The Starland Vocal Band performing Afternoon Delight at Clydes. (Ellsworth Davis/TWP/Ellsworth…)
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 popularHollywood 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.