Weinberg audiences right here, waiting for Richard Marx
by Nathan Oravec, Staff Writer
By now, there’s good reason that it feels like Richard Marx has been with us forever.
From his self-titled debut in 1987, which yielded the hit single, “Don’t Mean Nothing,” and subsequent mega-ballads turned radio smash hits “Hold On to the Nights” and “Right Here Waiting,” Marx rapidly ascended to international pop-stardom with his first seven singles reaching Billboard’s Top 5 an unparalleled accolade to this day.
Platinum-selling follow-ups like “Rush Street” and “Paid Vacation” contributed to Marx’s tally of more than 30 million sales, paving the way for the adult contemporary composer to become a household name.
A multiple Grammy-nominee, Marx, in 2004, ultimately claimed the coveted trophy thanks to a song penned for the late Luther Vandross, “Dance With My Father.” Collaborating with industry power players — both legendary and up-and-coming — in fact, is how the musician currently spends most days, having worked with luminaries like Natalie Cole and Keith Urban to *NSYNC, Ringo Starr and even Wolverine, himself, Hugh Jackman. It’s a legacy that stretches back to Marx’s pre-signed days as a session artist writing and singing for icons like Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers.
On Friday, Marx will bring his memorable repertoire to Frederick for the latest in an array of acoustic concerts he has staged throughout the country. He recently spoke to A&E about the new concert series, the resulting album and what makes him truly satisfied.
A&E: I read that you got your start singing jingles as a child?
Marx: That’s right. That’s the business my dad was in and he became sort of a pioneer in that industry. In the early 60s, jingles became a big part of pop culture and pop songs. He wrote and produced them … from catchy jingles for breakfast cereals to scoring industrial films for the FORD Motor Company. And, so, when they’d need a little kid to sing, sometimes it was easy just to get me to come in. And it was great for me, because I got to miss school.
A&E: Do you remember your very first? Can you call those lyrics to mind?
Marx: No, I can’t. But I think the first one was for Bell Telephone, which was prior to AT&T, so that’s how long ago it was. But then I did do some of the bigger ads like Peter Pan Peanut Butter and all of a sudden, I was doing more and more session work. Not due to nepotism, but because I [had a passion for it.]
A&E: With both parents in the business, were they your biggest influences creatively?
Marx: My dad was definitely my biggest influence. Although he never really pursued songwriting, per se. He was more of a melody guy, who wrote the tunes to the [expletive] lyrics the ad agencies would give him. And my mom, who I adore and respect as a performer, was just so happy to be behind the mic. But it really comes full-circle to my dad, who was extremely influential during that crucial time in a kids’ life when you’re 12 or 13 years old … All of my big songwriting influences were people who my dad sat me down and said, “Here, I want you to sit with me and listen to this.”
He’s the one who played Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” for me. I mean, I had been a fan of Queen and bands like that, but I never paid too much attention … until my dad sat me down and said, “Listen to this.” And my dad was super cool. He introduced me to Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” and The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
A&E: I was in my early teens in the 90s, so my first encounter with your music was probably “Right Here Waiting.” I didn’t realize that your career launched years before while working with stars like Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers.
Marx: Right. I started out as a session singer and musician when I moved to Los Angeles. It wasn’t until four years later that I released the first album, so I did a lot of session work in between. I got my real start with Lionel, singing on a bunch of his records. … And Kenny got my songwriting career going. I’ve worked with so many people from Madonna to Whitney Houston.
A&E: I recently spoke to Neal Doughty from REO Speedwagon. They were at our fair over the weekend. Before you embarked on your own world tour thanks to the self-titled first album, you opened a series of concerts for REO, is that right?
Marx: Yeah. I was fortunate enough to have two hit singles off of the first record. It came out of the box fast, thanks to “Don’t Mean Nothing” and “Should’ve Known Better.” So we were going to tour anyway, but I had an opportunity to work with REO, and I don’t know sometimes those lucky breaks just happen.
I did a whole tour with them, and I can’t say enough about those guys. [REO lead singer] Kevin Cronin and I became good friends, and still are good friends. And, Nathan, I honestly can’t say enough. If they were doing a radio interview, they would always say and I heard this with my own ears you know, “You need to come out and check out Richard Marx and his fine band.” I don’t know hardly any artists today who would be so generous. Talk about the dream tour to be on. And it was definitely a case of “pay it forward,” because it showed me that you need to treat everyone with respect. And, over the years, if an opening act would come up and thank me, I owe it all to REO.
A&E: Do you remember the moment when you thought, “I’ve made it. Everything from here on out is going to be okay?” Was it with the first album?
Marx: No, because I never really had that feeling. I tend to suffer from “Struggling Artist Syndrome,” which may have pre-dated me and my generation. Maybe it came from my father, who was enormously successful in his field, but was always [worried.] And I have that feeling, too that any minute you’re going to be washed up and not have a job.
I’m very aware of how fortunate I’ve been … but it still doesn’t change the fact that I’m always looking over my shoulder. So I’ve never given myself the chance to take a break and relax. … It never mattered if I had a No. 1 single or was just about to release a new album, I’ve always been the type to say, “Let’s work a little harder and make it just a little better.”
A&E: Getting to the acoustic project, was it the 2008 album, “Duo,” where you started to dabble with those ideas, or was it before that?
Marx: Oh, no. It was long before that. It really started 10 years ago. Throughout my career, I’ve done a fair number of charity gigs all at different levels … and I’ve been the guy who would bring his band and perform. But on occasion, I’d be like, “Look, guys, I’m always happy to bring the whole band, but you have 1,000 people in a ballroom, do we really need that kind of show?” So I’d start doing these acoustic concerts with one or two other guys every once in a while.
I started doing stuff with [Vertical Horizon frontman] Matt Scannell, who was, and still is, a good friend. And that was definitely a huge step deeper. It was the immediate precursor, I guess, to these solo shows. But it’s always been in my toolbox.
Tonight, I’m in Kentucky with a quartet, and when I come to Frederick it’s with 20 strings, and then on Friday I’m in New York and it’s me, alone. And it’s all really fun. I’m just having a blast not relying on any production whatsoever.
A&E: What has the audience reaction been like?
Marx: Pretty overwhelming. … And it depends on the venue, itself. If it’s a historic setting with comfortable seating, people think they’re settling in to see this singer/songwriter act, and then they get a few songs into the show, and they realize I’m just this total goofball. And then they’re in the party with me. And it just becomes more and more irreverent as the night goes on. It’s as if I said, “Come on over to my house, I’ll play some songs and we’ll have a beer.”
A&E: Can you tell me a little bit about the album that was released in the U.S. earlier this year, “Stories to Tell”?
Marx: It’s a case of doing the classic sort of business model backwards. I was doing these shows for the fun of doing them, and people would come up afterward and ask, “Is there anything we can get that is representative of what you’re doing here?” And I’d just sort of shrug. Then it began to get sort of ridiculous, so we put something together. It’s like the show, in that there are quite a few of the hits included, as well as some new material. But, yeah, it was totally backwards.
A&E: Is there anything you’d definitely like fans to know before coming out to the show?
Marx: No, I think the only thing we really didn’t touch on is my songwriting work with other artists. I’ve worked with a number of artists from [SHeDAISY] to The Tubes. I mean, Keith Urban and I have a Top 5 song this week. That’s what I consider my primary career. Whatever is most current is what I consider my career, and the other stuff is just fun.
A&E: Speaking of working with other stars, I did sort of take cursory note that you worked closely with Hugh Jackman on his one-man show.
Marx: We’ve been friends for a long time, and he is honestly one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known. When it comes to his singing and stage work, he tends to rely on other people to help him out. So he called me last spring and said, “Can we get together at your house and could you help me put together some songs?” And he just went off to the races from there.
He just needed someone to say, “Get up there and be yourself and people are going to love you.”
You know, he’s the consummate entertainer. He has everything going for him. If I didn’t love him so much, I’d hate his guts.
A&E: You have your work with other entertainers, the solo show, the album. What’s next?
Marx: There’s always stuff brewing. I don’t talk about it, because it can come back on you. If something doesn’t materialize, someone always says, “Well, what about that thing you were supposed to do?” So I only talk about things that are current.
The only other thing I have going on right now, is I’ve been doing music for a new NBC TV series, “The Playboy Club.” It films in Chicago, which is where I live. And every week, the show will release a new song to iTunes. So it has a definite musical component, and I’ve been collaborating with actress and singer Laura Benanti, who’s not listed as the star of the show but she really is. And it’s been such a blast. I’m such a fan of Laura’s. She’s such a great singer and an amazing actress. Whether the show’s a hit, we’ll have to wait a few weeks and see how it does. If they pick up a full order, then I’ve got more work to do.