Ray Davies, Imagine Dragons & More: Songwriters Hall of Famers on Writing Their Hits
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
Doug Morris, chairman/CEO Sony Music, "Sweet Talkin' Guy"
"I was working in A&R for Laurie Records, the label Dion was on, when I wrote "Sweet Talkin' Guy." I wrote it in the office. It was very heavily influenced by one of the Supremes songs, I forget which one. The song came pretty easily and I probably finished it in a week. At the time, I was about 24 or 26 and living in Seaford, Long Island.
"I was writing it for the Chiffons, so lyrically it would have to be something that they were interested in. They loved it and did a great live take on it.
"I produced the session, which was at Allegro Sound Studios in New York, with Elliot Greenberg, who was one of the owners for Laurie Records, along with Gene and Bob Schwartz. I wrote it, but back then the owners of the record labels also got the writing credit so that's why Elliot Greenberg and Bob Schwartz and Barbara Baer got credit.
"It became a hit almost immediately. As soon as it came out, WMCA played it and the reaction was immediate. It was the first big hit. It was really exciting to me. You could hear it everywhere you went. `Sweet Talkin' Guy' gave me good insight into the way the artists must feel when they have a big hit. But compared to the other writers of the period, who were so much better than me, I knew I wasn't destined [for a songwriting career]. I realized I wasn't a great songwriter but could recognize a hit.
"But I really like doing it and I liked the music business. By the end I was GM of Laurie Records and I also owned 25% of the Laurie publishing company. When I left, I sold my share of the publishing company because I wanted money to start Big Tree Records, where I produced "Smokin' In The Boys Room," for Brownsville Station."
As told to Ed Christman
Graham Gouldman of 10CC, "I'm Not In Love,"
(co-written with Eric Stewart)
"We'd just signed with Phonogram and made the ‘Original Soundtrack' album, and they wanted to put ‘Life Is A Minestrone' out as the first single. We didn't know how commercially successful ‘I'm Not In Love' would be, but we knew it was great. We'd turn the lights out in the studio and lie on the floor and listen to it.
"It was Eric's title, that set the template for the melancholic style. We'd avoided writing ballads, but I always thought we could write a great love song. We recorded it at Strawberry Studios [outside Manchester, England], but if memory serves, we started it off at Eric's house. I had these opening chords and Eric had these opening lines, and I added to them. He would sing a line and I would sing the next line, it was one of those things that was written very quickly.
"Kevin [Godley] came up with a slower rhythm for it, and Lol [Crème]'s had the idea for the ‘Big boys don't cry' bit. Whoever in the band wrote the song, the others became foster-parents and treated it as their own. There was something there right from the beginning, and Eric's vocal is fantastic, it's just perfect."
As told to Paul Sexton
Mark James, "Hooked On A Feeling"
"I wrote this song for B.J. [Thomas]. He had had a few hits, his biggest one was "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," but he was cold. Here I am thinking, `How do you take a mellow artist and make him exciting? That's what was in my mind.
"One night, around 3 a.m., `Hooked On A Feeling' came to me. My idea was trying to say when you have a love for someone, you're as hooked as if on drugs or booze, it's the same thing. I did have a love for somebody; this is very personal to me.
"It came all at once--the music and the lyrics, like a gift. I just tried write down what I heard in my head as fast as I could. All the pieces fit in perfectly. B.J. loved the song. We cut it in 30 minutes. When those things hit you like that, there's no doubt.
"But it almost didn't happen. I got a call from the head of national promotion at Scepter Records [Thomas' label] saying Florence Greenberg, who owned the company was saying we had a stiff, and she wanted to reschedule B.J. to do another song.
"I told him, `Man, you're not ever going to get a greater performance, a greater production.' I pumped up this guy four or five times. He would keep calling back and I would keep saying, `Don't believe it. This is a smash.'
"So finally I took the record to Houston and played for Larry Kane, a DJ who had a big radio show. He loved it, and that's how it got built up, and started getting promoted. When you get something brand new, sometimes they don't hear it at first. But I knew—this is a hit."
As told to Cathy Applefeld Olson
Jim Weatherly, "Midnight Train to Georgia"
"Lee Majors was a friend of mine, and he'd just started dating Farrah Fawcett. I called one day and she answered the phone and she mentioned she was packing her clothes to take midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks.
"It rung like a bell to me. After got off the phone and wrote the song in about 30 minutes. I was kind of in a trance.
"[But] I never expected an R&B record. I wrote it in the cosmopolitan country style, and thought it might be a good pitch for Glenn Campbell. He was cutting all those songs that had city names in them. I had actually pitched that one to Ray Price and he was about to cut it.
"But [Gladys Knight's] producers got it and they cut it before Ray could get it. R&B was the furthest thing from my mind. But when I heard it, was totally blown away that Gladys and the Pips could take that little song I wrote and put it into that kind of harmony in it.
"I had recorded a ballad version of the song on one of my CDs and, four years ago, Neil Diamond covered the ballad version. It's great. He really captured the essence of the lyric—that's what happens in the ballad version, you really do hear the story.
"It's been fascinating to see the way people perceive the song. But there's an intangible there--you don't know what it is—that hits home. All lasting songs have something about them that's really intangible."
As told to Cathy Applefeld Olson