The Number Ones

August 12, 1989

The Number Ones: Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

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.

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Richard Marx has a lot of hits. He has too many hits, honestly. Marx’s first seven singles all made the top five on the Billboard Hot 100. He released three consecutive chart-toppers. For the better part of a decade, Marx was able to consistently crank out top-10 singles. But whenever Marx gets into online beefs with Republican politicians these days — something that he does often, with glee — Twitter randoms come out of the woodwork to call him a one-hit wonder. These people are wrong, just as they’re wrong about so many things. But we all know which one hit they’re talking about.

On the surface, there’s nothing hugely distinctive about “Right Here Waiting,” the one Richard Marx hit that towers over all others. It’s a fairly standard lovelorn ballad that fits squarely into the late-’80s/early-’90s adult-contempo zone. But there’s something about the sad-eyed simplicity of “Right Here Waiting” that has endured. More than any of Marx’s other hits — more than most other hits of its era, honestly — “Right Here Waiting” remains in rotation on places where people need music that can comfortably be ignored. I hear that song in supermarkets a lot.

In a lot of ways, “Right Here Waiting” is the song that defines Richard Marx. If you close your eyes and imagine peak-era Richard Marx, with the puffed-out mullet and the delicate bone structure and the jean jacket, then you probably picture him singing “Right Here Waiting.” But “Right Here Waiting” is also a song that Marx had to be convinced to record. He didn’t want to do it. It seemed too specific, too close to his heart.

Early in 1989, Richard Marx married the actor and singer Cynthia Rhodes, who’d been in movies like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing and who’d also been a singer for Animotion. (Rhodes sang on Animotion’s 1988 single “Room To Move,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 6.) Rhodes sang backup on Marx’s #1 hit “Satisfied,” but while Marx was working on his sophomore album Repeat Offender, Rhodes left to shoot a movie in South Africa. The only post-Dirty Dancing film on Rhodes’ IMDB is something called Curse Of The Crystal Eye, which came out in 1991 and which I’ve never heard of. I guess that’s what she was making.

In any case, Marx was miserable without Rhodes. He wanted to go visit her at the shoot, and when his visa application didn’t go through, Marx sat down at the guitarist Bruce Gaitsch’s house and spent 15 minutes writing a song about how he felt. Marx thought the song was too private and personal to record himself, so he offered it to Barbra Streisand, who’d asked him for a song. On The Talk years later, Marx said that Streisand called him and told him that she liked the song but that he’d need to rewrite the lyrics: “I’m not gonna be right here waiting for anyone.”

Somewhere in there, Marx’s people convinced him that he should record “Right Here Waiting” himself. As with his other #1 hits, Marx co-produced the song with David Cole. “Right Here Waiting” is very much of its moment — that keyboard tone could’ve only existed in 1989 — but it’s also a lot more restrained than most of the other hits of that era. Only three musicians play on “Right Here Waiting”: Marx, Gaitsch, and keyboardist CJ Vanston. There are no drums on “Right Here Waiting” beyond a whispery click-track, and everything on the song, from the piano line to Gaitsch’s melodramatic classical-guitar solo, echoes Marx’s central chorus melody. “Right Here Waiting” never builds up to a screamy conclusion. Instead, it simmers softly throughout, and by the time it’s over, that melody is fully embedded inside your brain.

“Right Here Waiting” is a frustrated love song. Marx sings about his devotion to this other person, but he spends more time and energy singing about how much he’s going through without this person. He’s not sure if he can keep this thing going: “If I see you next to never, how can we say forever?” But he also reaffirms, again and again, that he’ll be right here waiting for her. He wonders how they can survive this romance, but in the end, if he’s with her, he’ll take the chance.

“Right Here Waiting” is, simply put, not my kind of song. Soft-rock balladry, Richard Marx’s specialty, is the kind of thing that I’ve snorted at for most of my life. I prefer my ballads to be histrionic howlers. Brooding songs are fine, but “Right Here Waiting” is really more of a pout than a brood. I don’t relate to it much, either; the romantic travails of a rich touring musician and an actor shooting a movie on location don’t exactly fill my heart with sympathy. But “Right Here Waiting” has an elemental simplicity that draws me in, almost despite myself. It’s got a remarkably solid construction, and Marx, in his own understated way, sells the hell out of its insular little drama. I can’t bring myself to love “Right Here Waiting,” but I definitely don’t hate it, either.

“Right Here Waiting” was Richard Marx at his apex. The single went platinum, and the Repeat Offender album knocked Prince’s Batman album out of #1 and eventually went quadruple platinum. The song’s success was frustrating for Marx in some ways; he thought of himself as more rocker than balladeer. (He was wrong.) “Right Here Waiting” would also turn out to be Marx’s last #1 hit, though he made it into the top 10 plenty more times. Soon afterwards, for instance, Marx reached #4 with “Angelia.” (It’s a 5.) Two more singles from Repeat Offender didn’t crack the top 10, but they came close. “Too Late To Say Goodbye” peaked at #12, and “Children Of The Night” at #13.

Marx never came close to that Repeat Offender level again, but his next two albums still did business. 1991’s Rush Street and 1994’s Paid Vacation both went platinum, and both of them launched top-10 hits. (1991’s “Hazard” peaked at #9. It’s a 5. 1994’s “Now And Forever” peaked at #7. It’s a 3.) Even after Marx faded from the pop charts, he kept cranking out his own records, and he also kept writing songs for other artists. Sometimes, those songs were hits. In 2000, for instance, Marx wrote and produced *NSYNC’s #5 hit “This I Promise You.” (It’s a 4; here is Marx’s story about working on the song. *NSYNC will eventually appear in this column.)

Marx worked with his friend Luther Vandross a bunch of times over the years, and the two of them won a Song Of The Year Grammy for co-writing Vandross’ 2003 single “Dance With My Father,” which peaked at #38. At that year’s Grammys, Vandross, near the end of his life, was too sick to attend, so Céline Dion sang “Dance With My Father” while Marx played piano behind her. It would’ve been a nice moment, but the production somehow got all fucked up. (Dion will eventually appear in this column.)

Over the years, Marx has also worked with people like Josh Groban, Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and Toni Braxton. He’s still doing that stuff and making his own records, but these days, he’s almost certainly better-known for being charming and self-aware on Twitter. In the past few months, Marx has published a memoir, and Rand Paul has accused Marx of inciting violent attack against him, a goofy little news episode that can’t have been bad for book sales. Marx and Cynthia Rhodes broke up in 2014, after 25 years together. A year and a half later, Marx married the former VJ Daisy Fuentes. Richard Marx won’t appear in this column again, but he’s still out there living his best life. I like very little of the man’s music, but I wish him well.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the R&B cover of “Right Here Waiting” that Monica and 112 released in 1999:

(Monica will eventually appear in this column. 112 will be in the column, too, as featured guests. As lead artists, 112’s highest-charting single is 2001’s “Peaches & Cream,” which peaked at #4. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s fan-made footage of Richard Marx and his friend Hugh Jackman singing “Right Here Waiting” together at a Chicago sports bar in 2009:

(Hugh Jackman being buds with Richard Marx is pretty charming. Jackman’s highest-charting single is 2018’s “The Greatest Show,” which he recorded in collaboration with pretty much the whole Greatest Showman cast. It peaked at #88.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2018 episode of The Good Place where “Right Here Waiting” comes on after a demon from hell asks for his assistant to play “something deeply terrible, to inspire us”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: A couple of months ago, Richard Marx and Matt Heafy, frontman of the Orlando metal band Trivium, teamed up for a heavy version of “Right Here Waiting.” Here it is:

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