Tom Whitlock, ‘Top Gun’ ‘Danger Zone’ Lyricist, Dead at 68
Born in Springfield, Mo., Whitlock began playing music at an early age. He’d bounce around bands in his teen years, performing local gigs and dabbling in songwriting. After a single semester in college, he dropped out and moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of landing a record deal. One didn’t materialize, so he went back to school to study music theory. A later trip to L.A. resulted in the record deal he was hoping for, but things stalled after that.
A chance encounter at a Los Angeles recording studio introduced Whitlock to Giorgio Moroder, the famed Italian composer who, by this point, was already an Academy Award winner and successful record producer. Moroder was complaining about the brakes on his Ferrari and Whitlock offered to fix them. The experience sparked a friendship, and Whitlock soon found himself employed at Moroder's studio.
Whitlock was working on odd jobs as Moroder crafted the soundtracks to such classic ‘80s films as Scarface, Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop. When the Italian composer moved on to his next project, Top Gun, he invited Whitlock to contribute lyrics.
“Giorgio needed a lyricist and there I was ... minimal talent but maximal proximity!” Whitlock later joked during a 2018 interview with Rediscover the ‘80s.
Watch Kenny Loggins' 'Danger Zone' Video
Whitlock and Moroder co-wrote five songs for Top Gun, including the soundtrack’s two biggest hits. With “Danger Zone,” the lyricist looked to capture the adrenaline rush of fighter jets taking flight.
“‘Danger Zone’ came from the track that Giorgio cooked up for the opening carrier deck scenes. I wrote the lyrics and Joe Pizzulo sang the demo and they flew it against those opening scenes and it worked. In retrospect, I may have been a bit too clever (or obvious) with all of the allusions but it was fun nevertheless,” Whitlock admitted. The track was eventually given to Kenny Loggins, who proved to be the perfect singer for the song. “He's masterful in how he uses his voice and extremely adept at recording.”
“Danger Zone” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains intrinsically tied to Top Gun. Meanwhile, another of Whitlock’s songs for the film, "Take My Breath Away," became a huge hit for Berlin.
“I wrote the lyrics driving home from the studio and then spent a few hours at home that night polishing it off,” Whitlock recalled, adding that Moroder was familiar with the new wave group after previously contributing to their 1984 album, Love Life. "Take My Breath Away" reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and later won Whitlock and Moroder an Academy Award for Best Song.
Watch Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' Video
“The best songs that I’ve ever written, I feel like I’m merely the channel,” Whitlock explained in a TV interview. “I mean, if I had not believed every word of ‘Take My Breath Away’ I don’t think it would have spoken to as many people as it did.”
Even though Whitlock’s contributions to the Top Gun soundtrack rank as his most popular songs, they’re far from his only successful releases. Across his long career, Whitlock crafted more than 100 songs, recorded by Graham Nash, Bonnie Tyler, Michael McDonald, Ray Charles, Diana Ross and Roger Daltrey, among many others. Sammy Hagar’s single “Winner Takes It All” from the 1987 film Over the Top was another Whitlock and Moroder creation. The duo also co-wrote the official theme songs for both the 1988 Summer Olympics ("Hand In Hand") and the 1990 FIFA World Cup ("To Be Number One").