But Rogers was leery of being pigeonholed. His mailbox was bursting with demos of stagecoach-and-sagebrush sagas, most of them terrible. Still, from all angles, he was at an apex. A greatest-hits collection was scheduled for the fall, and it required padding. He’d been keeping tabs on a Motown funk act that had, over the previous couple years, shown a startling aptitude for soft pop. Not the quiet storm of weekend R&B radio: pure, uncut adult contemporary. Through EMI America president Jim Mazza, Rogers reached out to the architect of the Commodores’ new sound: Lionel Richie. Intrigued by the possibility -- and by the potential payday of a Kenny Rogers best-of record -- Richie boarded a plane to Las Vegas to sit at a battered backstage piano and sing the first (and, to that point, only) verse of “Lady”.
Looking back on the result in his 2012 memoir Luck or Something Like It, Rogers savored the fact that “[a] black guy from R&B and a white guy from country had created a color-blind hit.” But that wasn’t quite true: Rogers was less a country singer than an entertainer: a born performer with the personality necessary to mold the material at hand. His 1957 debut single was rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop filtered through his Houstonian twang; after that, he spent a number of years as a jazz bassist before joining the folk group New Christy Minstrels. Richie was similarly malleable. He grew up in Alabama, singing in the Tuskegee Institute’s choir, observing his grandmother, a classical pianist, and listening to soul and country on the airwaves. When the Commodores auditioned for Motown, Richie sang “Wichita Lineman."
“Lady” is wired much the same way as “Lineman”: melancholy and plaintiveness intertwining. Richie was starting to operate in the softer, less heralded (but lucrative) registers of pop: the tones of adult contemporary, soap opera themes, string-soaked showcases. He knew that a Kenny Rogers hit, fairly or not, would have more reach than a Commodores hit. But Rogers would have to meet his composition more than halfway. He had, essentially, shifted his band’s own No. 1 hit “Still” to a minor key. (Both songs start with the word “Lady”.) A worrying piano ostinato taps the table; an electric guitar sighs out the window. A string section is assembled largely to voice chords. The sense of romantic isolation is overwhelming; when the rhythm section finally steps into the room, it’s like Rogers tore down the curtains.
A lesser singer would have sunk into the maudlin furnishings. Rogers, though, was a supreme interpreter. He neither hectors his lost love nor luxuriates in the pain. On each line, he reveals a small devastation, showing just a hint of grain in his vocal. The back half finds Rogers finally singing from his heels a bit, but he never threatens to tip. He navigates a text that’s a thicket of conversational asides, switches from melancholy to wistfulness and back again, and lets Richie’s forlorn arrangement have the last word. He’s out in under four minutes.
“Lady” was the sound of two men taking a flyer on each other, and themselves. Up to this point, Rogers’s solo career had been tracked by one producer, Larry Butler. In February of 1980, largely due to his work with Rogers, Butler had won the Grammy for producer of the year, still the only Nashville producer to do so. Though clearly a young hitmaker, Richie had never produced a session before Kenny asked him to helm “Lady.” (In interviews decades later, the two would cackle at the memory of Richie stopping the recording to write a second verse in the bathroom.) Released to radio in the fall, the song topped the AC and Country charts, and on the chart dated Nov. 15th, 1980, it replaced Barbra Streisand's "Woman in Love" atop the Hot 100 -- where it would reign for six straight weeks. Rogers’ next album, 1981’s Share Your Love, was produced by Lionel Richie.