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Steve Dorff Reflects on His Legendary Songwriting Career and Talks What's Next ('Murphy Brown' & Barbra Streisand)

Steve Dorff
Wade Payne/Invision/AP

Steve Dorff arrives at the BMI Awards at BMI Nashville on Nov. 7, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.

Though he has had cuts from such artists as Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, Celine Dion, and George Strait in his career, legendary tunesmith Steve Dorff says there is nothing like getting that call that one of his songs has been cut.

“Not being a performing writer, I count on great voices to do my songs,” he tells Billboard. “So, whenever someone honors me by recording something I've written, it's just the best honor I can get.”

With several such honors to his credit, it serves as no surprise that Dorff’s name was included on the new list of inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Needless to say, it’s one of the biggest moments in his career.

“Oh man, it's more than a dream come true,” he says emphatically. “It really is. I'm still kind of pinching myself. To get in on the first ballot was very surreal.”

Dorff says that when he looks at the list of writers that he will be joining on June 14 in New York City, he is awestruck. Who makes him do a double-take? “I think some of the older standard writers that I grew up listening to, like Jule Styne and of course, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and all of the great theater writers. Then, of course Burt Bacharach, who's one of my very top influences. It's just pretty mind-boggling.”

In a entertainment landscape that has changed seemingly by the second, Dorff says the art of songwriting remains pretty much the same as it was when he started his career in the 1970’s. “It really hasn’t changed, at least not for me. I think production techniques and the younger songwriters who have so much technical wisdom at their fingertips, it's probably changed. But, for me, I still sit at the piano and actually write. Most of what I do is kind of written or shaped before my hands ever hit the keys. So, for me, it's old school, but I still tend to just do my process. I've kind of stayed with my process.”

And, for Dorff, that means focusing on the creative side of his work – while also keeping in mind that it is a business. “I've just always tried to do what I do, and that's write music and try to navigate the sometimes stormy seas of the actual business side. There's a very fine line between great success and dismal failure, and I have experienced both, and the disappointments are part of the business. I think the true testament of my career has been to be able to navigate all that and still enjoy and love what I do, and come through it and have some more successes.”

His career is documented in his new book, I Wrote That One Too….A Life In Songwriting From Willie To Whitney. He said that being an author as opposed to a composer was very different.

“Writing the book was much harder than writing songs,” he confesses. “Writing music to me comes as natural as breathing. I've been doing that my whole life, ever since I was a young child, and not even realizing it. Writing the book and telling those stories and doing it in a fun and entertaining way, where people think it's an easy read - which I've been told it is - that was difficult. And it took a year. It took me about a year to really go back and comb through the stories and remember the details. It was more like going to college for four years and doing a dissertation. Whereas with writing a song, I can do that sometimes in fifteen minutes or a couple hours.”

Talking about his personal life – which included a somewhat difficult childhood and several personal heartbreaks along the way – wasn’t the easiest task, either. “There were certain things that I had to revisit and talk about that were not a whole lot of fun to do. But, that's what they wanted. They wanted a complete history. They didn't just want the cherry-picked high points.”

He's a lot more comfortable writing songs that have become part of American music history, such as “Through The Years,” “I Cross My Heart,” “I Just Fall In Love Again,” and “As Long As We’ve Got Each Other,” which served as the theme song for the 1980s TV staple Growing Pains. Many of his compositions have become timeless love songs. So, is he a romantic expert?

“I'd love to be able to say I'm writing about my life,” he admits, “but maybe I'm writing about what I wish it would be like. That's probably more on point. I don't know, it starts with the musicality and the melodies. I've always been this romantic-type writer, those were the kinds of melodies that I loved as a kid growing up, and that's pretty much what I do best I think.”

At the same time, Dorff surmises that loss has also influenced some of his more recent work. In the past dozen years, he has lost his sister, his mother, and his son Andrew, one of Nashville’s top writers. “I have experienced probably the worst loss any parent can experience, losing my son. It changed my mood and my outlook on life, so I think that reflects in some of the music and some of the songs. And then in 2017, I didn't write one song, after Andrew passed away. It just wasn't something I wanted to even think about.” However, the creative juices have begun to flow again. “This year's been a really good year. I've been writing again, I think I'm writing some of the best things I've ever written, and I have a much more positive outlook. But, loss does affect - it affects everything in your life.”

And that phone continues to ring for Dorff. “I'm getting ready to do Murphy Brown, which is coming back to CBS this fall. (He also did the music for the 1988-98 original series.) I'm really excited about that. I'm working on a song for a new Barbra Streisand project, which I'm extremely excited about. I have several new acts that I'm producing. So, I've been just about as busy as I've ever been this year, so it's really been good.”

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