In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It wasn’t a planned moment, but Lionel Richie, Sr. felt like he had to say something. The elder Richie was at his 37th wedding anniversary celebration, and he got up in front of everyone and said that he’d never really thanked his wife for all the years that she’d spent with him. According to Lionel’s son Lionel Jr., the elder Lionel said this in a speech about his wife: “She’s a great lady, she’s a great mother, and she’s a great friend.”
Listening to his father, the younger Lionel realized something. Lionel had been married to his own wife, his former college sweetheart, for three years, and he’d never told her anything like that, either. So he wrote a song for his wife and, at the same time, for his mother. That, in any case, is the origin story that Lionel Richie tells for “Three Times A Lady.” Richie wasn’t quite sure what to do with this soft and sensitive waltz that he’d written; he figured maybe he’d give it to Frank Sinatra. Instead, the song proved to be the biggest-ever hit for Richie’s funk band, and it served as the breakthrough moment for one of the biggest pop stars of the next decade.
Richie was probably right when he thought that “Three Times A Lady” wasn’t really a Commodores song. Richie’s band had come up playing slick, high-stepping party-funk. Richie had already written hit ballads for them, but they were still soul ballads. “Three Times A Lady” was something else. Producer James Carmichael convinced Richie that he should give “Three Times A Lady” to the Commodores, and the song elevated both Richie and his band to a whole new level.
Richie wasn’t even the Commodores’ frontman in the beginning. Richie grew up in Alabama, and he went to Tuskegee University on a tennis scholarship. During Richie’s freshman year, his friend Thomas McClary invited him to join a campus R&B group called the Mystics. Richie didn’t really know how to play saxophone, which is what McClary wanted him to do, but he joined up anyway and did his best. The Mystics eventually fused with the Jays, another on-campus group, and they became the Commodores in 1968.
The first Commodores frontman was a guy named James Ingram — not the famous one. Ingram left the band to serve in Vietnam, and Clyde Orange and Richie took over as co-leaders. The Commodores took off pretty quickly. The rest of the band had to convince Richie’s parents to let him travel, but pretty soon, the Commodores were signed to Atlantic. Starting in 1971, they spent two straight years opening for the Jackson 5, and they moved over to Motown. And then the hits started arriving.
The Commodores’ first Motown single was a hard, adrenaline-charged funk instrumental called “Machine Gun” that peaked at #22 in 1974. But the group truly broke through when Richie started writing them tender ballads. The Commodores’ first top-10 single, 1976’s “Sweet Love,” was a slow, romantic jam that Richie wrote and sang for them. (It peaked at #5, and it’s a 6.) Richie followed that one up with a couple of other smash ballads, 1976’s “Just To Be Close To You” (peaked at #7, a 7) and 1977’s immortal “Easy” (peaked at #4, an 8). In fact, the only huge Commodores hit that wasn’t a Lionel Richie ballad was 1977s “Brick House,” a flirty and ridiculously entertaining funk banger with a lead vocal from Clyde Orange. (“Brick House” peaked at #5; it’s a 9.)
Even given all that, it makes sense that Richie didn’t hear “Three Times A Lady” as a Commodores song. “Sweet Love,” “Just To Be Close To You,” and “Easy” are all recognizably soul songs. They have a lot to do with the Philadelphia International music of the early ’70s, and they build on that classic soul tension between lush orchestration and sweaty gospel roots. “Three Times A Lady,” on the other hand, is a smooth, airless adult-contempo jam. Richie sings it simply and declaratively, in an almost conversational style. He doesn’t push the song, the way he’d done with those previous hits. He croons it, and he lets you sit with that sentiment.
The sentiment is a lot. The ’70s, like every other era of pop music in history, had plenty of love songs. But a lot of the big ’70s love songs were about breakups, or about missing someone who isn’t there, or about making amends for some kind of past rupture. “Three Times A Lady” is not that. There’s some suggestion that it’s also about the end of a relationship; Richie sings that “we’ve come to the end of our rainbow.” But judging by the rest of the song, he’s just talking about a pot of gold. Mostly, he’s talking about how happy he is. “If I had to live my life over again, dear,” he sings, “I’d spend each and every moment with you.”
It’s almost uncomfortable, in the way that it’s almost uncomfortable when one of your friends falls in love and won’t stop talking about it. If you’re looking for it, you can hear a soft melancholy in Richie’s voice. But you can also hear a kind of narcotized bliss. There are no specifics in the lyrics; he never mentions any of the little lyrical details that can bring a song like this to life. Instead, it’s just pure, distilled romantic gloop.
It’s good romantic gloop, though. Richie grew up with classical and country, as well as R&B, and you can hear both things at work on “Three Times A Lady.” The classical is in the rich, pastoral instrumentation. The country is in the plainspoken, calm way that Richie sings everything. (A few years later, Conway Twitty would have a big country hit with a faithful cover of the song.) As “Three Times A Lady” reaches its conclusion, we get a bit of a crescendo, with the other Commodores adding some Philly soul layers in their backing vocals. But this is a down-the-middle soft-rock monster.
There’s a real confidence to “Three Times A Lady.” The hook is huge. It’s one of those melodies that seems like it’s always existed — like it just had to be plucked out of the air. And Richie sings it with an almost eerie level of stillness. The song indulges in all the most treacly impulses of the era’s worst pop music, and you can definitely hear it as one more piece of airy nothingness. If you’re not in the right mood, it’s interminable. But for me, that stillness elevates it and turns it into something grander. Richie clearly knew what he was doing. He’ll be in this column again, both with the Commodores and on his own.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Eddie Murphy, as Buckwheat, singing “Three Times A Lady” in a classic 1981 Saturday Night Live sketch:
(Eddie Murphy’s highest-charting single is “Party All The Time,” which peaked at #2 in 1985. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s John Heard singing “Three Times A Lady” during an endless dream sequence in a 2004 episode of The Sopranos:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Chris Evans singing a pop-punk “Three Times A Lady” to Anna Farris in the 2011 movie What’s Your Number:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Four Tet chopping up a “Three Times A Lady” sample on his 2013 track “For These Times”: