425. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores

We are racing through 1978 now. In the space of just three #1s, we’ve leapt from early May to late September. And I thought we’d escaped, really I did. I thought we’d finally pulled ourselves from the late-seventies easy-listening swamp. But, just as we wrenched our back feet free from the sludge, Lionel Richie grabs us by the ankles and drags us back down…

Three Times a Lady, by The Commodores (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 13th August – 17th September 1978

Let’s start with the positives. I know this chorus, can sing this chorus, can drop this chorus jokingly into everyday counting situations… You’re once, Twice, Three times a lady… without ever having properly listened to the rest of the song. Which is a sign of a certain ubiquity, of a song’s place among the big boys. What does it mean, to be ‘three times a lady’? I had hoped it might be something dirty… But, apparently Richie wrote it after hearing his dad describe his mum as a great lady, a great friend and a great mother.

I must have heard the rest of this song, surely, but I can’t remember doing so. In fact, I’ve listened to this song several times in writing these past two and a bit paragraphs, and have already forgotten everything but the chorus. I am listening to it right now, and it is still not going in. It is background music, plain and simple.

Lionel’s voice is nice, the piano is nice, the percussion is… nice, I guess? But Good Lord it’s dull. Ballads like this are always at a disadvantage with me, but the best can pull through and convince. (Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ was one such fairly recent example.) But here, chorus aside, it’s too slow, it’s not catchy, it’s nowhere near OTT enough (unlike Richie’s solo chart-topper…)

Just once does the song break away from its plod. Before the final chorus it builds, some drums and cymbals enter, and some backing vocalists harmonise… But it’s gone. The pace slows again and we trudge towards the end. It is genuinely terrifying to discover that the album version of ‘Three Times a Lady’ runs to almost seven minutes! Give whoever at Motown records decided to chop three minutes off for the 7” a medal.

The Commodores had been around for a few years before this gave them a trans-Atlantic #1. ‘Easy’ was their big breakthrough in the UK (it’s better than ‘Three Times…’, but I’d still be picking holes in it had it been a chart-topper…) They did release upbeat, funky tunes – try their debut single ‘Machine Gun’ – but sadly that wasn’t what sold. Lionel Richie left the band in 1980, and went to absolutely dominate the next decade on the Billboard chart. The remaining Commodores kept at it though, to decent success, and are still active today.


20 thoughts on “425. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores

  1. The Commodores may have started out as a fun time funk band but when Lionel Richie started writing ballads it was those that mostly gave them big chart success aside from an occasional upbeat number like the banger “Brick House” that peaked at #5 in the US. But even with that, “Three Times A Lady” represents a different style than before since even ballads like “Easy” were still at their core soul songs while this is pure easy listening schlock. It’s easy to see why Richie wanted someone like Frank Sinatra to sing it instead of the Commodores. But for this type of easy listening schlock I can’t say I hate it all too much. If you think this is unmemorable, try listening to their other US chart topper in late ‘79 “Still” which is way more forgettable than “Three Times A Lady” and even today everyone has largely forgotten about it. Aside from its chorus, I like the soothing feel the song has and the little guitar solo that comes in. I’ve never been a big fan of Lionel Richie in terms of his ballads but sometimes he can deliver. Richie didn’t actually leave the Commodores until 1982 when he released his first solo album while he wrote Kenny Rogers’ smash “Lady” and sang with Diana Ross on another smash “Endless Love” and still knocked out hits with the group in 1981 with “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” and “Oh No.” But it was clear his star was eclipsing the group so a solo career was only inevitable and he wound up adapting pretty well to the big pop sound of the ‘80s managing to make some good songs in the process.

    • ‘Easy’ has a bit more life to it than ‘3x a Lady’, but I still have issues with it… I also can’t really stomach ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’, and that’s pretty uptempo. I think it’s just that everything Richie does has a smarmy gloss to it. Corporate soul music.

      • Yeah, he’s a very professional type of artist and I agree “Dancing On The Ceiling” is pretty stupid but there is also “All Night Long (All Night)” which is a good uptempo song from him. That’s a fun song! He’s not really my cup of tea but he does know his way around a song and sometimes it can connect with me.

      • I’d forgotten about ‘All Night Long’… Nope, even that rubs me the wrong way. Too polished (I may use that complaint a lot when it comes to ’80s chart-topping singles).

      • Thought from reading Tom Breihan’s review I find it funny how Richie straight up faked the whole chanting on the song because he didn’t want to wait weeks for his friend at the UN to come up with a proper African chant meaning had it come out today Richie, along with his fake Jamaican accent, would be getting called out for cultural appropriation. But as Breihan put it, “But 1983 was a different time. And anyway, who wants to be mad at “All Night Long”?”

  2. I still like Three Times A Lady, it was sort of low-key classy soul, pretty much a carry-on from Easy, which I also liked. I’ll take Machine Gun anyday, though, over the ballads, that’s a fab funk instrumental with synths. My fave Commodores ballad is Sail On, it’s essentially Lionel doing Country & Western – I associate it with being on the radio for my glorious 1979 California/Nevada/Arizona holiday, and it sounded so laid-back and right for the mediterranean/desert settings. Plus it has a tease that keeps you waiting and waiting for the uplifting chorus, the format suggests it’s coming any moment, but it doesn’t. I like being audio-teased waiting for the climax…

    But that was the last good Richie ballad for me, Still was pretty average, Endless Love was tedious, and I’ll have some words to offer when you get to 1984 about that other one and his solo career 🙂

    • You know, I haven’t listened to ‘Hello’ properly for a long, long time, but something tells me I might enjoy the ridiculousness of it… I suppose I should delve a bit deeper into the Commodores’ back catalogue, but even ‘Easy’ doesn’t do much for me. There’s something too glossy about a lot of Lionel Richie’s work.

      • glossy is generous, well done! 🙂 I do actually like some of his non-ballads, but some of the schlock borders on nauseating at times, or at least “dull” or “tedious” 🙂

  3. 5th grade…sitting behind some girl who had a portable 45 single player. I haven’t seen many but you would push the single in like some Mac computers I’ve seen…right in the middle of class I had my foot around the player and pushed the damn single in by mistake…all of a sudden…”Once Twice…Three Times A ….” came blaring out and of course everyone looking at me.
    This song holds a special place for me…not a nice special place….good song though.

  4. The Commodores and, by extension, Richie, has always been background music to me…like elevator Musak. Even funky Brick House is still in the background.

    I’ve never sought out any of their music to buy but, I did enjoy their late piece “Oh, No” as I thought it was a pretty tune with the piano work and the strings (real or synth).

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