"It's not the best song I ever wrote," admitted Irish singer Chris de Burgh, reflecting on his single, "The Lady in Red," which recently peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard magazine pop chart.

That's an understatement. It's not even the best song on his latest album, "Into the Light." But "The Lady in Red" has certainly been his most popular single ever--particularly in America.

Whether you like the song or not, it's easy to see why this syrupy ballad clicked with the masses, even though it doesn't have a particularly memorable melody, distinctive vocals or an ounce of subtlety. What it does boast, however, is the kind of gushing sentiment women love to hear from men--but seldom do.

The lyrics are an effusive ode to a woman. When a couple is nuzzling in front of a fireplace or dancing in the moonlight, this is the kind of dreamy tune that's ideal background music. It's mush with mass appeal, much like Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are."

The inspiration for the song, De Burgh explained recently, was his wife: "I had already started the song but I was having trouble with direction and lyrics. I saw my wife at a party wearing a red outfit. She gave me one of those private, just-for-you smiles from across the room. I thought to myself, 'God, she looks terrific.' It's nice when you've been with a lady for a while to realize that she can still be so alluring. I went up to her and said, 'You're terrific.' From that point, the rest of the song just fell into place."

"The Lady in Red" had been a major international hit before it was released in the United States last September. "Jerry Moss (A&M; Records' co-chairman) called me when the song was No. 1 in England and promised me they were going to make it a hit in America," De Burgh recalled. "But they put it out and nothing happened. It didn't even make the singles chart. Jerry was very embarrassed. I was very disappointed."

But early this year, the song became a hit on stations in Boston and Madison, Wis. "Apparently with no help from the record company, the corpse revived and charged ahead," De Burgh quipped.

"The Lady in Red" zoomed up the chart, pulling his album, "Into the Light"--which is nearing the 500,000 copies-sold mark--along with it. "This would be my first gold album in America," he said. "It seemed like it would never happen. I know the spot on the wall where'll I hang the gold record. I've waited years for this."

Though most American pop fans think he is a newcomer, De Burgh, 38, has been recording for A&M; Records since 1975. But all his albums have been flops here. "I guess the music didn't fit American tastes," he speculated. "Fortunately for me, the rest of the world liked it."

Outside the country, particularly in Canada, England, West Germany and, of course, Ireland, De Burgh is a big star, with enough clout to headline arenas. He proudly recalled performing in a concert in West Germany two years ago featuring U2, REO Speedwagon, Rick Springfield and Joe Cocker. The headliner of this star-studded show?

De Burgh, of course.

De Burgh doesn't really have to make it in America. He could exist quite well without scoring here. It's primarily a personal challenge for him.

"But it's the biggest market in the world for entertainment," De Burgh pointed out. "If you don't make it in America, you always feel like there's a little something missing."

There's a dark side to the American popularity of his "Lady in Red" single. It has branded him in this country as a ballad singer. Some have even called him "the Irish Barry Manilow." The rest of the world, however, knows him as a rocker.

"Americans have this wrong picture of me," he griped. "They see me as this guy crooning ballads and strumming a guitar. But my singing is more rock. Everywhere else most of my fans are people under 25. My two-hour show really moves. There's very little material in it like 'Lady in Red.' "

There's really nothing else as schmaltzy as "The Lady in Red" on his album either. "Into the Light" includes some gutsy, fairly absorbing pop-rock--some not what you'd expect from "the Irish Barry Manilow." He considers that ballad-singer tag both a misnomer and a curse.

"I don't want another ballad single," he said. "I want a single that shows the other side of me, the main part of me--the rock side. I'm glad there's not another single like 'Lady in Red' on the album. On the next single, whatever it is, America will have to see the other side of me."

Not this time. De Burgh didn't realize it then, but the next single is "Fatal Hesitation"--a ballad.

The son of a British intelligence agent, De Burgh had a fascinating boyhood, living in exotic places like Argentina and the Belgian Congo before settling in Ireland, where he grew up in the family's 12th-Century, 60-room castle. The title of his debut album in 1975, "Far Beyond These Castle Walls," was a reference to his unusual home.

Music, he recalled, was just a hobby in his teen-age years: "I was just a kid playing guitar and singing, like millions of other kids. I didn't really have much musical background. But music wasn't going to be my career. I graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with a degree in English and French. I was going to work in a bank or become a teacher or something like that."

But De Burgh decided to try a career that was a bit more exciting: "I started singing in a hamburger restaurant, just for fun. But I really liked it. I went to London looking for a record contract and I got one--in a year-and-a-half."

Recalling that first album, he said: "It was full of innocence and very raw. Things are different now. The albums are very polished and very clever. But I'm a better singer now. I can do things vocally that I couldn't do then. But in some ways I like the old albums and the old days. Times were easier and simpler then."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World