Jim Steinman, auteur behind bombastic hits from Meat Loaf and Celine Dion, dies at 73

Jim Steinman in sunglasses and long hair.
Jim Steinman in 1981.
(Terry Lott / Sony Music Archive via Getty Image)

Jim Steinman, the songwriter who composed bombastic and enduring hits for Meat Loaf — including the entirety of his breakthrough 1977 album, “Bat Out of Hell” — Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply and Celine Dion, died on Monday at age 73.

His brother Bill Steinman confirmed his death to the Associated Press, telling the organization Jim died from kidney failure in Danbury, Conn., after a long illness.

 Meat Loaf pretends to bite the arm of Jim Steinman.
Jim Steinman (standing) and Meat Loaf backstage at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia on April 6, 1978.
(Ron Pownall/Getty Images)

A native of New York City, Steinman worked as a composer, record producer and lyricist, with all of his endeavors distinguished by a fevered extravagance. His music married the pomp of musical theater with the overdriven emotions of rock ‘n’ roll, a combination unveiled on “Bat Out of Hell.” Partially comprised of songs Steinman originally workshopped for a musical adaptation of “Peter Pan,” “Bat Out of Hell” became a word-of-mouth blockbuster, selling over 40 million copies worldwide on the strength of the hit singles “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night),” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

James Richard Steinman was born on Nov. 1, 1947, in Hewlett, N.Y. He was drawn to excess at an early age. “Opera and rock ‘n’ roll were very heightened and larger than life. As a boy, I would constantly go from Wagner to Little Richard,” he recalled to Paul Myers in an interview for “A Wizard, a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio.” Steinman wound up channeling these obsessions through the prism of musical theater, taking inspiration from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. During his junior year at Amherst College in 1968, he contributed music to two Brecht adaptations; “A Man’s a Man” arrived in the spring, “Baal” came in the summer. The title “Baal” also provided Steinman with the name for his protagonist in “The Dream Engine,” an original musical he staged during his senior year at Amherst.

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Years later, Steinman called “The Dream Engine” his “Citizen Kane,” an immodest claim that bore a kernel of truth. The musical contained songs that delivered hard rock at an operatic scale, an aesthetic he’d mine throughout his career. It also contained musical themes he’d rework and repurpose, a signature move of his: “Turn around, bright eyes,” a refrain popularized in Tyler’s 1983 hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” made its debut here. A violent, sexually charged counterculture manifesto, the play earned the attention of Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Papp wanted to stage “The Dream Engine” in New York, and although those plans fell through, he did commission an original production from Steinman.

Debuted in 1973, the resulting “More Than You Deserve” was where Steinman encountered Meat Loaf, the singer who proved to be his greatest interpreter. A mountain of a man with charisma to match his size, the Texan singer whose given name was Michael Lee Aday had arrived in New York by way of the Los Angeles touring company of “Hair.” Meat Loaf — known as Meat to his friends and colleagues — also hovered around the rock ‘n’ roll scene, recording the album “Stoney & Meatloaf” for the Motown offshoot Rare Earth in 1971, eventually fusing his knack for theater and rock by appearing as Eddie in the original off-Broadway production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” a role he reprised for the 1975 film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

At the time he met Meat Loaf, Steinman was working on “Neverland,” an adaptation of “Peter Pan,” but as he came to know the singer, he decided to retool its songs as a rock album for Meat. After they wrapped a stint with the National Lampoon touring company — Steinman served as the musical director in a revue that also starred John Belushi — the duo hunkered down and shaped the material for “Bat Out of Hell,” drawing inspiration from Bruce Springsteen’s cinematic “Born to Run” and its impassioned accompanying shows.

No one in the music business showed interest in Steinman and Meat Loaf, not until they caught the ear of Todd Rundgren. The pop maverick homed in on the humor at the heart of Steinman’s songs and agreed to produce the record. Half of Rundgren’s supporting band Utopia came into Bearsville Studio, with Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg of Springsteen’s E Street Band rounding out the lineup. Rundgren’s production brought Steinman’s compositions to the edge of parody, a sensibility that suited the album’s tales of adolescent abandon. Once the album was in the can, Meat Loaf and Steinman had difficulty finding a label to release it. They settled at Cleveland International Records, an offshoot of Epic Records, which issued the record in 1977, nearly a year after its recording.

Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf pose for a photo seated.
Jim Steinman, left, and Meat Loaf in March 1978.
(Michael Putland / Getty Images)

It took a while for “Bat Out of Hell” to find its audience. Meat Loaf’s dramatic live performances — Steinman called them “scripted” — helped sell the record, particularly when footage of the band in concert aired on the British program “The Old Grey Whistle Test.” The album started to sell in the U.K., and then it crossed back over to the U.S. “Bat Out of Hell” never cracked the Billboard top 10, but it never faded away, turning into a pop perennial. In the U.S., it was certified 14 times platinum; in the U.K., it remained on the charts for more than 550 weeks, a stay that rivaled Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”

The massive success of “Bat Out of Hell” joined together Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf in the public eye — it helped that Steinman had a front cover credit on the LP, a rarity for any songwriter — but their relationship was filled with feuds that frequently led to lawsuits. The first fracture arrived in the early 1980s, when Meat Loaf bowed out of a sequel to “Bat Out of Hell” after he lost his voice due to exhaustion. Steinman salvaged these sessions as 1981’s “Bad for Good,” his first and only solo album, then the pair reunited to work on “Dead Ringer,” a 1981 LP that halted Meat’s commercial momentum.

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As the hits dried up, Steinman took his songs elsewhere. Acting as a writer and producer for hire, Steinman achieved the remarkable feat of writing and producing a pair of singles that competed for the top position on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” battled each other for No. 1 during that summer, with Tyler emerging victorious. Steinman re-teamed with Tyler for “Holding Out for a Hero,” a contribution to the 1984 “Footloose” soundtrack that earned the songwriter his first Grammy nomination. Steinman spent the rest of the 1980s working with acts that allowed him to indulge his taste for excess, whether it was hard rocker Billy Squier, pop diva Barbra Streisand or British goth-rockers Sisters of Mercy. He ended the decade by assembling Pandora’s Box, an all-female group that released one album in 1989.

Steinman and Meat Loaf reunited in 1993 for “Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell,” an international blockbuster that revived the careers of Steinman and Meat Loaf thanks in large part to its hit single “I’d Do Anything for Love (but I Won’t Do That).” In its wake, the songwriter went on to work on Celine Dion’s 1996 album, “Falling Into You,” writing and producing its lead single, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a song originally recorded by Pandora’s Box in 1989. Steinman would share the Grammy Awards that “Falling Into You” won for album of the year and best pop album in 1997.

The Celine Dion album wound up as Steinman’s crowning achievement within the realm of pop. During his last decades, Steinman concentrated on musical theater, writing the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1996 musical, “Whistle Down the Wind,” and composing the ill-fated “Tanz der Vampire,” a musical adaptation of Roman Polanski’s 1967 film, “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” that had a successful launch in Austria before flopping on Broadway.

Steinman and Meat Loaf squabbled over the rights to the “Bat Out of Hell” title after the singer released “Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose” in 2006; it was the first of the “Bat” albums that did not involve Steinman in its recordings. The pair settled out of court, then reunited for Meat Loaf’s 2016 album, “Braver Than We Are.” It was Steinman’s last collection of new songs. He spent his remaining years working on “Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical,” a production that debuted at the Manchester Opera House in 2017. It opened off-Broadway in 2019 and was set to tour the U.S. in 2020, but those plans were postponed after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Steinman is survived by his brother Bill.