The Prayer of “Lady”: A Midlife Boost That Isn’t A Blue Pill
These days the only money to be made in the music business is from touring. Streaming has killed songwriting and the royalties that go with it. Hitting the bricks with your hits is the way to go. I used to live in a town with a casino and you were bombarded with ceaseless pitches beckoning you to the Caesar’s auditorium to enjoy the greatest hits of the greatest dinosaurs, all the songs you already heard all day on the radio. And yet, night after night, the place was packed.
The singer Kenny Rogers liked to tell the story of how excited he was to see Ray Charles live. Charles was a hero from his youth and had become an acquaintance. Rogers waited the whole show for “Georgia on My Mind” but Charles never played it. He was tired of the song. Rogers died in March, just as the pandemic was laying waste to live musical performance. The radio is now the only place to hear the hits. Rogers himself said he never got tired of playing his hits because it made his job easier. The audience has to decide if they like a new song. A hit lets everyone relax and have a good time.
Roger’s biggest hit of his career was “Lady,” a song Lionel Richie wrote for him. The plan was that Rogers would come out country, Richie from R&B and they would meet in pop. Richie initially resisted working together but when Rogers told him that the song would appear on upcoming album of his greatest hits and would probably sell five million units or so, Richie relented.
Rogers had just married his fourth wife when he and Lionel Richie met in Las Vegas to work on the song. Richie arrived with a song called “Baby.” He had only one verse written, his standard operating procedure when he was writing with his old band, the Commodores. Before he could break the news to Rogers, Kenny started talking about how his new wife was such a refined lady, a lady of class and style and what the devil was she doing with a redneck from the Houston projects. When Rogers finally got around to asking what the title of the song was, Richie smiled to himself and told Rogers, “It’s called Lady”.
“Lady” is in the key of Eb minor, a strange key for a pop song. In the solar system of musical keys, Eb minor is Neptune, very far from the warm sun of C major. But Lionel Richie can neither read nor write music. He is a natural musician and found what he was looking for in the notes that make up Eb minor.
In this performance from 1980, Rogers had serious work to do . “Lady” was far from being a massive hit; the single was out only ten days. Rogers, immaculately groomed and sporting a three piece Countrypolitan suit, gets right down to business, but not before graciously tipping his hat to Richie.
The song structure is bare-bones. There are two verses and two choruses, no middle eight. Rogers hits all his marks, prowling, working the microphone from whisper to roar, offering a Vegas crooner’s gesture here and there.
There is also an outro, a modified repeat of the chorus, and it’s the killer part of the song. The wave breaks and Rogers punches into high gear not just to ride it out but to own it. An F# chord, never heard before in the song, arrives pure and lethal. Lady, your love’s the only love I need. At that moment, the alchemy is complete. The pink wine of Lionel Richie becomes the whiskey of Kenny Rogers, gruff, grizzled and gallant. Rogers liked to say that country music was just R&B for white people and he never made his point more emphatically than here.
When “Lady” came out, I was 16 years old and haunting high school dances. As a budding albeit clueless masher, slow songs were most welcome. All you could do was ask and more often than not, she was in your arms. Perhaps there was nuzzling and then suddenly an awkward yet ardent kiss. The shock of the new. Every DJ had “Lady” and played the hell out of it. No matter. Even lost in the throes of inchoate desire, you felt a strange energy in the music itself - the F#, Lady, your love’s the only love I need — cresting and driving you towards a shore that was somewhere beyond the gym and more profound than a hard-on. And then the song echoed out into silence. Kenny was gone and the girl was back in the gaggle of her friends.
“Lady” is not a song for a young man pledging undying love and devotion to his sweetheart at the wedding reception. “Lady” is not a song for a horny kid grappling with his hormones while he necks with a cheerleader in the school gym under a mirror ball. “Lady” is not a song for 50 year wedding anniversary parties where all the kids, black sheep included, want to see Mom and Dad celebrate their love, not matter how uncomfortable it is for them. No, “Lady” belongs to the weatherbeaten guy with a paunch and a few tats hoping against hope to keep a vow of devotion to yet another woman, after plenty of stumbles and staggers along the way to the open sea of midlife. In “Lady,” Rogers isn’t evoking a dream of perfect love for women. He’s issuing a challenge to those gamblers and knights in slightly tarnished armor who, beneath all their bluster and big cars and big talk, yearn to find and keep a choice woman to share what’s left of the Journey. If jukeboxes still existed, you might find “Lady” on heavy rotation at a biker bar in Sturges or a Virginia Beach drink shack.
Or a poolhall in Baghdad. “Lady” exudes a robust, searching masculinity that is the inverse square of the mewling self-pity one finds in songs like Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight.” It is a universal tonic for men all over the planet who have reached a provisional conclusion that love is more trouble than it’s worth but somehow still remember the 16 year old kid who sensed there was something better and truer beyond the boiling surf of lust.