By anybody's standards, Desmond Child has lived quite a life. The singer-songwriter turned superstar producer has worked with a who's who of the music industry's elite, namely Barbra Streisand, KISS, Aerosmith, Meat Loaf, Kelly Clarkson and many more.
Desmond has recently penned an autobiography (DESMOND CHILD --- LIVIN' ON A PRAYER: BIG SONGS BIG LIFE (Radius Book Group)) that gives all the tidbits from a life lived with vigor. Fans will be enthralled by all the stories about working with a host of stars....many amazing tales here.
But more than a music bio, Desmond talks in depth about his struggles with his sexuality and fear of coming out back in the late '70s/early '80s. He also details meeting and the subsequent marriage to his partner of over 30 years, Curtis Shaw, as well as the birth of their twin sons, Roman and Nyro.
Perhaps more fascinating than all that is his upbringing by a single mom who was destined in her mind for stardom yet lacked the tools and the luck to get there. He later found out that the man who was part of his early upbringing was not his real father, only making this story even more soap-opera worthy.
I spoke to Desmond recently about his incredible life. Because I had interviewed him several times in recent years, I steered away from the KISS / Bon Jovi stories that we had already covered and opted for some lesser-covered topics.
As always, Desmond was a terrific interviewee and overflowing with great anecdotes. Here's what he had to say:
antiMusic: You've had quite a remarkable life. I knew a lot of your history before reading the book but was amazed to read all of the details of your family. Talk a bit about your parents --- or who you thought were your parents and especially in being so devoted to your mother, how this affected your life and career.
Desmond: My mother was a very special person. In the book I describe her as Blanche DuBois meets Angelica Huston in the movie The Grifters. (laughs) Because in her trunk she had something like 10 different businesses, all with different business cards. She was selling wigs. She was selling mops.
She had a business where she contracted people to spray house tops white so the houses would be cooler. She was developing astroturf before it existed.
She couldn't execute anything right but she had all these forward-thinking ideas. I mean, we had the first carrot juice strainer --- like a juicer. The only problem was that we didn't have any carrots. (laughs) She went to these conventions where they had new appliances --- this was in the '60s --- and she'd always come back with something that was completely unusable. (laughs) She was quite a character.
She was extremely beautiful but she wasn't made for this world. She wasn't made for America then. She came from a province town that was at least 50 years behind the times to begin with. So she was all about songs and poetry... a kind of genteel, faded aristocracy and was trying to kind of skip forward. And it never worked (laughs).
I loved her very much but she was also kind of abandoning. Because in her mind, she rationalized that if she could only just get that next demo made and use the money that we were supposed to eat with, to make the demo and then go out to the nightclub.
But we'd be left to just eat cereal and milk at night when she wasn't working at Burger King and come home at 11:30 at night with soggy whoppers (laughs). We'd have to put two tops together to make one dry one.
She had fantastical ideas and lived in a magical state of thinking, and she was also an incredible liar (laughs). She'd just make things up... even when she didn't have to. It was really like living with a character from a book or a movie.
I realized early on that I couldn't rely on her to be a real parent. She was like a crazy big sister. So that really did affect the course of my life because I realized that if I didn't save the family, we were going to go down the tubes, like some of her sisters and their kids who had tragic endings... way terrible things and some of them continue to this day, going from generation to generation in the wrong direction.
I found a way, somehow, to get educated and to be as prepared as I could for something big. I was born from an affair that my mother had with a Hungarian immigrant who like her, was trying to re-invent himself. He had all these different businesses and was a fortune-hunter. He was in the jungles of Venezuela trying to create oil platforms, even though he didn't know anything about it. He would just charm people into giving him a chance.
That's where she met him. And they were actually very well-suited for each other and also very ill-suited because they were both tremendous dreamers. So that's how I was conceived. And I didn't actually find out about my biological father until I was 18. At that point, though, he had finally become successful and he was able to take me under his wing and helped me through college.
But as soon as I got through college, he cut me off... like that was it! He wasn't that generous anyway because he was Hungarian and he had lived through the Depression, WWII and also the Soviet occupation of Hungary. But he was very charming... the two of them had tremendous looks and tremendous charm. But they were huge failures as parents. (laughs)
So all of those things made me become very independent and I did crazy things. Like between 10th and 11trh grade I hitchhiked all the way to Montreal and back from Miami Beach. I was on trucks. I was on buses. I hitchhiked with cars. At that time, with all the hippies, you could hitchhike and not get killed by a serial-killer. (laughs) Serial killers hadn't got wise to all the wayward youth... yet, I guess (laughs).
Then the following year I met Virgil ---when her name was Debbie and we formed Nightchild. She became Virgil Night and I became Desmond Child. I was named after Desmond in The Beatles' "Ob La Di, Ob La Da".
So in a way, I guess I was like them because there was a lot of magical thinking like, "Oh f course I'm going to make it really big. That just has to happen." And that is still what I am. Because I'm still trying things like... I'm trying to get into Broadway. I've written several shows and I'm getting close with one of them. And I still have this dream of having a big show on Broadway. It's my passion.
I have all these crazy things. Friends of mine enticed me to let them create a skin care line for me... because they saw how many Instagram followers I have and they said, "We could make it really rich." So we came up with Vida Loca Skinlife which has all-natural ingredients and is really geared to the new generation. The slogan is "Skin has no gender." It's he/she/they/them/us. We've done a soft launch. It's listed and one can actually order it but I haven't had time to really think about it.
So I'm doing all these different things because it's like I'm my mother's son. In the trunk of my car, I've got all these different things. I've got my book. I've got samples of my Vida Loca Skinlife line... (laughs)
But at the other end of things, because I've done so many things. I DO know a lot. From working construction to having worked in a junk mail factory. And working at the post office. Then being a waiter. Then going from being the waiter to being the entertainment at the same restaurant on a different night. Driving a cab in New York.
All these different things until I hit it big pretty early on with "I Was Made for Lovin' You". Which was the thing that started bringing in the money and I was able to move my mother out of the Liberty City project house that we were living in, in Miami, into a beautiful apartment in Miami Beach which was one of her dreams. But her real dream was to live in a mansion so later on I bought four mansions and gave her one. (laughs) And she was holding court over that house. (laughs)
So that's a long-winded explanation of how my mother affected the course and trajectory of my life.
antiMusic: By now, everybody knows about your work with KISS and Bon Jovi. We've covered that the last few times we've talked. After that you were part of a huge shift to Latin music, working with Ricky Martin, you blew up the charts with a bunch of hits. Were you in attendance at the 1999 American Music Awards when he performed and basically brought Latin music onto the world stage overnight?
Desmond: No, we were at a friend's in Miami Beach and there we were. We saw it all come to life. And at that point, we still hadn't written "Livin' La Vida Loca" yet.
antiMusic: Well, how did you feel knowing that you were one of the prime architects behind this massive shift in musical directions?
Desmond: Well, you know... it was kind of the return of the prodigal son, I guess. Already in place was Emilio Estefan at the top. He was the godfather of Latin music so he wasn't that happy that I was having hits in crossover because that was his realm. Now we're very good friends and love each other a lot but at that time, it was sort of like, "Who is this guy and why is he having hits in our genre?" and all this kind of stuff.
That was the thing. There were other producers too like Kike Santander and Rudy Pérez and we lived a few blocks away from each other on Miami Beach. Emilio, of course, lived on Star Island, which is for those estates that are very grand and where he still lives.
Everybody was very competitive with the other. It was one of those things where I got in there and became one of the governors on the board of NARAS. I started making myself vocal and doing a lot of charity events. I hosted a lot of Latin parties at my house... trying really hard... like Mrs. Russell in The Gilded Age. (laughs) Because I had the money to do it, I was trying to win over the society that was already very entrenched.
Eventually, after 9/11, things changed for me because the shift of my activities became LA, working with American Idol and Clive Davis. I wrote and produced for Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Fantasia... all of those artists.
Our children had just been born and we couldn't get Curtis (Desmond's husband) to be a legal parent, co-parent in the state of Florida at the time. California did have that so we said, "That's it. Let's just get out of here." And within three months, I sold the four houses, moved my mother with us to California and just started over again.
So I've sort of re-invented myself several times. Then after we were in LA and our kids went to pre-school, we saw some of our friends and their teenage kids going through a lot of difficulties. Many of them were already in rehabs etc. and so we started thinking, "Well maybe growing up in show business in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and all those places, wasn't the best place for them to grow up."
So that's when we pulled up stakes and moved to Nashville where we still live. At that time, Nashville was just primarily all about country music. I was kind of a maverick, moving here to work on rock and pop. I think that now Nashville has proven itself to be multi-genre and a real music capital, also because it's centered. A lot of artists moved here from all different genres because it was easier for them to travel to all of their dates on the east and west coasts.
I'm seen huge growth in Nashville. It's unbelievable how fast it's growing. When we first got here there wasn't really that many places to go out and eat and now things have exploded. It's a city that has an optimistic future, even though there are a lot of conflicting political forces here as well. (laughs)
antiMusic: I have to strongly disagree with you about your solo record Discipline that it is as you say, deeply flawed. Paul Stanley agrees with me that it is a masterpiece and one of my favorite all-time records. What was it like working with Burt Bacharach on "Obsession?"
Desmond: Oh gosh. That was just magical. He came over and when he composes, he just mumbles the melody. I could barely hear the melody that he was mumbling. He had already started the main melody and you can hear the shift from the main melody into my part being the chorus... that was kind of where I stepped into the song.
When we went to produce the song, I had hired the arranger, C.J. Vanston, and Burt came into listen to the track and he said, "Wait. Something is terribly wrong." Because Burt had given written charts and that's just not done to a programmer, right? So C.J., on his own, thought he should change one of the chords because it wasn't in his wheelhouse.
Burt just stopped everything short and said, "Hold on. That's not the chord that is supposed to go there." And as soon as he clarified that and it was fixed, it was like, "Oh my god" and the sun came out. It made such a difference, that one chord.
You can really feel his genius style on that song. And it was great to sing that with Maria Vidal who was a co-founder of Desmond Child & Rouge with me.
antiMusic: Every songwriter or producer has their Great White Whale. For you, it was finally getting to work with Barbra Streisand. Tell us a bit about getting her to record "Lady Liberty". What was it like to hear her hold that note on the word "Remember" half way through and on "liberty" at the end? I can't imagine sitting that close and hearing her do that.
Desmond: Well, we rehearsed it and when she rehearses... I mean she wore me out. I was standing next to her for like three hours and she kept going over and over the song, under her breath, like very softly. So I'm thinking, "Oh god, is this key going to work"... this and that.
Then a moment here, a moment there, she started singing out. And I could hear, "Oh my god, Streisand has arrived." And then she started letting out the big notes and it was like goosebumps from head to toe.
She came to the studio very prepared. She knew the song. I mean, she did one take, which was mumbling... warming up really. Then she did two full takes, like full-on. And that was it. She was done. Between those two takes, we had it. And it was SO gorgeous.
Everything... her tuning. Her pitch. It was immaculate. So great. And she was complaining a little bit because I had stepped up the key about a half-step higher than she thought she was comfortable singing. I had studied a lot of the records that she had done in the last few years and none of them went past C for the high notes in full voice.
And when she sang "People," she got up to E flat in full voice. And I said, "She can do this." So she was calling me a "taskmaster" and a "slave drivahh". I was saying, "This is good for you. Really go for it." And that's where those brilliant notes are.
Barbra really went for it. I have to say, I'm really brave. (laughs) Because she could have easily just walked out and said "This guy is not listening to me. He's doing whatever he wants." But she respected me. And she trusted me... ahhhh, I just love it so much when I hear it!!! I mean, who better to sing that song?
I'm really proud that in her latest compilation of songs called Evergreen, "Lady Liberty" made it onto the list of like 22 of her greatest songs of her entire 60-year career.
So I've written five more songs for her and she's actually heard one which is from my show Cuba Libre, on my live album. I sent her my album not really thinking she would listen to it and it's like track seven. That means she actually listened to my album, right? (laughs) That's just crazy. (laughs)
And she picked it out and said, "I want to sing this song." So I'm hoping she still loves it. I also wrote five other ones that I worked on with my favorite collaborators and co-producers." So they put out a press release the other day that said she was ready to start her next album in February. And I'm thinking, "Well, will any of those be mine?" (laughs)
I've called Jay Landers (her Executive Producer) and he just goes, "Be patient. She's getting ready to hear them." And I just said, "I'm on pins and needles!"
antiMusic: I last talked to both you and Maria three years ago and was told that Desmond Child & Rouge had five new songs. Maria said she was going to roll her sleeves up and so far crickets. So the last and most important question in this interview, Desmond, is when do I finally get my record??? (laughs)
Desmond: (laughs) Well, there was all that COVID business and that kind of delayed us. But now we've discovered this new system called ELK where you can be in separate locations and sing without time delay. So we had our first rehearsal but now we've switched gears again.
Before we finish the other studio record, which has incredible songs, we're doing a Laura Nyro tribute record. We've done rehearsals for that and we start recording in January. It's going to be stripped down. Just our vocals and a piano. Like you can really hear our voices.
It will have all the original Laura Nyro piano voicings and arrangements in Laura's key. It's perfect for me because I can sing all of Laura's parts an octave below.
We're picking all of our favorite songs from her entire career. From each album including "It's Gonna Take a Miracle" which she didn't write but her version with Labelle is just... you know. So yeah, we're gonna go for it.
antiMusic: Oh man, that's great. What about the studio record though?
Desmond: Well, it took a while but we finally found a distributor called Amplified and they're just sitting there waiting for us to deliver the songs. But everybody has just got caught up in so many other things that we haven't really focused on doing it... because really we did it for us. It's not like we're trying to compete with Dua Lipa or something like that. It's just for the love and joy of singing.
And also when the four of us get together, nobody laughs harder. I mean, falling on the floor with tears in our eyes... because that's what we do. (laughs) That's what we always did. And so that's what makes those Desmond Child & Rouge days feel like that song "I Miss the Hungry Years".
antiMusic: Well, I was told to keep this short so I guess in closing I just want to say again how much I still play the Desmond Child & Rouge records and how much they mean to me. More so the first one than the second because I preferred the Latin vibe from the debut more than the guitars that were amped up on the second. I still love the second but the first was very special....
Desmond: Well, remember that was 1979 and we put both of those records out the same year. That was right then... I don't know if you saw the documentary about the Bee Gees called How Do You Mend a Broken Heart? And so that year was the death of disco, right?
We were exploring dance beats with rock guitars which came to fruition on "I Was Made for Lovin' You". So we were pushing into the future. We were ahead of our time.
But the main business for our managers was travel for other rock bands like Springsteen, Yes and all of these touring bands and they were pushing us to go rock. The label, Capitol, also had their Springsteen which was Bob Seger and they also had A Taste of Honey so we kind of fell in the cracks between those two things. They didn't know where to put us. They were a West Coast label and didn't understand the New York flavor that we had... the fun. The irony. I think later on, the Scissors Sisters had it.
So we shifted because we discovered the brilliant guitarist G.E. Smith. Maria introduced G.E. to Gilda Radner and they actually married. Then he became the musical director of Saturday Night Live. So we were in the middle of so many things like that.
But we decided instead of going all lush like our first record, we decided to strip things right down. There were some punk influences... but we were still doing the Brill Building harmonies so it's really kind of a mish-mash. (laughs)
But for me, the significant thing on that record was the song, "The Truth Comes Out" which was when I openly said to the world, "I'm gay". And nobody cared. (laughs) Nobody picked up on it. I mean, we didn't really have great PR.
The label didn't understand us. They didn't even come to celebrate with us or even send us flowers when we went onto SNL as the musical guests. Not one representative from the label was there. They just didn't get it. And then it was just impossible to keep going with the manager we had. With the label we had.
antiMusic: I'm sure the situation with you and Maria didn't help as well.
Desmond: Yeah. That was very difficult too. And I was just lost. Everything I did was for the group. It was easy to write for that concept. But then to start reinventing myself... well, what am I about? What do I sing about? If I can't sing about myself and nobody cares, then... I didn't know where to be because ultimately I couldn't be out. So if I had more courage or more encouragement from other people around me who said, "Go for it," who knows what could have happened.
But in the end, I've sold over 500 million records and so that's more than most artists can say. So I think my fate was to do exactly what I did because also I was able to have a beautiful family life with Curtis and our children. I always say, they're my greatest songs.
Morley and antiMusic thank Desmond for taking the time to do this interview.
Order the book here.
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