How Kenny Loggins Became The King of ’80s Movie Soundtracks

Most musicians would be content to shape the sound of pop in one decade—like how Elvis Presley shook up the ’50s or The Beatles owned the ’60s. But not Kenny Loggins. After helping to invent the supremely chill, lightly funky sound known as “yacht rock” in the ’70s, Loggins went full speed into the ’80s and took the highway to the danger zone of movie soundtracks. The gambit paid off in a big way.

Between 1980 and 1988, Loggins scored four top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100—all of them from movie soundtracks. The three films he’s most closely associated with—Caddyshack, Footloose, and Top Gun—rank among the decade’s most iconic and beloved movies. (Two have even been rebooted in the 21st century.) Loggins’s songs weren’t just popular because the movies were huge; his music helped to make these blockbusters what they were.

Kenny Loggins

If the yacht is a-rocking, Kenny Loggins is probably playing. / Michael Putland/GettyImages

Born in Everett, Washington, on January 7, 1948, Loggins moved around with his family throughout his childhood before settling in Alhambra, California. He developed an early love for music, and in the late ’60s, the budding singer-songwriter played with the bands Gator Creek and Second Helping. (Check out the latter’s garage-punk ripper “Let Me In.”) Loggins later began writing songs for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and eventually linked up with guitarist Jim Messina—previously of Poco and Buffalo Springfield—to form the duo Loggins and Messina. 

Loggins and Messina released six albums between 1971 and 1976 and notched three top 20 hits, including 1972’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” a No. 4 smash hit later covered by ’80s hair-metal heroes Poison. The pair split up in 1976 and Loggins soon found success on his own. “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend,’” his 1978 duet with Stevie Nicks, reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, while 1979’s gloriously yachty “This Is It” narrowly missed the top 10. (He also co-wrote the 1979 Doobie Brothers triumph “What a Fool Believes,” the mother of all yacht-rock songs.) Little did Loggins know he was about to have his life changed by a gopher puppet.

Another thing Loggins did in the ’70s was write “I Believe In Love,” which appeared on the soundtrack for the 1976 film version of A Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. That film was produced by Jon Peters, who began working on a golf comedy called Caddyshack around 1980. Peters asked Loggins if he’d write a song for the film, and Loggins agreed to watch a rough cut. Even though the movie didn’t yet feature the wily gopher that would memorably torment Bill Murray’s character, Loggins loved it. “I laughed my ass off,” he told American Songwriter.

Loggins was tasked with writing a song for the opening scene, where the film’s protagonist, the teenage caddy Danny (Michael O’Keefe), rides through the suburbs on his bicycle. As a placeholder, the director stuck in Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a choice that Loggins found interesting. “From that, I got the idea they wanted to portray [Danny] as a bit of a rebel, even though he had not yet achieved that particular character,” Loggins said. That led Loggins to write “I’m Alright,” which features the chorus: “I’m alright / Nobody worry ’bout me / Why you got to give me a fight?” He was trying to get into the character’s psychology.

“I thought that the angle that the director was using was cross-grained,” Loggins said. “This really banal opening scene with an edgier piece of music. That worked totally well. If I could nail that, then it would have a bigger appeal.”

Loggins’s instincts were right on the money. “I’m Alright” became the biggest solo hit of the musician’s career to date, reaching No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. Caddyshack fared well at the box office, earning $40 million, and Loggins rightfully saw the whole thing as a positive experience. He wanted more of that sweet movie action.

A few years later, Loggins agreed to help another friend who was making a movie. This time, the buddy was Dean Pitchford, who had co-authored “Don’t Fight It,” Loggins’s hit 1982 duet with Steve Perry of Journey. Pitchford was writing a screenplay inspired by the town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, which had outlawed dancing in 1898. When local teens finally compelled the school board to overturn the rule in 1980, the story made headlines around the world. Pitchford came up with a great title, Footloose, and enlisted Loggins to help him write the title song.

The pair worked in Lake Tahoe, where Loggins was recuperating from a broken rib and getting ready for a tour around Asia. They finished “Footloose” in a single night, with both men kicking in lyrics. After Pitchford came up with “Ooh-we, Marie / Shake it, shake it for me,” Loggins contributed “Woah, Milo.” So was born the cheeseball pseudo-rockabilly earworm that plays over the opening credits of Footloose. Audiences ate it up. The movie hauled in $80 million at the box office, and the soundtrack—which also includes the Loggins tune “I’m Free (Heaven Helps the Man)”—became a genuine phenomenon. 

“Footloose” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and MTV played the music video—featuring plenty of footage of Kevin Bacon dancing—around the clock. “It cemented the movie and the music—one infuses the other,” Loggins said in an interview with the Library of Congress. “You can’t hear the song today and not see that scene in your head.” The soundtrack also yielded another No. 1 hit in Deniece Williams’s “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” The album spent 10 weeks atop the Billboard 200. 

MTV certainly played a role in the success of Footloose. The network was at the height of its cultural influence, and it was redefining how pop music was used in film and television. But Loggins believes there’s another reason for the enduring popularity of the story, which spawned a 1998 musical and a 2011 big-screen reboot. “The film is about personal freedom,” Loggins said [PDF]. “It speaks to that freedom, to the young, to that ’rebel without a cause’ and teens against the system which, you know, goes back to Elvis. The film—and the song—speaks to that element, the willingness to take anything on. It’s a universal theme.”

The last of Loggins’s colossal ’80s film hits came with a song for which he didn’t earn writing credit. In the lead-up to the release of 1986’s Top Gun—a Reagan-era action drama about a bunch of hotshot U.S. Navy pilots with cool nicknames—Loggins was among the many rockers invited to attend a screening and submit songs for the movie. Loggins figured everyone would try to come up with something for the flashy opening sequence, so instead, he focused on the scene where Tom Cruise and company play volleyball. 

Again, Loggins had the right idea. His “Playing with the Boys” was selected for the soundtrack, and while he was recording the song, he got a call from Giorgio Moroder, the producer and songwriter known for pioneering electronic music in the ’70s through his work with Donna Summer. Moroder was doing his own Top Gun track, the guitar-driven pop-rock scorcher “Danger Zone,” and he needed someone to sing the thing pronto. 

Several other artists—including Toto, Starship, and REO Speedwagon—had been considered for the song. But their lawyers evidently couldn’t close the deal, and that left Loggins to swoop into the studio and record his vocals in a single day. He drew inspiration from one of the all-time greats. “I was into Tina Turner a lot in her comeback era,” Loggins said “‘Danger Zone’ was me doing Tina.”

Loggins also claims to have written some of the lyrics and changed some of the chords, but he says Moroder was reluctant to grant him writing credit for reasons having to do with Oscar eligibility. (Tom Whitlock is also credited as a writer on “Danger Zone.”) So Loggins took a piece of the publishing instead. This likely proved lucrative.

Top Gun surpassed $180 million at the box office and “Danger Zone”—again, aided by an MTV-friendly music video—peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The soundtrack, which also included Berlin’s chart-topping “Take My Breath Away,” soared to No. 1 on the Billboard 200. While “Take My Breath Away” was technically the bigger hit, “Danger Zone” has arguably enjoyed more staying power. Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited 2022 sequel starring Tom Cruise, features “Danger Zone” right in the opening sequence.

Kenny Loggins

Kenny Loggins re-entered the danger zone on the ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ red carpet. / Kevin Winter/GettyImages

The trifecta of “I’m Alright,” “Footloose,” and “Danger Zone” established Loggins as the “king of ‘80s movie soundtracks,” a title he has come to embrace. As an encore, he proved his worth by notching two more hits associated with total box-office flops. “Meet Me Halfway,” from 1987’s much-maligned Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling flick Over the Top, reached No. 11 on the Hot 100, while the following year’s “Nobody’s Fool,” from the ill-fated Caddyshack II, crept inside the Top 10, reaching No. 8.

By the early ’90s, Loggins’s hit-making days had come to an end. But he’s continued making music into the new century. In 2021, he also released At the Movies, a special vinyl-only collection of his soundtrack hits, complete with a new version of “Playing with the Boys,” recorded with Australian artist Butterfly Boucher. 

In an interview on the red carpet for Top Gun: Maverick, Loggins spoke about why modern movie soundtracks don’t pack the same punch they did in the ’80s, when he was flying higher than an F-14 Tomcat.

“It’s partly because we’ve been inundated with pop music in movies, to the point where it’s not as different,” Loggins said. “When we first did it, it was different. Movies weren’t really using a lot of rock ’n’ roll. It made it special, and it made the movie identity as a teen or 20-something movie.”

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