Dean Pitchford: Combining Two Careers Works for Pitchford

Dean Pitchford seems to be one of those individuals talented enough to succeed in any endeavor which he chooses to apply himself. He’s achieved success as an actor and screenwriter, but he’s probably best known as a songwriter.
Dean Pitchford seems to be one of those individuals talented enough to succeed in any endeavor which he chooses to apply himself. He’s achieved success as an actor and screenwriter, but he’s probably best known as a songwriter.

A native of Hawaii, Pitchford has played the lead role in the New York cast of Godspell, the title roll in Pippin and in Joseph Papp’s production of Michel Legrand’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

Few tunesmiths have garnered more accolades than Pitchford. He won an Academy Award for songs he wrote for the movie Fame. Melissa Manchester won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal with Pitchford and Tom Snow’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You.” He wrote the screenplay and lyrics for the movie Footloose which spawned two number one songs from a soundtrack that sold more than 12 million copies. The soundtrack stayed at number one on the BillBoard charts for 10 weeks and earned Dean two Academy Award nomination and five Grammy nominations. Consequently, he was named BMI’s Songwriter of the Year in 1984.

The Pitchford/Snow tune “Don’t Call It Love,” recorded by Dolly Parton, won BMI’s Robert J. Burton award as Most Performed Country Song of the Year. Other hits Dean has written are Eric Carmen’s “Make Me Lose Control,” Ruth Pointer’s “Streets of Gold” (with Snow for the movie Oliver & Co.) and the Cher/Peter Cetera duet “After All” (also with Snow).

Pitchford’s talent for lyric writing developed out of the volumes of poetry he wrote throughout high school and college. He never really thought about becoming a songwriter; his ambition was to be an actor. While singing with a band in New York, doing commercials, singing jingles and working towards his Broadway career, he met a writer named Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid).

“He was and still is a New York songwriter,” Pitchford says.

“Alan was a terrific teacher. He heard me do some stuff of his with my band. He suggested we write together and we wrote very fast. I’d bring him lyrics and he’d set them in half an hour and we’d sit and have coffee the rest of the morning. I don’t know that anything was especially commercial, but it was very satisfying to have it happen so fast and it kept the juices flowing.”

During his formative days as a songwriter, Pitchford also collaborated with Rupert Holmes and Peter Allen. He wrote several songs for Allen’s Broadway show Up in One. When the show opened, Michael Gore was in the audience with his sister Lesley and the only lyricist in the program he didn’t know was Dean.

“He asked Peter about me afterward and Peter was very lavish in his praise and very kind about our collaboration,” Pitchford recalls. “So Michael called and said ‘I’m working as music supervisor o this new movie called Hot Lunch. Would you be interested in working with me?’ And I said ‘yes.'”

After they finished the project and Dean had moved to Los Angeles, Gore called and said they were changing the title and asked if Dean would like to collaborate on a title tune. Dean returned to New York and after a month of writing they had the song. Hot Lunch became Fame. The movie and soundtrack were incredibly successful, also spawning a hit TV show.

“Fame was the second song I ever had recorded,” Dean says, “and a year later it won an Academy Award. That was very encouraging. Then I came out here and was introduced to Tom Snow and began working with him.

“Tom is a very astute writer and he helped me enormously. It’s hard to walk into a room and meet a person for the first time and sit down and write a great song. It happens, but sometimes you go through a breaking in period where you get used to each other’s styles and you kind of wear each other down and write a great song. It happens, but sometimes you go through a breaking in period where you get used to each other’s styles and you kind of wear each other down and start moving like well-oiled gear.”

When asked if his background in theater influences his songwriting, Pitchford readily admits it does. “I write screenplays as well. I feel the same thing both lyrically and with screenplays. I know what it’s like to be a performer on stage and feel naked because you have nothing to do or coming to a stretch of dialogue that is real unsatisfying and you don’t quite know what to do with it. So I try to tighten things so that every time anybody opens their mouth to sing or say something they have to deliver. Either it’s a preparation for a payoff or just the payoff.

“I also think of songs as little one act plays. People tell me they cry at the songs I write. I think that in order to get someone to cry in three minutes, you have to start from ground zero and get them on the train and slowly move the train out of the station. Never lose them; keep them going to a point (that) by the time they get to the chorus they can’t help themselves. That takes a lot of honing and working.”

Pitchford sees rewriting as an integral part of the songwriting process. He feels songwriters have two separate identities within them. “Writing is easy, it’s the rewriting that’s a bitch,” he says. “When I talk to young songwriters I tell them there are two people in their heads. You have to keep a real even balance between them. One is the creator and one is the editor. The creator is the one that goes gush, gush, gush and pours it out and fills up the pages. The editor is the one that sits to the side and goes ‘I don’t know about that line. I don’t know if that works.’ The torment comes when only the editor is at work. If you can hit that stride where the two of them are working together that’s really the joy of creating.”

Pitchford spends six months a year on his songwriting, then wraps up tunes he’s co-writing, finishes projects and closes the door on that part of his career and spends the next six months screenwriting. “I could mix the two, but it makes me crazy and I work 18 hours a day and that’s not real happy,” he comments.

Consequently his approach to writing is more focused. He rarely writes songs and just throws them out there. He usually writes for or with a specific artist who is going in to do an album. Whenever he writes something that wasn’t written for a certain artist or he has something that doesn’t make it on a project, Brian Rawlings (who used to handle Dan Seals publishing in Nashville) works for him.

For Dean the greatest satisfaction in being a songwriter comes from knowing he’s made someone feel something with his tunes. “If I finish a song and it makes people want to grab some Kleenex or it makes them want to get up and dance then I feel like I’ve done the job right.”

Pitchford also says certain songs hold fond memories for people and he likes being part of the soundtrack of their lives. “When I take a trip or go on vacation I find the pop station in that area and at that given time some song is on the air more often than anything else,” he says. “So when you drive around the shores of Hawaii or up and down the California coast one song becomes the signature of that vacation. Years later you can hear it and go right back to Maui. So the prospect that I’ll be the hook that will pull somebody’s mind back to a time when they were really happy or falling in love and happier than they’ve ever been, that’s great. That’s nice to a be part of.”


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