Aug 08

THE COMMODORES – “Three Times A Lady”

FT + Popular63 comments • 4,457 views

#425, 19th August 1978

Lionel Richie pens a heartfelt tribute to the Celtic triple Goddess – maiden, mother and crone.  Well, I assume that’s what it’s about. Before I got into soul music, this is pretty much what I assumed all soul music sounded like: insipid gloop for grown-ups, to be drowsed through in the hope something better might show up. Now, of course, not only do I know that soul is a broader church than I once imagined, I also know that a lot of the stuff that does sound like “Three Times A Lady” is terrific. The great soul ballads deliver a double payload – the comfort that comes from letting a thick wave of sentiment carry you up, and the pleasure of listening more closely to hear the nuance and twist in the singer’s delivery.

“Three Times” also holds these attractions to some degree – Richie is a fine singer and commendably restrained here, and there’s some attractive swells and surges in the arrangement towards the end. But I still can’t enjoy it. Maybe I’ve just heard it too often, maybe I like my balladry more situationally grounded and “Three Times” is too abstract. Maybe I’m just cold-hearted.



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  1. 1
    Jonathan Bogart on 6 Aug 2008 #

    This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

  2. 2
    rosie on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Routine smoocher. Nothing special. Pleasant. Forgettable. Nothing much to say really.

  3. 3
    mike on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Insipid gloop just about covers it, I’m afraid. Thin to the point of laziness (why THREE TIMES, dammit?), non-specifically universal, and tailor-made for newlywed smooching (hence the initially perplexing “come to the end of our rainbow” in the first verse). Lionel Richie was capable of so much more, but sadly he’ll be back to blight us again at a later date, with something far, far worse. (Still, at least we don’t have to consider the equally gloopy “Endless Love”, so let’s be thankful for small mercies).

  4. 4
    DJ Punctum on 6 Aug 2008 #

    What was it like to be President of the Motown Corporation in 1978? The words “utterly lost” seem to come to mind too easily. Overtaken by Philly, Miami and disco, despite attempts to emulate all of these (David Ruffin’s “Walk Away From Love,” Yvonne Fair’s “It Should Have Been Me” and Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” respectively), Motown seemed out of touch and hopelessly adrift in a no-man’s-land of bland showbiz. Old reliables like Diana and Smokey weren’t exactly setting the charts on fire (La Ross had a lot of #32-type “hits” in the four-year dry spell between “Hangover” and “Upside Down”); meanwhile, the Corporation was about to sink millions into three huge loss-making projects – the movie musical The Wiz, Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. The first was of course vital for reasons unrelated to its artistic merit since it was where Michael met Quincy. The second is most assuredly a neglected, overgrown lost classic. The third – Marvin’s divorce settlement but with music and free snakes and ladders board game – is Gaye’s fourth masterpiece of the seventies, and is as pitiless and unforgiving a listen as the electrified/electrocuted Miles of Pangaea and Agharta; brilliant but it was never going to go platinum. Meanwhile, back in 1978, Teena Marie and Rick James were idle notions yet to be fully realised. The Temptations were in limbo; the Four Tops and the Jacksons (save Jermaine) long gone.

    I mention all of this to emphasise that at this point in time, the Commodores were, commercially, all that Motown had. Although previously best known as a comparatively hard-hitting funk band (the nearest Motown came to a Funkadelic or a Parliament, which was still some considerable distance away) with hits like “Machine Gun,” “The Zoo (The Human Zoo)” and “Brickhouse,” 1977’s ballad “Easy” had been a major international hit, and so the focus systematically changed in favour of the Lionel factor.

    “(Just To Be) Close To You,” the single which preceded “Three Times A Lady” in the States and which followed it up in Britain (where typically it stalled at #62), was by far the Commodores’ finest ballad; the grit was still evident and the feeling true – it’s a lost classic and readers should look it up forthwith. “Three Times A Lady,” in contrast, feels somewhat forced.

    The ballad is taken as a very slow waltz. The lyric is fairly concise; the pot of gold has been reached (or so Gordy hoped) – “And now that we’ve come to the end of our rainbow” – and the stifled sob in Richie’s voice over the extended, suspended “must” in the line “There’s something I must say out loud” as he struggles to articulate his love is, admittedly, quite touching.

    Thereafter, however, the song settles for spurious banalities. What exactly does Richie mean by proclaiming “You’re once…twice…three times a lady”? It might signify something at a dim distance, but close up implies not an awful lot of anything. It’s suspicious for triteness.

    Musically the song is happy with poignancy-by-numbers, with its major-minor shifts in the verse and the chorus, whose chord sequence seems to owe something to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” but its performance seems to shirk away from any real commitment – the real star of the record is the drummer, with his discreet tympani-like rolls at the beginning, the tripartite cymbal kiss after “end of the rainbow,” the hissing cymbal like steam being reluctantly evicted from a foreclosing kettle which announces each new verse; and the sudden surge in the instrumental break which with equal suddenness recedes again. It’s not hard to understand why “Three Times A Lady” was such a massive hit – in Britain it reached number one in its third week of release, the first Motown single to top the chart since “I’m Still Waiting” seven years previously – but in truth it might just as well have been (as “Lady,” a Richie song, would go on to prove) Kenny Rogers, and somehow I don’t think that was Motown’s point.

  5. 5
    rosie on 6 Aug 2008 #

    It’s a great pity that Soul had lost its edgy Wilson Pickett* sound by this time, and a generation was growing up thinking this was Soul.

    *Ie the Soul that the ‘grown-ups’ grew up with. Although as anybody this side of thirty knows, ‘grown up’ is an illusion. The parents of 1978 teenagers were the ones who bought into Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the early Elvis.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I can’t find much good to say about this. It is, as Rosie says, routine.

    The only time that this song has ever much impinged upon my life was in somebody else’s story. In a first year devised theatre course, radical feminist comedian Jackie Clune was telling us about how a sense of sexual otherness was not, in itself, indicative of a wider sense of a radical approach to the world for many people. To illustrate this story, she told us about spending a night in Northampton, visiting ‘Sinatra’s’, the only lesbian club in town, and being disappointed to see women slow dancing to ‘Three Times A Lady’. Poor Lionel – creator of a song so blandly functional that it was held up to be the absolute epitome of the humdrum and conventional!

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 6 Aug 2008 #

    ‘Machine Gun’, however, is as brilliant as this is bland, and it’s use at the high point of the rise and fall narrative in ‘Boogie Nights’ is one of the best uses of pop in a film that I can think of.

  8. 8
    vinylscot on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Between Tom’s post, and the above comments, I think just about everything’s been said already.

    With this song, familiarity very definitely bred contempt. At the time, I remember it as a pleasant, if rather non-descript, end-of-the-night smoocher; either a wedding song (in its entirety), or a “pulling” song (title part of chorus only); although wtf the phrase “three times a lady” actually means, who knows?

    Now, it turns my stomach.

    The Commodores were another of these bands who changed their overall style as a result of having a major hit which was slightly different from their usual offerings, “Easy” having suggested they could be a soul ballad band, as opposed to the damn good funk band they had been.

    The “Live” album, which came out the year before this, caught them just on the cusp, with several great funk performances (e.g. “Brick House”, “I Feel Sanctified”) and three big ballad performances including a stand-out version of the previously mentioned “(Just To Be) Close To You”.

    Unfortunately, they couldn’t sustain it, and Mr Richie was to leave to pursue his solo career; some sources say because the rest of the band didn’t want to be a ballad band. Although they are still going now, and there has been talk of a reunion with Richie, they never really did much of note after he left, apart from the rather splendid Marvin Gaye/Jackie Wilson tribute “Nightshift”.

  9. 9
    vinylscot on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Mildly relevant but useless factoid – back in the olden days (mid 70s I suppose), when the main chart reference book was Charlie Gillett and Simon Frith’s “Rock File” series, which only collated data from the top 20, “Machine Gun” was the only single in the “Rock File 4” book to peak at #20 and stay there for three weeks.

  10. 10
    Pete Baran on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Would that be now married with kid radical feminist Clune? I guess it would be.

    I think its interesting watching Popular now going into the phase of Tom’s actual memory and discovering the child that became the poptimist.

    Personally I find Three Times A Lady pretty inoffensive, but almost redeemed by its baffling lyric. Its no Easy by a long way though, but if there was ever a song which defined the (unpleasantly monikered) “erection section” us DJ’s occasionally refer to, it is this.

  11. 11
    lex on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I’ve never heard this song, but I want to now: the criticisms levelled at it here are exactly the same criticisms levelled at many great R&B slow jams and ballads now.

  12. 12
    Tom on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Yeah Lex, but I like all those great R&B slow jams and ballads now. This is just not a very good example, I’d find it hard to imagine anyone loving it – you’d be better off checking out “Easy” or the other one Marcello mentioned (which I will also be checking out).

  13. 13
    DJ Punctum on 6 Aug 2008 #

    um, self correction to my original post; I should have said that Secret Life Of Plants is most assuredly NOT a neglected, overgrown classic.

  14. 14
    lex on 6 Aug 2008 #

    ‘Easy’ is the one that goes “easy like Sunday morning”, yeah? I love that. Though I don’t own a copy.

    (It’s mostly boy-r&b ballads which get tarred with the generic/clichéd brush now – Usher, Lloyd, Bobby Valentino et al. Difficult because there’s such a fine line between gloop and greatness sometimes, but a lot of the latter gets dismissed v easily as the former.)

  15. 15
    Raw Patrick on 6 Aug 2008 #

    3x a lady = oral, vaginal, anal innit.

  16. 16
    DJ Punctum on 6 Aug 2008 #

    According to Wikipedia, Richie wrote it to commemorate his love for his wife, mother and daughter, hence the title.

  17. 17
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 6 Aug 2008 #

    the idea that grown-up music is by definition lamer than teen music is one of the great ideological victories of the 60s; that as we get older our tastes and perceptions become less complex and subtle, rather than more: this is surely the most counter-intuitive ideas EVER, yet we seem to have to strive mightily not to find ourselves thinking thus-and-so

    (haha in honour of my dad the professional botanist i have tried many times to “reassess” secret life of plants by coming at it via the kodwo eshun/”black science fiction” lens, for example — which worked for alice coltrane — but sadly even though the concept is obviously awesomely nuts, and there is just NOT ENOUGH MUSIC about our petalled friends, stevland j’s music is just boring)

    (lionel r’s triumph is in the field of VIDEO ART as any fule kno, but RABBITS HAVE EARS so i shall say no more)

  18. 18
    jeff w on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I’m not fussed either way about “Three Times A Lady”, but I’m glad it was successful as it only encouraged ‘the Lionel factor’ as MC puts it and soon led to a pop masterpiece (“Sail On”, in case you were wondering, h8rs).

  19. 19
    lex on 6 Aug 2008 #

    According to Wikipedia, Richie wrote it to commemorate his love for his wife, mother and daughter, hence the title.

    NICOLE RICHIE! <3 That link pretty much redeems this song I think.

  20. 20
    Matthew H on 6 Aug 2008 #


    Still, it reminds me of one of my favourite Record Mirror picture captions: “Lionel Richie: he loves his mum”

  21. 21
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I like this one! It is approx my 3rd favourite Lionel R song. I have never been at a disco where this was played for the slow dance though, so perhaps my lack of cringeworthy memories is earning it extra points…

  22. 22
    Pete Baran on 6 Aug 2008 #

    There might be an angle here to the “adult music” issue. You could call it a “happy with my life” record, or even a bit smug, but I have seen it employed successfully on a wedding dancefloor and it got the older generation misty.

    Apart from that one time when a member of the older generation actually asked me to play misty for her.

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Even back then I thought this was soppy drivel that couldn’t hold a candle to the magnificent “Easy” or “Sweet Love” (check that one out too, Tom) and sadly it’s supplanted those two as the standard end-of-disco Commodores’ smoocher.

    It seems like the moment when Richie tipped over into sappy land and “Hello” was the end result.

  24. 24
    Lena on 6 Aug 2008 #

    The song’s a lot more bearable now that I know who he’s singing it to, the title never made any sense to me before, unless he was singing it to Charlie’s Angels or something…still, “Easy” pwns this for me, as he sings the most mellow song about rejecting all known ties ever recorded.

  25. 25
    Tom on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Bunnyslap for Lee!

    The thing about “grown-ups” is that a lot of seventies soul really does strike me as adult music – not in a porny sense (though sometimes…) but in that a lot of it is about the stresses and difficulties of settlement and contentment – break-ups and make-ups in long term relationships etc.

    Do I appreciate it more now I’m an adult? I dunno, yes, but not because of that I think.

  26. 26
    Pete Baran on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Oh th other thing the Commodores remind me of is, as Mark vaguely mentions above in his Sekrit Life Of Plants shimmy, was sci-fi. Along with The Jacksons early sci-fi videos (Can You Feel It!) there was something about the name The Commodores, mixed with that 3D logo that made it seem ultra futuristic to a small me. There might be a Star Wars character with the rank of Commodore which fooled me, and of course the Commodore computers weren’t far off. Of course there was nothing remotely sci-fi about this song, unless one wants to consider it a paean to a man who has cloned his wife three times.

    (Since it isn’t going to bother us, here’s a link to that Jacksons video, which is still a stupendous sight, even if the sound effects drown out the song).

  27. 27
    LondonLee on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I have to take issue with Rosie’s comment at #5:

    It’s a great pity that Soul had lost its edgy Wilson Pickett* sound by this time, and a generation was growing up thinking this was Soul.

    Being a bit of an old soul boy meself I always get annoyed when old white rock types always hold up the sweaty Stax/Atlantic sound as “real” soul and poo-poo the softer sounds of the 70s. This is bland rubbish true, but what about The Delfonics, Harold Melvin, The O’Jay’s, The Moments, The Stylistics, Maze? Just because they were smooth as silk doesn’t mean it ain’t soul. I hate to say it but it’s an awfully Rockist attitude.

    And personally I don’t think many people thought this was “soul” anyway.

  28. 28
    LondonLee on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Oh sorry Tom, forgot where that got in the charts. Back off Bunny, I apologized!

  29. 29
    SteveM on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I suggest casual/unintentional mentions of ‘future’ #1s just be allowed (unless their chart-topping status is also mentioned) but ignored. This bunny isn’t powered by Energiser and I am afraid the lil bastad will be worn out by the time we get to it’s personal favourite in about 10 songs time.

  30. 30
    pink champale on 6 Aug 2008 #

    got to say i can’t get along with sweaty stax/atlantic soul either – there’s little that makes my heart sink more than the opening bars of
    “mustang sally” or “soul man”. though strangely my favourite motown record is “reach out i’ll be there” which is probably the closest they ever got to grunty “real soul”. anyway, gloopy is the right word for ttal which is a long way from being the the best thing lionel richie has done, let alone being a match for the glories of prime motown.

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