THEY troop in, one by one, a few minutes past the scheduled hour of 1 p.m., dressed, as usual, in funky clothes, looking a bit bleary-eyed, and maybe not quite ready to meet their public this early in the day. But there's a crowd of people waiting at the booth set up in the back of the pop music section of the Record & Tape Ltd. store in Georgetown - waiting to meet Bill and Taffy Donoff, Margot Chapman and Jon Carroll. "Those Washington Favorites," as they say in the ads. The Starland Vocal Band. In person.
A dozen shiny albums covers from their latest, "Late Nite Radio," festoon the area above the table set up for autographing. Nice, apt artwork: Starland's four smiling faces against a midnight shooting star sky with an AM/FM dial at the top. Much more apt than the stilted, pseudo-Rolling Stones pretentiousness that covered last year's effort. A giant blow-up of that unfortunate cover also graces the scene. They're playing the new album on the store's sound system, of course, and the catchy, country-flavored strains of the title cut (also the first single released from the album) are in jarring contrast to the Jussi Bjoerling operatic aria emanating from the classical section farther back.
"Late Nite Radio" is a good, folksy song - simple, infectious and broadly appealing, well-arranged and well-performed. With any luck at all it should be a hit.
And Starland does need a hit. It's been two years since the last one (which was also their first one), "Afternoon Delight," the raunchy paean to midday romancing that topped the charts for six weeks during the summer of '76, sold nearly 2 million copies and won them two Grammy awards from the record industry last year (one for best arrangement, the other for best new recording artists). And two years is a very long time between hits when you're still trying to establish yourselves in the record-buying public's mind as . . . well . . . how about the Mamas and the Papas of the '70s?That's sort of what their image is. Sort of.
"Can I get you something - something to drink?" the store manager inquires solicitously as Starland settles in to meet their fans. "A Heineken," Bill Danoff quickly responds, "that'd be terrific . . . " Sure, the manager nods. The others will have coffee.
The group was organized rather spontaneously threee years ago, when Bill and Taffy Danoff, the locally based performing-song-writing team who write John Denver's big breakthrough hit, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," were working on a couple of new songs, and decided four voices would be better on them than two. So they got in touch with Margot Chapman, with whom they had worked in 1970 in a nine-piece hard-rock band called Fat City, and with Jon Carroll, a musical prodigy-type from Fredericksburg, Va., who had done keyboard, arrangements and backup vocals with them while they were Bill and Taffy, a folky, good-timey duo. It was almost as simple as that. The name was Taffy's inspiration.
They do enjoy a favored status here, and unlike the performers who got their start in Washington - Roberta Flack, Nils Lofgren, Roy Buchanan, Emmylou Harris - they have not moved on. They prefer to stay here - at some cost to their careers, they admit.
Physically, the Starland Vocal Band is a study in contrasts. The Osmonds they are not. Robert Altman almost cast Bill and Taffy as two-thirds of the country-rock-star menage-attrois in his movie "Nashville," and you have to wonder why he didn't - they could have brought some interesting visual appeal to the roles at the very least: Bill, 32, is rather laid-back and cerebral-looking (the glasses help), as befits the chief songwriter and creative catalyst for the group. His wife, Taffy, 33, is a dimpled, sensuous, brown-eyed blonde, and more upfront, personality-wise, which is why she does most of the talking onstage, between numbers. ("In terms of the group, I am the least musical element," she later confides, "but I happen to have a rapping talent.") Margot, 30, with dark, waist-length hair, is fragile-looking and exotically pretty, the outstanding voice in the group and, offstage, the most reserved. Jon, 21, is short, wiry, extroverted and almost laughably cute - he might pass for Kristy McNichol's twin brother.
So might some of Starland's fans assembled here today, for that matter. A disparate lot, they range in age from about 12 to 60, including two young Army privates from Fort Myer, in uniform, who've brought red roses wrapped in green tissue paper, which they present to Taffy and Margot. "Thank you Very much," Taffy says, and kisses them.Margot, less demonstrative but no less appreciative, gives them a radiant smile.
"Don't forget to pick up your free bicycles on the way out," Jon tells three pre-teen girls in jeans, sipping diet cola. They giggle delightedly. One girl has just bought six Starland records.
"I think that's your best song," a guy with a rubber band around his disheveled blond pony-tail tells Danoff when "Boulder to Birmingham," a song he wrote with Emmylou Harris, comes on. It's from the first album.
"The single is just out," Bill tells another fan who asks about it. They re-mixed it in L.A. in March, after a two-week engagement at Harrah's in Reno. The sound is brighter now, Danoff says, and other little touches have been added.
"We saw you at Wolf Trap," says an older man in a red sweater. The lady with him is wearing an "Afternoon Delight" T-shirt.
"We'll be at Wolf Trap again this summer," Bill tells them.
And so it goes on like that for 45 minutes. Very genial and relaxed and polite. No pushing or shoving, no hysteria, no drug-crazed groupies clamoring for their bodies. Only Margot seems a bit eager to have it over with. At least she keeps checking her watch. But then they're due shortly for another promo session at White Flint shopping mall.
"The people who like us," Taffy Danoff remainds as they depart, "are very nice."
That they are. Very nice indeed. Nobody here even mentioned the TV show - Starland's much-publicized mini-series last summer on CBS, which turned out to be such an embarrassing fiasco. Or their last, not-very-well-received album. "Rear View Mirror." Or the singles that went nowhere on the charts last year. Or, for that matter, the lacerating review the "Late Nite Radio" album got in Unicorn Times, the local rock newspaper: "A hasty, sloppy package . . . not full of good pop songs . . . awkward . . . unflet . . . No delight in Starland's pretend passions."
Had they read it, I ask Taffy later. No, they hadn't, she says. "Jon saw it and got maniacally depressed," she adds. (The reviewer came down very hard on Carroll's songwriting efforts - told him, in effect, to grow up some more before trying to write about infatuation again.)
"I think we make too much to-do over reviews," says Taffy. "Most of them don't count very much. In the real world, none of that matters. John Denver never got a favorable review in New York until this last time he played there . . . and look at 'Saturday Night Fever,' a big hit movie, but it got bad reviews, and a tremendous best-selling album, but the Bee Gees didn't even get nominated for an Academy Award . . ."
Starland has also been accused of staying aloof from the rest of the Washington musical community. "That's bad judgment - not true at all," Taffy replies. "There's a circuit of people who all played the bar scene here when we did, and we still feel a great camaraderie with them - Jack Williams, Sageworth and Drums, Bill Holland, Emmylou Harris. Mike Auldridge of the Seldom Scene . . . We see them and love them, and are still supportive of them. We are still real good friends with Brian Bowers. Jon Carroll helped Mike Cotter make a demo record this spring. But when you reach a certain level, there's only so much you can do. Open doors? We can't do that . . ."
We had talked about the TV show earlier, between performances, when Starland did a four-night, sold-out gig in January at the Cellar Door, their old stomping grounds in Georgetown. But not without a few protests: "He's writing all this down," Taffy exclaimed to Bill at one point in mid-conversation.
"Dirt! All you want is dirt!" Danoff kidded between swigs of Molson beer.
The premise for the show seemed promising: Starland as modern troubadours, with location shooting in Georgetown, the Shoreham's Marquee Lounge, at Great Falls, and other spots in and around Washington, and concert locales in California. On paper it looked like the special, personalized showcase Starland needed to connect with the young viewing audience.
But what emerged on the tube was confused, slapdash, and sophomoric. A proper intrduction to that audience was never made, and a rapport was never established. The band found themselves trying, rather, to cope with a disorienting, depersonalized, quick-cut format that had them flailing around in hokey sketches and playing second banana to a would-be comedian named Dave Letterman, with an occasional break for a song. The show even managed to make guest comedian Mark Russell look bad. And all of this in prime time, too. What happened?
"The problem was the producers were not capable of handling a special situation," said Taffy. "We read the scripts and we knew their material wasn't any good. 'These jokes aren't funny,' we kept telling them, but they said not to worry, they knew what would go over on TV, and to remember we were new to all this. It was a miserable, frustrating experience. The stuff Proctor and Bergman [comedian friends of Starland] wrote for us was not used. Our suggestions were ignored. We were told constantly, 'That won't work on TV' . . ."
"It's the same pitfall of any group with one hit record," said Jon. "They make a little parody of you on TV, a very shallow thing. For some reason they can't relate to what you really are. That's how Hollywood is. They still don't know us."
Starland hasn't helped itself much with that crucial, follow-up second record, some say. ("The new album has none of the redeeming brightness of their debut," wrote rock critic Richard Harrington in Unicorn Times. "More importantly, it is devoid of any potential singles . . . The tired production misuses much of the natural talent with the group, particularly Chapman's strengths as soloist and the group's empathetic harmonies . . . There is obviously some confusion as to where Starland is going. The fact that its strengths are utilized in inverse order speaks to that fact.")
"I had a good feeling about the record, and I still do," Danoff insists. "I heard one side of it the other day, and there were some good things there. Maybe they didn't have the convenient hooks, but some of those songs should have been hits. I really thought 'Rear View Mirror' would be a hit . . .
"I've always believed in hit singles," Danoff says. "That's how the largest number of people relate to you."
Obviously, the songwriting process is not a neat and orderly one. And you never know where your next good idea is coming from. Starland's first hit was inspired by the menu in the Atrium at Clyde's headed "Afternoon Delights." (A framed gold record of the song is now hanging there.) But the actual writing took about six months, some of it while Danoff was watching the Redskins on TV. "All that energy coming out of the tube got my creative juices flowing," he says. "I really wasn't thinking of writing a sexy song." And "Country Roads" wasn't exactly dashed off, either. It was about two-thirds done when they showed it to John Denver, who liked it so much he stayed up with them all night to finish it so he could record it - with them - for his new album.
"People think John must have screwed us somewhere because he got to be a big star and nobody knows we wrote 'Country Roads,' but it isn't true," Bill says. "We have a good relationship with John and have spent years defending him in interviews." Denver has in turn booked the Danoffs on his tours and TV shows, recorded a half dozen of Bill's other songs and brought them to his RCA/Windsong record label.
For all their likability, the feeling persists, even among their most loyal fans, that Starland as a group has not quite pulled itself together. A certain edge, a certain toughness, a certain professionalism is missing in the way the members present themselves. And local critics seem to be of a mixed mind: "A vast improvement over 'Rear View Mirror,'" wrote Charlie McCollum in the Washington Star of the new album. "While a cut or two-clunks when it should soar, the bulk of the material is nicely written and beautifully handled." Unicorn Times' Mark Vincent, on the other hand, felt that "sleazy songs like 'Third-Rate Romance' are sung too politely. 'Don't Go To Oregon' hasn't enough acid in its lyrics or its performance to make its point. Most of the love songs have more languor than ardor, and 'Please, Ms. Newslady' is utterly bogus . . ."
Starland can be very ettective when they choose the right material - Paul Simon's "American Tune," for instance, which they've practically made their own (even Simon says so). But they frequently don't choose the right material, and that, just as much as anything, is holding them back.
A couple of weeks after Starland's promo appearances at the record stores I called the Danoffs at their 14-room, three-fireplace $175,000 manor in suburban McLean, where they live with their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Emma ("just as old as our first album"). At least it has been described as a 14-room, three-fireplace manor in suburban McLean.I've never set foot in it, and, to my knowledge, no other working reporter has either. The Danoffs have this thing about maintaining their privacy at home. They also have this thing about Washington - they like it here, and prefer to be based here, although they admit they sometimes wonder at what expense to their careers. "It would be so easy to get swept away into the show-biz part of show-biz if we moved to L.A.," Taffy muses. (Taffy, a civil service brat, grew up in nearby Falls Church, Bill, who studied linguistics at Georgetown University, is from Springfield, Mass.). Family life is important to them. They want to have more children.
I was calling to check on the progress of "Late Nite Radio," among other things. Margot, as it happened, was paying a visit. We had talked some at the Cellar Door. She was friendly, but wary, and didn't volunteer much beyond the basic bio facts - born in Hawaii, grew up in San Francisco, came to Washington to live with her older sister and to escape the flower-child invasion 11 summers ago, worked briefly here as a secretary, studied voice at American University. When the original nine-piece Fat City band broke up, she sang for a time with another local group, Breakfast Again. She revealed little about her private lite - she practices kriya yoga, meditates twice a day, says this is a steadying factor in her life - and there's something about Margot that discourages probing personal questions. You have the feeling she'd tell you if she thought you ought to know, but . . .
Her recent move to New York fueled speculation that she was planning to leave Starland behind and launch a singing career of her own - an understandable move, considering her lovely solo work on "Fly Away," a Jack Williams ballad, on the new record. Not so, she says. Not for the moment, anyway. She's still very committed to Starland, she indicates. "We know we're good as a group," she says. "We've gotten the act a lot tighter. I just see us getting better and better - through another two years, at least." Economic reasons prompted the move to New York, she explains, "I want to do backup signing, and do some commercials, and Washington doesn't offer you the opportunities."
"The move doesn't mean anything in terms of the group," Taffy says. "We think it's neat that she's getting all this input from New York. She really wants to be there. She comes down to rehearse, and we're writing a song together - a ballad, a sad ballad, which is about two-thirds done. We see here as much as we did when she lived here."
Starland's work schedule has been sporadic of late (which was one reason why Jon was also moonlighting - with the local Mike Cotter Band): A few days in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands following the Cellar Door gig; two weeks at Harrah's, Reno, in March; a "Midnight Special" TV appearance; the Dinah Shore and Merv Griffin shows to plug the new record; Houston's Astro-World and other amusement parks in April; a Disarmament Coalition concert at the Hollywood Bowl - on a bill with Lily Tomlin, Minnie Riperton, Harry Chapin, Peter, Paul and Mary and others, in May; last week's appearance at Wolf Trap.
"The Starland Vocal Band does need money," said Taffy matter-of-factly. "Every group has to have a cash flow. Billy and I as songwriters . . . that's different thing, we're not hurting, but the only source of income now for Starland is concerts. We take money gigs, and career gigs. For Harrah's, Reno, the money was excellent, and we sold out every night. It was a beautiful room, acoustically pretty good, and it holds about 700 people. But with some of your older, Vegastype audiences who don't know our music, it's like living death - no feedback from any area of the room."
"We get very good when we work a lot," Jon told me later over the phone from his pad on MacArthur Boulevard. "It was a revelation when we were in L.A. and did the re-mix on the single, 'Late Nite Radio,' and how much better we were because of management things." And he expressed some ambivalence about Starland's mentor-manager, Jerry Weintraub, who also handles, among others, John Denver, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra: "He'd be more excited about us if we had a hit. That's how he works."
The Danoffs tell me they've asked for their release from Weintraub, on a contract that had one more year to run. They aren't sure he would give it to them, but they've asked for it. They disagree on whether or not they should tell me that for publication.
"We need some sort of major effort to really identify the group in the minds of the public," Danoff said. "I don't think they've really done that. I don't think they're making any effort for us at all . . ."
"It's totally out of our hands," said Taffy, ever the realist. "If we don't get the push, nothing will happen to it. We can fret, it's irritating, but the job is the job of the promotion people, and there's so much politics involved . . ."
"It's really a helpless feeling at this point," Danoff reflected. He sounded depressed. "It's like an election night for a politician, only this is a very long election night, and you just don't know the outcome . . ."
A few weeks later, another call to the Danoffs. Things are looking up. They had a long talk with Weintraub and his Management III people, thrashed everything out. Weintraub admitted he had "lost interest" in the group, but wanted to keep them, wanted a second chance, but, in the end, was persuaded to let them out of their contract.
"It was all very amicable," Taffy said. "He could have made it tough for us, but he didn't. He's a brilliant man, but what we need now is to get on our own case and decide where we're going. We're looking for a new manager. We'll manage ourselves until we find one." This is not unheard of in the business, she added. "Other groups do it . . . Fleetwood Mac does it." Weintraub's group would still handle a few things for them this year - club dates with Jimmy Buffett, and more amusement park dates this summer.
"We'll be hustling, we'll be playing catch-up," she went on, "because we've got an image to overcome - that John-Denver's-opening-act sappy bull. That's how we're seen, and some of that's our fault. We love John, but when we were working with him, we also should have been doing something else to establish a stronger identity for ourselves, and we didn't . . ."
Starland Vocal Band has long since shown its ability to make beautiful music. Now the question is whether the group's new-found sense of hustle and determination will deliver audiences more than simply delight in the afternoon.