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‘Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight’: The story behind Starland Vocal Band’s one big hit

Starland Vocal Band performs at Clyde’s in Georgetown. From left to right: Jon Carroll, Margot Chapman, Taffy Nivert and Bill Danoff. (Ellsworth Davis/The Washington Post file)

This oral history is adapted from an archival Washington Post article that was originally published in 2011.

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 its suddenly ubiquitous ditty “Afternoon Delight.” The harmonic soft-rock smash was actually about post-meridiem lovemaking.

“Afternoon Delight” 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 duo performed as both Bill and Taffy and Fat City, and they’d struck gold as songwriters when John Denver turned “Take Me Home, Country Roads” into an enduring hit that eventually became one of West Virginia’s official state songs.

For “Afternoon Delight,” Bill and Taffy doubled up, adding two friends from the D.C. music scene, Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman, who would later marry — and, like Bill and Taffy, later divorce.

“Afternoon Delight” — which spent two weeks at No. 1 — was Starland Vocal Band’s first and only hit. A second single stalled, subsequent albums flopped, and the band was finished within five years.

But the incredible success of “Afternoon Delight” was enough to earn the group five Grammy nominations and two awards, an ill-fated CBS variety show (featuring a nascent broadcaster by the name of David Letterman), and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s wing of one-hit wonders. It also found pop-culture permanence, albeit as one of the most maligned pop singles of its era and a popular Hollywood punchline.

Here’s the tale of the creation, rocket ride and odd 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. A song I really liked at the time was Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” the long acoustic version. I was playing that kind of a feel, just letting the strings ring That triggered it. Then I started putting the lyrics together: “Gonna find my baby/Gonna hold her tight/Gonna grab some afternoon delight.” Not a bad idea!

Nivert: You could always find Bill with his guitar. There were a thousand things going through his head. He used the guitar like some people doodle with a pencil and paper. I would hear parts of “Afternoon Delight,” and I thought it was really good.

Danoff: Lines and metaphors just started coming. I don’t know where “skyrockets in flight” came from — maybe a comic book. My songwriting process isn’t linear. You just grab things and try to put them together, like a Rubik’s Cube. It became the basis for the Starland album.

Nivert: Bill and I had great songs and really related well to our audiences. But we weren’t that foolish to think we were great singers. We knew some great singers, though.

Danoff: “Afternoon Delight” needed a bigger sound with more voices, like a Mamas and Papas thing. I thought of this incredible kid, Jon Carroll, who was a freshman at the University of Miami and had a great voice. I thought of Margot, because I loved her angelic voice. I drew a diagram of the lid of a grand piano, with these stick figures: Jon at the piano, Margot standing at the front, Taffy, and then me with a guitar.

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, I came back for a wedding or something and 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 (who died in 2016): 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.

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Nivert: Musically, it’s very similar to an excellent Cajun tune. You can imagine Doug Kershaw doing a great fiddle rendition on it.

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.

Carroll: We got back the first test pressing and played it for some folks at Bill and Taffy’s house. Jack Boyle, who owned the Cellar Door, said, “It doesn’t sound like a vocal group; it sounds like a guitar group.” I knew we were going back in and cutting it.

Danoff: Phil Ramone came in and lightened it up. He had bass player Russell George and the drummer Jimmy Young give it a bounce. I laid the words right into their groove, into that pocket.

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 (who died in 2013): 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.

Okun: Phil was tremendous. He had good ideas and got sounds that were so right.

Danoff: He came up with that iconic sound, between “skyrockets in flight” and “afternoon delight.” We brought in a Moog synth expert, but that didn’t work. So Phil told Danny Pendleton: “Why don’t you try something?” Danny made that sound, and Phil told him to drag it out. Danny had his pedal steel running through a couple of effects, and it was like: Yes! It was so cool. It had nothing to do with skyrockets, but it was just an interesting, original sound.

Ramone: That was a nice touch of musicality. Knowing that the pedal steel will do this big glissando every time just before the words “afternoon delight” — it’s part of what music writers call the hook. It’s kind of the id.

George: They had this wonderful song, but we didn’t know it until we heard it in its finality. We didn’t know what tune we were playing; we were just reading symbols off the page. They put the vocals down later. The first time I heard “Afternoon Delight” in its complete form was when I got the record at home. I damn near [wet] myself. Honest to god, I got chills.

Hughes: This band, when they performed, they delivered such a feeling of fun and exuberance. And that vocal blend — you could tell that these four were friends, they loved what they had together. The idea that you could take baked brie with almonds and turn it into “skyrockets in flight” — that’s the best kind of alchemy there is. People absolutely loved that song.

George: I did this three-week tour in 1976 with John Denver and Starland. It was the only high-level tour I did; I didn’t want to leave the big bucks of the studio. We played at hockey rinks around the country, on a revolving stage. We did a few tunes, and when we came to “Afternoon Delight,” the damn audience just went crazy. They loved it. It was a very, very strong tune.

Nivert: Bill wrote his best, we sang our best, and they were either going to like it or not like it.

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Gerald Alston, Manhattans frontman: It was one of those songs where everything just fell in place. You didn’t have to listen to it two or three times; once you heard the lyrics and instrumentation, it captured you right away. You knew the meaning as soon as you heard the hook. It was a great song about making love.

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.

Carroll: I was 18. I knew what the song was, and I liked singing the song. But I wasn’t a seasoned enough adult to be able to appreciate the more contextualized, glib aspects of it — as far as what it meant to have this very sweet-sounding pop group play a really playful song that, in essence, is about a nooner. Which is great.

“Cousin Brucie” Morrow, legendary radio jock: It was sort of a fluke No. 1. 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?

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.

Danoff: We played at Oral Roberts University, and after the show, two students escorted us around the campus. They said: “You know, there was quite a controversy about whether we should have you perform that song.” They had a meeting and took a vote and the majority said yes. God! I mean, this wasn’t really a philosophical statement. It was a fun little song. I was sorry I caused them grief.

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.

Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band joins D.C. tourists and natives in an a capella rendition of "Afternoon Delight." (Video: The Washington Post)

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 paintbrush at the radio.”

Morrow: 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.

Nivert: Maybe we should have been called the Anomaly Vocal Band.

Okun: For me, the thing that defines the song is the fugue. Most of the time, the group sings together in harmony. The fugue in the back end of the record is where each one goes on his own path, sort of following. One does the melody, and four bars later, someone else comes in — and four bars later, the third person comes in. It’s a very tough thing to teach, but they were willing to do a hard thing. They were really musical. I wish they had more success than they eventually had.

Nivert: Of course you think it’s the beginning of something. There was no reason not to believe that. But there was never any real focus on building us as an act.

Hughes: They won the Grammy for best new artist, but I think it was a case of maybe too much too soon.

Carroll: Bill was petrified at the Grammys. We had won for new artist and vocal arrangement; there were two that we didn’t win. The only one left was song of the year. They announced Bill’s name, and I looked at him and said, “That’s you, man, that’s you!” Sweat’s trickling down his face, and he can’t even turn his head. He’s saying: “I don’t want it.” He didn’t want to go up there by himself. Turns out Bruce Johnston won it, for “I Write the Songs.”

Ramone: “Afternoon Delight” had such a spirit to it. It was such a great pop side. But 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.

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.

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.

Carroll: “PCU” was the first time I realized: “Oh no, this is going to be part of the cultural canon in this way. It’s always going to be used in a ridiculous context.” That juxtaposition — having a party with George Clinton while all the people who were trying to keep that from happening were locked in an office, listening to repeat plays of “Afternoon Delight” — I think it’s really funny. If I made any money off that song, I would think it was even funnier.

Danoff: One of my favorites is “Starsky & Hutch.” I can’t really describe it, but it involves a videotape of Will Ferrell in prison. It’s really bizarre. Maybe it’s on YouTube or something.

Carroll: That one was good. But “Anchorman” is the reason so many kids know the song.

Adam McKay, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” writer-director: We were on set, and Paul Rudd and Will started talking about rehearsing “Afternoon Delight” with [Steve] Carell and David Koechner. They thought it would be a great thing to sing on talk shows and in other promotional appearances. I said: “Forget that, I’m going to have you do it in the movie. I know the perfect scene, where Ron is revealing to the guys that he’s in love with Veronica Corningstone.” We brought in a music coach to work with them on the harmonies, and I just assumed they’d been working on it. It turns out they’d only done it once. Will flat-out told me: “We can’t do this, we’re not ready.” But the first take they did, they were amazing. The crew applauded when they were done.

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.

Carroll: The dead giveaway is when somebody’s singing it and “skyrockets” comes, and they go: “Beooooooooowwwwwww!” Okay, “Anchorman.” That was great.

McKay: I think it’s that perfect blending of sweet, poppy bubble-gum music with the fact that they’re singing about getting it on during the daytime. It’s titillating, it’s sweet — and at the same time, it’s a little bit creepy. I remember hearing that song when I was 8 years old in the back seat of the car, riding around with my parents. It wasn’t until five years later when I was like: Heyyyy, wait a minute! 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. It’s one of my favorite things in the movie. It’s a really funny idea.

Danoff: I don’t mind being satirized. If I wasn’t a songwriter, I would have been a comedy writer.

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. And when we did the Funny or Die tour, there were college students coming to the shows dressed as the news team, and they were singing “Afternoon Delight.”

NivertIt’s a fuzzy little animal that has a life of its own. “Glee” 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.” It’s the song people love to love — and love to hate.

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, by a group from Amsterdam that did a killer club version of it.

Jim Henke, former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator: On the one hand, “Afternoon Delight” is a punching bag. On the other hand, it’s a song people still go back to. I think it’s a good pop song; it had a very catchy melody and catchy lyrics. Plus, the use of the “afternoon delight” idea — they’re basically singing about sex but covering it up, and that’s very rock-and-roll. But some people hate it.

Danoff: I [taught] 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 No. 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 No. 1. 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.

Ramone: I didn’t think it was corny or cheesy at all. It’s not “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” okay? But I get teased about it, because of some of the so-called serious records that I made.

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.


Bill Danoff continues to write songs. He still lives in Northwest Washington, where he opened — and then closed — a neighborhood restaurant called the Starland Cafe. His son, Owen, was a contestant on “The Voice” in 2016

Taffy Nivert is writing nonfiction and, she says, “napping, chewing, taking up space.”

Jon Carroll performs with Mary Chapin Carpenter and others. He also records as a solo artist and has been voted musician of the year multiple times by the Washington Area Music Association. 

Margot Chapman continues to write songs and occasionally collaborates with her old bandmate, Nivert.