You might not hear the song more than once a year, but you can probably sing along to “One Shining Moment,” the heartwarming tune that plays over a montage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament moments after the champion is crowned. Composer David Barrett, 61, crafted the song in ’86 after watching Larry Bird in the NBA Finals. A friend took it to CBS, and it debuted at the Final Four the following year. The original, sung by Barrett, aired from 1987-1993 and again from 2000-02. A remake by Teddy Pendergrass aired from 1994-1999. The current version, recorded by Luther Vandross, has run since 2011 after a stretch from 2003-09. Michigan native Barrett has composed for the Olympics, U.S. Open tennis and CBS. He won an Emmy for his score of a PBS documentary on C.S. Lewis. An edited version of his conversation with B&C’s Jonathan Kuperberg follows.
How did you get into music and songwriting generally, and specifically for film and TV?
I had music ringing in my ears from a very early age. I played the organ, then piano, then guitar. The writing began as simply an outlet at first—then it grew into something I couldn’t see myself not doing. No grand design here. Looking back, it sort of scares me how naive I was. After “One Shining Moment,” all sorts of doors opened, and a lot of writing I had been doing was “discovered” to be valuable for many purposes, ranging from TV to film. A dear friend of mine always referred to my writing as cinematic, which I think helped things immensely. Because of “One Shining Moment,” other songs and compositions were seen in this light.
What’s the genesis of “One Shining Moment,” and what were your expectations?
The idea formed on a napkin after a gig. I wrote the rest in 20 minutes the next day. I had no expectations whatsoever. I never speculate on these sorts of things. I just try and write something that makes the light bulb light up. That’s it. The song arrived fully formed and all I had to do was get out of the way.
Which version is your favorite?
Each version comes from a different place. My original version with me doing the vocals was what I call the “farm boy Indiana” version. Teddy Pendergrass brought his soulfulness, as did both Luther Vandross and Jennifer Hudson. I’m honored that all of them lent their talents to my song.
Do you watch the Final Four each year? Who are you rooting for this year?
I take my family every year. It’s the coolest thing in American life—a basketball Mardi Gras, filled with wide-eyed children and adults who still retain a bit of that magic. I’m a Big Ten guy. I love Michigan and Michigan State because of their coaches. And the athletic director at Michigan State, Mark Hollis, is a prince. Michigan State, you will get there this year.
Outside of “One Shining Moment,” what song or piece are you most proud of?
I just write what seems to feel right to me. I’ve had many pieces find high-profile status, but that is just the luck of the draw. If a friend of hadn’t insisted on me recording “One Shining Moment,” it would have just been another song I thought was cool on a cassette full of other songs I sort of liked. I just finished a song based on a book, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, that I’m really pleased with. Now whether they make a film from this beautiful book, I don’t know, and whether I can somehow get it to the director is another matter. But I wrote it anyway, and I think I captured the idea pretty well.