“Modern Day Delilah”: Nashville songwriter Van Stephenson’s 1984 Top Forty AOR pop solo hit

By on August 27, 2019

In 1984, Nashville-based country songwriter Van Stephenson had solo success with a hit of his own, “Modern Day Delilah,” which was promoted with a sexy little video you can see in Night Flight’s “Take Off to Sex,” which originally aired on February 1, 1985, and you’ll now find streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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Prior to “Modern Day Delilah,” which he’d co-written with Jan Buckingham, Van Stephenson had had a lot of success as a prolific and skilled songwriter — penning hits for country artists like Crystal Gayle (his “Your Kisses Will” was a Top Ten country hit for her, #7 in 1979) — all while pursuing a solo career of his own.

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Stephenson’s “Delilah” was actually a power-pop AOR ballad about a treacherous hairstylist:

“She’s a modern day Delilah, keeps her scissors laser sharp,
Once she finds your weakness, she’ll cut you to the quick,
Stab you in the heart, she’ll love you like a lion, leave you like a lamb,
She’s a modern day Delilah, she’ll cut you if she can”

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“Modern Day Delilah” was just the latest song named for the biblical character mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Judges (she was the gal who snips off Samson’s hair while he’s sleeping after learning it’s the source of his incredible strength).

Some of the other “Delilah” songs — some of them don’t have anything to do with the Old Testament babe — were by Elvis Presley (“Hard Headed Woman”), Tom Jones (his massive 1967 hit “Delilah”), Chuck Berry (his “Beautiful Delilah” recorded by the Kinks and the Rolling Stones), Marshall Crenshaw, and many others.

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A very sexy but MTV-friendly video — directed by Mark Rezyka, who’d mostly work on heavy metal videos, which is why it featured a bevy of lingerie-clad beauties blowing bubbles and walking a leashed lion — was made to promote the first single from Stephenson’s 1984 album Righteous Anger.

The video no doubt helped the single debut at #71 before it ultimately peaked at #22, two months later, on the Billboard Hot 100.

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Read more about Van Stephenson below.

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Van Wesley Stephenson was born in Hamilton, Ohio, on November 4, 1953, but his family moved to Nashville, TN, when he was ten years old.

Stephenson grew up playing in garage rock bands, and at age seventeen he met his songwriting mentor, composer Kenny O’Dell, who’d written Charlie Rich’s 1973 hit “Behind Closed Doors.”

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Stephenson later went to seminary school and worked as a minister for several years before leaving that behind to write songs, ultimately joining Nashville’s House of Gold publishing company as a staff writer.

After the Crystal Gayle hit, Stephenson soon found himself writing hits for other major country stars, including Marty Robbins, Kenny Rogers, Dan Seals, Janie Fricke, John Anderson, Lee Greenwood, and others.

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In the early ’80s, he partnered with songwriter Dave Robbins, and together they wrote a string of hits for the country-rock band Restless Heart — who took their name from the song Stephenson co-wrote for the group — and he remained involved with them, off and on, for the rest of his career.

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Stephenson released his first solo album, China Girl, on Handshake Records in 1981.

The album’s title track was covered by John Mellancamp, and Stephenson enjoyed a minor hit with “You’ve Got a Good Love Coming” (#79).

In 1983, Stephenson began working with producer Richard Landis, Juice Newton’s producer, signing a recording contract with MCA Records.

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His second album, Righteous Anger — the cover art alludes to the Samson & Delilah story — was released in 1984.

A second hit from the album, “What the Big Girls Do,” peaked just outside the Top Forty at #45, while the album made it to #54 on the Billboard 200.

Here’s Stephenson on TV’s “American Bandstand” on June 2, 1984 (he performed “Modern Day Delilah” and “What the Big Girls Do”):

Two of Stephenson’s songs ended up on motion picture soundtracks: “Make It Glamorous” can be found on the 1984 film soundtrack to The Wild Life, and in 1985, his song “No Secrets” landed on the soundtrack to Secret Admirer.

Both songs ended up on his 1986 solo album, Suspicious Heart, but that album and it’s lead-off single, “We’re Doing Alright,” both failed to chart.

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In the early ’90s, Stephenson joined two other Nashville musician friends — his aforementioned songwriting partner Robbins (keyboards, vocals) and ex-Outlaws frontman Henry Paul (lead vocals, mandolin and guitar) — and formed a successful country-rock trio, BlackHawk.

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BlackHawk became one of the most successful country acts of the ’90s, their self-titled debut producing five Top Ten hits.

Overall, they charted with fourteen Country Top Forty hits, including “Every Once in a While” (#2, 1994), “I’m Not Strong Enough to Say No” (#2, 1995), “There You Have It,” “I Sure Can Smell the Rain,” “Down in Flames,” and “That’s Just About Right.”

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Stephenson remained with BlackHawk through most of the rest of the decade.

He also continued writing songs on the side for other artists, including co-writing Restless Heart’s #1 single “The Bluest Eyes in Texas,” as well as their other hits, “‘Til I Loved You,” “Back to the Heartbreak Kid,” “New York (Hold Her Tight),” and “Big Dreams in a Small Town.”

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In February 1999, Stephenson was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer. He underwent surgery and ended up leaving BlackHawk in early 2000 to continue battling the cancer, but died on the morning of April 8, 2001, as a result of the disease. He was 47 years old.

Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to Sex” — which also features videos by David Lee Roth, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Berlin, Helix and much, much more —on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.