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Songwriter Spotlight: Richard Marx

Chart-topping solo artist goes behind the scenes to write hits for Keith Urban, Kenny Rogers and Jennifer Nettles

July 16, 2014 2:35 PM ET
Richard Marx
Richard Marx
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Richard Marx dominated pop radio during the late Eighties and early Nineties, sending his first seven singles — including "Should've Known Better, "Endless Summer Nights" and the mother of all piano-propelled power ballads, "Right Here Waiting" — to the Top 5 of the Billboard charts. Years before he released his debut album, though, the Chicago native paid the bills as a songwriter for heavyweights like Kenny Rogers, who took two of Marx's songs to Number One in 1984. Marx, only 19 years old at the time, was too young to legally accept the drinks Rogers bought him in celebration.

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"I could certainly fake it," he says of his early songwriting days. "I hadn't done enough living to write songs that were void of tremendous clichés, but I'd listened to enough songs and I'd had enough fantasy — and maybe a little heartbreak, too — to get by."

Marx grew up with commercial music — literally. His father, the late Dick Marx, was a jazz musician who launched his own jingle company in the 1960s, writing music for Kellogg's Raisin Bran, Nestle Crunch and Doublemint Gum. His jingles were concise and catchy, often delivering their hooks in five seconds or less. Richard, who started singing on those commercials as a pre-teen, learned the tricks of his dad's trade at an early age, becoming a studio vet while most of his classmates were busy fielding ground balls at Little League practice. By the time he kicked off his solo career in 1987, he'd grown into a melody-driven songwriter, too.

Like many Eighties stars, Marx's solo career took off like a Top Gun fighter jet, cruised at maximum altitude for several years and eventually plummeted earthward, driven toward the dirt by the advent of grunge (and, later, teen-pop). A good hook is a good hook in any genre, though, and Marx preserved his career by going back to the very thing that launched it: songwriting. As the 20th century gave way to the 2000s, he penned chart-topping hits for 'N Sync and Josh Groban, won a Grammy Award with Luther Vandross's "Dance With My Father" and cemented a long, successful relationship with country music.

Marx, who released a new album, Beautiful Goodbye, last week, recently talked with Rolling Stone Country about the stories behind his more twangy hits.

Keith Urban, "Better Life" (Marx, Urban)
"Keith was making the Be Here album and was getting a little burnt out, so he came to my house in Chicago over a Super Bowl weekend, just to get away. I don't think we were even intending to write. We ate food and watched the Super Bowl, and then we wandered down to my studio, where there's guitars everywhere. I have a ganjo, which is a guitar strung like a banjo. Keith picked it up and started playing this riff, and next thing I knew, I was singing this melody. We wrote 'Better Life' that day. We drove around in my car and wrote the lyrics. I think it's still tied as his biggest hit. It spent six weeks at Number One or something."

Kenny Rogers, "Crazy" (Marx, Rogers)
"I'd done some background vocals for Lionel Richie on his first solo album, and he recommended me as a background singer to Kenny. During the recording session on the first day, I overheard Kenny telling his producer that they were still short a song or two, and he described what he felt he needed. That night, when I went home, I wrote 'Crazy' in my apartment. I came back the next day, and I hadn't recorded the song, so I did something that really should've gotten me fired. It really wasn't cool! What I did was go up to Kenny and say, 'Hey, I heard what you said yesterday, and I'm a songwriter, and I wrote this song, and I'd love you to hear it.' To Kenny's credit and kindness, rather than calling security to have me escorted out, he said, 'OK, let's hear it.' We went into this room and I sat at the piano and I played it for him, and he loved it. He asked to change two words, and took co-writer [credit], which we joke about to this day, and he said, 'I'm gonna cut this song.' I was so thrilled! At that time, Kenny was still swinging a bat, you know? He was still selling millions of records. It was huge for me. My first cut was a Number One country song. I think I was 19."

Keith Urban, "Long Hot Summer" (Marx, Urban)
"Writing music with Keith is the most effortless thing. We come up with all these parts: background parts, chants, guitar riffs, even bass lines. Writing lyrics with Keith, on the other hand, is one of the most painful things ever. There's always a moment — and I'm sure he's feeling the same way — where I'm willing to kill myself and him in a suicide-murder pact. Before we started writing 'Long Hot Summer,' the [2010 Tennessee] floods happened. Keith called me and said he was gonna have to borrow a guitar, because all his stuff was still stuck in a warehouse. We met up at a rehearsal space in Nashville. I can't quite remember who started played that riff, but immediately, I started thinking it was a country version of 'Message in a Bottle.' It had that sort of vibe to it. I started singing the verse melody, and the chorus came really quickly. We didn't have the verse lyrics, though, and we didn't have the bridge. About a week later, Keith came to Chicago on tour. He was opening for the Eagles at the football stadium. I came out, and we got on his tour bus and wrote the lyrics to the verses. Joe Walsh, who played the guitar solo on my first single ever, came on the bus to say hi to me — and to this day, Keith and I say that Joe sprinkled some hit fairy dust on 'Long Hot Summer,' just by being in the bus with it. We couldn't get the bridge, though, because Keith had to go do the show. A while later, I was on tour in Brazil, doing a show in Rio. I had a little bit of time in the afternoon, so I sat down and wrote the song's bridge. I just sang it into my laptop and sent it to him, and he said, 'Done! We're done! This song is done! I'm cutting it tomorrow.' And that was it. We wrote it in Nashville, Chicago and Brazil."

Jennifer Nettles, "Know You Wanna Know" (Nettles, Marx)
"We were set up by Sara Bareilles, who said, 'You two not only need to write together; you need to know each other.' She knew that Jennifer and I were gonna get along. We wrote four songs over two days at her house in Nashville. 'Know You Wanna Know' is my least favorite of the four, but she absolutely loved it. She kept saying, 'This is the song I need for this album.' The tempo of that album is mid-tempo to slow, so she really needed a barn-burner. ['Know You Wanna Know'] is basically a ditty. I just started playing some blues on the acoustic guitar, and the melody started to shape. She jumped into it and said, 'You know, this song should be about gossip, about people talking too much.' And then it was really fun, because we were writing about a very specific topic. Writing with Jennifer is a blast because everything she sings sounds like a hit record. She's just got an insane voice. The work tapes of us writing songs that week at her house are filled with record-quality vocals. Even before the vocals were finished, everything she sang was stellar."

Vince Gill, "Someday" (Gill, Marx)
"[Vince] has been such a great friend to me, especially since my divorce. He sang background vocals on one of my records years ago, and whenever I'd come to Nashville to work or record, we'd always try to go get breakfast or something. On one trip, he said, 'When are you coming back? Why don't we pencil in a day and try to write a song or two?' So I went over to his house and we wrote 'Someday' really quickly. I loved the recording of that song. I thought the string arrangement was amazing. His solo was amazing, as usual. I wish it had been a bigger hit. It really lends itself well to that pop-opera, Josh Groban, Il Divo-ish kind of vibe. As recorded by Vince, it's a country song, but the melody and the lyric is so classical. I'm going to try and do a new demo of it and record it in a more classical-crossover kind of way. I bet you we'll get somebody to record it."

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