From Rich’s Bathroom to Aretha’s Studio

Many people know Denise Rich as the glamorous Democratic fund-raiser at the center of a furious investigation into former President Bill Clinton’s pardon of her ex-husband, financier Marc Rich. Less is known about Ms. Rich’s unscandalous but prosperous career as a lyricist and co-writer of numerous, amorously themed pop songs, from Celine Dion’s hit “Love Is on the Way” to Natalie Cole’s “Livin’ for Love” to Amber’s “Let’s Do It for Love.”

That’s a shame, because as the investigation of her ex-husband’s pardon intensifies–and Ms. Rich opts to exercise her Fifth Amendment privilege–Ms. Rich’s songwriting career speaks eloquently for her, offering a revealing window into this woman of the moment’s soul. Let’s open that window and see what’s inside.

Ms. Rich, who is 57 years old, is one of a handful of songwriters who rose to prominence in the early to mid-1990′s, a prodigious, pre-Puffy era flush with power-ballad maestros like Babyface and Diane Warren. In addition to her songs for Ms. Cole and Ms. Dion, Ms. Rich penned hits for some of pop’s biggest acts, including Patti LaBelle and the hip-hop priestess Mary J. Blige.

“When I was a little girl, I always thought, ‘What am I doing on this planet,’ ‘What’s my meaning to life?’” Ms. Rich said in a 1993 interview with music writer Gordon Pogoda. “I needed to speak the truth for myself and everyone else about the joy and pain of life. So much of music today dances around that. I think people aren’t honest enough.”

Denise Rich is, in pop-music parlance, a hit maker. Contrary to some people’s impressions, she is not a dabbling dilettante: During her nearly two decades of work, Ms. Rich has written the lyrics (other people have composed the music) to more than 1,400 songs, and her compositions have appeared on albums that have collectively sold almost 40 million copies.

“When you put together a new CD and you’re looking for material and songs, there are several songwriters that you call, and Denise Rich is definitely on the A-list,” said Frankie Blue, the influential program director at 103.5 WKTU, a popular dance-music station in New York City. “She’s passionate and versatile. She knows how to write an up-tempo Top 10 hit as well as a moving love song.”

Ms. Rich began writing songs in the early 1980′s, when she was stuck in an unhappy marriage to Mr. Rich, a billionaire stock trader. In those days, Ms. Rich would strum her guitar and compose songs in her bathroom.

As her marriage crumbled, Ms. Rich found that her songwriting improved, and she began to enter songwriting competitions and to send her songs to publishers. “There were things in my heart that I had to say, but I couldn’t say to people–messages that maybe I was afraid to say or didn’t know how to say,” Ms. Rich told Mr. Pogoda. “I realized that maybe in my own small way I could make a difference [with songwriting]. I started getting more into the spirituality and into positive messages.”

The first big break in Ms. Rich’s songwriting career occurred in 1985, when Sister Sledge–the R&B group famous for the disco and Pittsburgh Pirates anthem “We Are Family”–decided to record Ms. Rich’s song “Frankie” on their album When the Boys Meet the Girls. “Frankie” eventually went gold.

“Frankie” is the story of a onetime teenage couple running into each other later in life. In the song, we find some of the primal elements in Ms. Rich’s technique–direct narration, unabashed emotion, conversational style–as well as the reliable musical themes of memories and love gone wrong:

You looked at me and then I blushed

Because I remembered when I loved you so much

Way back when we were friends

Going together but then you left me

Frankie, do you remember?

Ms. Rich followed “Frankie” with a bit of a musical detour. She was hired to compose a theme song for the sailing races at the Summer Olympics. That song, for the 1988 Summer Olympiad in Seoul, Korea, was entitled “The Next American Hero” and was sung by Richie Havens:

You traveled miles across the sea

To turn your dreams into reality

Braving your destiny alone

Leaving friends, family, your home …

If you’ve been a dreamer all through your life

And you’re a believer within your heart

Hold onto your dreams ’til they all come true

Have faith, never give in, then you’ll find

That the next American hero will be you.

“Hero” was an early example of Ms. Rich’s flexibility, her ability to sculpt material for any artist for any occasion. It also established her as something of a hired gun for big, patriotic events. Later, in 1993, Ms. Rich would write “All I Wanna Be Is Understood,” which became the theme song for the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. Ms. Rich’s affinity for prideful occasional music recalls other songwriters like Irving Berlin, the composer of “God Bless America” and “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones.”

By then Ms. Rich had teamed up with songwriter Michael O’Hara, who would become her most frequent partner, collaborating on songs for artists like Donna Summer and Engelbert Humperdinck. Two of Ms. Rich’s and Mr. O’Hara’s earliest compositions, “Lifeline” and “Crazy Love,” appeared on R&B artist Ce Ce Peniston’s gold album Finally –though the pair did not compose the album’s signature hit, “Finally (It Has Happened to Me…).”

Like “The Next American Hero,” “Lifeline” cannily employed nautical imagery to convey the sensation of being alone:

Baby, throw out your lifeline

I’m sinking, baby, rescue me

I’m beggin’ you, throw out your lifeline

Shipwrecked with emotion

When you rock the ocean in me.

By contrast, “Crazy Love” explored the theme of sexual obsession, which would prove to be one of Ms. Rich’s favorite subjects:

Touch me and my knees start to shiver

Can’t help but lose control

Kiss me and my lips start to quiver

What are you trying to do to my soul

Crazy love

The way we’re making love

I can’t get enough.

As it turns out, no one felt a stronger, more emotional connection to these lyrics than Ms. Rich and Mr. O’Hara themselves. “We always cry when we write,” Mr. O’Hara told The Observer via telephone from his studio in St. Louis. “You’d be surprised how spent you are when your heart is solid into something you write. It’s very emotional. It’s wonderfully draining, especially when you write about love and become emotionally involved. We cry. We laugh. We use up the tissues.”

In 1996, Ms. Rich–who has written lyrics to songs for numerous film soundtracks, including Runaway Bride, Meteor Man and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar –wrote a ballad called “Love Is on the Way,” which made it onto the soundtrack of the Goldie Hawn comedy The First Wives Club. That song–a hopeful plea to keep up the search for true love–was originally sung by Billy Porter.

But the following year, “Love Is on the Way” was covered by Ms. Dion, the swan-necked Canadian who was well on her way to becoming one of the decade’s biggest musical stars. Ms. Dion’s version of “Love Is on the Way” was a smash success, appearing on an album, Let’s Talk About Love , which sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.

At long last, Ms. Rich was recognized as a songwriting superstar.

“Anyone who has been recorded by Celine Dion is talented and sought-after,” said Danny Goldberg, chairman and chief executive of Artemis Records and the former chairman of Mercury Records Group. “There are hundreds of people writing songs for a handful of top artists. When the producer, the record company and the artist get together to find someone to write a song, she’s definitely one of the writers considered. She’s obviously talented.”

Indeed, Ms. Rich started getting very big jobs. When Arista Records heavyweight Clive Davis brought the legendary Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige together for a duet in 1999, Ms. Rich was enlisted, along with songwriter Gen Rubin.

“They didn’t say what they wanted,” Mr. Rubin said. “We both thought the song should be a conversational type of song, Aretha giving Mary J. Blige advice about something. Within five minutes we had the chorus, and we basically made it a song about Mary going through a rough relationship and Aretha saying, ‘Look, this guy is a waste of time.’”

Mr. Rubin described Ms. Rich’s songwriting style as impulsive yet tireless. “All the songs we write, they just kind of happened,” he said. “We brainstorm and the ideas just come pouring out. We seem to be able to write songs in a couple of hours. We both throw out so many ideas off each other, and we make sure the song has a strong point of view and the right vibe for the artist. She comes up with the song concept. She’s got the titles in her head already.”

Mr. O’Hara agreed. “She [Denise] is so adaptable to any situation,” he said. “She can come into any room with any person who has an open heart … [and] give of herself as a writer.”

Ms. Rich showed that adaptability in 1999 when she wrote the song “Candy” for So Real, an album by the 15-year-old bubble-gum ingénue Mandy Moore. A three-chord paean to teenage desire, “Candy” was reminiscent of Ms. Rich’s breakthrough song of 15 years ago, “Frankie”:

I’m so addicted to the lovin’ that you’re feedin’ me

Can’t do without this feeling’s got me weak at the knees

Body’s in withdrawal every time you take it away

Can’t you hear me callin’, beggin’ you to come out and play.

“Candy” both references and subverts the traditional teen sweet song. While that last image recalls the bonds of childhood, ironically it is the eating of the candy–itself an ornament of childhood–that becomes the symbol of maturity.

Most recently, Ms. Rich penned “Livin’ for Love” for Natalie Cole. A tribute to the human need for love, “Livin’ for Love” reached No. 1 on WKTU. It, too, has all the hallmarks of a Denise Rich lyrical composition–simple words, pained emotions, but at its emotional core a relentless optimism.

When she wasn’t writing songs, of course, Ms. Rich was making a name for herself raising money for causes. In addition to her fund-raising work for cancer care and research, Ms. Rich was donating money to the Democratic Party. It is estimated that she contributed $1 million to various Democratic efforts, and it has also been reported that she made a $450,000 gift to Bill Clinton’s Presidential library in Little Rock, Ark.

One might wonder how a songwriter–even one with Ms. Rich’s success–could afford those kind of gifts. Typically, the writer of a song earns money from three sources: first, a cut of the album sales, known as the mechanical; second, a fee based on the number of times a song is played on the radio, known as a performance royalty; and third, a flat fee paid when a song is used for a movie soundtrack.

The bulk of any songwriter’s income comes from the mechanicals from record sales. Ordinarily, the mechanical royalty for a writer ranges anywhere from five to seven cents for every album sold for each song on the album. According to SoundScan, albums containing Ms. Rich’s songs have sold approximately 38 million copies over the past 15 years. On most songs Ms. Rich is listed as a collaborator, meaning she probably receives, on average, about a three-cent fee per album, placing her total earnings from album sales at around $1.14 million.

Ms. Rich has undoubtedly made more from performance and soundtrack fees, but it’s pretty evident that her philanthropic streak isn’t subsidized by her songwriting, said one prominent music-business lawyer.

“Her music money is not buying the Clinton pardons, that’s quite clear,” said William Krasilovsky, who co-wrote the book This Business of Music. “At her level of reputation and achievement, it isn’t in the ballpark for her … at the numbers they are giving.”

Still, Ms. Rich’s involvement with the pardon chaos may prove to be profitable somewhere down the road. Many songwriters complain that, as success brings them fame and riches, they simultaneously travel further and further from the source of inspiration that impelled them to write songs in the first place. In her early days, Ms. Rich wrote songs in response to a deteriorating marriage. Now, a new crisis may become her next creative muse.