TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Debuted in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending Saturday, July 22, 1978.
SONGWRITER: Lionel Richie.
PRODUCERS: James Anthony Carmichael, Commodores.
BACKSTORY: It is music industry lore that a hit has a thousand fathers, while a miss is an orphan. So it’s no surprise that there are many tales told about “Three Times A Lady,” the Commodores’ first Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 and, to that date, their most successful single around the world. It spent five weeks at the peak of the British charts, for example – three more than it enjoyed on top at home.
The most familiar story is that Lionel was inspired to write it by his parents’ wedding anniversary (their 35th or 37th, depending on the source). “My father stood up and gave this wonderful speech about how he had been around my mother and spent years of ups and downs,” the singer/songwriter told TV host Dick Clark years ago, “and [how] he’s probably never taken the time to say, ‘Thank you, Alberta, for all the years that you’ve spent with me and struggled with me,’ and I said, ‘My goodness, I’m in the same situation.’”
On another occasion, a stage manager for the Commodores, Rudy Rotunno, was with Lionel and wife Brenda after the band’s performance for television’s Midnight Special. The star sat down at a practice piano in a dim hallway outside the studio. “He began playing ‘Three Times A Lady,’” recalled Rotunno to Richie biographer Roberta Plutzik. “He didn’t have all the lyrics, but he had the mood. We got chills down our spines. ‘I’m still working on it, what do you think?’ he asked us. You could tell by the way everything and everybody stopped to listen that he had a winner there.”
Lionel’s fellow Commodore, Thomas McClary, remembered specifically when the group recorded “Three Times A Lady,” offering insights in his autobiography (written with Ardre Orie), Rock and Soul, and recalling that it took them three days to get the right feel for the basic track. “Lionel sang the lead, Walter [Orange] was on drums, while Ronald [LaPread] and I played bass. Technically, we were playing the notes, but [James Anthony] Carmichael insisted on discovering the feel. He knew what he was looking for and wasn’t satisfied until he had it. Today, I would describe it as an aura.” Carmichael pushed the Commodores to be great, “and insisted that the music be powerful and compelling.”
On that score, there’s no arguing with “Three Times A Lady.” It was one of eight tracks on the Commodores’ Natural High album, together with four others co-written by Richie. The LP was released May 10, 1978, and “Three Times…” followed as a single June 8. Before the end of July, it was in the Top 10 and by mid-August, it was Number One, dislodging the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” Even when Frankie Valli’s “Grease” oiled the Commodores’ downward path, “Lady” lodged at No. 2 for four weeks – and spent another two weeks in the Top 10. This was, indeed, a spine-chilling result.
REMAKES: Lionel Richie’s songs for the Commodores have generated scores of different interpretations, and the singer/songwriter has had fun with them himself, turning “Hello” into a TV commercial, for instance (for more on that, read here). “Three Times A Lady” has been remade by more than 40 artists, including four country singers: Nate Harvell, Bill Anderson, Conway Twitty and Kenny Rogers. Twitty’s version went Top 10 on the Billboard country charts in 1984. Outside America, two middle-of-the-road British acts, Des O’Connor and the Brotherhood of Man, recorded the song. Back home, Johnny Mathis did the same, while Isaac Hayes turned it into one of his trademark marathons on his Lifetime Thing LP in 1981. At eight minutes-plus, that remake almost lived up to the album’s title.
FOOTNOTE: Given its popularity, “Three Times A Lady” was a shoo-in for Grammy® nominations when the time came. But the competition for Song of the Year in 1978 was tough, including Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” In that category, Lionel ultimately lost out to Joel. In the category for Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Duo/Group, “Three Times A Lady” was up against recordings by Earth Wind & Fire, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Steely Dan, and the Bee Gees (who won). At the same Grammy® ceremonies, the Commodores’ Natural High competed in Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo/Group against nominations for A Taste of Honey, the O’Jays, a duetting Diana Ross & Michael Jackson, and Earth Wind & Fire (who won).