I was startled to see that Lionel Richie is going to make a South America tour, and will sing in Rio on the 8th of March 2016! What comes to mind when you hear that name? The songs Hello!? Three Times a Lady? Endless Love? All Night Long? Surely we have all been touched by the expressive restraint of his ballads at some time?
Lionel Brockman Richie was born in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1949. This is in the Deep South of the United States, and we remember how difficult it was for the Civil Rights Movement to combat racial discrimination there in the 60s. Unlike Ray Charles, who was born not so far away in Albany, Georgia in 1930 and had a tragic childhood, Richie seems to have had a happy upbringing and family life. The school Tuskegee Institute and surrounding community (population in year 2000 – only 12,000!) provided a warm and supportive environment for the youngster: “I was born and raised in a community where if somebody can’t eat, the whole town goes to feed him,” he said in an interview. Whereas Ray Charles often turned even romantic songs into blues and shouts of despair, Lionel Richie’s hit songs have been more about love and faithfulness…
His early incursions into music were as a member of the Commodores, a six-man group formed in 1968 which began singing at student events in Tuskegee, and then became better known, including opening shows for Michael Jackson. Their style was mainly “funky dance” – light on expression but strongly rhythmic; Interesting to see that they could sing in 5-part harmony, and often 3 or more members would take solos! Clyde Orange and Lionel Richie shared the lead singer and song-writing roles. In the late 70s the group began to move to a softer sound, and they had No 4 and No 5 hits with “Easy” and “Brick House” (bit of a challenge to understand the words on the latter!) Then in 1978 came a No 1 hit, with “Three Times a Lady” where Richie sings at the piano, slowly and with great expression. It must have been a signpost when a big hit was so different from the usual style of the group, and they were now referred to as “funk/soul”. The Commodores are still playing and touring today, with some of the original members.
Years of Success
In 1980 Richie withdrew from the group, and began a solo career. The following year, his duet with Diana Ross on “Endless Love” reached the top of the charts. Unusually for pop, they mostly sing in harmony, the voices separating and coming together again in a wonderful unity of phrasing and expression. In 1982, he released his debut solo album, Lionel Richie, which quickly became a hit on the U.S. Billboard charts. One ballad, “Truly,” climbed to the top of the charts, won Richie a Grammy, and became in instant demand for weddings –
….I need to tell you this, there’s no other love like your love,
And I, as long as I live, I’ll give you all the joy
My heart and soul can give…
His 1984 album had the exciting All Night Long – where his voice floats above a rapid fast light Caribbean beat – and the ballad Hello:
….Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?
I can see it your eyes, I can see it in your smile
You’re all I’ve ever wanted, And my arms are open wide….
The original video on this, with a mere 44 million viewings (!) on YouTube, has a really cute story of his singing this for a blind student who he thinks takes no notice of him – until it turns out she was sculpting a bust of him. His quasi-falsetto voice, perfect phrasing and timing make it musically so expressive.
Richie followed this up with a 1986 album Dancing on the Ceiling which sold 4 million copies (in the days when you bought your music in 12” vinyl disks and played them over and over…). Then came difficult years – his father died and he had an ugly breakup with his wife Brenda, after being surprised in a hotel room with the Diane who would later become his second wife and bear him two children. After his singing so much about Endless Love, one can imagine the deception…
Richie returned to music in 1996, and released albums in that year, in 2000 and in 2006. In 2012 he returned to the top of the charts with Tuskegee, a country-music collection. This contains “Lady” sung in duet with Kenny Rogers, but the song was originally written by Lionel Richie in 1980. As the story is told by Rogers, he called Richie at that time….
KR: I want you to write a song for me
LR: Aw hell I don’t have the time…
KR: ….which I plan to include on my Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits album with expected sales of 4 million…
LR: Would 7pm tomorrow be all right?
But when he turned up, he only had the first word of the song done! Lady… But what they worked out together turned out to be a major success for Rogers, and boosted Richie’s career too.
To get an idea of the man and his music, it’s worthwhile to find on You Tube the video of Lionel Richie and friends in Concert 2012, where different artists and the man himself sing his best-known songs. (Kenny Rogers appears after an hour!) He is so warm and simpatico that his loving ballads come across as real. For many of the ballads, he accompanies himself on the piano, while his tremendous toothy grin seems to push the rest of his face into the background!
Like other pop stars, whose music we have loved in the past, Richie now is making show-tours. This year at Glastonbury in England he had a huge success, with 200,000 people of all “tribes” singing along – leaving Richie himself astonished.
His show in Rio is guaranteed to make romantic hearts beat faster, and be another champion of audience participation. So if you can afford R$ 450 – R$ 1000 for a ticket, and don’t mind going out to the HSBC Arena near Rio Centro, 8th of the March is the day, and…
Good Listening (and singing)!