Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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One of the biggest-selling recording artists ever, global megastar Lionel Riche graciously invites Pete Lewis into his luxurious suite at Mayfairâs opulent Dorchester Hotel to discuss the mellow R&B/pop vibe of his new album âJust Goâ.

Born Lionel Brockman Richie, Jr. in June 1949, the trailblazing singer/songwriter/producerâs solo success story over almost 30 years is unquestionably the stuff of legend and one few artists can match. Heâs sold over 100 million albums; heâs won countless awards (including an Oscar; an impressive five Grammies; plus a Crystal Award for Humanitarianism); heâs 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 monthâs release of âJust Goâ not only signifies the arrival of Richieâs 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 âComing Homeâ tour, Lionelâs 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 Richieâs 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 labelâs then-chart-topping family quintet The Jackson Five.

Nevertheless, it wasnât long before The Commodores would attain success in their own right, with their 1974 debut album âMachine Gunâ 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 âSlippery When Wetâ and âBrickhouseâ. However, it was Lionelâs 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 1977âs âEasyâ; 1978âs Three Times A Ladyâ; and 1979âs âStillâ. 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 Rogersâ record-breaking 1980 US Number One âLadyâ.

Meanwhile, 1981 saw Lionelâs duet with Diana Ross - the title-song for the film 'Endless Loveâ - spending nine weeks at Number One Stateside and, in turn becoming one of Motownâs 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 Lionelâs chart-topping second album - 1982âs âCanât Slow Downâ - 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 âAll Night Longâ and the sentimental ballad âHelloâ. 1985, meanwhile, saw him winning an Oscar for writing and performing the rock-tinged âSay You, Say Meâ (theme to the movie âWhite Nightâ); while also collaborating with Michael Jackson to write, and sing on, the high-profile, star-studded USA For Africa charity single âWe Are The Worldâ.

Yet, while Lionelâs 1986-released third album âDancing On The Ceilingâ (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 âBack To Frontâ in 1992 marking Lionelâs 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 (1996âs âLouder Than Wordsâ; 1998âs âTimeâ; 2000âs âRenaissanceâ; 2005âs âJust For Youâ), all of which disappointingly failed to repeat the huge level of commercial success heâd previously enjoyed at Motown (though three of them did attain Top 10 success in Europe); before his 2006 LP Coming Homeâ finally regained Lionel his American Top 10 chart status, while musically marking a welcome return to his R&B roots. Its offshoot single âI Call It Loveâ in particular making a significant impact, aided by its video starring Lionelâs reality-TV-star/Hollywood celeb daughter Nicole Richie.

⦠Which pretty much brings us up-to-date, with this monthâs release of the former Commodores frontmanâs ninth solo studio album, the aforementioned âJust Goâ. Which - accompanied by the Caribbean-tinged lilt of its seductively tuneful title-track single - finds veteran megastar Richie hooking-up with the cream of todayâs chart-topping R&B/pop writers and producers; including Ne-Yo, Akon, StarGate and C. âTrickyâ 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 âForeverâ and swaying sing-along âThrough My Eyesâ; to the thudding percussion of the upbeat, feel-good âNothing Left To Giveâ and synthesized Euro-dance beats of the pounding-yet-moody âSomewhere In Londonâ.

âInterestingly enough, Iâll start with the REASON I got with all these contemporary guysâ, begins an ever-charming and eloquent Lionel, getting our interview underway relaxing in a massively-ornate armchair: âIt started with me sitting at home trying to figure out âOK, whatâs next? Where do we go? How do we fit into this 2009 situation? Where are we in the music business and whatâs going on?â⦠So I kept on thinking... And then, as Iâm travelling around the world, Iâm talking to all the rappers and all the modern R&B guys - and theyâre like âLionel, youâve inspired my music. I wanna be a writer like YOU!â.. So, all of a sudden, I thought âIâve got the idea! Itâs 2009. The question is âWhat does Lionel Richie sound like and where can he belong today?ââ... And the answer was âThereâs Akon, thereâs Ne-Yo - these are all hugely successful contemporary writers, and theyâre also all my FANS! And, if I give them the chance, they will write for me exactly what theyâd like me to sing next!â. So I decided to give them that power!â

âYou know, at first they were all like âYeah, but donât YOU wanna write something?ââ, he continues: âBut I was like âNo no. What Iâm gonna do is bring the VOICE of Lionel Richie to the tableâ. âCause I realised that what they wanna hear is the SOUND OF ME. You know, because my voice is so identifiable, itâs one of those things where - no matter what Iâm singing - Lionel Richieâs presence will be on it. Itâs just that the TRACK, or the MELODY, has to be believable for todayâs market. So, instead of doing a âLionel Riche Does Duets Of His Songs With The Artists Of Todayâ-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 âJust Goâ came about after weâd done the SONG âJust Goâ with Akon. We were around four/five/six songs deep into the album, and it suddenly came to me - âWhatâs another way of saying âCanât Slow Downâ?... âJUST GOâ! You know, itâs almost 30 years later, and here we go again! It really is a fresh start to a very established brand called âLionel Richieâ!â

âWhich is why, because Iâve never done an album quite like this before, my answers to your questions about what I wanted to create musically wonât be the same as normalâ, adds Lionel, anticipating my next question: âWhile Iâd normally be like âWell, the reason I wrote that song is becauseâ¦â, this time itâs more âI included that song because I loved the melody, and the story was one I could tell and be believable withâ. You know, when you write your own songs, you kinda know where the album is GOING. Whereas, when you say to somebody âOK, bring me the songâ, itâs gonna take it own shape as you go ALONG!â

âI mean, once âTrickyâ 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! Theyâd be like âHereâs the uptempo song, hereâs the midtempo song... And here comes Lionel with the SLOW song!â⦠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.â

Meanwhile, Lionelâs 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: âAbsolutely! Itâs very interesting now. Because weâre only just getting back into melody and great songsâ, he acknowledges without hesitation: âWhat we went through in the Nineties was âMy God, sheâs the most amazing singer!â⦠âWell, what does she DO?â... âOh, sheâs a great DANCER!â⦠Whereas what weâre getting into NOW is acknowledging that great singers have to have great MELODIES, and that great melodies have to be PERFORMED! Though - I donât know if youâve noticed - weâre not quite there with the GUYS yet! You know, amongst all those names youâve 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!â

âI mean, this is a movement thatâs gonna take about another three yearsâ, he continues enthusiastically, now in full flow: ââAnd then weâll 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 âExcuse me? I havenât seen that since WHITNEY!â,.. But, you know itâs all to do with TIME! This wheel just keeps on turning, and everyone says âOh my God, music is dead!â.. No itâs NOT! Itâs ALWAYS gonna be alive and well! Itâs just that the new generation has to FIND it, and bring it BACK!â

While predictably happy to be now considered, once again, part of Americaâs pop/R&B mainstream, veteran melody-maker Lionel today looks back on his relative âwilderness decadeâ (the aforementioned 1996 to 2006) as a bad period within the music industry as a whole: âNo, it wasnât a good timeâ, he retorts: âBecause 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 âKid, we sold four billion McDonalds last year!â⦠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 âartistryâ and âvarietyâ, now we were going through the period of âGive me five Mariahâs⦠Give me 12 of these... Give me six of thoseâ... And so thatâs what we GOT!â

âI mean, I myself went through an era where it was âLionel, can you give me a song likeTHIS?â, or âCan you give me a Jimmy Jam song?â, or âCan you give me a song like Babyface?ââ, he continues animatedly: âAnd Iâd be like âGuys! Anybody want me to do a LIONEL RICHE record?â! And, for a few years, it seemed the answer was âNO!â⦠You know, everybody says âOh my God, itâs a tragedy that the music industry fell part because of the internet!â⦠No, it DIDNâT! It fell apart because there was no VARIETY! It had got BORING!â

Indeed, despite his own high-profile appearances on âAmerican Idolâ, âCanadian Idolâ âAustralian Idolâ and Britainâs âThe X-Factorâ, Lionel remains adamant that todayâs reality music shows are also a contributory factor in taking the uniqueness out of the industry: âYeah, weâve learned how to celebrate mediocrity. You know, âMy daughterâs a singerâ⦠And they call that âAmerican Idolâ!â, he asserts unapologetically: âI mean, if you went back and put James Brown on âAmerican Idolâ and had him sing âWhat The World Needs Now Is Loveâ, heâd have sounded funny! Because James Brown couldnât DO that! But, at the same time, he could sure sing some James Brown! You know, we need to get back to INDIVIDUAL ARTISTRY!â

âI mean, Michael Jackson didnât start out as an amateur â 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 wasnât just some little singer singing at a church - he was a PRO! And do you think Mick Jagger would ever have passed âAmerican Idolâ? NO! Heâd have FAILED! Yet heâs one of the biggest icons rock music ever PRODUCED! As I say, weâve 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!â

So, on the subject of artistry and longevity, as one of the biggest-selling Motown artists ever, how does Lionel feel about Motownâs 50th Anniversary happening this year, and will he be playing any role in it? âWell, the funny thing about that is, it used to be that, if I wanted to get involved, Iâd just call Berry Gordy or Suzanne DePasse! Whereas now I donât know WHO to call!â, he remarks good-naturedly: âYou know, Motownâs been taken over by so many different people and different companies since I was on the label! But, having said that, Iâm sure I will be called to do something somewhere along the way. I mean, whatâs 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 youâd hear was Motown! And back then Iâd never have thought in a BILLION YEARS that Iâd be a part of the labelâs 50 years in ANY WAY! But, you know, here I AM with it!â

âAnd I think the reason the Motown Sound is still around and still significant today is because the melodies are stronger than EVER! You know, theyâre 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 thatâs 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 couldnât miss a step if you WANTED to! But, at the same time, you do need to understand that itâs HAVING A CATALOGUE that is your social security cheque!â

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: ââBlues & Soulâ 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 youâll find that the common denominator thatâs 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 weâre now coming full circle again. And, surprisingly enough, itâs primarily through the BRITISH door that the melody is being brought back into R&B - with artists like Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Adele. Because itâs 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.â

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

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