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.
Diana Ross was done with Motown. As the leader of the Supremes, Ross had been one of the people most responsible for turning Motown into a cultural force in the mid-’60s. Years later, Ross was still on top. Collaborating with Chic on 1980’s Diana, she’d made the biggest-selling solo album of her career, and she’d scored a #1 hit in “Upside Down.” Shortly thereafter, Ross jumped ship, parting ways with Motown after a 20-year tenure on the label. RCA Records had offered Ross a $20 million contract — at the time, the biggest in history — and Berry Gordy had told Ross that Motown couldn’t match it. So Ross was gone. But two months after she signed with RCA, Ross ended up making another single for Motown. For years, that last Motown single would be the biggest in the label’s history.
Lionel Richie was still in the Commodores when he wrote “Endless Love.” Richie’s drippy ballads had been massively successful for that group; “Three Times A Lady” and “Still” had both hit #1. Richie had also written and produced “Lady,” a #1 hit for Kenny Rogers. If you wanted a grand and gooey love ballad in 1981, Lionel Richie was the person you called. That’s what Franco Zeffirelli did.
Zeffirelli, the Italian director, was making a movie out of Endless Love, a Scott Spencer novel about desperate teenage romance and sexual obsession. Zeffirelli met with Richie and asked Richie to write him an instrumental theme. Richie agreed. (A cover of the instrumental theme for a previous Zeffirelli film, Henry Mancini’s version of Nino Rota’s “Love Theme From Romeo And Juliet,” had been a #1 hit in 1969.) Later on, Zeffirelli changed his mind, asking Richie to write lyrics to that theme. And he told Richie that the theme might be better if it had a female singer — someone like Diana Ross.
While Richie was writing and rewriting that movie theme, RCA and Motown came to an agreement. Ross could record “Endless Love” with Richie, but it wouldn’t be easy. Ross was touring, and Richie was in Los Angeles. The two of them had to record the song at a late-night session in Reno, after Ross had played a show there. The session started at 3AM and went for a few hours. Ross and Richie didn’t really get along. Ross wanted to sing Richie’s part, and Richie didn’t like the idea of the song being a duet. Commodores guitarist Thomas McClary played on the song, even though he knew Richie was on his way out of the band. Everything about the session sounds awkward as hell. But they made the song, and the song exploded.
The Endless Love movie was a minor box office success and a critical bomb. Scott Spencer, the writer whose novel was being adapted, hated it. These days, Endless Love is mostly only remembered for being Tom Cruise’s film debut, and he doesn’t have a big role in it. (The main stars are Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt.) But Ross and Richie’s song became the biggest duet in Billboard history, a distinction that it still holds today. The song topped the R&B and adult contemporary charts, and it held down the #1 spot on the Hot 100 for an utterly ridiculous nine weeks. This thing was a phenomenon.
Listening to “Endless Love” today, that’s all a bit baffling. It’s always fun to hear big stars singing together, and Richie had proven that there was already plenty of early-’80s appetite for dramatic piano tinkles and breathily intoned pledges of romantic fealty. But by Richie’s own standards, “Endless Love” is a limp piece of work. Richie and Ross can both sing, and you can tell that they recorded the song in the same room, but there’s not a lot of on-record chemistry there. The lyrics are total piffle: “I’ll hold you close in my arms/ I can’t resist your charms,” that kind of thing. The big string-based crescendos arrive exactly when you’d expect. The melody itself barely lingers.
Endless Love is, at least judging by the trailer and the frankly ridiculous Wikipedia plot summary, a movie about conflict. This guy burns his girlfriend’s house down! He inadvertently causes her father’s death! Her mother tries to seduce him! You don’t get any of that from the song. The song just exists in a neverending bliss-haze, which is not a very interesting place to be. In 1981, though, people were into Air Supply. Maybe people just wanted romantic gloop, and it didn’t even matter if it was good romantic gloop.
Richie and Ross sang “Endless Love” together onstage only once — at the 1982 Oscars, where it was nominated for Best Original Song. (It lost to a song that will appear in this column very soon.) Ross recorded a solo version of “Endless Love” for her first RCA album, and Motown kept putting “Endless Love” on the Diana Ross greatest-hits albums that the label kept churning out. Richie has said that he wants to sing the song with Ross onstage again, but she hasn’t gone for it.
Amazingly, “Endless Love” would turn out to be the last time Diana Ross topped the Hot 100 — the end of a 17-year run of #1 hits. She only scored a few more top-10 hits after that. (The last of those was the 1984 Marvin Gaye elegy “Missing You,” another song that Lionel Richie wrote. It peaked at #10, and it’s a 6.) She eventually returned to Motown, but only in the mid-’80s, after Gordy had sold the label.
Pretty quickly, Ross eased into an elder-statesman role, basking in the glow of her own accomplishments. In the years since 1981, Diana Ross has sung a Super Bowl National Anthem and played a Super Bowl Halftime Show. She’s gotten the Presidential Medal Of Freedom from Barack Obama, and she’s bobbled Lil Kim’s boob at the VMAs. She has not, however, made more hits. Unless you count “We Are The World” — another Lionel Richie collab — Diana Ross will not appear in this column again. But Lionel Richie sure will.
BONUS BEATS: “Endless Love” became a big hit again in 1994, when Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey recorded a cover of it for Vandross’ Songs album. That version peaked at #2. (It’s a 5, elevated a couple of points through sheer vocal firepower.) Here’s the video:
(That “Endless Love” cover is Luther Vandross’ highest-charting single. But Mariah Carey will eventually appear in this column a whole mess of times.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow singing “Endless Love” together on a 1996 episode of Friends:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit in the 1996 movie Happy Gilmore where a Zamboni driver lip-syncs “Endless Love”:
(Adam Sandler has never had a top-10 hit. His highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Lionel Richie recorded another version of “Endless Love” with Shania Twain in 2012. Here’s their genuinely charming video for it:
(Shania Twain’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “You’re Still The One,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Juice Newton’s sticky, energetic country-pop ramble “Queen Of Hearts” — a cover of a Hank DeVito-written song that Dave Edmunds first recorded in 1979 — peaked at #2 behind “Endless Love.” It’s an 8.