The Meaning Behind “Three Times a Lady” by The Commodores and How it Cemented Lionel Richie as a Love Song Legend

If you’re looking for slow-dance, end-of-the-evening ballads, it’s hard to do much better than “Three Times a Lady” by The Commodores. The song became the band’s first No. 1 pop hit, and was one of the biggest songs of 1978.

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What was the song about? What inspired Lionel Richie to write it? And how did it cement Lionel Richie’s status as an ace balladeer, a status he would maintain when he left The Commodores a few years later. Let’s take a look at all the details behind this Quiet Storm classic.

Richie Rising

While Lionel Richie always handled the bulk of the lead vocals for The Commodores right from their 1974 debut album, the songwriting credits were generally split up between the band members pretty evenly. But Richie soon carved out a niche with his ability to write silky slow songs that contrasted from the band’s funkier uptempo material.

Those ballads tended to have a bit more crossover appeal, as proven when Richie-penned songs “Sweet Love,” “Just to Be Close with You,” and “Easy” all soared into the Top 10. But since the other band members all contributed, it left Richie looking for other outlets for his material.

In the case of “Three Times a Lady,” Richie wrote it with the intent of pitching it to Frank Sinatra. But when the band’s producer James Carmichael heard the song, he insisted Richie keep it in-house. To their credit, The Commodores elevated the song with a tender performance to support Richie’s lead, especially in the wordless vocals utilized in place of an instrumental solo.

Thanks Mom and Dad

Richie’s inspiration for “Three Times a Lady” came from his parents, as he explained to Blues and Soul Magazine (as reported by Songfacts):

“I wrote it back in 1978 and it was a very personal meaning to me. I attended the wedding anniversary of my parents and my father made a speech about how much he loved my mother and appreciated the way she had stood beside him for 37 years. It was beautiful and I started to think about my own life and how my wife stands by me, how she does so many things without being asked or thanked. So, I wrote ‘Three Times a Lady’ as a dedication to my wife and my mother.”

When the song went to No. 1, it gave Richie new levels of exposure separate from the rest of the band. Artists like Kenny Rogers and Diana Ross sought him out for songs. And it also made it clear he had a promising solo career ahead of him. He left The Commodores following their 1981 album In the Pocket. His first solo release followed a year later, and he went on to become one of the most successful artists of the ’80s.

What is “Three Times a Lady” About?

The reason why some love songs stand out among the millions that have been written is that the artists involved will find a unique way to say something that’s so often been said. In addition to the gorgeous melody and the wonderful performance, “Three Times a Lady” truly separates itself with the unforgettable refrain of You’re once, twice, three times a lady. It expresses so much about how this woman stands apart from all others in the eyes of the narrator.

In the verses, Richie sticks to expressing his gratitude, realizing there’s no better time to do that than the present when their happiness is at its peak: And now that we’ve come to the end of our rainbow / There’s something I must say out loud. He also appreciates how she was with him in good and bad: You shared my joys, my dreams, my pains.

“Three Times a Lady” ends with a simple I love you. By then, the narrator has earned the right to use those three words that so many others have used, as he has found ways in the rest of the song to make her feel uniquely special. That’s the magic Lionel Richie has always been able to bring to his slow stuff, and this track might just be his romantic peak.

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Photo by Mike Prior/Redferns

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