Ray Davies, Imagine Dragons & More: Songwriters Hall of Famers on Writing Their Hits

Ray Davies
Lawrence Watson

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.

"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.

"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.

"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.'

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

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"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.

"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.

"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.

"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