Creating Hit Songs for Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Others: An Interview with Desmond Child


Desmond Child romantically recalls, “Amidst Covid, the entire Chicago population united by opening their windows simultaneously and singing Livin’ on a Prayer.” The experienced songwriter beams with pride. “It brought them hope and a sense of togetherness. Jon Bon Jovi often reminds me, ‘We didn’t just create a song – we created something extraordinary.'” And their creation has reached a milestone of one billion streams on Spotify.

Child has collaborated with Bon Jovi on numerous songs including Bad Medicine and You Give Love a Bad Name. He has also co-written with other popular artists such as Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Ricky Martin, Sisqó, Meat Loaf, Cher, Barbra Streisand, and Katy Perry. With a career spanning five decades, Child has had 80 hits on the Billboard charts and has sold over 500 million records, surpassing Coldplay’s sales by five times. While he admits that not all of his 3,500 songs have been successful, he makes a point to complete each one and give it his best effort. Fortunately, he has yet to receive any requests for refunds.

Child, a fashionable and energetic 69-year-old who resides in Nashville with his spouse Curtis, asserts that there is no magical formula for creating hit songs. He explains, “Diane Warren writes songs as if they are personal confessions, but then she gives them to artists like Toni Braxton or Céline Dion. In my case, I tailor the songs to fit the artist like a custom-made suit. I make sure to meet with them beforehand and take note of everything they say. I ask the right questions and they share their story with me, sometimes even becoming emotional. But can you imagine anyone other than Aerosmith singing Dude (Looks Like a Lady) or Joan Jett singing I Hate Myself for Loving You? The songs just align perfectly with who they are.”

Regardless of whether it is a formula or not, the individual in question possesses trademarks, specifically in the form of titles. He elaborates, “I came to understand early on that art is created from the balance between opposing forces.” As we enjoy coffee and croissants courtesy of Curtis at a luxurious hotel in London, he continues, “Take for example ‘So You Give Love a Bad Name,’ ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You,’ and ‘Dude (Looks Like a Lady).’ The titles draw people in and make them eager to listen.” Another valuable piece of advice, acquired from Bob Crewe, who co-wrote “Lady Marmalade” and mentored him in the 1970s, is that “rhymes must be precise. For instance, you cannot rhyme ‘name’ with ‘games.’ It must be ‘game.’ This is crucial because when people are singing along in a stadium, they need to anticipate the next rhyme. If it is precise, they will remember it and by the second chorus, they will be singing along.”

‘So far no one’s asked for their money back’ … Jon Bon Jovi, Cher, Child and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

The latest endeavor from Child is not a musical composition, but a literary work: an engaging autobiography filled with captivating anecdotes about the inspiration behind his songs. Livin’ on a Prayer: Big Songs Big Life includes encounters with famous figures like Mickey Rourke and Michael Jackson, experiences with homophobia in the music industry, and interesting events such as his mother being shot and his aunt having a romantic affair with Fidel Castro. Child shares, “My co-author David Ritz even joked, ‘Your book could easily be 1,000 pages long.'” He chuckles.

John Charles Barrett was born in Gainesville, Florida and spent his early childhood in Cuba, where his mother was from. They lived well in Havana and his mother, Elena Casals, was known as a “bohemian it girl”. However, after moving to Miami, he grew up in poverty in the Liberty projects. At this point, Casals, who aspired to be a songwriter and had him from an affair, had left her American husband and took her three children with her. She did not reveal the identity of Child’s biological father, a Hungarian man, until he turned 18.

The mother of the child was unable to come to terms with his sexual orientation. When he was 13 years old, he was given testosterone injections in an effort to make him appear more masculine. Even as he got older, it took her a significant amount of time to recognize Curtis as his husband. However, he is grateful for the sacrifices she made to provide for them, such as working odd jobs like selling mops and wigs or flipping burgers. She had a total of 15 business cards with various fake names.

‘That song is in the National Recording Registry along with Moon River. Can you imagine?’ … Child and Ricky Martin working on Livin’ la Vida Loca.

Child’s life took a different path than his friends and cousins, who ended up in the cycle of going to jail. This change was sparked by seeing Janis Joplin perform at a racetrack. Despite her drunken state, there was something enchanting about her that inspired Child. He decided in that moment that he wanted to be just like her and transformed himself into a singer, despite not being able to sing.

In 1975, he changed his name and created Desmond Child & Rouge with other Latino artists, such as Maria Vidal, who was his girlfriend at the time before he came to terms with his sexuality, Myriam Valle, and Diana Grasselli. They appeared on Saturday Night Live and achieved moderate success with their funky and sophisticated pop music. However, after performing at Trax, a club in New York’s Greenwich Village, their fate changed. Child recalls, “George Harrison was in the audience and Paul Stanley came backstage.” Stanley is the lead singer of the iconic glam rock band Kiss. “At the time, no one knew what Kiss looked like without their signature makeup, but Stanley wanted to make friends and suggested we write a song together. It was a stroke of luck.” This collaboration resulted in the hit song “I Was Made for Loving You,” which became one of Child’s biggest-selling songs. Through this experience, Child realized he could work with other artists and help them become more successful.

Bon Jovi was a band that opened for Kiss and was in desperate need of a successful song. Songwriter Desmond Child decided to combine his own composition, “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man)”, originally written for Bonnie Tyler, with a song by Jon Bon Jovi called “Shot Through the Heart”. The result was the hit single “You Give Love a Bad Name”. Child recalls, “When I saw Jon’s charming smile, I knew we were onto something great and we never looked back.”

Livin’ on a Prayer was penned on a Formica table in a dimly-lit basement. According to Child, the song was meant to be a tribute to the working class and he drew inspiration from his own life, specifically from a past girlfriend. The character of Gina, who “works the diner all day,” is based on Maria Vidal, who used the alias Gina Velvet while waitressing. The character of Tommy, who has “his six string in hock,” is actually Child himself. Originally, the song mentioned Gina and Johnny, but lead singer Jon Bon Jovi couldn’t relate to singing about someone with his own name. Thus, Johnny became Tommy and the struggling couple became “halfway there, livin’ on a prayer.” The rest is history.

skip past newsletter promotion

‘I was not a threat’ … Child in the studio with Bon Jovi.

The argument is that Aerosmith’s hit song “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” from 1987 was an early anthem for the trans community. The lyrics, specifically “Never judge a book by the cover or who you’re gonna love by your lover,” challenged societal norms and opened minds during a conservative era. However, in modern times, there is a fear-mongering tactic being used to create hatred towards the trans community, similar to how antisemitism is perpetuated. This irrational thinking leads people to support candidates who promote hate towards marginalized groups.

As a homosexual man in the rock music industry, Child did not often face discrimination from other artists. He would often spend his time chatting with their wives and even rearranging their homes while they were at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He compares himself to a palace eunuch, someone who is not seen as a threat to the king.

‘It’s nice to be on the tree at all’ … in the studio with Barbra Steisand.

The executives were primarily composed of heterosexual men who had formed friendships during their college years. However, there was a clear barrier for advancement in production, according to one individual. This continued until 25 years ago when Linda Perry, a successful producer and singer from the band 4 Non Blondes, arrived on the scene. The individual explains that there was previously only one person, himself, who was openly gay and given the opportunity to produce a band in the heterosexual metal genre. It was not until the popularity of these genres began to decline that they were willing to allow him to produce projects of his own choice.

Some of the collaborations were not successful. For instance, Rod Stewart left during a writing session, and when he went to Michael Jackson’s studio, he found only stuffed animals and no singer. Child eventually called Jackson’s house and was told that he was sick, but Child suspected it was actually Jackson on the phone. Child then went to work with Ricky Martin, using his Latin background to contribute to “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” Child proudly mentions that the song was recognized in the National Recording Registry, alongside “Moon River.” Reflecting on his past as a gay Latino, Child says, “I was poor, but can you believe it?”

The composer still struggles with his feelings towards his mother, who only achieved one successful Cuban song but would taunt him by saying he could never surpass her talent. After she passed away in 2012, he stumbled upon numerous satchels filled with her poems and was amazed by her true brilliance. In her memory, he helped establish the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.

He is currently working on a film that chronicles his life. He expresses his desire to inspire children to never give up on their dreams while sipping his coffee. He acknowledges that only one person can be the star at the very top of the Christmas tree, but it’s still an honor to be a part of the tree. In 2022, a group of renowned artists gathered at the Pantheon in Greece to perform Child’s songs in a grand and impressive event that he hopes to bring to Britain. “For one evening, I finally felt like the star,” he proclaims.


You May Also Like

More From Author