On July 10, 1976, as the smoke was still clearing from America’s big bicentennial celebration, a new song slid into the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, riding a chorus that referenced “skyrockets in flight.”
But Starland Vocal Band wasn’t singing about bombs bursting in air on the suddenly ubiquitous folk-pop ditty “Afternoon Delight.” The harmonic hit was actually about post meridiem lovemaking.The sexually suggestive soft-rock song was written by Starland’s Bill Danoff after he’d made a teatime trip to Clyde’s of Georgetown, where he sometimes sang with his wife, Taffy Nivert. The D.C. duo performed as both Bill and Taffy and Fat City, and they’d struck gold as songwriters when John Denver scored a hit with their song “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”For “Afternoon Delight,” Bill and Taffy doubled up, adding two friends from the D.C. scene, Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman, who would later marry (and, like Bill and Taffy, later divorce).
“Afternoon Delight” was Starland Vocal Band’s first and only hit. Their second single stalled, their subsequent albums flopped, and the band was finished within five years.
But the incredible success of “Afternoon Delight” was enough to garner the group five Grammy nominations (and two awards, including for best new artist), an ill-fated CBS-TV variety show (featuring a young David Letterman) and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s wing of one-hit wonders.“Afternoon Delight” also found pop-culture permanence, albeit as one of the most maligned pop singles of its era and a popular Hollywood punch line.On the 35th anniversary of its ascension to No. 1, here’s the tale of the creation, rocket ride and afterlife of “Afternoon Delight.”
Bill Danoff, Starland Vocal Band: We didn’t have Starland yet, but Margot [Chapman] was my friend and we were at Clyde’s in ’74. It was after lunch, and from 3 to 6 they had these table tents out that said “afternoon delights.” It was a little menu of like four items. I thought it would be a neat title for a song.
Taffy Nivert, Starland Vocal Band: I was at the hospital having an operation for cervical cancer. Bill came and said, “I’m starting another song.”
Danoff: It took me a couple of months to get the song right. I was watching a Redskins game on TV and I came up with the lick on my 12-string guitar. That triggered it. I started putting the lyrics together: “Gonna find my baby/Gonna hold her tight/Gonna grab some afternoon delight.” Not a bad idea! I worked and worked on it, and lines and metaphors just started coming. It became the basis for the Starland album.
Jon Carroll, Starland Vocal Band: My friend Mike Cotter backed up Bill and Taffy when we were in high school. When they got the idea to start the group, we got together informally. Bill played that song; he wanted to see how it would sound with four voices.
Robert Hughes, former WASH-FM program director: They had a harmonic blend that was pretty amazing.
Milt Okun, producer: They were very, very good singers. . . . But this song was a particularly hard one to do. It was more complex and musically difficult than most folk arrangements. It was the closest thing to Bach that I’d ever done.
Nivert: Musically, it’s very similar to an excellent Cajun tune.
Danoff: When we went up to New York to record at RCA in ’75, the song just didn’t do it. It sounded predictable and straight. Phil Ramone came in and lightened it up. He had bass player Russell George and the drummer Jimmy Young give it a bounce.
Russell George, session musician : These guys were folkies trying to come up with a groove that just doesn’t happen in folk music. I’d done a James Brown album. I’d done LaBelle. I said to Bill, “Do you mind if I kick it off?” My count-off — a one, a two, a one two three four — set up the whole groove.
Phil Ramone, engineer: When something becomes good ear candy, it’s because two things are working: melody, lyric and groove. That’s three things. I lied. They all worked on this record.
George: We didn’t know what tune we were playing. We were just reading chord symbols off the page. The first time I heard “Afternoon Delight” in its complete form was when I got the record at home. I . . . near [wet] myself. I played it five times. I didn’t know it was going to be a hit, but I loved it.
Bob Duckman, former WASH-FM music director: Folks would read whatever they wanted to into the lyrics. I very rarely went too deep on the meaning. It was just a well-produced, well-harmonized song that sounded good on our station. We started playing it in the spring of ’76. At the height of its appeal, we were probably playing every three or four hours.
Carroll: It was a huge record that summer. A year later, I ran into a schoolmate from high school in Georgetown. He said: “Hey, I’m really happy for you, but I feel like I should apologize. I was painting houses at the beach for a summer job, and by the time late August came around, they were playing ‘Afternoon Delight’ for the 300th time and I threw my paint brush at the radio.”
“Cousin Brucie” Morrow, legendary radio jock: There was a disco explosion in ’76, and “Afternoon Delight” really stood out. I was at WNBC [in New York], and we were playing Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Andrea True Connection. In the midst of all this comes this song that sounds so happy and bright, with a folksy sweetness to it. It was so different than anything else I was playing.
Danoff: When it came out, I was getting my car fixed, and the guy said: “I heard your record. It’s about a nooner!” I didn’t know there was a term for that. I was just thinking the guy goes to see his girlfriend in the afternoon. . . . There’s a line in the song, “Gonna grab some afternoon delight.” The right word was probably “have.” But “have” is a lame word when you’re writing a lyric. You want action words. I changed it to “grab,” like you grab a bite. I was looking for words you can sing and put your teeth into. I wasn’t trying to be a pervert.
Okun: Since I had been a schoolteacher, I liked to take my arrangements of hit songs and do chorales for schools. This one, obviously, I couldn’t do because of the meaning, which sort of irritated me.
Morrow: It was a fun, positive song we could whistle along to — and it had sexual overtones that made everybody giggle. We needed that. Gerald Ford was president and Jimmy Carter was running; how much more boring can it get than a peanut farmer and a guy who hits his head coming into the White House?
Ramone: It should be out of the generation by now. Twenty years is plenty for a long-term record. But you can go into any place and play that record, and somebody sings it. Somewhere along the line, a few scriptwriters got “Afternoon Delight” into their psyche, and I don’t know why.
Adam McKay, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” writer-director: The song represents the ’70s perfectly, because it’s delightful, innocent and sexually free. It definitely plays as an anachronism. It’s almost downright strange in today’s post-AIDS, post-sexual politics world. It represents the free love of the ’60s going mainstream in the ’70s. It plays in a very big moment in the movie, no doubt about it.
Nivert: “PCU” was one of the first usages that I know of. There was another movie, “Car 54, Where Are You?,” that also used it. I never saw “Car 54,” but “PCU” made me laugh out loud.Danoff: In “PCU,” these college kids lock all the trustees in the room and play “Afternoon Delight” on an endless loop to torture them while George Clinton plays a concert out on the lawn.
Zak Penn, “PCU” co-writer: We were definitely looking for the most annoying song to listen to over and over. There was some discussion about whether it should be “We Built This City on Rock and Roll.” But if you’re looking for the best song to torture people with, “Afternoon Delight” was the one.
Nivert: We were the perfect rube. We were the least hip thing. What are you going to do? You just hope they don’t make fun of your children at school is all.
McKay: About a year after “Anchorman” came out, we started seeing tons of Internet videos of guys dressed up like the news team singing “Afternoon Delight.” They were everywhere.
Nivert: “Glee” recently used a truncated version. And we were referenced on “The Simpsons.” Homer said something like, “There are always things you can do to remember the things you love.” And he showed a tattoo on his arm that said “Starland Vocal Band.”
Hughes: If people want to use it ironically and make it about being cheesy, fine. I’m sure Bill and Taffy and Margot and Jon don’t mind the royalty checks.
Nivert: Starland Vocal Band got one check in the spring of 1977. That was it. We received a check for $66,000 that we split four ways and have never seen another penny. . . . We signed a generic contract with Windsong Records, John Denver’s label, and the deal was never renegotiated when everybody else made such a big piece off it. That wasn’t kind. But you can’t take unkind to court.
Danoff: I got my writer’s royalties, but the group never got any other royalties. Thank God the publishing money keeps coming in. “Afternoon Delight” has continued to be a huge hit overseas. The song was a top-10 European hit about 10 years ago, by a group from Amsterdam that did a killer club version of it. . . . I teach a songwriting seminar at Georgetown. AOL had listed “Afternoon Delight” as the 26th-worst song ever. I went into my class and said: “I’m really upset. There’s a list of all these bad songs, and mine is number 26. I can’t tell you how offended I am. It was only a few years ago that a couple of guys in California did a list of the worst songs of all time, and ‘Afternoon Delight’ was number one. To fall to 26 is an embarrassment!” I got a big laugh out of it.
Matthew Wilkening, former AOL music writer: I never had anything against “Afternoon Delight” personally. But “cheesy” is the right word for it.
Danoff: It was never meant to be “Satisfaction.” But it sold several million records, and people still know it. I make no bones about the fact that I always wanted to be a pop songwriter. I wanted to write hit records. When people say, “What’s your favorite song ever written?” I tell them, “The one that made me the most money.” I like “Afternoon Delight” best because it was the biggest hit. It was a magical record.
Danoff continues to write songs. He lives in Northwest Washington, where he opened — and then closed — a neighborhood restaurant, the Starland Cafe. Carroll performs with Mary Chapin Carpenter and others. He lives in Northern Virginia and has been voted musician of the year multiple times by the Washington Area Music Association. Chapman continues to write songs and occasionally collaborates with her old bandmate, Nivert. She splits her time between West Virginia and New Mexico. Nivert is writing a novel and, she says, “napping, chewing, taking up space.” She lives in Florida near Tampa.