LIONEL RICHIE: THREE TIMES A SUPERSTAR
One of the biggest-selling recording artists ever, global megastar Lionel Riche graciously invites Pete Lewis into his luxurious suite at Mayfair’s opulent Dorchester Hotel to discuss the mellow R&B/pop vibe of his new album ‘Just Go’.
Born Lionel Brockman Richie, Jr. in June 1949, the trailblazing singer/songwriter/producer’s solo success story over almost 30 years is unquestionably the stuff of legend and one few artists can match. He’s sold over 100 million albums; he’s won countless awards (including an Oscar; an impressive five Grammies; plus a Crystal Award for Humanitarianism); he’s written some of the best-known and most enduringly-loved songs in pop history; and, to this day, continues to sell out stadium and arena shows all over the world.
Indeed, this month’s release of ‘Just Go’ not only signifies the arrival of Richie’s first new studio LP in more than two years, but also coincides with him heading out on the road for a massive 35-date European tour, beginning in Ireland this March and ending in Belgium in May. Taking in his first UK shows since his sold-out 2007 ’Coming Home’ tour, Lionel’s upcoming concerts promise to not only give fans a chance to experience first-hand his aforementioned new album, but also his extensive back catalogue... Ranging from breakthrough Seventies smashes from his Commodores days to the later, chart-topping classics of his record-breaking solo career.
All of which seems a far cry from Richie’s humble rural origins in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he grew up on the campus of Tuskegee Institute. Despite his family later moving to Illinois, he eventually returned to his birthplace. Where - as a student at the aforementioned Tuskegee Institute in the mid-Sixties - he formed a succession of R&B groups before, in 1968, becoming lead singer and saxophonist with local outfit The Commodores. Signing with Atlantic Records the same year, the self-contained sextet released one record before moving on to Motown Records, where they were initially schooled as a support act to the label’s then-chart-topping family quintet The Jackson Five.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before The Commodores would attain success in their own right, with their 1974 debut album ’Machine Gun’ attaining Gold status. Its transatlantic Top 20 title track boasting the danceable, funky sound the group originally became noted for, via a string of earthy R&B hit singles like ‘Slippery When Wet’ and ‘Brickhouse’. However, it was Lionel’s penchant for writing more romantic, easy-listening-style ballads that, in the late Seventies, would truly take The Commodores to international crossover super-group status through chart-topping, enduring love songs like 1977’s ‘Easy’; 1978’s Three Times A Lady’; and 1979’s ‘Still’. All of which are now firmly established as bona fide all-time classics and, at the time, led directly to Lionel accepting songwriting commissions from other artists; the most significant being country superstar Kenny Rogers’ record-breaking 1980 US Number One ‘Lady’.
Meanwhile, 1981 saw Lionel’s duet with Diana Ross - the title-song for the film 'Endless Love’ - spending nine weeks at Number One Stateside and, in turn becoming one of Motown’s biggest-ever hits. All of which ultimately encouraged Richie to branch out into a fully-fledged solo career in 1982, with his self-titled US Top Three debut solo LP going on to sell over four million copies. However, it was Lionel’s chart-topping second album - 1982’s ‘Can’t Slow Down’ - which, with sales in excess of 10 million and two Grammy Awards to its credit, truly propelled him into the first rank of international superstars, via such global smashes as the Caribbean-flavoured party anthem ’All Night Long’ and the sentimental ballad ’Hello’. 1985, meanwhile, saw him winning an Oscar for writing and performing the rock-tinged ‘Say You, Say Me’ (theme to the movie ‘White Night’); while also collaborating with Michael Jackson to write, and sing on, the high-profile, star-studded USA For Africa charity single ‘We Are The World’.
Yet, while Lionel’s 1986-released third album ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’ (pioneered by its lively uptempo title-track) effortlessly continued his global multi-Platinum chart-domination, 1987 found a tired Richie - exhausted from his relentless work schedule - deciding to take time out to return to Alabama to care for his sick father, who eventually died in 1990.
With his first greatest-hits collection ‘Back To Front’ in 1992 marking Lionel’s long-awaited return to recording and performing, it nevertheless proved his last release as a Motown artist. Leaving Motown and signing to Mercury Records, he then went on to release a string of studio albums (1996’s ‘Louder Than Words’; 1998’s ‘Time’; 2000’s ‘Renaissance’; 2005’s ‘Just For You’), all of which disappointingly failed to repeat the huge level of commercial success he’d previously enjoyed at Motown (though three of them did attain Top 10 success in Europe); before his 2006 LP Coming Home’ finally regained Lionel his American Top 10 chart status, while musically marking a welcome return to his R&B roots. Its offshoot single ‘I Call It Love’ in particular making a significant impact, aided by its video starring Lionel’s reality-TV-star/Hollywood celeb daughter Nicole Richie.
… Which pretty much brings us up-to-date, with this month’s release of the former Commodores frontman’s ninth solo studio album, the aforementioned ‘Just Go’. Which - accompanied by the Caribbean-tinged lilt of its seductively tuneful title-track single - finds veteran megastar Richie hooking-up with the cream of today’s chart-topping R&B/pop writers and producers; including Ne-Yo, Akon, StarGate and C. ‘Tricky’ Stewart. All of whom combine to create a contemporary LP of consistent quality - whose tracks range from melodic, romantic ballads like the easy-going, surging ‘Forever’ and swaying sing-along ’Through My Eyes’; to the thudding percussion of the upbeat, feel-good ‘Nothing Left To Give’ and synthesized Euro-dance beats of the pounding-yet-moody ‘Somewhere In London’.
“Interestingly enough, I’ll start with the REASON I got with all these contemporary guys”, begins an ever-charming and eloquent Lionel, getting our interview underway relaxing in a massively-ornate armchair: “It started with me sitting at home trying to figure out ‘OK, what’s next? Where do we go? How do we fit into this 2009 situation? Where are we in the music business and what’s going on?’… So I kept on thinking... And then, as I’m travelling around the world, I’m talking to all the rappers and all the modern R&B guys - and they’re like ’Lionel, you’ve inspired my music. I wanna be a writer like YOU!’.. So, all of a sudden, I thought ‘I’ve got the idea! It’s 2009. The question is “What does Lionel Richie sound like and where can he belong today?”’... And the answer was ‘There’s Akon, there‘s Ne-Yo - these are all hugely successful contemporary writers, and they’re also all my FANS! And, if I give them the chance, they will write for me exactly what they’d like me to sing next!’. So I decided to give them that power!”
“You know, at first they were all like ‘Yeah, but don’t YOU wanna write something?’”, he continues: “But I was like ‘No no. What I’m gonna do is bring the VOICE of Lionel Richie to the table’. ’Cause I realised that what they wanna hear is the SOUND OF ME. You know, because my voice is so identifiable, it’s one of those things where - no matter what I’m singing - Lionel Richie‘s presence will be on it. It’s just that the TRACK, or the MELODY, has to be believable for today’s market. So, instead of doing a ‘Lionel Riche Does Duets Of His Songs With The Artists Of Today’-type record, I decided instead to let the artists of today actually WRITE the next story, the next chapter - and see what happens from there... And the title ‘Just Go’ came about after we’d done the SONG ‘Just Go’ with Akon. We were around four/five/six songs deep into the album, and it suddenly came to me - ‘What’s another way of saying ’Can’t Slow Down’?... ’JUST GO’! You know, it’s almost 30 years later, and here we go again! It really is a fresh start to a very established brand called ‘Lionel Richie’!”
“Which is why, because I’ve never done an album quite like this before, my answers to your questions about what I wanted to create musically won’t be the same as normal”, adds Lionel, anticipating my next question: “While I’d normally be like ’Well, the reason I wrote that song is because…’, this time it’s more ‘I included that song because I loved the melody, and the story was one I could tell and be believable with’. You know, when you write your own songs, you kinda know where the album is GOING. Whereas, when you say to somebody ’OK, bring me the song’, it’s gonna take it own shape as you go ALONG!”
“I mean, once ‘Tricky’ and The-Dream started bringing the pop flavour, I knew we were on to something… Then, when Ne-Yo came along with the R&B thing, it was BRILLIANT! To me it was almost like sitting there doing an album with The Commodores! Because back in the Commodores days, Thommy (McClary) would write one song, Milan (Williams) would write another… And my job was to do the mix in the middle - to bring the type of song or style that was missing! They’d be like ’Here’s the uptempo song, here’s the midtempo song... And here comes Lionel with the SLOW song!’… So yeah, this album was one of those things where we pretty much just put it together on the fly, with no-one else knowing what the other person was bringing in.”
Meanwhile, Lionel’s enthusiasm for the newly-revived melodic aspect of contemporary pop/R&B also extends to the current explosion of globally-successful UK soul singer/songwriters like Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele: “Absolutely! It’s very interesting now. Because we’re only just getting back into melody and great songs”, he acknowledges without hesitation: “What we went through in the Nineties was ‘My God, she’s the most amazing singer!’… ‘Well, what does she DO?’... ‘Oh, she’s a great DANCER!’… Whereas what we’re getting into NOW is acknowledging that great singers have to have great MELODIES, and that great melodies have to be PERFORMED! Though - I don’t know if you’ve noticed - we’re not quite there with the GUYS yet! You know, amongst all those names you’ve just mentioned there are no MALE singers! And the reason for that is that, when rap and house and the boy-groups came in, we eliminated male singers COMPLETELY! And by that I do mean male SINGERS, not male rappers and male vocalists that can riff! But, you know, the singers are now coming back!”
“I mean, this is a movement that’s gonna take about another three years”, he continues enthusiastically, now in full flow: “’And then we’ll see the whole wave come back, to the point where people wanna sit down and listen to PRODUCTION again! And what I mean by that is a PROPER production, where you hear the strings and the full orchestration come out. I mean, at the Brits this year it was FLAWLESS! Duffy had the string section behind her; she was wearing a gown... And I was like ‘Excuse me? I haven’t seen that since WHITNEY!’,.. But, you know it’s all to do with TIME! This wheel just keeps on turning, and everyone says ’Oh my God, music is dead!’.. No it’s NOT! It’s ALWAYS gonna be alive and well! It’s just that the new generation has to FIND it, and bring it BACK!”
While predictably happy to be now considered, once again, part of America’s pop/R&B mainstream, veteran melody-maker Lionel today looks back on his relative “wilderness decade” (the aforementioned 1996 to 2006) as a bad period within the music industry as a whole: “No, it wasn’t a good time”, he retorts: “Because in America we went from CREATIVE artists to CREATED artists! So the self-contained artist who had something to say as an individual was DEAD! And we went into the whole McDonalds/cookie-cutter type mentality of ‘Kid, we sold four billion McDonalds last year!’… GREAT - all the burgers LOOK the same, and they all TASTE the same! You know, whereas previously the music business had always been about the words ’artistry’ and ‘variety’, now we were going through the period of ‘Give me five Mariah’s… Give me 12 of these... Give me six of those’... And so that’s what we GOT!”
“I mean, I myself went through an era where it was ‘Lionel, can you give me a song likeTHIS?’, or ‘Can you give me a Jimmy Jam song?’, or ’Can you give me a song like Babyface?’”, he continues animatedly: “And I’d be like ‘Guys! Anybody want me to do a LIONEL RICHE record?’! And, for a few years, it seemed the answer was ‘NO!”… You know, everybody says ‘Oh my God, it’s a tragedy that the music industry fell part because of the internet!’… No, it DIDN’T! It fell apart because there was no VARIETY! It had got BORING!”
Indeed, despite his own high-profile appearances on ‘American Idol’, ‘Canadian Idol’ ‘Australian Idol’ and Britain’s ‘The X-Factor’, Lionel remains adamant that today’s reality music shows are also a contributory factor in taking the uniqueness out of the industry: “Yeah, we’ve learned how to celebrate mediocrity. You know, ‘My daughter’s a singer’… And they call that ‘American Idol’!”, he asserts unapologetically: “I mean, if you went back and put James Brown on ‘American Idol’ and had him sing ‘What The World Needs Now Is Love’, he’d have sounded funny! Because James Brown couldn’t DO that! But, at the same time, he could sure sing some James Brown! You know, we need to get back to INDIVIDUAL ARTISTRY!”
“I mean, Michael Jackson didn’t start out as an amateur – he was a pro. That little boy was brilliant from Day ONE! They just needed to put him on record - and from there a PHENOMENON was born! Again, Marvin Gaye wasn’t just some little singer singing at a church - he was a PRO! And do you think Mick Jagger would ever have passed ’American Idol’? NO! He’d have FAILED! Yet he’s one of the biggest icons rock music ever PRODUCED! As I say, we‘ve learnt to put everybody into this little cookie-cutter thing to make it work. But what people are REALLY looking for is something DIFFERENT - those things that make a UNIQUE ARTIST!”
So, on the subject of artistry and longevity, as one of the biggest-selling Motown artists ever, how does Lionel feel about Motown’s 50th Anniversary happening this year, and will he be playing any role in it? “Well, the funny thing about that is, it used to be that, if I wanted to get involved, I’d just call Berry Gordy or Suzanne DePasse! Whereas now I don’t know WHO to call!”, he remarks good-naturedly: “You know, Motown’s been taken over by so many different people and different companies since I was on the label! But, having said that, I’m sure I will be called to do something somewhere along the way. I mean, what’s amazing to me is that 25 out of those 50 years of Motown actually involved Lionel Richie and The Commodores! You know, I grew UP with the Motown Sound! At my High School dances and college dances all you’d hear was Motown! And back then I’d never have thought in a BILLION YEARS that I’d be a part of the label’s 50 years in ANY WAY! But, you know, here I AM with it!”
“And I think the reason the Motown Sound is still around and still significant today is because the melodies are stronger than EVER! You know, they’re not gonna go ANYWHERE! Plus, the fact that EVERY ARTIST has a catalogue of songs - not just two or three songs - within themselves is just UNBELIEVABLE! I mean, to me that’s definitely something these people just heading into the industry today really need to aspire to. Because OK, you can dance your ass off and look great - you know, 19 years old and you couldn’t miss a step if you WANTED to! But, at the same time, you do need to understand that it’s HAVING A CATALOGUE that is your social security cheque!”
Meanwhile, with our brief-yet-coveted time-slot with the forthright Mr. Richie drawing to an end, he closes by appropriately bringing our conversation back to the importance of melody in R&B: “’Blues & Soul’ has been a part of my career since the Seventies. I even remember, at one point, being interviewed by the original editor (John E. Abbey). And you’ll find that the common denominator that’s run through every one of our interviews over the years has been the importance of MELODY! For example, it was always the melodic aspect of R&B that rock artists would latch onto to take their own thing onto the next level. So, it was when the MELODY in R&B died that ROCK died, and everything went into grunge! Because suddenly the only melodies they could get were from COUNTRY music, and so it became all about the folk guitar thing. But, as I said earlier, I am glad to see that we’re now coming full circle again. And, surprisingly enough, it’s primarily through the BRITISH door that the melody is being brought back into R&B - with artists like Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Adele. Because it’s the British who have held on to the true heritage of R&B. They know the history of everybody, and they understand that the key to songwriting longevity is to not only say something meaningful, but also to accompany it with a memorable MELODY.”
Lionel's 2009 UK tour runs from March 16 to April 8. Tickets from Lionel Richie 24-hour credit card hotline 0844 847 2307
The single 'Just Go' and the album 'Just Go' are both released March 16 through Mercury Records
Words PETE LEWIS