Desmond Child on his new live album and decades of hit-making with Bon Jovi, Ricky Martin, and more
From "Livin' on a Prayer" to "Livin' La Vida Loca," the songwriter discusses his new album and his biggest hits.
The Write Stuff: Desmond Child is the first in an occasional series about songwriting.
If you scroll through Desmond Child’s most successful songwriting credits, a couple of words crop up with regularity: livin’ and lovin’.
The most famous of these — “Livin’ on a Prayer” to “Livin’ La Vida Loca” to “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You” — have several important elements in common, including an unmistakable, unshakable hook. (It’s possible that, if you’re old enough, you sang each one of those titles as you read across the page.)
“Well, life and love, in our language, are such strong archetypes in and of themselves,” says the Grammy-winning songwriter-producer. “They’re brands. They contain a magic quality because those words have soul, and they have hope. Life, every living creature strives for life until its last breath. Every living creature — I don’t know so much how much plants feel about things but I do know that animals have love and express their love for each other, even in the wild. Everything is driven by life and love. As long as one of those words is in your song, you’re going to do okay.”
It’s safe to say that the 65-year-old Florida native has done quite a bit more than okay. He had high hopes for his own band Desmond Child & Rouge, and they did have some minor success in the late ’70s with a song on the soundtrack to the movie The Warriors and the hit “Our Love Is Insane.” Child says, “I thought I was going to be a big stadium star, but I just didn’t have the emotional equipment to understand how thick your skin has to be.”
Following the band’s breakup, Child made some serious lemonade, entering into an apprenticeship with the legendary Bob Crewe, who wrote dozens of hits of his own, including “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” for Frankie Valli and “Lady Marmalade” for Labelle. “I spent two years with him,” says Child. “That was an incubation period where he actually taught me how to write songs.” Following that mentorship, Child embarked on a career that has seen him amass monster stats. Among his achievements: Credits on more than 80 Billboard Top 40 singles spanning five decades; selling over 500 million records worldwide with downloads, YouTube views, and streaming plays in the billions; induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008; and co-founding the Latin Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He has worked with a murderers’ row of artists, literally from A (Aerosmith) to Z (Zedd), including KISS, Bon Jovi, Cher, Joan Jett, Ricky Martin, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Garth Brooks.
Most recently, he wrote and co-produced “Lady Liberty” on Barbra Streisand’s new album Walls, a dream come true. “That’s one of my most proud achievements,” he says. “What more can I possibly do?”
It turns out there was at least one more thing: On Friday, Child releases his first-ever live album Desmond Child Live, recorded at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York with a crack band backing him as he puts his own spin on all those songs that all those other people ended up making famous. He will be keeping quite busy after the album drops with plans to release his autobiography Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs & Big Life with David Ritz in 2020, more work as a solo artist, and writing new material for Rouge. He is also co-producing TransCon, a film about disgraced boy band producer Lou Pearlman, and collaborating with Davitt Sigerson on an autobiographical Broadway musical called Cuba Libre.
The prolific and voluble Child recently chatted with EW about some of his memories and thoughts on his most famous songs, and about his inspiration for the live album, on which he and guest singers perform many of those songs. He recorded it in part, he says, because “I want to introduce all of my music to generations that probably didn’t even know who the original artists are. They hear the music in a shopping center or whatever, and they probably like it, but I want to say, ‘Hey, I helped to write these songs, too.'”
“I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” KISS (co-writers Paul Stanley and Vini Poncia)
Released in 1979, this strutting disco rocker — a hit around the globe — was a pivotal track for both the grease-painted quartet and Child. His own band Rouge also released two albums that year but this song pointed the way to his future.
“Paul Stanley used to come and see Rouge play at a place called Trax, which was on the Upper West Side,” says Child of the famed New York City club where George Harrison would also check out the band. He and Stanley became friendly and the KISS guitarist-singer suggested trying to write a song. “I went to a rehearsal studio for KISS, and there was a grand piano stuck in the corner, and they all took a lunch break, and then Paul and I sat at the piano and wrote it.” Child notes that drum machines were relatively new technology at the time. “One of the things that I was trying to convince him to do was a disco beat under heavy rock guitars, nobody had done it before. That’s one of the turns that changed the course of pop music.”
“I Hate Myself for Loving You,” Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (co-writer Joan Jett)
This universally relatable banger about that one lover you just can’t walk away from no matter how badly they mistreat you went all the way to No. 8 in 1988 and was nominated for a Grammy. Of the song’s repurposing as the theme for Sunday Night Football, “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night” currently sung by Carrie Underwood, Child says, “It gives me satisfaction that the music keeps finding new paths. There’s a great video of Carrie Underwood rocking it [at CMA Fest] with Joan Jett playing and singing next to her, it’s so good.”
“Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Ricky Martin (co-writer Draco Rosa)
Child had assisted in putting Martin on the worldwide map thanks to a previous hit he had a hand in writing, the galvanizing “La Copa de la Vida.” This hip-swiveler about a seductive lady dabbling in the dark arts helped Martin break big in the U.S., scoring his first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song’s roots, oddly enough, actually lay under his grandmother’s bed. “I’m Cuban, and in my family, my grandmother was very Catholic, very religious and she would always say, ‘Don’t go near Santeria,’ which is the Cuban voodoo,” he says. “She’d say, ‘Don’t go near it!’ Then you’d look under her bed and she’d have a cup of wine with a cigar on top. She had the whole setup going.” Remarking on the lyrics, he recites, “‘She’s into superstition, black cats and voodoo dolls.’ That’s like the bohemian intrigue, and also because I grew up in, like, the new age ’60s, and followed all kinds of gurus and all these kinds of things. That’s all contained in those few words.”
“You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi (co-writers Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora)
Child would go on to write many songs with the New Jersey arena kings, but these two — from the multiplatinum 1986 album Slippery When Wet — were the first two and they both hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and launched a million karaoke performances.
“Paul Stanley had given Jon my number because Bon Jovi was opening for KISS in Europe,” recalls Child. “I went to this little wooden house in New Jersey — it was Richie Sambora’s parent’s house where he grew up — and down in the basement they had a little setup: a little electronic keyboard on a rickety formica table that had been retired down there, and washing machines and space heaters and buzzing amps. I had a title that I brought in, Bob Crewe-style — because he wouldn’t even start a song unless we had a killer title — ‘You Give Love a Bad Name.'”
Child notes that on the band’s previous album they had a song called “Shot Through the Heart” and when he offered up this new title, “It was the first time I saw that billion-dollar Bon Jovi smile, those teeth. He looked at me and lit up, and said, ‘Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame,’ and then the three of us said, ‘You give love a bad name.’ Then we had our first slap five, and then that song was written within an hour and a half. It was, like, channeled.”
They kept the channel open and moved on to “Livin’ on a Prayer.” “It took two days,” says Child. “We wrote it in New York City in a borrowed apartment on this very old, out of tune, upright piano.” Bon Jovi said he wanted to write a story song. “Everybody brought their story to it,” says Child. “I brought the story of me and [Rouge singer] Maria [Vidal] because she worked in a diner called Once Upon a Stove — they had singing and dancing waitresses and waiters — and her waitress name was Gina Velvet. I suggested Johnny and Gina because Johnny is my real name. Jon said, ‘Well, I can’t sing Johnny because then I’d be singing about myself.’ I went, ‘Oh s—, right.’ I just found a quick sound alike, Tommy, and the story of Tommy and Gina was born.”