right in front of our eyes. I knew the judge, and I knew that young girl wasn't his wife. They would sit at the same table. Then he would go to the jukebox and play the same song.
"Songwriters have antennas that go up, especially when they're around people and observing what they're saying and doing. That's the way Gamble wrote the story. He demonstrated this riff to me, ‘Got a thing going on.' I sat down and started playing. Then Gamble started free-styling the lyrics. The spontaneity of the moment really got us going. It came together so easy. After we got the story down, we went through the phone book to come up with the right name. Jones wasn't there yet. And a two-syllable name didn't work with the melody. Jones seemed like it had some power to it.
Gamble: "When we started to bang it out, we were working with Billy Paul. We'd write with a piano and a tape recorder on top to record what we were doing. Once it starts flowing, that's it. The song's basic structure was done in a couple of hours. Billy's unusual voice fit the song perfectly. It was a different sound for us: real soft and warm.
"After Billy really nailed it, he performed that evening at a local club, The First Nighter. He told the audience, ‘I just finished recording something and want to see if you like it.' They wanted him to sing it over and over again. There were probably a lot of Mrs. Joneses in that audience who had a thing going on. That's when I thought, ‘We've got a big hit.'"
As told to Gail Mitchell