"I loved 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now' by McFadden & Whitehead, and a lot of tunes with great strings. 'Never Gonna Give You Up' had that kind of vibe in the intro, so I was really excited about it."
British-born Rick Astley tells Billboard that he was smitten with "Never Gonna Give You Up" as soon as co-writer Mike Stock first sang it to him. "Yeah, that's pretty catchy," he remembers thinking.
The world would soon agree.
Enhanced by his rich, deep voice, Astley's debut hit, from his first album, Whenever You Need Somebody, topped the Official UK Singles chart in 1987. Says Astley, "The track went to No. 1 in the U.K. before we made the video, so people bought into the record because of what they heard, which I have always been proud – rather than it being a hit because I had nice hair."
"Give" repeated its chart-topping success in the United States, crowning the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks beginning March 12, 1988. "It was amazing to turn up in a country that I knew nothing about," Astley says of his American welcome. "I was No. 1 and everybody knew me."
Then 22, Astley followed his first Hot 100 leader with another, "Together Forever," also written (and produced) by Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman (the trio that additionally helmed dance-pop hits for Kylie Minogue, among others). Astley tallied three more Hot 100 top 10s, including two that he wrote (1989's "She Wants to Dance With Me" and 1991's "Cry for Help"), and charted four albums on the Billboard 200, before taking a hiatus from the music industry in the mid-'90s.
Still, his debut hit wouldn't, well, give up. In the late 2000s, the "Rickrolling" meme invaded the Internet, sending unsuspecting surfers to the "Give" video – and giving Astley a chuckle. "It's all good," he says. "I am still grateful every day for that song and the life it has given me. I never take it for granted. Looking back, I can see that it's part talent, part work, but also a lot of luck to have a hit as big as that."
Having celebrated his 50th birthday Feb. 6, 2016, Astley still tours and released his first album in over a decade, fittingly titled 50, which debuted at No. 1 on the Official UK Albums chart that July. "I wrote every song, played every instrument and produced it," he says. "It's not an ego thing; it was more a challenge to myself. I think it's been hard for me to find the feeling to make a record for a while because, [even though] I play gigs all over the world, that doesn't mean people want to hear something new. I have tested the water with a new song live every now and then and I like the feeling and the reaction."
Meanwhile, Astley is proud of fellow U.K. singers who are continuing the tradition of exporting soulful pop to the top of charts worldwide. "Adele and Sam Smith deliver a song with such strength and belief," he muses. "A white kid from the middle of England can have as much soul as anyone.
"It's about feeling what you are singing."