Aug 08

THE COMMODORES – “Three Times A Lady”

FT + Popular65 comments • 4,915 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. 31
    SteveM on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Plenty of other fun in the charts during TTAL’s reign anyway including Cerrone’s ‘Supernature’ running with Moroder’s Italo baton, Hancock’s ‘I Thought It Was You’, Siouxsie’s debut and Jilted John! Lower down I see the marvellously named BILBO with ‘She’s Gonna Win’ falling just short of the 40.

  2. 32
    vinylscot on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Bilbo were a decent Scottish pop band, formerly known (obviously) as Bilbo Baggins, featuring perennial nearly-man Brian Spence. This was the first Bilbo single, and their only hit, although the previous single, the slightly punky “I Can Feel Mad”, by Bilbo Baggins was far superior, boasting the rather iffy lines :-

    I wanna take my sister out
    But I haven’t got one,
    My mother had to spoil it all
    I wish she would adopt one!

  3. 33
    mike on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Hear! Hear! to LondonLee at #27 for sticking up for smooth Seventies soul. Here are the first great late 1970s soul ballads to pop into my head:

    If You’re Not Back In Love By Monday – Millie Jackson
    Wishing On A Star – Rose Royce
    You Are My Starship – Norman Connors
    Love T.K.O – Teddy Pendergrass (bah, this turns out to be from 1980).

  4. 34
    DJ Punctum on 6 Aug 2008 #

    At Last I Am Free

  5. 35
    pink champale on 6 Aug 2008 #

    didn’t i blow your mind this time?

  6. 36
    SteveM on 6 Aug 2008 #

    strawberry letter 23, if that counts

  7. 37
    Pete Baran on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Oh its just hit me. The Commodores logo looks like the Blake 7 Logo. See:

    To a five year old anyway.

  8. 38
    wichita lineman on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Ha! And Three Times A Lady was as representative of that logo as the Blakes Seven cast singing Mother Of Mine. It’s much more Machine Gun, isn’t it? Futur-synth-shiny-metallic pop.

    I can’t imagine Lionel came up with it.

    “Can’t we have a rose, instead?” he (probably) simpered.

  9. 39
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 6 Aug 2008 #

    we need a full comparative semiological archeology (with DATES) of the flying shiny logo

    (i straight away thought BOSTON, though it is strictly speaking on a flying object usually — ditto osibisa)

  10. 40
    Pete Baran on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Off top of head I can think of Van Halen, ELO, Boston, maybe Journey all rocking this kind of shiny flying UFO device.

  11. 41
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 6 Aug 2008 #

    i was kinda hoping gerry anderson invented it (one more thing for him to be bitter about!) but i guess it comes from 50s sci-fi movies

    the key 70s element is the use of airbrush-as-medium to get the metallic feel

  12. 42
    DJ Punctum on 6 Aug 2008 #

    The whole ethos behind it of course comes from number one secret seventies soulboy causator Sun Ra.

  13. 43
    rosie on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Marcello @ 16:According to Wikipedia, Richie wrote it to commemorate his love for his wife, mother and daughter, hence the title.

    You mean they’re all the same person? Funky!

  14. 44
    Pete Baran on 6 Aug 2008 #

    I am pretty sure I have read a sci-fi story which has this triple whammy Oedipal twist.

  15. 45
    David Belbin on 6 Aug 2008 #

    Well, I love my smooth seventies soul, up to and including Hall and Oates, but I’m afraid, DJP, I dug out Just To Be Close To You (“a lost classic and readers should look it up forthwith”) and it’s a big hunk of cheese. As is this, tho’ it does have that slight subtextual feel (“but you’re getting on a bit so I’m about to leave you for the nannie”, that kind of thing). And Mike, Millie Jackson (who I saw twice in the 70’s, an awesome and very dirty live act) is anything but smooth, though I can see why you might put IYNBILBM in that category. Has anyone heard her last album, ‘Not For Church Folk” from 2001? I’m tempted to check it out but it’s pricey…

  16. 46
    Alan on 6 Aug 2008 #

    “a sci-fi story which has this triple whammy Oedipal twist”

    are you thinking of Heinlein’s All You Zombies where the protagonist turns out to be his own father AND MOTHER

    got no problem with this song at all. it’s uncomplex and direct, and, if you like gloopy. as if gloopy is a bad thing. more like a 6 from me.

  17. 47
    Dan M. on 7 Aug 2008 #

    Some favorite soul ballads of late 70s for me…

    Reasons by Earth Wind and Fire (preferred the studio to the live version)
    Sweet Thing – Rufus and Chaka Kahn -absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful
    You’re Still a Young Man, Tower of Power
    “Firefly” by some obscure, late version of the Temptations was nice. Not special, I guess…
    oh, and there was something great by the Isley Brothers… what was it…? From Fight the Power or the album after that. “Harvest For the World,” maybe, if that counts as ballad.

    The Commodores arc was more or less like Kool and the Gang’s, although “Jungle Boogie,” and “Hollywood Swingin'” don’t actually hold up all that well, I’ve found, they’re better than the lite-brite pop they had big hits with later. What was it, “lady’s night?”

  18. 48
    The Intl on 7 Aug 2008 #

    Awful then – awful now.

  19. 49
    Billy Smart on 7 Aug 2008 #

    Number 2 watch: A week of ‘It’s Raining’ by Darts

  20. 50
    DJ Punctum on 8 Aug 2008 #

    Poor old Darts – three times in a row the bridesmaid, never the bride…

  21. 51
    Waldo on 10 Aug 2008 #

    Dear God! I’m silly enough to take a day off for my annual visit to the Oval Test and Tom goes bananas after having been as mute as Helen Keller for days. Bloody typical!

    For me, this was a landmark record. I had left school and having been cruelly prevented from taking my appointed place in higher education by the slight matter of acquiring a talent for failing significant exams, I entered the world of work as a tragic little office boy in the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, where my immediate superior was the absolute spit of Mrs Slocombe from “Are You Being Served?”. She spent all day wandering around with a fag hanging out of her mouth, continually (and I mean CONTINUALLY) humming the refrain from “Peter and the Wolf”. I have cursed Prokofiev ever since. Despite being a pitiful, snivelling, uber-nervous, low-down, amoeba-like, unclubbable, insignificant, entirely dispensable, sad, unwanted, virginal, teenaged piece of flushable shit, my duties actually involved me handling documents of alarmingly high classification, being seconded as I was to an office serving the Assistant Chief of the RAF. This put the fear of Christ in me, quite frankly, and I never understood how it came about that I should have such easy access to Secret and Confidential papers on things like the Tornado F2 and Cruise Missiles at a time when the world was still very twitchy to say the least and I was all of seventeen with the confidence of a dead stoat.

    Whilst all this shit this was going on, “Three Times a Lady” was number one and for this reason alone it remains special to me. It was to become the standard slow song played last at discos, providing the opportunity for lads to try to pull the girl they had been eyeing up all evening. It was in addition a nice, sincere and well-constructed love song and stays well clear of the syrupy line, the overstepping of which necessitates a request to Alice to pass the sick bag. This was very much a boy to man record for me, although the Waldo kirsche was to remain intact for another year.

    Happy Days!

  22. 52
    rosie on 11 Aug 2008 #

    On the subject of 1970s cool soul, lets’s hear it for Isaac Hayes, who died yesterday at the depressingly young (I’ve only got 11 years to go to pass him) age of 65.


  23. 53
    DJ Punctum on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Right on, and to hell with the Spoiler Bunny – I’m glad that he’ll get his day on Popular because no one deserved it more.

    RIP big man.

  24. 55
    Erithian on 12 Aug 2008 #

    A fantastic piece, Mike – my compliments to Mr Sex!

    I recognise the points made upthread about the direction in which this took the Commodores’ and Lionel Richie’s career a few years after the splendidly spicy “Machine Gun”, but taken in isolation this is a lovely piece of work. It makes a virtue of its simplicity, and sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do. No unnecessary frills, no excessive yelping, no overdose of slush. Beautifully simple and simply beautiful. A bit like one we’re coming to in three summers’ time which is the artist’s simplest and for me his best. More anon.

  25. 56
    Malice Cooper on 12 Aug 2008 #

    I know songwriters like to get big hits but this is just awful. Proof that writing music for the masses doesn’t have to be in any way complicated. It also encouraged them to change musically. The band that brought us the fantastic “Machine gun” just matured into dross.

  26. 57
    mike on 12 Aug 2008 #

    I was quite fond of “Still”, though. Personal reasons.

  27. 58
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Certainly in terms of songs called “Machine Gun” the Commodores one is almost up there with Peter Brotzmann, Hendrix and Portishead.

  28. 59
    Dan M. on 12 Aug 2008 #

    “For the record,” the last 3 paragraphs of comment #4 by Marcello (I am getting it right that DJ Punctum = Marcello?) is the type of thing that keeps me coming back to this site, once, twice, three times a day. If I could write about music like THAT, I’d… I’d… well, I’d definitely spend a lot of time writing about music like that!

  29. 60
    AndyPandy on 14 Jun 2011 #

    27 & 30: couldn’t agree with you more especially about “Mustang Sally” – nothing reminds me more of the sinking sensation of finding myself in a pub when the boring live act are about to start playing than the sound of “Mustang Sally”, “Brown eyed Girl” or any of that other sweaty bluesy soul so loved by white rock fans. To be honest I probably go further as there’s very little soul before about 1968/69 which I’d choose to listen to by choice however objectively “good” it supposedly is.

    And yes ‘Just To Be Close To You’. ‘Sweet Love’ are all overlooked classics IMO 100 times better than this number 1.

  30. 61
    richard thompson on 13 Aug 2011 #

    I’d just left school then, this was played endlessly on radio one, remember DLT said he thought three times a lady was a big fat thing

  31. 62
    Brendan on 24 Sep 2012 #

    Spot on again Tom. Utter dreck. 2 for me.

  32. 63
    hectorthebat on 27 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 4
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  33. 64
    Gareth Parker on 7 Jun 2021 #
  34. 65
    Gareth Parker on 7 Jun 2021 #

    I would give the Commodores one more point than Tom. 4/10.

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