Tonight, ASCAP will present Desmond Child with its Founders Award, the highest honor the performance rights society bestows on its member songwriters.
Child, who has penned more than 80 Top 40 hits, follows such past recipients as Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Burt Bacharach, Tom Petty and Stevie Wonder, all of whom were chosen for their exceptional contributions to music.
A small sampling of Child’s greatest hits includes “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “You Give Love A Bad Name,” and “Bad Medicine” with Bon Jovi and “Dude (Looks Like A Lady,” “Angel” and “Crazy” with Aerosmith, as well as Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “Waking Up In Vegas” with Katy Perry, and, more recently, Zedd’s “Beautiful Now” featuring Jon Bellion.
Last month, the Songwriters Hall of Fame member launched a performance series in New York, An Evening With Desmond Child, which reunited him with the members of his original ‘70s band, Desmond Child & Rouge. Nashville-based Child, who hopes to bring the show to Los Angeles, is also working on a Broadway play and a TV series. In the fall, the father of 16-year-old twins will release his autobiography, Livin On A Prayer: Big Songs Big Life, co-written with David Ritz.
Child talked with Billboard about his start in songwriting, the songs that got away, his years in a commune, and begging Jon Bon Jovi to cut one particular song.
When did you know you were a songwriter?
My mother was a songwriter, so I was playing at her feet at the piano until I could stand and then I would start making suggestions to her. I didn’t know that people didn’t write songs. I thought being creative was just the way of human beings. I’ve never not been a songwriter.
Who were your mentors?
The acting coach Sandra Seacat and the incredible Bob Crewe, the legendary producer of The Four Seasons. He took me under his wing for two years and taught me everything about songwriting. I could not have had the hits that I had if I had not spent those two years with Bob because he taught me how to unlock the secret of professional songwriting. You also have to have a creative spirit that’s trying to do things in a different and new way and pushing to combine what you know with things that you don’t know. That’s why I think my career has survived five decades of No. 1 hits.
You tend to co-write your songs. What do you look for in a songwriting partner?
They just happen. I’m collaborating now with an amazing artist, Annaca. I don’t know if you’ve heard her ‘Wicked Game’ cover that she does for the Alfa Romeo commercial? I heard the commercial and tracked her down and, boom, she’s here. Yesterday, we started writing and it’s just magic. I just knew when I heard that voice. There’s another thing that happened in me: I don’t want to work with people that can’t sing right. I want to write with real artists, with people that can really sing, that really can bring something to the table. Often, one will get an artist coming from a TV show or this or that, and they don’t really have that much experience and they really haven’t found their souls, they really haven’t found themselves, but yet they have to have a hit. That’s a bin that I don’t want to be in anymore.
Which songs of yours didn’t get a fair shot?
“(You Want To) Make A Memory” with Bon Jovi. I think that is one of the best songs that I’ve written with Jon [Bon Jovi], and Richie [Sambora]. Maybe that version wasn’t aggressive or maybe radio worthy, but that song was fantastic and I just love that song. I also think “Weird” with Hanson. It’s one of my favorite songs. It’s about being different and it’s stood the test of time. But so many things are not within anyone’s control. Think about how many thousands of moves have to happen for a song to be “Despacito” or ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca.” In a way, it’s like an artist and a songwriter have to trust the universal energy. I’m not really religious, and I don’t believe in much of anything except the power of creativity is creation and when you are a creator, you’re part of it. Then the universe decides whether it’s your turn or not.
You’ve called Livin’ On A Prayer,” which you wrote with Jon and Richie, the “centerpiece of your career.” How did that song come about?
The first song we wrote was ‘You Give Love A Bad Name,’ and several weeks later we wrote that one. It was one of, like, 50 songs that Bon Jovi was considering for Slippery When Wet. We would actually play the demos for high school kids in a theater and the kids would be responding to certain songs and not the others. That’s how they picked the songs — by what the kids liked. So Jon is so brilliant that he created his marketing research. “Living on a Prayer” wasn’t one that he was feeling that much because he was feeling that maybe it wasn’t rocking hard enough, that it was kind of sentimental. Richie and I literally got on our hands and knees and begged him to cut the song. Thank God, right?
Has Jon come back and admitted you and Richie were right?
Of course. I remember a few years ago, he and I were on the porch in the middle of the night, sipping wine, killing time, trying to solve life’s mysteries — that’s a lyric from “(You Want To) Make A Memory” — and he poured me a glass of wine and he toasted me and he said, “Wow, you know, we created something really special together. It’s more than a song. It’s something that is so special that means so much to so many people,” and then he said, “Thank you.” How many artists ever say “thank you?” He’s such an incredible person.
The three of you created a song that is an anthem to so many.
And it’s anthem of hope for all ages. We once got a letter from a guy who had decided he was going to end it all. He had pulled up to a bridge and jumped out of his car and left the car running and went to jump off the bridge.”Living on A Prayer” came on and that was his favorite song. He went back into the car saying “Okay, this is the last song I’ll ever hear.” Then by the end of the song he drives home. So you know, Bon Jovi actually saved a life.
More recently, you had a big hit with “Beautiful Now” with Zedd, which you co-wrote with Zedd, Jon Bellion, Antonina Armato, David Jost and Tim James. That gave you a chance to write with some younger songwriters.
That was a collaboration between me and Antonina and Tim James from Rock Mafia. They brought our start to the song to Zedd and he loved it. He jumped in and brought Jon Bellion into it. Antonina’s lyrics especially on the bridge [are] so wonderful. In a way, it’s like how I see my life. It’s like I’m a firefly, and I’m burning for now. That’s why I love working with young people and being on the board of ASCAP. I’m on the legislative committee and I go to Washington and I really hit those halls hard with my colleagues to fight for songwriter’s rights because I believe in the future. I love young songwriters and and I do masterclasses all the time. I just did one at my alma mater NYU.
This fall, your autobiography is coming out. What was the most challenging part of your life to reexamine?
My childhood was really painful. My mom was a songwriter and a bohemian, and she was very abandoning, but she would also be suffocating too. But she was also very beautiful and charming, so she had everything going for her to be a Tennessee Williams character. There were mistakes I’ve made: how wrong things were with breaking up Desmond Child & Rouge, and how lost I was. I had actually come out on [our] second album with a song called “The Truth Comes Out” and nobody picked up on it and then I went back into the closet professionally. I kind of went into a commune for four years, but those were actually some of the most productive years because I had no life, all I did was work. That [was] in the ‘80s when I was doing all the songs with Bon Jovi. Aerosmith, Cher and Michael Bolton. I was in this very intense commune, like a cult. I lost a lot of things along the way, but there was still something inside of me that didn’t give up on my own spirit and I kept going.