Chris de Burgh gets past ‘Lady in Red’

Ahead of his Tel Aviv show next month, the veteran Irish singer/songwriter strongly declares that he’s more than just a ballad singer

Chris de Burgh (photo credit: REUTERS)
Chris de Burgh
(photo credit: REUTERS)
We were over 12 minutes into the interview before it was mentioned.
That song... the one that everybody knows and causes many to cringe when it comes on the radio. “I’ve never seen you looking lovely as do tonight... L-a-d-y i-n r-ed...”
Along with Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” Chris de Burgh’s 1986 ballad “The Lady in Red” has entered the pantheon of sappy pop ballads on its way to becoming a romantic standard. But unlike Wonder and Clapton, the 65-year-old Irish singer/songwriter is known to most music fans only through his Hallmark card signature tune.
Not knowing how de Burgh felt about the song or his public persona being so closely identified with it, I decided to not bring up the (red) elephant in the room until we had established a rapport during a phone conversation ahead of his Israel debut in Tel Aviv at the Tel Aviv Cultural Center on April 29. But it was the disarmingly charming veteran performer who raised the issue himself.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to have written a song that’s going to last a lot longer than I am, but it does sometimes surprise me that people are not willing to go any further,” said de Burgh. “They say, ‘eh, lady in red, can’t stand that song – that’s all he ever did and he’s been making a career of it ever since.’ They ignore the fact that I’ve written and recorded about 270 songs – of various kinds, not just ballads.”
“People always try to pigeonhole you, especially the media, who are happy if they can label you as a particular kind of artist. But the spectrum of songs I write and record is vast.
And incidentally, if anybody in Israel thinks they’re going to come and see a guy crooning ‘Lady in Red’ and wearing a tuxedo, they’ll have to think again. This is a very high energy rock show with, of course, a couple of ballads.”
De Burgh probably didn’t turn red, but the restrained outburst certainly signified that the enduring success of his biggest hit has been a double-edged sword for his career.
In fact, by the time “Lady in Red” hit it big internationally, de Burgh was already an established star in the UK, much of Europe and especially in Canada, with a middle-ofthe- road pop rock sound much like his A&M Records label mates like Supertramp and Peter Frampton. Thanks to catchy mid-tempo songs like “Don’t Pay The Ferryman” and “High on Emotion” he was regularly selling out the Wembley Arena in London.
“I was well prepared for the big international success of ‘Lady in Red’ because I had put the time in before,” said de Burgh. “I had been on the road for years and we were already playing in front of 50,000 fans in big football stadiums in Europe.”
Years before that, as a teen, de Burgh received even more onstage experience – if a bit more intimate – performing hundreds of times for guests in his family’s castle-turned hotel in Ireland.
“I know it sounds glamorous, but it was bloody cold growing up in a castle,” laughed de Burgh, explaining that the 12th-century Bargy Castle in Wexford was purchased by his maternal grandfather Sir Eric de Burgh, a British army officer who had been chief of the general staff in India during World War II.
“He turned it into the family home and a hotel for the summer months. Because there wasn’t any TV, in the evenings, I would entertain the guests singing and playing the guitar which I had learned. I did hundreds and hundreds of living room concerts,” said de Burgh.
“If you believe the 10,000-hour theory [of practicing before you are ready to be a professional musician], which I certainly do, then that’s where I put in my apprenticeship and learned a huge amount of how to react with an audience. It was a very special opportunity to have.”
After graduating from university, de Burgh went against his family wish of joining the hotel business and decided to pursue a music career. His first paid gig was singing in a restaurant in the center of Dublin, an experience he called educational.
“Singing in a restaurant is very demeaning and humiliating but you learn from it, because people aren’t there for a show, they’re there to eat,” said de Burgh.
“But once in a while they would stop and listen and clap along if I sang ‘American Pie’ or something. I decided this was something I wanted to pursue to see just how far it would go.”
Moving to London in the early 1970s, he spent nearly three years sleeping on friends’ sofas and playing for peanuts, until A&M Records signed him in 1974. Soon, he was on tour with Supertramp as the opening act on their Crime of the Century tour, building himself a small fan base.
His folky debut album Far Beyond These Castle Walls was a commercial dud, but one song, “Flying,” became a big hit in Brazil, a trend that continued with his next few albums.
“I thought I would be an overnight star when I had a hit record in Brazil with my first album – but things didn’t work out quite like that,” said de Burgh.
By 1982, however, thanks to the album The Getaway and its 1984 follow-up Man On the Line, de Burgh broke through both in the UK and in the US, and his fortunes continue to rise until it broke through the ceiling with “Lady in Red.”
De Burgh explained that he knew the song was well constructed and would have a wide appeal, but admitted he didn’t anticipate that it would evolve in to a pop standard.
“Quite often I’m asked by mostly young people advice on songwriting and I say, ‘go and deconstruct your favorite song and figure out why you like it’,” he said.
“The most successful songs are repetitive in a way. For example if you look at ‘Yesterday,’ it’s such a mathematically constructed song, and the human brain likes to anticipate where a melody is going to go, but also occasionally likes the surprise of a difficult structure.”
“With ‘Lady in Red,’ I think part of it is the tension and release between the clipped verse of” (and de Burgh starts to croon) “neverseen- you-looking-so-lovely-as-you-did-tonight’ and the soothing and slower ‘lady in red.’ The tension is the clipped singing, and then the release of ‘lady in red’ makes it memorable.”
De Burgh also revealed that it was one word in the lyrics that created a whole novella around the story line of the song.
“I included the word ‘never’ and it raised a number of questions for the listener. For a guy to say to a woman, ‘I’ve never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight’ indicates a massive history between them. How long have they been together? Why is he not normally looking at her in that particular way? That was fascinating for me so I developed that particular idea.”
It must have been a pretty good idea, because despite a dozen other well-received albums since then and a thriving career that enables De Burgh and his four-piece band to travel basically anywhere they want in the world, it’s still comes back to that song.
While de Burgh is delighted to play “Lady in Red” at every show, he’s just as happy to rock out with the band, consisting of veteran Welsh and British musicians who have been together for nearly 20 years.
“The key to making good music is that you have to get along with each other not only onstage but offstage as well. We enjoy each other’s company, go to restaurants and have beers together,” said de Burgh.
“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it. It’s nice to make a living at it, but it wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t having fun.”