Single Stories: Madonna, LIKE A VIRGIN

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Madonna's very first #1 hit in America, "Like a Virgin," got its start, interestingly enough, in California's Coachella Valley.

"My father was a farmer. He was a grape grower in the Coachella Valley and our vineyards were in a little town called Thermal, California," recalled songwriter Billy Steinberg to Songfacts back in 2004. "I had a rock band called Billy Thermal and we were signed to Planet Records, Richard Perry's label. That band had just split up, so I was working out in the vineyards with my dad.

"I remember writing the lyrics to 'Like a Virgin' while driving in a red pickup truck that I owned around our dusty desert vineyards," Steinberg continued. "I had been involved in a very emotionally difficult relationship that had finally ended and I had met somebody new. I remember writing that lyric about feeling shiny and new - I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through - I made it through this very difficult time."

When a demo of the recording (featuring Steinberg's songwriting partner, Tom Kelly, on vocals) was played for Mo Ostin at Warner Brothers, he knew it was a fit for Madonna. While her producer on the album, Nile Rodgers, wasn't in love with the tune, he eventually relented after the hook stayed in his head days after hearing it.

"Our demo, if you were to hear it, you'd notice it's influenced by a sort of Smokey Robinson style of singing," Steinberg revealed. "When Madonna recorded it, even as our demo faded out, on the fade you could hear Tom saying, 'When your heart beats, and you hold me, and you love me...' That was the last thing you heard as our demo faded. Madonna must have listened to it very, very carefully because her record ends with the exact same little ad-libs that our demo did.

"That rarely happens that someone studies your demo so carefully that they use all that stuff," Steinberg said. "We were sort of flattered how carefully she followed our demo on that. I remember once reading a comment that Nile Rodgers made, I was amused when he said that he took this sort of unimpressive demo and made this great record because in fact, they just copied our demo. The main difference was it was Madonna singing instead of Tom and there was a great drummer on the record, Tony Thompson. I've seen Nile Rodgers being interviewed about 'Like a Virgin' on several occasions and I always think he takes too much credit because everything was in our demo."

"I liked them both because they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me," Madonna herself said about hearing "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl" in their demo forms to Rolling Stone in 2009. "I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn't a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words; I thought they were clever. They're so geeky, they're cool. I never realized they would become my signature songs, especially the second one."

Madonna famously performed "Like a Virgin" on the very first MTV Video Music Awards on September 14, 1984, more than two months before it was officially released on November 6, 1984. The raucous performance put the emerging singer and her new single right at the forefront of pop culture: "People came up to me and told me her career was over before it started," singer Huey Lewis said of the moment, adding that his longtime agent Dan Weiner told him, "This gal, Madonna -- this is not going to happen."

Those naysayers were effectively silenced after the release of "Like a Virgin," with the single debuting at #48 on the Hot 100 on November 17, 1984, and was the week's most added song to radio stations. By December 15, 1984, it was the #1 song on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, holding the spot for four weeks. On December 22, 1984, after just six weeks on the charts, "Like a Virgin" hit #1 on the Hot 100. It was Madonna's first #1 on the prestigious chart. It maintained the top spot for six weeks straight, making it the first #1 song of 1985. The tune finally relinquished the peak position on February 2, 1985, to Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is."

FUN FACT: "Like a Virgin" rapid rise up the charts to #1 on the Hot 100 in just six weeks tied Prince's "When Doves Cry" as the songs to reach the top spot the fastest that year.