"Skyrockets in Flight:" Starland Vocal Band Launched from D.C.

The Starland Vocal Band in 1977, the same year they won 2 grammys for their 1976 debut album, which included the song "Afternoon Delight." (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The soundtrack of the summer of 1976 was a special one. Just after the USA celebrated its Bicentennial, one unlikely song, with its folksy style and airtight harmonization, soared past the countless disco tunes to the number 1 spot on the Billboard charts. No matter how you feel about it, “Afternoon Delight” was perhaps the perfect way to celebrate our independence. With lyrics referencing “skyrockets in flight,” the song (and the band behind it) has a very strong connection to the Nation’s Capital.  

It all started in 1974, when musicians Bill Danoff and Margot Chapman stopped at Clyde’s in Georgetown for a meal.  

As Danoff remembered, “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.”[1]

Just two years later, a record with the neat little title “Afternoon Delight” would become one of the first recorded songs, and certainly the most successful one, of Danoff and Chapman’s new band.  

Starland Vocal Band actually had its beginnings a few months after that auspicious afternoon at Clyde’s, when Bill Danoff and his then-wife, Taffy Nivert, decided to recruit a few of their friends. The couple had been performing at local venues for years, notably at the Cellar Door, under the names “Fat City” and “Bill and Taffy.” It was there that they met Fredericksburg native Jon Carroll, a high school student performing in a duo with his best friend.  

Once Bill and Taffy heard “Cotter & Carroll” play, they included them at their concerts at Constitution Hall and in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and even let them play on one of their records for RCA. After Carroll left to go to college in Florida, he got a call from the couple one morning.  

"They had still a record contract on which they owed 2 sides, which in contract language means 2 songs…So, Bill had this idea, and it was an idea he’d entertained for years at that point—that he always wanted to try out a vocal group. 

And Taffy was on the other extension in the house: ‘So you want to do a group with us?’ …‘We’re going to try to get a record deal with this, with Billy and me and you and Margot.’”[2] 

Margot Chapman (that friend from Clyde’s), also knew them from their Cellar Door days, when she was a singer in a group called “Breakfast Again.” 

Bill Danoff recalled: 

I had a couple of new songs at the time…and it just sort of came to me that a group of the four of us would work much better. Taffy and I weren’t really looking for more people, but Jon and Margot had such beautiful voices and we all got along so well. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”[3] 

Once they were all back in the D.C. area, it only seemed appropriate that their band’s name be connected to the city they loved. According to Carroll, 

We wanted it to be from Washington because we all lived here…So, Bill came up with this sort of imaginary place, ‘Starland.’ It was kind of interesting because I don’t think it had anything to do with aspirations of stardom, it had more to do with stars on a flag or something. And Starland, that was close enough to Washington, because everywhere you look in Washington there’s stuff with stars on it.”[4]

Members of Starland Vocal Band knew John Denver from the days when “Fat City” did a songwriting collaboration with him, so, Starland Vocal Band signed with his record label, Windsong, and began to tour with him. Their self-titled first album was fairly well-received—perhaps because it had a strong foundation. With the phrase “afternoon delights” that he’d borrowed from the menu at Clyde’s, Danoff worked on the song until it was perfect.  

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.”[5] 

Carroll, for one, was surprised by the song’s success at the time. “I didn’t get ‘Afternoon Delight’…there was another song on the record called ‘Hail Hail Rock and Roll’ that I sang lead on that I thought rocked. ‘Afternoon Delight’ was this cute song that didn’t rock. What I was too young to realize was that it was a brilliant song, it was a great record."[6] 

Critics gave the Starland Vocal Band, their new song and album, good reviews and glowing predictions: 

Impressive without instruments, perhaps even better with them—that’s the best way to describe the Starland Vocal Band and their very promising debut recording.”[7] -Larry Rohter, The Washington Post 

I suspect the Starland Vocal Band is going to have a lot to do with the shape of pop music over the next few years. Pretty, professional, and free of menace, they do better what [The Mamas and The Papas] did first: use their voices as voices rather than as an excuse for somebody to play guitar.”[8] -William C. Wood, The Washington Post 

The band’s rapid success even caused major TV networks to take notice. CBS signed Starland Vocal Band for a series of six half-hour shows, to be aired in the summer of 1977. At the time, Danoff said, “We don’t want to do the standard variety show… We’ve seen a lot of that, and it offers something that we’d be very afraid of personally.”[9]

To avoid the typical variety show format, they structured The Starland Vocal Band Show around visits to places they knew best— among them Georgetown University, the Cellar Door, Glen Echo Park, Great Falls, and of course, Clyde’s. They also brought in comedians Mark Russell and Proctor and Bergman, and the studio recruited a young David Letterman and Jeff Altman for regular appearances. 

It seemed that Starland Vocal Band had reached the pinnacle of musical success. They had a number one song—though wasn’t quite considered “cool,” according to Carroll:  

I was well aware of how much it got played but I was also very aware of the portion of the audience and the programming entities on various radio stations that just considered that not a cool record to play. I’ve gotta give a shout-out to WHFS…homegrown radio… they were happy as a clam to play our records.”[10] 

Anyway, cool or not, the song got a lot of airplay, and one of Carroll’s friends later told him it might have been too much airplay… 

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.”[11] 

Starland Vocal Band’s popularity ran into the next year as well, when they were nominated for several Grammys, including record of the year and song of the year for “Afternoon Delight.” The song won neither of those awards, but Starland Vocal Band walked away with a Grammy for Best New Artist and another for Best Arrangement of Vocals in 1977.[12] 

The band’s early success seemed very promising, but once their TV show aired and their second album was released, the trajectory of their skyrocketing career became less obvious. “The thing that people need to realize when you find your audience you want to keep them. We were at that point where we could’ve really found our audience,” Carroll said. 

He believes their TV show, an attempt to reach a larger audience, might actually have backfired. 

That was sort of in lieu of touring behind the second album, which we all really loved…But instead of doing those shows we ended up doing a TV show, which wasn’t a very good one and a lot of people didn’t see.”[13] 

As it turned out, the television show was a harbinger of things to come. Though the group would record a total of four albums (plus a Christmas album) during its five-year run, they never replicated the success of their initial hit. 

Taffy Nivert reflected on the unique status of “Afternoon Delight” in an interview with Patch years later:  

“Because we were a one-hit wonder, we got our name on the wall at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame…If we had another hit, that would never have happened."[14]

Along with its place in the Hall of Fame, “Afternoon Delight” has achieved a special place in American culture. The song has been featured  in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron BurgundyArrested Development, The Simpsons, Glee, and enjoyed many other onscreen nods. 

 “It's become an animal with a life of its own. I have no explanation for it,” Nivert said.[15] 

Who knew that a song about sandwiches at Clyde’s would retain such permanence in popular culture? Wait… the song is about food, right? 

Special thanks to Jim Corbley and to Jon Carroll, who was gracious enough to let us interview him for this piece.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Du Lac, J. Freedom. ‘Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight’: The story behind Starland Vocal Band’s one big hit. The Washington Post. July 10, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/07/10....
  2. ^ Carroll, Jon. Phone interview by author. August 15, 2019. 
  3. ^ Associated Press. "Area Group Up for Grammy."  The Washington Post (1974-Current File),  Jan 13, 1977. https://library.access.arlingtonva.us/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/docview/146818116?accountid=57895.
  4. ^ Carroll, Jon. Phone interview by author. August 15, 2019. 
  5. ^ Du Lac, J. Freedom. ‘Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight’: The story behind Starland Vocal Band’s one big hit. The Washington Post. July 10, 2018.
  6. ^ Carroll, Jon. Phone interview by author. August 15, 2019.
  7. ^ Rohter, Larry. "Home- Grown Talent, all Over the Map with Good Sounds: Records." The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Jan 22, 1976. https://library.access.arlingtonva.us/login?url=https://search-proquest-....
  8. ^ Woods, WILLIAM C. "Starland Delight: Recordings: Rock / Classical." The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Jul 31, 1977. https://library.access.arlingtonva.us/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.library.access.arlingtonva.us/docview/146780071?accountid=57895.  
  9. ^ Rohter, Larry. "Local Vocals Turn Prime-Time 'Troubadours': Starlaed Vocal Bank Troubadors on the Road to Prime Time." The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Jun 23, 1977.
  10. ^ Carroll, Jon. Phone interview by author. August 15, 2019.
  11. ^ Du Lac, J. Freedom. ‘Skyrockets in flight/Afternoon delight’: The story behind Starland Vocal Band’s one big hit. The Washington Post. July 10, 2018.
  12. ^ White, Jean M. "Grammy Awards: Full of Wonder."  The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Feb 21, 1977. https://library.access.arlingtonva.us/login?url=https://search-proquest-....
  13. ^ Carroll, Jon. Phone interview by author. August 15, 2019.
  14. ^ Rosenfield, Jeffrey. “Grammy Winner Taffy Nivert Settles in Safety Harbor.” Patch. February 7, 2013. https://patch.com/florida/safetyharbor/grammy-winner-taffy-nivert-settles-in-safety-harbor
  15. ^ Ibid.