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Interview: Lionel Richie

2008-11-24 08:46
The R&B stalwart is a savvy superstar. He’s heard it all before: from critics dismissing smash hits like "Hello" and "Say You, Say Me" as 'sentimental adult contemporary sap' to cynics going so far as to label him the 'Black Barry Manilow'.

"I found out something" he says. "All the football and basketball players kept coming to me saying, 'I want to write this to my girlfriend - what should I say?' [I thought] Hmm…And as time went on I found out that whatever they needed to say I had a simple way of saying it. That’s the foundation of why I embraced that romantic side of me. I became very popular."

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'Popular' is an understatement. After all this is the songwriter whose slick urban soul styling on a string of epoch-defining party starters and Valentine's Day ballads including "Easy", "Brickhouse", "Endless Love", "Hello", "Penny Lover", and "Dancing on the Ceiling" pretty much defined the urban pop crossover blueprint back in the 80s. After all the hits, the Grammys, the Golden Globe and the Oscar, does Richie ever look back and think, "hmm, maybe I should have pursued that tennis scholarship at university and become the next Arthur Ashe?"

"Can you imagine?" laughs Lionel. "Arthur Ashe actually gave me the best advice. I went to him and said, 'I’m thinking about being a professional tennis player'. He said 'how old are you?' I said 'I'm 19’' Then he said, 'you’re too old.' How about that? It was at that moment that I stepped out onto the university campus and there standing before me was Thomas McClary, the guitar player from The Commodores. And he said, 'do you want to join a band?' That's show business."

Indeed. It must have been an amazingly creative space back during the golden days of Motown? "Oh yeah" smiles Lionel. "There are great universities for music. Julliard, Berkley, you name it - but nothing like Motown university, you know? If ever you wanted to learn how to be an artist, and have it taught to you by the artists themselves. I had Professor Marvin Gaye, Professor Smokey Robinson, I had the principal of the university, Berry Gordy - I mean come on! For a guy who can’t read or write music I couldn’t ask for a better education…especially when I found out all my instructors can’t read or write music."

Was there a moment when he woke up and said, 'I can do this, I am a songwriter?' "Yeah, it was with "Easy"," says Lionel. "It was one of those songs where even the great songwriters would call me on the phone and go: 'kid what were you thinking about when you wrote that song?'. And I'd go: 'hmm, I don't know exactly myself, but what do you think?'

That was the opening of the door. And then "Three Times a Lady" was the one when I started getting calls from Henry Mancini: 'kid are you Jewish? 'cos no black guy writes like that, you know?' When Andre Kostelanetz called me on the phone and said 'we're going to do a symphony version of "Three Times a Lady" ' - that’s when it got serious."
Having helped The Commodores evolve from just another funk band into proto-urban pop pioneers, it couldn’t have been an easy move to go solo? "Somewhere along the way I stopped trying to swim and just got with the current and an amazing thing happened" shrugs Lionel. "It was like if you can just get out of your own way and say 'okay now God, what do you have in store for me?' you'll enjoy the ride. That's what happened to Lionel Richie, you know?"

Enjoy the ride Richie certainly did. Stepping out of his Commodores comfort zone, he primed himself for solo success by penning country crooner Kenny Rogers massive hit "Lady", then hooked up with Motown princess Diana Ross for their sexy soulful duet "Endless Love". The slick soul pop styling of # 1 singles "All Night Long" and "Hello" catapulted 1983's Can’t Slow Down to the top of the Billboard charts for two months. It also bagged him a pair of Grammy Awards.

An Oscar Award for his White Nights theme song, "Say You, Say Me" followed. In 1985 Lionel was at the peak of his creative powers, co-penning the USA For Africa’s charity single smash "We Are the World" with Michael Jackson. By the time 1986’s Dancing on the Ceiling hit the #1 spot Lionel’s feel good urban pop cocktail had become as much a blueprint for crossover pop success as Michael Jackson's Thriller. So how come he retired, taking a decade long break from recording?

"I'm used to album-tour, album-tour" reflects Lionel. "Right when it was time to do my next album, my dad called and said I'm not doing too well, can you come and check on me? I thought it’d be a couple of months and I'd go back to work. But he didn't get better…so dad was dying, and I had divorce coming and my throat stopped working. I guess it was because of the stress" he explains.

"My manager came to me one day and said, 'Lionel, why get your mind off all this - write a love song!' How do you write a love song at the bottom of the well? It took me about three years to pull all that together and grab me out off the bottom of the ocean somewhere and get back onboard. But thank God there was an audience waiting. Because normally when you disappear for that long you have to start over again, you know?"

Granted, but was his hiatus perhaps also a case of perfect timing? In the late 80s surely Lionel’s sentimental urban pop ballads and slick dance-pop shuffles were completely out of synch with a late 80s American zeitgeist where hardcore hip-hop and gangster rap was about to be birthed?

"Oh yeah, that," chuckles Lionel. "Thank God that what happened with me was that marriage and 'I love you' never goes out of style. As corny as it may I told one of the great rappers, I said, 'you know, you can start off with hip all day long, but as sooner or later you’re going to open your mouth and say to some wonderful lady: 'I love you. I want you. I need you. Forever.' And [when you do that] you’ve just entered into the Lionel Richie world.

- Miles Keylock

"I'm a hopeless, die-hard, sappy, disgusting romantic," smiles Lionel Richie. "For the longest time I kept trying to be the macho guy and hang with the jocks, but…" he shakes his head. "It came out sappy and syrupy no matter how I tried to do it."

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