Chicken Soup For The Soul: The Story Behind The Song Excerpt: “True Colors”

Chicken Soup Final Cover

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be printing excerpts from the new book, Chicken Soup For the Soul: The Story Behind The Song.

BILLY STEINBERG

“True Colors”

by Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly

“True Colors” was written in September 1985. Originally, I had a verse and a chorus lyric:

You’ve got a long list with so many choices

A ventriloquist with so many voices

And your friends in high places say where the pieces fit

You’ve got too many faces in your make-up kit

But I see your true colors shining through

I see your true colors and that’s why I love you

Don’t be afraid to let them show

Your true colors are as beautiful as a rainbow

That was the original lyric that I took to my songwriting partner, Tom Kelly. Tom sat down at the piano and wrote a beautiful melody to it with a gospel flavor. We did something that we didn’t ordinarily do – we made a demo of the unfinished song. The original lyric had been written about my mother. It started out abstractly:

You’ve got a long list with so many choices

A ventriloquist with so many voices

And then it starts to get more focused about her:

And your friends in high places say where the pieces fit

You’ve got too many faces in your make-up kit

Then it goes into the chorus:

But I see your true colors shining through

Tom said to me sometime after we had written it, “You know, the chorus of ‘True Colors’ is so universal and so powerful. It could be from a husband to a wife, a mother to a daughter, or a friend to a friend.” On the other hand, Tom pointed out that the verse was very specific, about a person with friends in high places. He acknowledged that the verse was poetic and well-written, but felt that it detracted from the great universal chorus. I reluctantly agreed with him and my reluctance was enormous because I knew I would have to face that demon that I had been avoiding for many years: my difficulty with rewriting something that I had already written. I really believed in my stream-of-consciousness method and felt that if something just poured out, it would have veracity and some intrinsic honesty. I felt that if I had to go back and tinker with it, that it would lose that truth. But I did see that if we wanted to make this song have a larger life, we needed to have verses that matched the chorus. But agreeing with him didn’t accomplish much because I really had writer’s block about doing the rewrite.

Whenever Tom and I would get together to write, he would sit down at the piano and play the intro to “True Colors.” I would get agitated and insist that we work on something else. Finally, after that happened four or five times, Tom got the message that I wasn’t going to go off on my own and re-write the verse lyrics. In the meantime, I don’t know if Tom just met George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, or if he was invited to submit something to him, but Tom played him the demo of “True Colors.” George thought it was a great song, which really spurred Tom’s eagerness to finish it. So, Tom suggested that we sit and write it together. I think I had scribbled something about “sad eyes” and I think Tom phrased the first line:

You with the sad eyes

instead of the original lyric, which said

You’ve got a long list

He probably liked the way it sounded starting with “you.” I pretty much took it from there writing the first verse lyric. I always felt it was sort of patched together and that it wasn’t fluid or cohesive. It never felt finished to me, although now I accept it. Of all the songs in my catalog, “True Colors” has earned the most money. It seems to be our best loved song.

I was happy with the second verse:

Show me a smile then, don’t be unhappy

Can’t remember when I last saw you laughing

Classic songs don’t have to have a lot of lyrics. It’s simply two verses and a chorus.

When we made the demo, we were very much enamored with the idea that the song had a gospel feel to it. We brought in Bob Carlisle and Julie Christenson to sing background vocals. They both have very strong, soulful voices that enhanced that feel. Tom played a piano solo that was very much in the style of the instrumental piano break of “In My Life” by the Beatles – more classical than gospel. So, we finished the demo and that’s when Lady Luck got involved. Because, when you write a song, no matter how good it is, you are somewhat at the mercy of the artist or producer who records the song.

Tom and I were beginning to be successful, but we weren’t in a position to pick any artist in the world and tell them we had this wonderful brand new song. We did what we usually did- finished the demo and started sending it around to every credible artist who was looking for a song at that time. I remember one of the artists we sent it to was Kim Carnes. Her A&R person told us that she wrote her own ballads, and passed on the song. Of course, in the end, that turned out to be a favor to us. Cyndi Lauper had released her first album, “She’s So Unusual”. It was a real breakthrough, from the album cover with the Van Gogh painting on the soles of her shoes, to brilliant songs like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “All Through The Night” and “Time After Time”. Cyndi would have been at the top of any writer’s list of who they would want to record a song. Number one, even ahead of Madonna. At that time, the perception was that Cyndi Lauper was a real artist who would last, and Madonna was just a sexy girl, singing dance-pop songs, who would vanish from the scene.

Tom and I were over the moon with excitement when we heard that Cyndi Lauper wanted to record the song and we anxiously waited to hear what she would do with it. Cyndi’s first album had been produced by Rick Chertoff and he had done an impeccable job. With some concern, we learned that she was going to be producing her second album by herself. But when we got a copy of her version of “True Colors,” it took our breath away because Cyndi’s recording was simply brilliant and original. And, it was a huge departure from our demo. Whereas, Madonna had copied our demo of “Like A Virgin,” Cyndi had really reinvented “True Colors.” Usually, in those days, a demo was kind of basic and a record would have been a more full-blown production. But in this case, Tom and I had done this rather grand production for the demo of “True Colors” and Cyndi’s version was much more sparse. I remember thinking it had an Oriental quality to it—it felt like a Japanese haiku, fragile and delicate.

Cyndi’s vocal is beautiful. I was told that when she was in the studio, she sang a guide vocal for the musicians. Then later, when she went back to record the final vocals, she wasn’t able to match the emotional quality of the guide vocal, so they decided to keep her original one take vocal. On the B-section of the verse, she changed the phrasing:

If this world makes you crazy and you’ve taken all you can bear

Call me up, because you know I’ll be there

Just like Madonna had titled her second album “Like A Virgin,” Cyndi Lauper titled her second album “True Colors.” So, both “True Colors” and “Like A Virgin” were first singles, title cuts and #1 songs. That got Tom and me a lot of attention in the music industry.

Shortly after “True Colors” was a big hit for Cyndi, Kodak requested to use the song for a big advertising campaign. Believe it or not, at the time Tom and I were kind of torn about whether or not to allow then usage. We were worried that Cyndi might be angry about it and we didn’t want to damage our relationship with her. We were also concerned that a commercial use of the song might damage its integrity. But we saw a sample of what Kodak planned to do, and in thinking about the product, photography and pictures, it seemed okay. In fact, besides earning us a lot of money, it introduced the song to a huge audience who didn’t know the Cyndi Lauper record.

It is gratifying to know that “True Colors” has become a standard. In addition to Cyndi Lauper, it has been recorded by Phil Collins, Kasey Chambers, Eva Cassidy, Ane Brun and many others. It was also featured in the movie, Save The Last Dance.