An ’80s-’90s pop rock hit machine is way more than meets the eye, though there’s a lot there, too.
Picture this: A cute dimple-faced, 5-year-old Richard Marx, stands tall in the family living room, eagerly singing some of the oh-so memorable advertising jingles his jazz musician/jingle writing father Dick Marx has just composed, maybe it’s the one he did for Doublemint Gum, Dial Soap or Raisin Bran among others. And there’s little Richard, absorbing and enveloping his father’s uncanny knack for writing memorable music.
Fast forward over 45 years or so, and a still-cute yet clearly grown-up Richard Marx sits up on a pretty high pedestal as one of popular music’s most prolific and successful songwriters, not only penning multiple hit songs for himself, but also for a myriad of music’s biggest names. Does Marx believe that his parents’ unique musical talent and interests, and moments like that one in the living room as a boy, helped him to become one of the most sought-after songwriters around?
“Yeah sure, absolutely, I can’t imagine it didn’t,” Marx, 51, told me recently from New York City. “My Dad had this knack for memorable melodies. He didn’t write any of the lyrics to those jingles, those were all written by the advertising agencies, but he wrote all the really catchy tunes that went with them, that made you remember them. It wasn’t premeditated, that was just something that was in his blood. He found that he had the talent. My mother, on the other hand, is an incredible singer to this day at 79. So yeah, I think whatever talent I have as a singer I certainly inherited from her and much of the same with my Dad and songwriting. And when I write songs, instead of them being these very esoteric, complicated songs, I just instinctively write melodies that I guess tend to be memorable. And I love that.”
Memorable for sure, but surprisingly profound might be an even better description of Marx’ illustrious career. He first burst onto the music scene in 1987 with his self-titled debut album and very quickly dominated the pop charts (he’s the first solo artist to have his first seven singles hit the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart) and has maintained a successful solo career even decades later, selling over 30 million records worldwide. He’s also toured with Ringo Starr in the Beatle’s All-Starr Band and has even dabbled in acting. And closest to his heart is the release of his 11th studio album, Beautiful Goodbye, earlier this year. His “Whatever We Started” tour hits the Birchmere on November 3rd.
But it’s his songwriting and producing prowess for other artists that has gained him possibly an even bigger reputation than his record-breaking solo work. We’re talking collaborations with some truly big names like N’Sync (on “This I Promise You”), Luther Vandross (on his tear-inducing “Dance with My Father” that won two Grammys including Song Of The Year), Keith Urban (on his 2010 chart-topper “Long Hot Summer”) and many other industry giants. In fact, Marx admits that his first solo hit “Right Here Waiting” was originally written for Barbra Streisand but she turned it down. But his talent would eventually win out and he would later write two songs that appeared on Streisand’s 2002 album Duets. Given this string of ongoing success, Marx has the unique and impressive distinction of having a song he wrote or co-wrote top the charts in four different decades — no small feat to be sure.
At different times in the past, Marx has actually reached out to some of his favorite artists to collaborate, but the biggest success he’s had seems to be when artists have approached him. “I’ve found that over the years, there have been a few people that I have courted, people that I’ve made a point to try to get with and write with and work with, but I’ve found that [with those people], either it hasn’t happened at all or it just wasn’t fun or hasn’t been successful,” he said. “Every single hit or experience that’s been really great for me was them coming to me. So I stopped pursuing people. I just let whatever comes to me, I generally say yes to.”
Saying “yes” to many different artists means he hasn’t had to pigeonhole himself into a particular genre. Instead, he’s been able to spread the wealth across many different musical landscapes, with success at almost every turn.
“Josh Groban’s first hit, oh 10 or 12 years ago, that was called ‘To Where You Are,'” Marx recalled, ” and that song was more steeped in classical music which I had never really dabbled in, but I knew enough about it that I could compose a song that fit his genre. Working with Barbara Streisand was incredible, I’ve gotten to work with her several times. As blessed as I’ve been in my performing and artist career, it’s probably tenfold when it comes to the people that I’ve collaborated with. I mean, some of these people were my heroes. When I was a teenager, my vocal hero was Kenny Loggins, and also Steve Perry. Now, Kenny Loggins and I are not only great friends but I’ve produced with him, written many songs and performed with him. It’s just amazing, it’s really cool.”
Successful collaborations aside, Marx was very excited to be able to get back into the studio and do his own thing again, and the result is something he takes great pride in.
“I missed being in the studio and making a new album,” Marx said.” Then I got an idea for a whole new concept for one, and the writing came pretty easily from there. I loved making this record. I’m really proud of it. I love that the reaction’s been so great to it. I love collaborating with other people, but I also love just sitting in a room and writing a new song by myself.”
Marx clearly has a gift some people just might not be aware of, and he hasn’t lost that spark, that magic, that thing that enables artists to write great songs. Yet, he admits he’s still surprised that it all comes so easily, and always has.
“I’ve never lost the excitement for writing, you know, and making and creating new music,” Marx said. “I mean, it’s still this mysterious, euphoric thrill. I don’t know how many songs I’ve written at this point — probably in the thousands — but every time I write a new song that I love, I’m mystified by it, I don’t know how it happened. But I’ve never become jaded by it.”
Richard Marx performs November 3, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.