Producing a song for 'N Sync two years ago, '80s idol Richard Marx would stroll in and out of the recording studio unnoticed, while the boy band had to slip out the back door to avoid screaming fans. One night, though, the 39-year-old singer found himself being trailed to the parking lot by an awestruck teen. "Are you Richard Marx?" she asked. He was delighted—until she added, "My mom just loves you!" Says Marx: "I thought, 'It's come to that.'"

Not that he's complaining. The serial hitmaker—who shot to fame with his '87 rocker "Don't Mean Nothing" and went on to sell 25 million records with songs like "Satisfied" and "Right Here Waiting"—says he doesn't yearn for the giddy days of sold-out concerts and swooning crowds. Since 1999 he has been content to write and produce songs for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers and Michael Bolton. "The beauty is that I can do jazz, rock, country," says Marx, kicking back at his sprawling Lake Bluff, Ill., estate, "and I don't have to worry about how my voice feels or how my hair looks."

The trademark fluffy mullet is long gone. Playing foosball with Brandon, 12, Lucas, 1, and Jesse, 8—his sons with wife Cynthia Rhodes, a retired actress (Dirty Dancing)—Marx could pass for any suburban father. It has been a remarkably smooth transition. Most former chart toppers "wallow and drown," says Marx's mentor, renowned hit producer David Foster. "But Richard was smart enough to retreat and attack in a new direction. That's kept him in the game."

Born and raised in Chicago, the only child of jingle composer Dick Marx (who died in 1997) and former singer Ruth, 67, "Richard was always single-minded about what he wanted to do," says his mom. He sang his first jingle at 5 and began writing his own tunes at 15. When Lionel Richie heard his demo, he suggested the teen move to L.A. After graduating from high school in 1981, Marx did just that, working as a backup singer, songwriter and gofer until he landed a contract to record his 1987 album, a multiplatinum smash.

By that time his personal life was on track too. He had met Rhodes in '83 while working on a duet for the film Staying Alive, in which she co-starred with John Travolta. Seven years his senior, Rhodes says she thought the 19-year-old songwriter was "cute as a button" but too young; Marx was instantly smitten. Sparks didn't fly until they met again at a party two years later. In 1989, amid what Marx calls the "nonstop craziness" of making records and taking his act on the road, the couple tied the knot.

"My career was who I was and what I did," says Marx. "My personal life revolved around my work." Eventually, though, he felt the tug-of-war between parenthood and his professional life, especially after his third son was born in 1994. "The road had become a place I actually hated," he says. Grunge was also huge at the time and "no white male solo singer was having any success," he says. His fourth album, though it sold a million copies, marked a career decline. "MTV stopped playing Richard Marx," he says. "I became a VH1 artist."

In 1996 the Marx clan left L.A. behind and moved to Chicago ("We just weren't fabulous enough for Hollywood," he says). Though "it hurt a little," Marx was philosophical. The real blow came in '97, when his dad died following a car crash. "It just shut me down," he says. "Emotionally I was in a fetal position for a year." He stopped touring and broke open the second chapter of his career in 2, when he wrote the chartbuster "This I Promise You" for 'N Sync. "He's a lot more settled and focused," says Rhodes, a stay-at-home mom. "Now it's all about 'How much time can I spend with my family?'" In between numerous projects, such as Vince Gill's upcoming album, Marx likes to hang out with his sons, shooting pool, playing video games—and nurturing their love of music. His audience may be smaller these days, but the rewards are sweeter. "We all wrote a song for Cynthia called 'Merry Christmas, Mama,'" he says. "Three-part harmony, the whole thing—it was great."

Susan Horsburgh
Barbara Sandler in Lake Bluff

  • Contributors:
  • Barbara Sandler.