Is there a pop singer alive for whom clicking the shuffle button on Spotify could result in a stream of duets that pair him with Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Rob Zombie, and Luciano Pavarotti?
His name is Lionel Richie.
Calling from a tour break in Fort Lauderdale, Richie does not start the conversation by saying, “Hello.”
Instead, the cheerful 68-year-old songwriter who cowrote “We are the World” with Michael Jackson and achieved adult-contemporary ubiquity in the 1980s with No. 1 hits “Endless Love,” “Truly,” “All Night Long (All Night),” “Say You, Say Me,” and “Hello” starts in about his early days with the Commodores.
That’s the 1970s funk band the Tuskegee, Ala., native first rode to success, scoring mellow hits like “Three Times a Lady” and “Easy,” and party-starters such as “Brick House,” the cut he rerecorded in a raucous 2003 version with Zombie and rapper Trina.
The road life of a balladeer who’s sold more than 100 million records and who has been newly named a 2017 Kennedy Center honoree is quite different now.
Still, he misses his upstart days.
“Those were the glory years,” he says. “The first couple of records are the greatest things that ever happened in your life. How could you be suffering? Who cares if you’re traveling around in a bus with 12 young bucks? You’re out there judging a ‘Brick House’ contest as a 27-year-old. Life was just amazing. I always look at those years fondly because everything was in discovery mode.”
For many years, he says, he hoped to reunite with the Commodores but lost the urge after keyboard player Milan Williams died in 2006. “I don’t like to see a band that doesn’t have the original members,” he says. “And sometimes the memory is more spectacular than the reality. The longer you wait, the better the past can seem.” He laughs. “It’s like your grandfather walking out in his Speedo and saying, ‘Look, I wore this back in 1968.’ And you go, ‘God, that looks … really bad.’ ”
Richie has little need to reclaim the past, as he’s riding a resurgence he believes is due to a yearning for melody in reaction to the dominance of rap, which he calls “a great new music genre.” He’s played high-profile festivals like Bonnaroo in 2014 and received a “Hello” bump when Adele’s massive hit of the same name helped make him a favorite of meme makers using his visage to ask questions such as “Hello? Is it memes you’re looking for?”
The Wells Fargo show was rescheduled from March after Richie, who went to the Tuskegee Institute on a tennis scholarship, tore a meniscus. He’s healed now. “As long as I can run from the left side of the stage to the right side of the stage, we have show business.”
The Kennedy honors, which will be given out in December to Richie as well as to LL Cool J, Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear, and dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, “caught me so off guard,” says the singer. “There are things in the music business where you say, ‘OK, I’m a candidate for that down the line.’ But the Kennedy Center is completely left field. I got the phone call and I just had to sit down and say, ‘Really?’ ”
Another trophy that meant a great deal was the Johnny Mercer award, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame’s highest honor he received in 2016. “You’re talking about songwriters’ songwriters. This is the elite group. You think of Henry Mancini. Sammy Cahn. To be in that fraternity or sorority with some of the greatest songwriters in the world.
“And Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philly International, who I think of as the songwriters of life, presented me with that award. And, I have to tell you, growing up as kid in Alabama, I idolized them as writers.”
On ballads like “Hello,” Richie often uses pregnant pauses to convey a conversational tone. He learned that listening to his parents’ record collection. “I couldn’t help but be a fan of Johnny Mathis because that’s all my mom and dad played in the house.
“Outside the house, in the neighborhood, James Brown came along. But from one to 12 years old, Nat Cole and Johnny Mathis was it. ‘Chances Are’? I could sing that for you right now. It just kind of sank in. Very smooth, very clear lyrical content that you can sing along with.”
That style came naturally to Richie in the Commodores, where his bandmates were “the funkateers, and I would have the pleasure of putting the melody and lyrics on top.”
Initially, he says, the music industry didn’t know what to do with him. “I would write a song like “Just to Be Close to You,” and take it to pop radio, and they would say that was too black,” he recalls. Or “Easy Like Sunday Morning”: Black radio would say that was too white.”
The key, he says, was being himself.
“Finally, one day an executive said to me, you just write what you want to write, I’ll get it played. From that point on, it was show business.”
The transition to being the crossover star who rivaled Prince, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen for popularity in the mid-1980s was effortless, he said. (1984’s Can’t Slow Down sold more than 20 million copies.)
“I didn’t plan on the smooth stuff, but of all the subjects to write about, one does not go out of style. Three corny words: I Love You.
“What I didn’t realize I had tapped into, is every wedding, every anniversary, every engagement. These songs are stuck in the fabric of people’s lives. … And when you’re part of people’s memories, that’s even bigger than a hit record.”
Richie has been married and divorced twice, and has three children. In addition to adopted daughter Nicole, 35 — who, during her run on the hit reality TV series The Simple Life with her BFF Paris Hilton was more famous than her father — he has a son, Miles, 23, and daughter Sofia, 18, who’s launched a modeling career (and who had highly publicized fling with Justin Bieber).
“I can’t call her Little Sofie anymore; she’s full-grown gorilla Sofie,” he says. “Nicole did her thing, and now Sofie’s doing her thing and Miles is getting ready to do his thing. I think it’s the greatest expression of life when your kids upstage you. I am a very proud daddy, and I look forward to my kids taking care of me.”
His most recent album is 2012’s Tuskegee, in which he paired with country stars like Rogers. It’s not the first time the duo worked together: Richie wrote the 1980 super-schmaltzy hit “Lady” for Rogers.
Ping-ponging from plush easy listening to the grit of his “Brick House” with Zombie makes perfect sense to Richie.
“I always think of myself as a writer,” he says. “Not as a funky writer, or not as a smooth writer. I can write to anything. Years ago, I wanted to do a duet with Mick Jagger. I think a duet with me and Bruce Springsteen would be great. You have to look at yourself outside of what people think you are, and not limit yourself.”