With a new Christmas album and a musical fund-raiser this weekend, ’tis the season for Richard Marx
A pop superstar marries a gorgeous starlet. If their story had been standard celebrity fare, today they might be living in Beverly Hills with six Bentleys. Instead, Richard Marx and Cynthia Rhodes decamped to the Chicago suburbs to raise three sons.
Their life together began in 1989, when Highland Park-reared Marx — the multi-platinum singer/songwriter behind hits such as “Right Here Waiting,” “Should’ve Known Better” and “Don’t Mean Nothing” — married dancer/actress Rhodes, best known for playing Penny the dance instructor in “Dirty Dancing,” as well as for roles in “Flashdance” and “Staying Alive.”
At the time, both felt out of place in Los Angeles. “One of the many things that Cynthia and I have in common is that we loved the work that we did, but neither of us ever liked the celebrity or the accoutrements,” says Marx. Moving to the North Shore in 1994 to raise their children — Brandon, 22, Lucas, 20, and Jesse, 18 — “was a life decision that was an easy one,” he says.
But perhaps even more surprising was the turn their careers took. Marx began quietly churning out chart-topping hits for other artists from his home studio, including last year’s No. 1 country single for Keith Urban, “Long Hot Summer,” as well as “This I Promise You” for ’N Sync and the Grammy-winning “Dance with My Father” for Luther Vandross. He’s also written songs for a diverse cast of artists including Barbra Streisand, Vince Gill, LeAnn Rimes and actor Hugh Jackman. Rhodes did the opposite; she took a break when she was pregnant with their first son and never returned to dancing or acting.
“I thought, ‘This won’t last, she’s definitely going to want to come back to work and do films,’ ” says Marx. “But she found a fulfillment in being a mom that completely dominated any feelings she ever had making a movie.”
It’s a decision he supported because her dancing had become the source of intense physical pain.
“I’m such a fan of her talent,” says Marx, “but all I tell people is even if you’re her biggest fan, as good as you think she was as a dancer or singer or actress, man, you should see her as a mom.” He says today she’s still as mesmerizing as when she did the mambo with Patrick Swayze. “She looks exactly the same,” says Marx. “She’s just gorgeous as can be, and people still stop her constantly and say that they’ve seen ‘Dirty Dancing’ 74 times.”
This week, Marx has two big projects on deck: The debut of his first Christmas album and the third annual Newsapalooza fund-raiser with WLS-AM’s Roe Conn on Nov. 10, where Marx and his band will perform backup for news personalities including ABC’s “World News Now” anchor Paula Faris and “Windy City Live” host Val Warner.
Both are longtime labors of love.
Newsapalooza was born after Marx met Conn and finally found an ally to help him host a local fund-raiser similar to the all-star concerts he had done for a decade in other cities like Los Angeles and Nashville to benefit cystic fibrosis.
“Who are the celebrities in Chicago? They’re the news people,” says Marx. “I went to Roe and said, ‘What if we do a concert where me and my band play for different news personalities, and I coach them and figure out the right songs for them?’ ” Conn, says Marx, became his partner — and eventually his closest friend. “When Roe takes on something, he’s relentless,” says Marx, adding that Roe (who doesn’t sing) books performers and promotes the show. For their third annual event, it’s Roe’s turn to choose the beneficiary; he’s selected Clearbrook, a support center for developmentally disabled adults and children.
The Christmas album is another passion project. “A few years ago my wife, Cynthia, said, ‘The only thing I want for Christmas this year is for you to record the boys singing a Christmas song,’ ” says Marx. “It was ‘Silent Night.’ I created a really simple little track, and I got the boys together to sing harmonies and trade lead lines.”
It became an annual tradition, with Marx raising the stakes each year. “The boys went from ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re making me do this,’ to them co-producing the tracks with me, and wanting to be more involved and play drums and other instruments themselves. It became much more elaborate, and through that process, I started to think, ‘I’d really like to do a Christmas album.’ ”
The result is “Christmas Spirit,” an album out now that has 13 songs including classics like “The Little Drummer Boy” and “O Holy Night” along with two original songs, “Christmas Spirit” and “Christmas Mornings.”
The Marx brothers perform on five of the songs, including a Gatlin Brothers hymn called “Alleluia.” “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in my life,” says Marx; in fact, the Gatlin Brothers performed it at his wedding to Cynthia, and he and his sons perform it a cappella on the album. “You can’t beat sibling harmony,” says Marx. “There’s just something about it that can’t be matched.”
They’ve come a long way since that first Christmas carol. All of his sons write music, but they also have broader interests: Brandon DJs; Lucas acts on “Chicago Code” and other shows; and Jesse, who just graduated high school, is in a heavy metal/punk band called Mark This Hour.
Despite their different tastes, there is one song on the album where the entire family plays a part: “O Come All Ye Faithful.” It’s a track that hits especially close to home, featuring the melding voices of Richard, his three sons, Cynthia and his mother.
Joyful and triumphant, indeed.
His home studio
“It is the most beautiful studio I’ve ever been in. We’re right on the lake with floor-to-ceiling windows and a fireplace. It’s just gorgeous and so comfortable. Keith [Urban] would say, ‘You’ve got to go to Richard’s house, it’s unbelievable.’ So it went from the first year people going, ‘Uh, Chicago?’ to I couldn’t even finish the sentence and they’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll come to Chicago.’ I can’t really think of anybody I’ve worked with that didn’t end up here at some point in the process.”
“There’s a place in Northbrook that’s like home for us. It’s called Francesco’s Hole in the Wall [254 Skokie]. I love that place so much. Frank, the owner, he’s such a good guy. I still love to go to Michael’s in Highland Park [1879 Second] because I grew up going there after school. And I’ll drive to Evanston to get Peet’s Coffee & Tea [1622 Chicago] — it’s kind of insane. ”
Story by Susanna Negovan