For Grammy-Winning Prof, Country Roads Led to GU
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Friday, April 27, 2012 02:04
Music professor and two-time Grammy Award winner Bill Danoff (FLL ’68) continues to excel in his career as a songwriter after six years of teaching courses in the department of performing arts at Georgetown.
Growing up in Springfield, Mass., Danoff’s musical interests sprouted when he started to play guitar at nine years old. He began writing his own music at age thirteen, but his musical career was truly inspired during his time at Georgetown in the mid-1960s, when he studied Chinese at the Institute of Languages and Linguistics.
“My years at Georgetown were very turbulent ones,” Danoff said. “The war in Vietnam was escalating, and demonstrations were growing. An entire counterculture, fueled by rock and roll and a sense of self-empowerment, was taking place among many young people here.”
Danoff discovered rock and roll at Cellar Door, a music club on M Street that closed in 1981.
Cellar Door was a premier spot on the D.C. music scene throughout the 1960s, featuring performances from Jimmy Buffett, Miles Davis, James Taylor, Neil Young and Danoff himself.
“I worked there first as a doorman and then as a lights and sound man. I got to see, know and learn from some of the greatest artists of that time,” he said of the club.
While working at the Cellar Door in 1966, Danoff met John Denver, then the lead singer for a folk group called the Mitchell Trio. Neither man knew that the ensuing partnership would project both into fame.
After graduation, Danoff granted himself two years to attempt to launch a musical career, and put together an act called Fat City that played at local clubs and various peace demonstrations.
Approaching the end of his two-year goal, Danoff’s band landed a deal with ABC Probe Records and subsequently recorded an album.
It was around this time that Denver learned of Danoff’s songwriting talents. He heard Fat City sing “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” at a club on M Street and asked the group if he could record a cover of the song.
“It was the first of our songs recorded by someone else, and it led to us being booked at the Cellar Door together, Fat City opening and John Denver the headliner. We had mostly sold-out shows and it was during that week that John came back to our apartment after hours and we showed him ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads,’” Danoff said.
Denver immediately loved the song and rushed to New York to record it.
“Ironically, I had never even been to West Virginia when I wrote the opening lyric,” he said.
The song peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1971.
Danoff remained part of Fat City until 1976, when the duo added Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman to form the Starland Vocal Band, which quickly gained national fame with its song “Afternoon Delight.”
“I got the title from a table tent in Clyde’s promoting its afternoon snacks,” Danoff said.
The song eventually garnered the band five Grammy nominations and two awards.
Danoff also sang the song for classmate and former President Bill Clinton at the White House for the Class of 1968’s 25th reunion in 1993.
One of the first Georgetown Entertainment and Media Alliance Rocks shows, which feature notable university alumni, inspired Danoff to consider a permanent return to Georgetown.
“At the show I met Anna Celenza, who was heading up the Program of Performing Arts at Georgetown. She asked if I ever thought about doing what I do in a classroom,” he said.
After mulling the possibility, Danoff accepted a lecture position at the university.
“He is an incredibly thoughtful and caring professor who, despite his fame and talent as
a songwriter, is incredibly humble and generous with his time,” Celenza said. “When I was department chair, there were at least three occasions when students dropped by my office to say ‘Thanks for hiring Bill Danoff!’ … It was nice to know that he was connecting with students in such a meaningful way.”
Anthony DelDonna, chair of the music program, echoed Celenza.
“Student feedback has been warm and highly enthusiastic,” he said. “Students praise his friendly and encouraging personality and first-hand knowledge of the music business.”
Danoff will highlight the upcoming GEMA Rocks show on May 4th and 5th and will then travel to Aspen, Colo. in October to perform at the 15th Annual John Denver Tribute Concert.
“As for writing, I’m going over old sound files and lyrics looking for things I like that I never got around to finishing. So there’s probably an album in there waiting to be done,” he said.