Lionel Richie. Father of 3 – Nicole, Miles, and Sofia. Grandfather of 2 – Harlow and Sparrow. International Superstar. Oscar winner. 5 time Grammy winner. 16-time American Music Award winner. Golden Globe winner. 5 time People’s Choice Award winner. A World Music Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. A Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. An ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. A United Negro College Fund Achievement Award recipient. A Goldene Kamera Award winner. Songwriters Hall of Fame Inductee. Tuskegee Institute Honorary Doctor of Music Degree. Germany’s ECHO Award for Lifetime Achievement. TV Land Icon Award recipient. Hong Kong’s Rojo Award winner. Alabama Music Hall of Fame Inductee. Italy’s San Remo Festival Lifetime Achievement Award winner. World Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award Winner. National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Governors Award winner. 100 million albums sold worldwide.
You can comb the incredible statistics surrounding Lionel Richie’s amazing career and not encompass it all. Lionel Richie has a discography of albums and singles that navigate an emotional landscape that few writers/entertainers have ever truly captured. A little known fact that is that Lionel Richie, let’s just call him Lionel, and Irving Berlin are the only two songwriters in history to achieve the honor of having #1 records for nine consecutive years and that the real story behind Lionel is essentially the American dream.
Lionel was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. He lived in a small, isolated, predominantly African American community in the original home of Booker T. Washington. His family home is situated directly on the campus of what is now Tuskegee University and was previously The Tuskegee Institute, home of the Tuskegee Airmen. Lionel’s grandmother, Adelaide Foster, a classical pianist, lived to be 102. His father, Lionel Richie Sr., was a military man – strict, regimented but also sincere towards his wife and children. Lionel’s mother, Adelaide Richie, was an English teacher. Lionel, to this day, values proper grammar because his mother always enforced its use. Lionel also has a younger sister, Deborah, who has dedicated most of her life to education and has recently completed her master’s degree from the University of California Los Angeles.
Let’s fast forward to Lionel’s college years. Lionel, a tennis player, was walking across campus in his short, white tennis shorts and carrying a saxophone. A few members of a group called The Mystics, approached Lionel and asked if he knew how to play that saxophone. Lionel, knowing a couple notes, proudly exclaimed, “Yes!” Eventually, Lionel was invited to join their group which would later be renamed The Commodores.
Lionel joined bass player and trumpeter Ronald La Pread, keyboardist, trombonist and rhythm guitarist Milan Williams, trumpeter, rhythm guitarist and synthesizer player William “WAK” King, lead guitarist Thomas McClary and Walter Orange, vocalist and drummer. It was Walter who was the original lead. Lionel played saxophone and piano. Originally, the group was called The Mystics and then The ‘Jays. One day, while trying to decide on a new name for the group, the band decided to open the dictionary at random and point to a word. As the story goes, they almost called themselves The Commodes. However, the group, knowing they could not bear to become known as The Commodes, decided on the name The Commodores.
In 1968, Lionel, defying his parents, joined this musical group because he wanted to leave the confines of Tuskegee and travel to perform in a group that he hoped would be a huge success. His first taste of stardom came when he was performing in New York and a group of female fans began to scream his name. Lionel reluctantly followed a band member’s suggestion to reach down and kiss a girl in the front row. He knew, however, that this act was the beginning of his stardom. This small pack of girls would turn into millions of screaming fans yelling not only his name, but also singing along with every one of his songs at every one of his shows.
It’s now 1971. Motown Records was founded in Detroit, Michigan by CEO and Chairman Berry Gordy and was huge at this point. Skip Miller was the Vice President of Motown University as Lionel jokingly calls it today. One night, Skip Miller walked into a club, saw The Commodores perform on stage and realized these kids had talent. Lionel, along with the rest of the group, was presented to Berry Gordy and given a record deal. This record label was prolific at the time because it had the most respected R&B and soul acts of the era including The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5, who The Commodores would later tour with. As the opening act for The Jackson 5, The Commodores began the start of their international success. They released their first single, “Machine Gun” in 1974, which reached #7 on the US R&B charts. The Commodores would go on have more singles that topped the charts including “Brick House”, “Just To Be Close To You”, and “Too Hot Ta Trot” to list a few.
Lionel, after sitting in numerous studio sessions with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smoky Robinson, began to ask questions. In his innocence, Lionel once asked Marvin Gaye: “Which music conservatory did you graduate from?” Marvin responded: “Little brother, I cannot read or write music.” This opened up Lionel’s thinking; If Marvin Gaye, who at that time was one of the most creative songwriters, couldn’t read or write music, then maybe he should try to achieve success as a songwriter as well. It is at this moment that Lionel Richie, vocalist, pianist, and saxophonist added songwriter to his repertoire. He became influential within The Commodores due to his ability to write songs without genre boundaries, hence, “Three Times A Lady”, “Stuck On You”, “Lady” featuring Kenny Rogers, “Still,” and “Easy.”
In 1981, when Lionel decided to pursue a solo career, his fans rolled with him. They watched Lionel become one of the most successful artists of the 1980’s, earning a string of 13 top ten hits between 1981 and 1987, including nine #1 singles. The first was, “Endless Love”, a ballad that he wrote and sang as a duet with his dear friend, Diana Ross. Afterwards came the success of “Truly,” “All Night Long,” “Hello,” and “Say You (Say Me”) for which he won his Oscar and a Golden Globe. His 1982 self-titled album established a run of platinum plus albums throughout the 80’s, with 1986’s “Dancing On The Ceiling” becoming a pop and R&B classic. He also found time to co-write with Michael Jackson what eventually would become pop’s most famous anthem – the Live-Aid tune “We Are The World.”
On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson passed away. The world lost a superstar and Lionel Richie lost not only a friend, but also a family member. He was devastated. “There will be no one to replace Michael,” says Lionel. On July 7, 2009, Lionel dedicated his performance of “Jesus is Love” to Michael and the Jackson family at Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service in Los Angeles. Months after Michael’s death, Lionel and Quincy Jones teamed up once again for the 25th year Anniversary remake of “We Are the World,” this time to benefit Haiti after a truly devastating earthquake in January 2010.
Lionel has built a life out of doing precisely what people presumed he could not do. “Growing up if you told me to go left, I would go right,” laughs Lionel. “If you brought me into a room and said there’s one door that I absolutely cannot open, that’s the door I’m going to open.” And just like the legends he admires, from Sinatra to Santana, Lionel knows what it’s like to hear a door close as well. He’s survived the roller coaster ride of the music business by refusing to let others define him. The Lionel Richie story has always been about making that leap of faith with no net.
Lionel has upheld his amazing run by relating simply and honestly to the people who now celebrate his records as quintessential moments in their lives. Lionel’s rapport with his fans is legendary. Not only do they sing along at his concerts all over the world, but also the ‘first name basis’ he’s earned in their hearts has been protocol since his days with The Commodores.
Lionel’s continuing relevance as a multi-generational artist was evidenced by his inclusion as a celebrity judge on “American Idol.” The performance of his classic “Easy” by one of the finalists during the 2006 season of the show was another reminder of Lionel’s enduring presence and effect on the contemporary music scene. Further keeping Lionel as part of the changing world of music, he has enlisted some of the top writers and producers such as Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, Akon, Sean Garrett, Stargate, Tricky Dream and Kuk, Ne-Yo, John Eubank, and Bob Sinclar. This new breed of writers and producers has slews of #1 hit singles and albums between them for artists such as Beyonce, Rihanna, Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige, to name a few.
Lionel released his eighth studio album entitled “Coming Home” on September 12, 2006. The first single of the album was “I Call It Love” and premiered in July 2006, becoming his biggest hit in the U.S. in ten years. His adopted daughter, Nicole, stars in the music video for this track. The album was an incredible success for Lionel in the United States, peaking at #6.
In September of 2008, Lionel performed in Holland for a sold out, four night, 35,000 per night crowd in a sea of red for Symphonica in Rosso, the largest annual musical event in Holland held at the Gelredome in Arnheim. The shows, featuring a 40-piece orchestra, were produced by John Eubank and conducted by Guido Dieteren. Lionel performed a duet with Trijntje Oosterhuis, “Face in the Crowd,” as well as “Brick House” with saxophonist Candy Dulfer. This was a tribute to Lionel maintaining his international fan base.
A new album “Just Go” was released in the spring of 2009. The album features Akon on the title track “Just Go.” Due to the international success of “Face in The Crowd,” Lionel decided to add the duet with Trijntje Oosterhuis to this album. This song reached #9 on the Dutch Top 40 chart.
Currently, Lionel continues to maintain his International touring every year in a different part of the world – Asia to Australia, Africa to the UK, Europe, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia – where his popularity is growing rapidly.
You would think that Lionel would be content with his career, which has spanned over three decades, but Lionel insists on creating an even deeper legacy by transitioning from the music business to the business of music. Lionel is working with his peers in his address book, continuing to drive himself towards the branding of his name and likeness in every aspect. This venture will prove his ability to continue to think outside the box. It is of utmost importance to Lionel to maintain a personal growing relationship with his fans, who he definitely values as one of the many reasons for his continuing success.