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Richard Marx recalls emotional story behind co-writing 'Dance with My Father' with Luther Vandross

17 August 2021, 15:55 | Updated: 24 August 2021, 14:30

By Tom Eames

Richard Marx may be one of the most underrated singer-songwriters of his generation. Not only has he had a hugely successful solo career, but he has written or sung for some of the biggest artists of all time.

The 'Right Here Waiting' singer is back with a new autobiography and accompanying album titled Stories To Tell, where he shares a ridiculous amount of fascinating, hilarious and heartwarming stories from his life and career in music.

During his career, Richard has worked with the likes of Kenny Rogers, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Madonna and many more.

In fact, as a teenager he got his start when Lionel Richie offered him a foot in the door, singing backing vocals on hits like 'All Night Long', and before he knew it he was writing for the Commodores legend.

Speaking exclusively to Smooth's Jenni Falconer, Richard opened up about how generous Lionel was back in the early '80s.

Watch the full interview above.

"I had put together four or five of my best songs, and recorded them," Richard said. "They were pretty decent band demos. And that tape – it was a cassette tape – went from a friend of mine, to a friend of his, to a guy he knew, to a guy he knew, who worked at the time with the Commodores, and they gave it to Lionel Richie.

"I don’t know why. I still to this day don’t know why. Neither does he. Neither does Lionel. Because he got tapes all the time. Other than Michael Jackson, he was the biggest star in music in 1980 or whatever it was.

"He listened to my tape, and liked it. My phone number was written on the back of the cassette in pencil, and he called the number at my parents’ house. He talked to me for, I don’t know, 20 minutes or 25 minutes. He was so encouraging and complimentary.

"I was going into my senior year of high school at that point, and he said, 'I don’t want your parents to kill me, to dissuade you from going to college, but you’ve really got the goods, man. You should just come out to LA and get to work, and just see what you can accomplish.'

"And so a year later, I was out of high school. I’d moved to LA, and he gave me a job singing background vocals on his first solo album. And I was singing on hits like 'You Are'. And then I did the second album, too. So I sang on 'All Night Long' and 'Running with the Night'.

He added: "I just can’t stress enough how his graciousness and kindness changed the trajectory of my life to this day. I feel really lucky that we’re still friends. Every once in a while, I just text him, and I go, 'Have I thanked you lately for my career?'.

Richard also opened up about his friendship with Luther Vandross. The pair co-wrote Luther's iconic 'Dance with My Father', which won him a Grammy a year before his death.

Richard Marx in 2018
Richard Marx in 2018. Picture: Getty

At the 2004 Grammys, Richard played piano on the song, while Celine Dion stepped in for Luther, who was too ill to perform.

"I met Luther in the early ‘90s at an American Music Awards show backstage. I was a big fan of his, and he was really sweet to me. It was a little mutual admiration society backstage for a minute. And we exchanged phone numbers.

"You know how sometimes you just hit it off with somebody immediately? You just feel like, 'Oh, this is a person I’m going to hang out with'? We started talking on the phone. We were both touring.

Read more: The Story of... 'Dance with My Father'

"So we found ourselves calling each other at night after our shows, just to get to know each other, and hang out on the phone. And we just became pals. And then a few months later, we were both off the road, and he came to my house. We just developed a friendship over time.

"We didn’t work together that much in the first couple of years. He sang background vocals on a couple of my records, which was amazing. He offered to do that, so I took him up on that. He sang on 'Keep Coming Back' and some other tracks.

"But then a year or two later, he asked me to write a song with him. He did a Christmas album – his first and only Christmas album. So we wrote the single from that. It was called 'Every Year, Every Christmas'. And it was so easy to write songs together because I wrote music, and he wrote lyrics. He was capable of writing it all, as I am. But it was just an easy fit."

Speaking about writing the song, he said: "And then in 2003, he rang me up one day. He said: 'I’ve got an idea for a song, and only you can write it for me. And it’s called ‘Dance with My Father’.' All he had was the title.

"He told me kind of what he wanted it to be about. I went off and wrote some music, and sent it to him. He loved it. He had so many lyrics. My original melody was not a lot of notes. There were longer notes. To hear Luther’s voice hold a note was just heaven.

"So he said, 'Look, I’ve got to just break these verses up a little bit, because I’ve got a lot to say. There’s too many words.'

"And so he changed the verse melody a little bit, but it was, again, effortless. And he went into the studio and recorded it 10 days before he had the stroke that ultimately took him from us. It was the last song he ever recorded, and I think the last song he ever wrote.

"Luther really felt like 'Dance with My Father' would be a hit. But more importantly, he said, 'This is the most important song of my life. This is my 'Piano Man'. This is my signature song. This is what I’m going to sing for the rest of my life. This is how I’m going to be associated'.”

Read more: The incredible moment Celine Dion supported Luther Vandross with emotional performance at Grammy Awards

"And I think had he lived, it still would have been the same situation. Because it really has touched so many people."

Richard added: "I obviously have bittersweet emotions about the whole thing. We won the Grammy for Song of the Year, and he lived to see that. I would say not a week goes by where someone doesn’t mention that song to me, and how much they love it, and how much it means to them.

"And so I’m really grateful that we wrote the song together, and that it was so successful. But as long as it’s been, I miss him. He was one of my best friends. I miss him every day."