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.
The entire idea of pop stardom is supposed to be all about excitement — about flash and charisma and general show-business razzmatazz. But all through pop history, plenty of people have become stars without bringing any of that. Richard Marx is one example: A smart and good-looking young guy who made hit songs that sounded like they were built to become hold music for banks. If Marx had come along a decade earlier, he could’ve taken the Christopher Cross spot before Christopher Cross showed up. Instead, Marx blew up by making an even-more-defanged take on the corporate rock that bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon had been cranking out a few years earlier. Richard Marx was right on top of that adult-contemporary zeitgeist. He made exactly the music that America’s waiting rooms needed.
And Richard Marx really did blow up. “Hold On To The Nights,” the cheating-hearts ballad that first took Marx to #1, was only Marx’s fourth single, but by the time he released it, a Richard Marx #1 hit was practically an inevitability. Marx’s first three singles had all charted very high, and his self-titled debut was on its way to triple-platinum status. Richard Marx was on a run.
Richard Marx was born into the music business. His father Dick Marx had started out as a jazz pianist before becoming a phenomenally successful writer of ad jingles. The “double your pleasure” Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum earworm was one of Dick Marx’s. Later on, when his son was already famous, Dick Marx would score the 1992 movie A League Of Their Own. (I am trying so, so hard to restrain myself from making a juvenile and obvious joke about how “Dick Marx” sounds like a reason to go see a doctor. When Richard Marx was born, the #1 song in America was the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back.”)
As a kid in Chicago, Richard Marx would sing on some of his father’s jingles, and then he’d start writing his own songs, sending out demos to stars and record labels. One of those demos found its way to Lionel Richie, who was impressed at what he heard from this 18-year-old kid. Richie invited Marx out to Los Angeles. There, Marx found work as a studio musician, singing backing vocals on Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” and playing keyboards on Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love For You.” Pretty soon, Marx also became a working songwriter; people like Kenny Rogers and Chicago recorded his songs.
But Richard Marx wanted to be a star, and the industry didn’t take him seriously. Marx has said that every big label rejected him and that songwriting partners like David Foster told him to give up on the idea of becoming an artist. (This was obviously absurd. Richard Marx had a fantastic mullet, and hair like that was too good to remain behind the scenes.) Eventually, Marx found himself a deal with Manhattan Records, and he was just 23 when he released his self-titled debut. Marx’s debut single “Don’t Mean Nothing” is a soft-rock snarl about how fake everyone in the music business is: “This race is for rats, it can turn you upside down/ Ain’t no one you can count on in this sleazy little town.” Marx was already jaded by the time he showed up to the dance.
To an outsider, though, it looks like Richard Marx got a real red-carpet treatment. Marx co-produced his self-titled album with Bob Seger collaborator David Cole. Joe Walsh played guitar on “Don’t Mean Nothing,” and fellow ex-Eagles Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit sang backup on it. “Don’t Mean Nothing” became a big fat hit, too, peaking at #3. (It’s a 2.) Marx also got to #3 with his follow-up, the slick and airless soft-rock chug “Should’ve Known Better.” (That one is a 4.) After that, Marx came out with the genuinely pleasant sax-tootle reverie “Endless Summer Nights,” which for my money is the real winner from that first Marx album. “Endless Summer Nights” made it up to #2. (It’s a 6.) Richard Marx had started out big, and he’d gotten bigger with every successive single.
Maybe someone figured out that Richard Marx made more sense as a balladeer than as a toothless rocker, or maybe everyone was just releasing ballads in the late ’80s anyway. “Hold On To The Nights,” the fourth and final single from that first Marx album, is, if anything, even softer than “Endless Summer Nights.” For most of the song, it’s just Marx crooning vaguely sleazy heartache stuff over delicate synth-chimes and faraway echoes of the type of blues-guitar diddles that I associate with the Lethal Weapon score. Even when the song builds, it doesn’t really build; it just adds some session-musician bass-murmurs and processed quasi-hair-metal guitar stuff. The drums don’t even come crashing in until four minutes into this five-minute song. I can’t really call “Hold On To The Nights” a power ballad. That would imply that it has some power. “Hold On To The Nights” is more of a middle-management ballad.
On “Hold On To The Nights,” you can hear why the label heads of the late ’80s were skeptical of the idea that Richard Marx could be a pop star rather than a songwriter for hire. Marx doesn’t have a ton of presence on the song, and his voice isn’t exactly athletic. Marx was not going to attempt any Whitney Houston runs or Steve Winwood blues-bellows, which is probably what those label people wanted. Instead, Marx makes those limitations work to his advantage. He sings in a perfectly sturdy smoky-bar half-rasp, and the lack of theatrics makes the song feel more direct and honest.
A song like “Hold On To The Nights” really needs a little directness. Marx’s narrator is in a sneaking-around situation, which apparently took him by surprise and which he sings about in extravagant terms: “I saw you smile, and my mind could not erase the beauty of your face/ Just for a while, won’t you let me shelter you?” (To use a line as grandiloquent as “let me shelter you,” you have to have a really luxurious mullet.)
Marx and this other person are very into each other — it’s a “love that is real, but in disguise” — but they’re both involved with other people. Marx is all anguished, and he doesn’t know what to do: “What happens now? Do we break another rule? Let our lovers play the fool?” His solution is just to let the moment be what it is, to hold on to the night and the memories. If you think about it hard enough, this starts to look like a pretty slick way to avoid anything resembling commitment but to still appear sensitive while doing it. “If only I could give you more,” Marx laments. Poor guy.
Talking to Songfacts years later, Marx said that he didn’t write “Hold On To The Nights” about his own experiences and that he almost never wrote his doomed-romance songs about himself. He says “Hold On For The Night” came from the story of a guy he once knew; they lost touch, so Marx doesn’t know if the cheating couple went for it or if they just decided to hold on to the memories. Marx’s story actually checks out. By the time Marx released “Hold On To The Night,” he was dating Cynthia Rhodes, an actor who’d been in movies like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing. (Rhodes had been in Marx’s “Don’t Mean Nothing” video, and she’d also played Rosanna in Toto’s “Rosanna” video. “Rosanna” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) Marx and Rhodes got married in 1989, and they stayed together for 25 years.
Richard Marx was a young phenom, and young phenoms don’t always stick around. But Richard Marx did, at least for a while. When Marx hit, he kept on writing songs for other people, and plenty of those songs became big hits, too. Early in 1989, for instance, two ’70s hard rock veterans, Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander and Heart’s Ann Wilson, had a hit with some serious Richard Marx soft rock. Marx co-wrote “Surrender To Me,” Zander and Wilson’s syrupy duet from the soundtrack of the movie Tequila Sunrise. (“Surrender To Me” peaked at #6. It’s a 4.) These days, Marx is famous for being outspoken and funny and responsive on Twitter, and yesterday, he answered a question about “Surrender To Me” from Number Ones reader Steve Bunin.
But Richard Marx didn’t give away all his hits. He’ll appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a truly charming Richard Marx joining the singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson onstage at a 2014 show to sing “Hold On To The Nights”:
And here’s the studio version of “Hold On To The Nights” that Matt Nathanson released in 2019:
(Matt Nathanson’s highest-charting single, the 2011 Sugarland collaboration “Run,” peaked at #53.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Def Leppard’s joyously horny nerf-metal anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” a song that can make a strip club feel like a stadium and vice versa, peaked at #2 behind “Hold On To The Nights.” It’s like a bomb, baby, come one get it on, and it’s a 10.