RICHARD MARX: SOARING ON HIS OWN

"Don't Mean Nothing" is the best Eagles song in years. OK, so Don Henley and Glenn Frey aren't on it, but ex-Eagles Joe Walsh, Randy Meisner and Tim Schmidt are.

So is Richard Marx, 24, the singer-songwriter on whose debut album the song appears. This high-flying single, which just barged into the Billboard magazine pop Top 10, has niftily launched his career. Marx is being hailed in some quarters as the pop-rock find-of-the-year--1987's Bruce Hornsby.

The Eagles, who flew apart years ago, couldn't have done a better job on this song. It's pumped-up pop rock, a super-slick revival of that crashing California sound that died with the Eagles. Like their best songs, "Don't Mean Nothing" has melancholia and cynicism coursing through it, rippling over bright, beefy rock riffs. Because of the single, Marx's album, "Richard Marx," on Manhattan Records is on its way to becoming a best-seller.

Naturally, Marx has been accused of exploitation. That Eagles' connection, charge the detractors, helped separate him from the flock of new artists scrambling for airplay. A cool, affable extrovert, Marx didn't seem ruffled at the mention of these charges, which he'd undoubtedly heard before. He only partly denied the charges.

"The single has a familiar sound to it--sort of an Eagles' sound," Marx said the other day in the small, cluttered Hollywood office of David Cole, who co-produced Marx's album. "That helped it get on the radio. The Eagles' tie-in gave DJs something to talk about. They could say more than here's a new record by a new artist. They could say here's a new record by a new artist featuring these other guys. I gave them a hook.

"But that Eagles tie-in isn't the reason the song is a hit. Famous people play on records all the time and they go down the tubes. The song is a hit because people like it--not because who's on it."

The album, composed by Marx and assorted co-writers, isn't full of sound-alike Eagles' material. It's mostly mainstream rock 'n' roll--nothing that rocks too hard--with an emotionally charged ballad or two thrown in.

Marx's looks are a factor in his success, too. He's very handsome, with a hint of toughness in his demeanor. His looks helped popularize the video, which has been a big MTV hit.

"Ninety-five percent of the letters I get say: 'I saw the video on MTV and bought the album,' " he said. "The video really helped."

The discussion of his looks made Marx uneasy. "I know they have to market me to sell the record," he said. "But it's talent that sells records, not looks."

True, but if Marx were a pudgy, unsightly wimp, he probably wouldn't be where he is today.

Marx spent most of the '80s in search of a record deal. But while he was searching, he was living fairly comfortably on revenues from songwriting and session singing.

He's not, however, particularly proud of any of those endeavors. "I was just paying the rent," he explained.

Writing songs for other artists is not his favorite activity. "I did what I had to do to get by," he said. "A few times I got lucky and got songs placed. When you're writing for other people, you're tailoring the song to their style and their image. Songs I write for other people are real work. They're not the kind of songs I'd sing."

His most prestigious composing credit is "What About Me," a ballad co-written with David Foster that, as recorded by Kenny Rogers with James Ingram and Kim Carnes, climbed to No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart in 1984. This was a great song, Marx noted, for them . "It's certainly nothing I'd sing myself," he said.

Singing backup vocals at recording sessions was Marx's primary source of income. Producers liked his high, strong, fluid voice. "They could fit my voice into a lot of different kinds of songs," he pointed out. "On this Whitney Houston song I was supposed to do a vocal and make it sound like a girl was singing. I can sing in a lot of different ways and styles."

If Marx hadn't been so set on being a solo singer he might have had a long, lucrative career as a session singer. "I just took jobs here and there when I needed them," he said. "If I had gone into session-singing full tilt, I could have made a fortune in a few years."

Session-singing, though, was often a turn-off for Marx because his relentless purism kept getting in the way. He was getting money but no artistic satisfaction.

"A lot of the songs I was called in to sing were junk," he insisted, comparing himself to a plumber summoned to fix a toilet. "We'd be called in as backup singers to try and spice up these losers. I had to grit my teeth to sing some of that crap."

Marx has some illustrious credits as a session singer, including Whitney Houston's record-breaking debut album, Lionel Richie's three solo albums and assorted songs by Chicago and George Benson.

When he was a teen-ager in Chicago--his hometown--Richie gave him his first break. "He heard a tape of the first songs I ever wrote," Marx recalled. "I didn't send it to him but it got to him by a roundabout way, through a friend of a friend of a friend. He called me personally. I was floored. He told me he liked what he heard. He said he couldn't make any promises but I should be in L.A. He said maybe I could sing background on his album.

"So I came to L.A. He was the reason I moved out here. I knew I eventually had to go to L.A. or New York because that's where the heart of the music business is. There's no real music scene in Chicago. I came to L.A. and I wound up working on Lionel's first solo album when I was just 18. It was my first job."

Marx is now concentrating on becoming a polished performer. Until recently his experience consisted of working a few local club dates, beginning with North Hollywood's Sasch three years ago. His next local club date is at the Palace on Sept. 25.

After a few weeks of work with his new band, he's reached the same conclusions about performing as most other artists: playing clubs is fun but concerts are too impersonal.

"I have mixed feelings about concerts," explained Marx, who'll be on the concert trail with REO Speedwagon for a month. "They're great exposure and great for promoting your records, but when you're performing they're not so great. Playing concerts is numbing. You can't really see the people. You can't feel the people. You can't see their faces.

"We played this beach party in Oklahoma City in front of 9,000 people. There was this sea of people. I felt so distant from them. It's not like a club where you can see the faces because they're so close to you. In a club I can smile at them and they smile at me. But at a concert there's this big gulf. And when they applauded at that Oklahoma concert there was this huge wave of sound. It engulfs you. We were looking at each other on stage, saying to each other: 'This is weird.'

"But I'll get used to playing concerts. I have to. I really don't have any choice. In this business you have to do a lot of things you really don't want to do."

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