Stardom Don't Mean Nothin' for Rocker Richard Marx Without Dirty Dancing's Cynthia Rhodes

updated 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

This race is for rats, it can turn you upside down.
Ain't no one you can count on in this sleazy little town.
—"Don't Mean Nothin' "

Wisdom from the mouths of babes, or, in this case, from the mouth of rock's newest wunder kid, Richard Marx. "I wrote it based upon my experiences in the music business," Marx says about "Nothin'," the debut single that gave his career a jump start. "But I think everybody, no matter what business they're in, can relate to those lyrics because everybody has had doors slammed in their faces."

Cynical beyond his years about the L.A. music-go-round, Marx seems gifted beyond his peers when it comes to making commercial, hook-happy hit records. Already a music-biz veteran at 24, he was singing commercial jingles in grade school and peddling songs to Lionel Richie at 18. Now his confident, self-titled debut album has sold nearly a million copies, produced a string of hit singles—"Nothin'," "Should Have Known Better" and the current "Endless Summer Nights"—and earned him a Best Male Rock Vocal Performance nomination at this week's Grammies.

Success and his boyish looks have also brought Marx a herd of young female fans—and temptations he says he resists. "I see beautiful women all the time, and I'm only human," he says. "But I can't imagine a situation where I would act on it, because I've got what I want. I'm happy with my situation." Actress Cynthia Rhodes, who played Patrick Swayze's first partner in Dirty Dancing, figures prominently in that situation; the pair have been a major-league item for three years.

They first met five years ago when Marx, then 19, was hired to write a song for the movie Staying Alive, in which Rhodes co-starred opposite John Travolta. Rhodes, who is seven years Marx's senior, recalls thinking that he was a "really nice, sweet little boy, but he was so young." When they met again at a party two years later, he began lobbying to change her perception. Her initial response was to fix him up on dates with her girlfriends, a strategy that failed. "I would go out with them and talk about Cynthia all night," says Richard. "After a couple of months, I convinced Cynthia that she and I should move to Phase Two." Now, he says, marriage is "definitely" in the cards when his career settles down a little. For her part, Rhodes admits she's a bit unsettled by the potential pitfalls of Marx's life on the road. "I get jealous when I go to his concerts and see beautiful women throwing underwear, bras and flowers," she says, but she understands the female fans' motivation: "The only thing I can say is, those women have good taste."

Born in Chicago, Marx grew up with music. His father, Dick, composed jingles; his mother, Ruth, sang them. "I used to go with my mom and dad to the studio all the time," he says. "I loved being around musicians and being in the rooms with the big speakers." Ruth says Richard "was a great, funny kid who liked baseball and music. He was always very mature, very together. Our friends all called him a 42-year-old midget."

He began singing jingles at age 5 and by 15 was composing his own songs "about girls that wouldn't go out with me in high school." One of dozens of demo tapes Marx made with help from his parents' musician friends found its way to Lionel Richie, who, in 1982, encouraged Marx to move to L.A., where he made a so-so living as a songwriter and backup singer. His dream of making his own LP remained elusive. "I was turned down by every record company at least three times," says Marx. His lowest point came when his friend, producer David Foster, "looked at me one day and said, 'You're never going to get a record. You're not an artist.' When you hear that from somebody you really care about, it's devastating," says Marx. "I felt like collapsing."

Marx finally got a chance to prove Foster wrong when Manhattan Records signed him in 1986 after he auditioned for the company's president. Says Marx: "I kept waiting in terror for the president to call me up and say, 'Just kidding!' " It didn't hurt that, when the time came to record the album, Marx was able to enlist the aid of ex-Eagles Joe Walsh, Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit. Says Walsh of the recording sessions: "Richard was telling me 'Change that part! Play this!' I was saying 'Who is this kid ordering me around?' This guy is very, very talented."

Despite his sudden success, Marx is trying to be very, very realistic. "It could be the next single or 20 singles from now, but eventually I'm going to put out a song that is going to stall and go double plywood. But I won't freak out, because I can always work as a producer. As long as I'm in the music business," he says, "I'm a happy man."

—Written by Steve Dougherty, reported by Vicki Sheff

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