15 August, 1981
Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s duet, Endless Love topped the US chart. It was to remain in that exalted position for nine weeks, making it not only one of the year’s biggest-selling singles but Motown’s most successful 45.
Penned by Richie, the song resulted from a meeting between the then-member of The Commodores, film producer Jon Peters and director Franco Zeffirelli, who required an instrumental theme for their upcoming Brooke Shields vehicle, based around Scott Spencer’s acclaimed novel Endless Love. Richie duly fashioned something romantic to touch heartstrings.
Then Zeffirelli required a change of plan. A lyric should be added. And maybe Diana Ross could be persuaded to join Richie in a duet? Richie later recalled that he found the whole deal a little scary. “I wasn’t sure I could do it. What if they didn’t like it?”
There were other problems, Ross had just quit Motown and signed for RCA. But agreement was reached between the labels and all seemed set. Even then, problems persisted. Richie was working in Los Angeles, piecing together tracks for both The Commodores and Kenny Rogers, while Ross’ schedule didn’t allow her to spend any time in Los Angeles. A compromise was reached when Diana was due to play a date at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, which allowed Richie to meet her in Reno in June. A hurried date was arranged for the early morning. “We started singing at 3.30 (am) and at five o’clock we had Endless Love down on tape,” Richie informed Dick Clark amid a TV Special. “I was pleased with it because it was one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever recorded,” Ross enthused of her last big hit for Motown.
“The session was a disaster.”
Ross and Berry Gordy had already headed their separate ways, she claimed in her biography: “He had begun to act like a genius gone mad - he made it unbearable for me.” But working with Miss Ross could equally be problematic, according to Lionel Richie. Recalling the Endless Love session, he claimed, “She arrived at the studio and told me she wants my part. I have to kind of make her part up because I can’t sing in that key. The session was a disaster.”
The song’s backstory was also curious. It had initially been sung by Shea Chambers, a protégé of Supremes/ Jackson 5/ Temptations-and-more producer and arranger Gene Page. Chambers had formerly been singer with Robbie Krieger and the Skip Van Winkle Band, and claims, “I did it first even before the duet, Diana Ross later recorded a solo version of Endless Love and copied what I sang.”
Contentious? Maybe. But there’s no disputing the fact that it was Chamber’s voice that cinemagoers first heard performing Richie’s theme song in the movie. Gene Page had arranged for Chambers to record it for a party scene in the film so an actress could lip synch to her voice. Chambers recorded the song at Devonshire Studios in North Hollywood and her rendition is heard early on in the film, the Richie-Ross version only being delivered over the final credits. Chambers remembers Richie having problems setting up the duet session with Diana Ross, and says he mentioned that Dionne Warwick was in position as backup. In the end, Chambers’ version of Endless Love would not appear on what became a US Top 10 album item.
Meanwhile, sales of the single were sending Motown into a fit of ecstasy. Ross later recalled, “at first it wasn’t a Motown single, Lionel’s agreement was with Polygram. But when I got into the picture, Lionel and I agreed that it was only fair that Motown got the single.”
Ross maintained in her biography, Secrets Of A Sparrow, that working with Lionel Richie presented her with a series of problems. “The working relationship between us was difficult. I am a perfectionist, I like to be on time always. Lionel was not always on time. I did work very well with producer James Carmichael who is also a perfectionist.”
Though the film was pilloried, Richie’s theme was nominated for an Oscar and also nominated for several Grammys, including Record Of The Year. It was also Ross’ last big hit for Motown, though she would continue to chart regularly for RCA in the States and EMI in the UK. The duet sparked Lionel Richie’s solo career and he now ranks among chart history’s best-selling artists. Even Shea Chambers can claim a modicum of fame, gaining two Grammy nominations, one involving a duet with Jose Feliciano.