This song was from the 1981 film of the same name starring Brooke Shields. The film, which was based on a best-selling novel of the same name, was not very successful, but the song received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and won a Marquee Award in 1982 for Best Original Song.
This ended up being one of the most popular songs of the '80s, but it began with more modest ambitions. Lionel Richie had risen from saxophone player in the Commodores to lead vocalist and primary songwriter in the group. He was still with them when Endless Love director Franco Zeffirelli asked him to write an instrumental theme along the lines of Henry Mancini's theme from the 1971 film Love Story. Richie, who was eager to add "film soundtrack" to his resumé, used a piece of music he had written for the Commodores but was never recorded. But then Zeffirelli decided he wanted lyrics. And that it should be a duet, maybe with Diana Ross. So Richie's assignment went from devising an instrumental theme song to composing and performing on a fully-formed duet with the most popular female vocalist in America. He was up for the challenge.
With lots of experience writing sentimental love songs, Richie penned some lyrics, using hyperbolic lines like "You're every breath that I take," befitting the movie title.
This was released on the Motown label, which was home to both artists (the Commodores were a Motown act, and Richie stayed on the label as a solo artist). Ross, though, left Motown two months before it was released, signing a $20 million deal with RCA. Motown made the most of what they had recorded from Ross, and included "Endless Love" on a Diana Ross compilation album called All the Great Hits
, which was also released in 1981.
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Getting the singers together to record this song was a challenge. They ended up meeting at a recording studio in Reno, Nevada in the early morning of May 8, 1981 following Ross' concert in nearby Lake Tahoe (Richie came in from Los Angeles). The session began around 3:30 a.m. Less than two hours later, they had their vocals on tape.
Lionel Richie launched his solo career the year after this song was released. He leveraged the "endless love" theme on his first single, "Truly
," which finds him singing, "This love will last forever." That was also a #1 hit.
This song was rush-recorded because Richie and Ross had to move on to fulfill other obligations. Richie revealed to The Sun March 18, 2009, that he considers the recording of this song to have been "a disaster." He explained: "I'd not written a duet before but the record company suddenly changed the song to a duet and got Diana Ross in. She arrived at the studio and told me she wants my part. I have to kind of make her part up because I can't sing in that key. What you hear on the record is what happened on the day as it had to go out the next day for the movie."
Richie told The Sun March 13, 2009, "Letting others in to write for you is scary but also really creative." He added that he recalled when he did it for Diana Ross with this song, "I wasn't sure I could do it. What if they didn't like it? But I was cocky in a way, I told them to trust me. It was a great learning experience for all of us."
In 1994, Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross recorded this for Vandross' album Songs. It became Luther's biggest hit, going to #2 in the US.
Ross and Richie performed this song at the Oscars in 1982, where it was nominated for Best Original Song (it lost to "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)
"). Ross was used to this focused attention, but it was new to Richie, who was accustomed to sharing the stage with his band. After this performance, which reached a global audience in the hundreds of millions, Richie knew he would have to come into the spotlight as a solo artist.
This went to #1 in the US on August 15, 1981 - a little over three months after it was recorded. It stayed on top for an astonishing nine weeks, and also showed remarkable crossover appeal, topping the R&B chart for seven weeks and the Adult Contemporary chart for three.
This has a longer reign at #1 (nine weeks) than any other Motown single to this point ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine
" was the previous Motown record holder, with seven weeks on top). Boyz II Men claimed the title when "End of the Road
" lasted 13 weeks at #1 in 1992.
Ross and Richie were on different trajectories when this song was released. Ross became a superstar in the '60s with her group The Supremes, and was one of the most popular solo artists of the '70s. Richie was just beginning his solo career, which took him to great heights in the '80s, with four #1 hits. Ross' next single, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," went to #7, but she never got higher.
This wasn't the last time Ross and Richie sang together: they both appeared on "We Are The World
," which Richie co-wrote with Michael Jackson.
Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow sing this at the end of the Friends episode "The One With The Giant Poking Device" (1996).
It was also used in these TV series:
Scandal ("Where The Sun Don't Shine" - 2014)
Glee ("Ballad" - 2009), performed by Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele
King of Queens ("G'Night Stalker" - 2005), sung by Kevin James and Leah Remini
Designing Women ("Anthony Jr." - 1987)
And in these movies:
Baby Mama (2008)
Happy Gilmore (1996)