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Interview: Curtis Hudson & Lisa Stevens, Songwriters of Madonna’s “Holiday” (Part 1)

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Madonna’s pop classic, “Holiday,” is an institution. It’s a worldwide anthem bearing a message that resonates with people of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and faiths. The song, penned by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, is responsible for jump-starting a massive, 30-years-strong career of proportions which few artists experience. Upon the single’s 1983 release, Madonna was a struggling New York performer who had created some buzz in the club world with the dancefloor hits “Everybody” and “Burning Up.” In Part One, Hudson and Stevens share with Justin Kantor how their seminal composition was created; and their thoughts on the lady who brought it universal recognition.

Madonna Holiday 45

Tell me how you came up with “Holiday.”

Lisa Stevens: I woke up, got on the keyboard and started playing those beginning chords over and over for a day or two. I couldn’t come up with anything else. I just kept hearing those chords. Curt said, “Lisa, I hear something with that.” At first, I said, “Wait a minute. Let me sit with this for awhile.” And then, I didn’t come up with anything. He came up with the hook—”Holiday, celebrate”—and that funky bassline. We just kicked it back and forth.

Curtis Hudson: Lisa wanted to go in a different direction. I was inspired by those first two chords. It kind of sticks in your gut. I wanted to write to it while I had that initial feeling. Maybe a week went by. By the time she said “Go ahead, you can write,” I pretty much had the whole song in mind. I had been feeling it, so it poured out of me.

LS: When I heard that bassline, I said, “Whoa, Curtis! You’re the man.”

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What about the verses?

CH: I did most of the lyrics.

LS: I threw in a couple. Curt was looking for a line when I said, “How about, ‘It would be so nice’?”

CH: I pretty much wrote it from my head in 30 minutes. I did most of the lyrics and arrangements back then.

Do you usually have a concept before you start writing?

CH: It just comes together. The music inspires the feeling of the lyrics. At that time, I remember watching the news and thinking, “Wow, things are so depressing. We need to take a universal holiday—just that one day we could get away. That would be a great thing for this world.”

Curtis Hudson with guitar

I’ve read that the song was submitted to several artists for consideration. How did it land with Madonna?

LS: I remember Jellybean asking us for a song. We had presented songs to him before. He said, “This girl’s on Warner Bros. She needs one more song. Do you guys have one?” So, we presented it to Madonna.

CH: When he heard the song, he was mixing for Prism Records. He had mixed a couple of the records we released as Pure Energy. Wherever we’d see him, he’d say, “I love your sound. You just need that one big record.” So, after Prism didn’t want to release it on us, we presented it to him. A lot of friends of ours were telling us it was a hit.

LS: We were in the same rehearsal space as Kool & The Gang. When they heard it, they said the same thing.

CH: We knew that the song had that magic to it. Since we weren’t going to be able to record it ourselves, we were really hoping it would fall into the hands of someone who was going to do it justice. Jellybean was shopping it, and I think he pitched it to Phyllis Hyman and a couple of other artists. We didn’t pitch the songs that much. I was still hoping we could come around to Pure Energy recording it.

LS: We were throwing it back and forth. We didn’t want it to get lost in the shuffle. We weren’t sure whether to hold it. We didn’t want it to not get the promotion that it deserved. We were torn about that. It was close to our hearts. We had done the complete recording, and wanted it to be our next single.

Lisa Stevens

Curtis, you played on the actual recording of Madonna’s version.Tell me about the sessions.

CH: It was a complete arrangement with vocals, percussion, and everything. We took the demo into the studio and matched the new tracks to it. Fred Zarr played keyboards. My brother, Raymond, played bass. I played guitar. We pretty much did the same things we did on the demo.

LS: Fred added a lick in there, the piano solo at the end of the song. Everything else is exactly like we did it for them to follow; except, I sang all the backgrounds on the demo, and Madonna had the vocalists she was going to use—Norma Jean Wright and Tina Baker.

CH: We cut the rhythm track in a day and got the song really poppin’. Everybody was really happy. Madonna was in the studio throughout the recording of the rhythm tracks. She’s a very hands-on type of person. But matching the demo was a big concern for us—down to the string sounds. I didn’t want to get away from that, because Jellybean and Madonna felt the demo had a certain magic. On the demo, I played Rhodes, [programmed] strings, and drums. It was pretty much transferring what we did to a bigger studio. We had used a Linn drum, but Fred Zarr brought in his Oberheim.

However, I didn’t get a production credit on the record. Jellybean presented the song to the label. They had slated him to produce it, as he had an existing relationship with Madonna. It came with the territory that he would be credited as a producer. We debated amongst the group. I wanted a production credit. But we said, “It’s one song. Let that song be the way to get us out there.”

LS: I was there for the recording of the rhythm tracks; but Madonna wanted to do her own thing on the vocals and backgrounds—with no one else in there. She wanted to get her vibe, and she did a great job.

CH: The vocals are one of the major differences between the demo and the master for Madonna. Lisa’s were more soulful, had more of a gospel flavor and were a bit more energetic. Madonna’s style made it more poppish.

LS: But she got some of that soul in there. That’s what the public was saying. I was real happy with the way it turned out.

CH: I think Madonna doing the song is part of the magic of it doing what it did. It was a timing situation. Madonna was ready to happen. Pure Energy needed that one song to legitimize us, to say we can write hit songs. It was a perfect match for Madonna. She’s a hardworking artist. She did justice to it. She stayed true to the melody of the song. She didn’t take anything away from it.

LS: She added her thing to it. I like the fact that she didn’t try to copy me. She put herself into it. She’s a songwriter herself, and a great artist.

Did you know that the song was going to be released as a single?

LS: We didn’t know. “Lucky Star” was supposed to come out first. But the radio stations picked up “Holiday” and started putting it in regular rotation. The song just took off after that. We were happily surprised. It didn’t even have a music video to support it, because Warner Bros. wasn’t prepared.

CH: We would get calls from radio stations that people knew it was a Pure Energy song. They knew our vibe. At that time, a lot of people also thought Madonna was a black artist. When we’d go around doing radio promotions of our own records, people often would tell us that they sensed “Holiday” was our production, even though they saw Jellybean’s name on it. They could hear our stamp all over the song, and they asked, “How could you just give that way?” That could be your number-one song.

Madonna has cited “Holiday” as one of her favorite songs she’s recorded. What do you think makes it stand out to her?

CH: When the song was starting to chart and everybody was buzzing, we would run into her at airports. We were performing in some of the same places. She told us, “Thank you for writing this song. You guys don’t know what you did!” She was really excited about it. I think that might be why it’s a favorite, because the song really put her out there and made her a legitimate artist.

Warner Bros. didn’t produce a music video for it at a time when music videos really started to make songs. Had they done a video, then “Holiday” probably would’ve been a much bigger song than it was at the time; probably #1 pop.

What is it about the song that made it such a big hit and such a transformative song for Madonna’s career?

LS: What the song was saying about love and unity just resonated with the people. And it got its props among musicians and songwriters when they saw that it got her into the pop charts.

CH: There are certain songs that God gives you as a writer. “Holiday” was a gift. From our hard work out of the hundreds of songs we worked on, he looked down and said, “I’m gonna bless you with this song.” I think that happens to all writers at some point.

When I look at the careers of a lot of people, they never got nominated for an award or made it into the top 10—similar to the case with “Holiday.” It’s surprising that a lot of classic songs only made it to the top 40. But one of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten is from young artists and producers out now. Several of them have told me that the song was responsible for them starting their writing career. When my son, Eric Hudson, was in the studio producing Kanye West, he called and told me “Dad, I really don’t think you understand the impact that ‘Holiday’ has had on the music industry. Every time I tell people that my parents wrote it, they freak out!” It affects a lot of people in different ways. We never got that back in the day, because we didn’t go to a lot of industry events. I just liked doing the work; and if the public likes it once it’s done, I’m fine.

LS: We always felt like it was a blessing and still do to this day. Every time she puts it on an album, it’s like, “Wow!” I always told Curt that God woke me up that morning. I woke up out of the blue, went straight to the keyboard, and started playing the chord changes . I believe it’s blessed a lot of people.

The song hit #1 in the clubs, crossed over to the R&B chart; and made top-20 pop. It was also #1 in the UK on several occasions; not to mention hitting big in countries such as Belgium, Italy, France, and Australia. What changed in your career and life as a result of this success?

LS: When we wrote “Holiday,” we were living in a rooming house. We didn’t have a whole lot of money in our pockets. When the royalties started falling in, it helped a lot! We moved out of the rooming house.

CH: A lot of songwriters that I admire say to me, “I haven’t written a ‘Holiday’!” I was told even Babyface made that comment. Some songs are just magic. It just happens and they touch everyone.

CH: The song still generates money. Can you live off of one hit? Yes, you can if you get the right hit. It can last you a lifetime. We’ve been living proof of that. If we did nothing else, the royalties from “Holiday” could support us.

LS: But not for lack of trying and some great songs that we wrote after that. You know the saying: “You’re only as good as your last hit.” We had a hard time getting anything else played. The music business can be so dog-eat-dog. We wouldn’t sign certain contracts, because people wanted your blood. They wanted a certain percentage of your songs when they didn’t write one iota of them.

CH: I love the music, but I hate the business. That’s why we didn’t continue to more success. It got to a point where we didn’t want to deal with certain issues. Integrity is really important to me as a musician. If you write something, then you should get credit for it. I found that many people in the industry are willing to put their names down on something which they didn’t have any part in creating. Why would you want to do that?

In my heart, I never did agree with the decision [to not further pursue] getting a production credit on “Holiday”—because I contributed so much to the song. When I hear it on the radio, I hear all of my ideas on it, yet I don’t get the written credit for it.
That would have made a difference in my career, had my name been down as co-producer or producer in addition to the writing credit.

I’m not taking anything away from Jellybean. He sat in the production seat, and he did a great job with overseeing the production. I love the way he mixed the song. It sounds new to me every time I hear it on the radio. But the creative stuff that went into the song is 90% mine.

After the success of “Holiday,” did you make attempts to present other songs to Madonna?

CH: I went to Madonna’s place in the Village when “Holiday” was still climbing the charts. We’d present ideas to her. She was pretty open. But I think once the song really took off and took her to the next level, she was focused on the next production. After that, I think she tied in with people with whom she had prior relationships and felt comfortable working with. We lost contact, and she went into a whole different direction when she did “Like a Virgin.” A lot of people said that’s the way she was at the time: she just moved on to the next thing.

LS: Onward and upward.

Continued in Part Two

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.