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Just Like Jesse James – The Story of Desmond Child

The dawn of the 1980s saw several significant changes in the music industry, most notably the arrival of MTV and the promo video, which changed how musicians and their products would be marketed. Album sales also began to soar following the earlier success of Fleetwood Mac‘s Rumours and Pink Floyd‘s The Dark Side of the Moon, both of which would be among the highest-grossing albums of all time.

AC/DC‘s Back in Black and Michael Jackson’s Thriller would also sell millions, with the latter earning the young star a total of eight Grammys. With expectations towards album sales increasing following these achievements, many artists, at the behest of their record labels, began to collaborate with professional songwriters, among them Diane Warren, Billy Steinberg and Holly Knight. Arguably the most successful of these, however, was Desmond Child, whose credits include hit singles for such stars as Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Meat Loaf.

Born John Charles Barrett in Gainesville, Florida in 1953, Child spent most of his childhood in Miami, inheriting his musical talents from his mother. While influenced by both her piano skills and R&B played by the local youths, Child’s first passion came with Cher, whose first top ten hit came in 1966 with Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). He wrote his first song at the age of fifteen as a birthday present to one of his friends, but it would not be until he met a young girl called Debra Wall that his career took its first significant turn.

‘I saw this wonderful folk singer on the lawn at the high school, singing her own songs. I loved her from the minute I saw her,’ Child told Billboard in 1999. ‘We would dress up like John and Yoko. We decided to start writing songs together. I named her Virgil Night, and she named me Desmond Child, because we wanted to call our group Nightchild so we were already marketing the whole thing!’

But the partnership didn’t last long and soon Child and Night went their separate ways, relocating to New York with Maria Vidal, where they formed the group Desmond Child & Route. Signed to Capitol Records in 1977, the group released their debut album the following year and soon gained a loyal following along the east coast, among their fans being KISS frontman Paul Stanley.

Despite enjoying minor acclaim with two studio albums, the band fell apart shortly after an appearance on Saturday Night Live, allowing Child his first break when Stanley approached him to write songs together, the best of which would be the disco-inspired I Was Made for Lovin’ You. ‘By the time of the Dynasty recording sessions, Paul was specifically trying to write a hit single – and he did,’ explained KISS bassist Gene Simmons in his autobiography Kiss and Make-Up. ‘Dynasty was released, and immediately I Was Made for Lovin’ You went to the top of the charts. It was huge, the biggest single we’d ever had worldwide.’

Over the next few years Child would pen several more KISS tracks, among them the hit Heaven’s on Fire, while he would also provide his services for his childhood idol Cher, but it would be his work on I Was Made for Lovin’ You that would bring him to the attention of a struggling rock group called Bon Jovi. Under pressure from their label after the mediocre performance of their sophomore effort 7800° Fahrenheit, Bon Jovi had failed to achieve the record sales of many of their contemporaries and had now reached a crossroad where they desperately needed a hit if they were to survive.

‘The first time we met was in Richie Sambora’s mother’s basement in New Jersey. It was Jon (Bon Jovi), Richie and me – we hit it off straight away,’ Child said in an interview with Classic Rock in 2011. That first session would result in the band’s breakthrough single You Give Love a Bad Name, while another meeting would produce their signature tune Livin’ on a Prayer. ‘(Maria Vidal had worked) as a waitress to make money and had the nickname Gina, so that was part of the reason behind the character in the song.’

Child’s input would help transform Bon Jovi into superstars, with their 1986 album Slippery When Wet reaching the top of the Billboard 200 charts, while both You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ on a Prayer would reach number one on the singles charts (Wanted Dead or Alive would climb to number seven). Another band struggling to remain relevant during this time was Aerosmith, whose intended comeback Done with Mirrors, released through Geffen in 1985, had failed to make a significant impact.

For its follow-up, Permanent Vacation, Geffen forced the band to work with both Child and Knight, as well as regular Bryan Adams collaborator Jim Vallance. Child would lend his talents to the hit singles Dude (Looks Like a Lady) and Angel, as well as the album’s opening track Hearts Done Time. In the case of Angel, Aerosmith were hesitant about including a power ballad on the album, and even more so with releasing it as a single, as they felt it betrayed their earlier hard rock sound, yet the success of songs such as Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship proved that there was an audience for rock ballads.

Yet while the relationship between Child and Bon Jovi seemed to be based on a mutual appreciation, his collaboration with Aerosmith would prove to be a little more difficult. ‘The very first day I went to write with Aerosmith, they were singing Cruising for the Ladies,’ recalled Child to Billboard in 2001. ‘I’m very honest, and I said, ‘You know, it sounds like a bad Van Halen song.’ And I came up with the story of a guy who walks into a bar, sees a girl, and falls for her and then finds out she’s a guy. And he decides to stay with her anyway. That track became Dude (Looks Like a Lady), and it totally worked.’

Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Desmond Child and Steven Tyler

Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Desmond Child and Steven Tyler

In his autobiography Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, frontman Steven Tyler added his recollection of the writing of the hit single, ‘I loved writing with Desmond Child because we always got into arguments. When I first met him, I’d written all the lyrics to Dude (Looks Like a Lady) except the first verse. I got kind of annoyed at myself for not finishing it. I could not find that first verse. I did not have an in. I said, ‘Hey, Desmond, I just don’t know how to get into this.’ There was a couple of words here and there he threw in, but he got me into that first verse.’

Child’s reputation as a songwriter and collaborator grew with each hit single, causing many artists to team up with him once again in the hope of repeating the success. By 1987 Cher had managed to launch a respectable acting career in Hollywood, gaining an Academy Award nomination in 1984 for the drama Silkwood, while also appearing in the acclaimed movies Mask, The Witches of Eastwick and Moonstruck, the latter finally awarding her an Oscar for Best Actress in 1988.

Despite the hectic schedule, she had managed to return to the studio to record her eponymous album with a succession of producers, including Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora and solo artist Michael Bolton, while Child would also oversee the recording of six of the ten tracks. The collaboration would end on a sour note, however, when the singer would refuse to speak to Child for several months due to being forced to record for twelve hours at a time. Child would also work once again with Bon Jovi and Aerosmith on hit albums, producing eight top ten hits across two records.

Following contributions to Joan Jett & the Blackhearts‘ 1988 album Up Your Alley, Child produced and co-wrote Trash, the long-awaited comeback for Alice Cooper after two modest-selling releases. ‘Whenever I found myself turning on the car radio, which was a very rare act, I always found myself listening to a Desmond Child song,’ Cooper told Spin in 1989. ‘So I contacted him and told him, ‘Don’t worry about the guitars or the image, let’s just write some songs.’’ The most significant moment of Trash was its lead single Poison, which reached number seven in the United States and number two in Great Britain and introduced Cooper to a new generation of fans. Child would draft in several former collaborators to contribute towards the album, including Bon Jovi and Sambora and several members of Aerosmith. Trash would be the first Cooper album in fourteen years to be certified Platinum in the US, the last being Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975.

Following his breakthrough hit How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?, solo artist Michael Bolton enjoyed another success with How Can We Be Lovers?, which would see the singer writing alongside Child and Diane Warren. ‘Desmond is brilliant and one of the best and most successful songwriters in the business,’ said Bolton in his autobiography The Soul of It All: My Music, My Life. ‘He has written huge songs for artists such as Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Ricky Martin, KISS, Kelly Clarkson, Alice Cooper and Cher. Desmond’s songs feature the power of truth and simplicity, not to mention melodies that stick.’ Throughout the first half of the 1990s Child continued to work with rock stars like Bon Jovi, Steve Vai and Aerosmith, but by 1997 he had begun to collaborate with a variety of pop stars such as Roxette, Hanson and Billie Myers, which would result in the one-hit-wonder Kiss the Rain.

Having struggled to find success after splitting from the popular boy band Take That, Robbie Williams had gained minor exposure for a reworking of the George Michaels tune Freedom, but through Child he was hoping to find the acclaim he craved. But the singer’s recollections of the experience in the book Feel: Robbie Williams seemed less-than-enthusiastic; ‘I found one half-decent tune, called Old Before I Die, but I sort of fell out with Desmond and fell out with the head of the record company in a certain roundabout fashion, said I wasn’t going to sing the songs,’ he explained.

‘So then I went home and I was given this sheet of paper and it had all these writers on for me to go and work with, and I saw this name, and it was Guy Chambers, and I went, that’s him. And I went to his house to write with him, and the first day we wrote this song called Angels, which made my career.’ Despite having worked on an array of hit singles, Child would score his biggest success yet with Livin’ la Vida Loca by Ricky Martin, the highest-grossing single of his career at that point.

Child would continue to work with rock artists throughout this time, regularly contributing towards Bon Jovi songs, but in 2006 he finally collaborated with another rock star, Meat Loaf, on his long-awaited Bat out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose. It had been thirteen years since its predecessor, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, which had produced the worldwide number one hit I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), and in the decade since then he had struggled to find success, although his appearance in the 1999 classic Fight Club would gain considerable acclaim.

Desmond Child

Desmond Child

In an attempt to give The Monster is Loose a harder edge, Child had force fed Slipknot to the session musicians, while the likes of Steve Vai, Brian May from Queen and former Marilyn Manson guitarist John 5 would lend their talents. ‘This is something Desmond has been dreaming about his whole life,’ Child’s manager Allen Kovac told Billboard.

In recent years, Child has balanced his work between pop stars like Katy Perry and Ricky Martin with rock stars like the Scorpions and the Rasmus, which would result in the number one single Livin’ in a World Without You and a hit album, Black Roses. It has been over thirty years since his first success with KISS, and in that time he has worked with some of the best-selling artists in the industry, helping to reignite the careers of Bon Jovi, Cher and Aerosmith.

While his own musical career stalled after the mediocre performance of his solo album Discipline in 1991, Child remains one of the most productive and influential songwriters in the business. ‘It’s hard not to feel good when your song’s the biggest song in the world,’ he confessed to the Advocate in 1999.

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