Lionel Richie Is Sailing On

MusiCares Person of the Year Richie reflects on his remarkable career in conversation with Pharrell Williams
  • Photo: The Recording Academy
    Lionel Richie interviewed by Pharrell Williams at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif.
  • Photo: Alan Silfen for TheOnly.Agency
    Lionel Richie
  • Photo: Alan Silfen for TheOnly.Agency
    Lionel Richie performing at the Glastonbury Festival in London in 2015
February 10, 2016 -- 10:43 am PST
By Pharrell Williams / GRAMMY.com

Lionel Richie will be honored as the 2016 MusiCares Person of the Year on Feb. 13 at a special tribute performance and dinner in Los Angeles, recognizing his accomplishments as an artist and humanitarian. MusiCares' mission is to ensure that music people have a compassionate place to turn in times of need while focusing the resources and attention of the music industry on human service issues that directly impact the health and welfare of the music community. The following interview was published in the 58th GRAMMY Awards program book.

As Pharrell Williams learned, or maybe already knew, the book of Lionel Richie's music career is filled with many captivating chapters.

There's the tale of enrolling at Tuskegee University and getting together with fellow students to form the Commodores. There is the unique sonic character of the Commodores, a hybrid of funk, R&B, pop, country, and soul, and the group's rise on Motown Records. There's the emergence of Richie as a bona fide songwriter with a penchant for melodic songcraft.

Of course, there is the Lionel Richie songbook, filled with Commodores gems such as "Easy," "Three Times A Lady," "Sail On," and "Still," and solo smashes such as "Endless Love," "Truly," "Hello," "All Night Long (All Night)," and "Say You, Say Me."

There is Richie's immensely successful second act as a solo artist (and third act as a legendary yet still active touring and recording artist). There are numerous accolades, including a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year, a Golden Globe and an Oscar. There's the fascinating story of collaborating with Michael Jackson for "We Are The World," a charitable clarion call that set the standard for music and philanthropy.

Though he's nearly 50 years into his career, Richie can't slow down. He's still writing new chapters such as receiving the prestigious MusiCares Person of the Year honor, which he describes as akin to winning the lottery. Next on the horizon, Richie will kick off his first Las Vegas residency, Lionel Richie: All The Hits, in April. "We are going to have the greatest time ever in Vegas," says Richie.

In conversation with fellow GRAMMY winner Pharrell Williams, Richie reflects on many of these chapters and more, while revealing why this riveting read of a career is "not done yet."

Pharrell Williams: Let's go right back to the beginning, Lionel. What are your recollections of growing up in Tuskegee?
Lionel Richie: It was an amazing place. The Tuskegee Airmen were there. All the people who knew Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver [were there]. It was a place of segregation and these wonderful men came home from the war and after liberating all of Europe [they] could not vote and were considered not second-class but third-class citizens. Of course, we didn't know that as kids growing up. Our families didn't tell us. The reason that we had all these doctors and lawyers [at Tuskegee University] was because segregation was in and there was no place else for them to go and practice. So that's why you have Howard University, Hampton University and Morehouse [College], because these are little hubs with education excellence where we in the black community could be educated. There were no universities available to us. 

What type of music were you exposed to in Tuskegee?
There was no R&B music on the radio. There was country music on the radio, there was no pop music. Pop music was Elvis. If you wanted to hear real black music, you had to either [go to] Nashville, Tenn., [or] someplace out of Texas. We didn't really have R&B for a very, very long time. There were no R&B stations. [Then] Motown came along. Stax Records came along. Philly International [Records] came along. And then, of course, my grandmother in the house was a classical pianist. So, I'm living with Bach and Mozart and Chopin and I'm thinking to myself, "OK, well this is a melting pot of stuff."

Tuskegee University was the birthplace of the Commodores.
We met on the university campus as freshmen. The group that we formed was called the Mystics. And we didn't know that when they had the freshmen talent show, it was for the upperclassmen to come and laugh at the freshmen. We went and killed it to the point where there's another group on the campus called the Jays, [who were] seniors [and had] been playing there for the last four years. Well, they were going to break up. And so two members of the Jays called the rest of the members of the Mystics and said, "Let's make a group." And that was the formation of the Commodores. From there, it was one of those wonderful situations where we just played every university campus around the South.

What was that like, being in a band? Because we know how we feel when we listen to that music. But what was that like for you?
Well, you think of a band when you first start out as four, five brothers. [In] the Commodores I had five brothers. The greatest motto we had [was] whether you're all right or whether you're all wrong, we were all together. So if somebody messed up, we'd go, "Dude, that's the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life." We grew up together, every experience that I could possibly think of. Traveling around the world with five brothers, you couldn't mess that up. To me, the struggle was the fun part because [there] was always the possibility of "tomorrow, we could make it."

What was one of the greatest early obstacles the Commodores encountered?
I think the show where we actually realized, "Maybe we haven't made it yet." Someone booked us on a show — AC/DC and the headlining act, Queen. What were we doing on that show with no hit record? That's not true. We had one hit record, "Machine Gun," and it was an instrumental. So there [were] our fans in the audience and there's our little sign, "We love you, Commodores." And halfway through the set, we saw the sign crumbling, going down. We realized, "Our fans are getting beat up." And that's when I realized we're in hostile territory because they didn't want to see anything but Queen and AC/DC. That was the introduction [that] the road is going to be a little twisted from time to time.

But that made you guys better, right?
Yeah. You know what's missing today is the practice. Remember that every band was on every corner of every town in the world. And they had music on record. But man, live was everything. You could actually go and practice. Now, anybody can play a show when the crowd is looking at you. But can you get the crowd's attention when everybody is talking? And of course, once we made it, the fun part was now that everyone's looking this way, we can play the show because we're used to getting your attention. It took us about [three] years of practice before we even went on tour with the Jackson 5 as their opening act. Then we actually met Benny Ashburn, our manager. And from there, he said, "I happen to know a lady at Motown, Suzanne de Passe. There's a Jackson 5 group going out on tour; they need an opening act."

So you hadn't met the folks from Motown yet?
We did not know one person from Motown, not one soul. Suzanne said, "We'll take them on tour with the Jackson 5, on their first tour across America." So we did every city across America and I'm still a junior in college. I'm still flying back, in and out, trying to do exams and then flying back out on the road. It's crazy.

How was that working out?
Terrible. But I would say I had a strong B, C average. But then after a while it got to the point where I said, "You know what, I got to lay out of school." Now try to explain that to your mother and father. "We're the black Beatles, dad, mom. And we're going to take over the world." "No, you're an idiot." But back then, it was the only shot to take. And of course, once we toured across America we went to the Hollywood Bowl and the entire Motown family was there. And once they took one look at what we were doing, the kids went back and said, "You guys, there's a group called the Commodores you need to check out."

We signed with Motown but it was a year and a half to two years later before we actually found our spot because when we signed with Motown, I didn't know I was a writer. All of these things we discovered in that year and a half to two years [were] wonderful. I call it Motown University. "Is that a Marvin Gaye session across the hall? Is that Stevie Wonder down the hall or in the other room? Smokey Robinson?" Everybody in the world was sitting by the coffee machine and we could hang out and ask questions. As time went on, I started asking serious questions like, "So, how do you write, Mr. Gaye? What music school did you graduate from?" [He said,] "I hum and I doodle and I hum." And I realize, "You can't read or write music?" "Oh no, brother." All of a sudden I found that, "You mean, you don't have to get a diploma? This is the wild west of entrepreneurship." That was my graduation.

Where did the songs come from?
That's a beautiful story but that's the hard part. I didn't really know. I spent about four years really quite puzzled, because I was hearing stuff and I didn't quite trust myself. Remember, I grew up in an academic world, which is "there must be a logical reason." And somebody had to teach this to you. Well, I'm receiving songs and I didn't trust myself.

Then I started writing one song and then two songs and then, well, "This is not a fluke." Of course [I received] the wonderful coaching of James Anthony Carmichael. James was one of the master arrangers at Motown who always wanted to be a producer. And so, as his first group, he started [with] the Commodores. The joke was he didn't want the Commodores. He wanted Diana Ross, but they gave him the Commodores. He taught us how to put songs together. But more importantly, he just gave us the confidence to say, "No, you're right. That's the right road." I brought in "Three Times A Lady." I was going to give that to another artist. And he said, "No, you're going to do that with the Commodores."

Wow.
It's [about] not being afraid of what to write because a lot of times, I kept thinking, "This does not fit [the Commodores]." But that little melting pot of things that I told you before — my grandmother's classical side, the country music side, the R&B side. Well, all of that is in the melting pot of this brain of mine.

Being a songwriter, how did that play a role in you ultimately going solo?
It was my best discovery and my worst curse, because if you understand anything about being in a group, it is the safest place to be. I wasn't excited about going solo. [But] then something amazing happened. I started writing [songs like] "Three Times A Lady" and "Sail On." And you know, as long as Tommy [McClary] has a hit record, Lionel has a hit record, that's good because we divide everything up and because we're in the group. What keeps a group together is that we're equal. As soon as you get too far [down] the line, then it gets tough. And so it was one song then two songs. Then I figured, "OK, I won't get involved in the funk side. I'll just get involved with [making] sure I have at least one song on the album."

As time went on it just got to the point where I'm writing songs [and] those are the singles. And of all things, it came down to Kenny Rogers. He called and said, "I need a ballad." And it was that year the Commodores said, "We don't want another ballad." So I wrote "Jesus Is Love," a church song just to kind of make it different from anything else we'd ever done. And Kenny got — at the time, it was "Lady" or "Baby" or something. By the time I finished up it was "Lady." It was the national anthem at that time. I mean "Lady" took off [and] Kenny exploded. 

From there, Motown came along and said, "You need to do a solo album." They didn't say "go solo." But I said, "Not yet. No, I don't want to do that." Then right after "Lady," I was approached by Franco Zeffirelli and Dyson Lovell and a few other people [for their film] Endless Love that was coming out. "Would you do an instrumental?" "Sure." And I gave [them] the instrumental. And they said, "In the movie, we only have one verse where she's trying to sing the lyrics. Could you write the lyrics?" And I wrote the first verse: "My love, there's only you in my life, the only thing that's right. My first love, you're every breath that I take, every step I make." "Lionel, we don't want an instrumental anymore. We want a duet and we're thinking about Diana Ross singing the song. Who do you recommend to be the lead vocalist with her?" The answer [was], "Are you kidding me? I'm not going to give that away to somebody else." So here I am now with [a schedule that is] from 10 to 6, Kenny Rogers; from 6 to 12, Commodores; and from 1 to 4 in the morning, "Endless Love." It was chaos. 

Was trying to keep the group together after that difficult?
It made us competitive. The difficulty of holding it together as a band is tough — all you need is a little bit of animosity, a little bit of [fear] because you're thinking, "Lionel is going to leave." But the band was everything to me. I mean that sincerely. I had no ego in terms of [leaving] the Commodores because I didn't want that. But because of the nature of how the reviews were coming out, you heard people say, "And then finally, the lights went down and Lionel Richie came and sang his songs." Well, I'm with the Commodores. Or I'm coming into a group interview and the [interviewer says], "Lionel, tell us all about how you formed the group?" And no more questions are directed to the Commodores.

By the time [I] got [my] first GRAMMY, [it] was [for my solo song] "Truly." So it was a very difficult time. I'm trying to hold myself together and at the same time enjoy this ride of creativity gone wild.

It must have been even wilder when you won Album Of The Year for Can't Slow Down.   
Yeah, that was amazing. If I'm not mistaken, two things happened that were amazing. One, Album Of The Year. Second, Producer Of The Year, [Non-Classical]. OK, now Album Of The Year was the "kaboom," you know? From that point on, it was the rocket ship that just took off, never to come back. But just having that as a moment in time when all the stars were aligned — I remember turning around and there was a standing ovation and those were your peers. You know what I'm saying? It was a very big deal.

You couldn't get away from that album.
That album went all the way around the world several times, and then I didn't realize the influence of the songs. Then I kind of tied everything together with the Commodores music and from there, of course, it went on to the next level, which was the "We Are The World" thing. 

When you talk about "We Are The World," I don't think that anything has been able to rival the philanthropic side of what that song was able to do.
You know, I think back, Pharrell, on that time in life where two things could happen. One, you could actually write a piece for the world. And two, you could surprise the world. In other words, they didn't know it was coming. The cause was there, we knew what we wanted to do but we had time to mount the attack. And we had no Internet. So we surprised them. We surprised everybody. I remember Michael [Jackson] and I were on the phone, "Lionel, turn on the TV." And they were singing "We Are The World" in Tokyo. And they were singing it in America and Europe. I mean we knew we were talking about something huge but we didn't know it's going to be like that. We became a movement unto ourselves. "We Are The World" was just beyond the scope of our imagination to the point where it was an anthem that the world will sing.

To put all that together, it was just a masterful star alignment. The heavens opened up and it was just perfect.

Your music, everything from "Zoom" all the way to "We Are The World" and beyond, there's just so much hope. And one of the things I love about the music is beyond the melody, beyond the musicality, they were great songs that just colored so much of my life and times.
You know, one of the things that I want to achieve in my writing [is] a meaningful lyric. In other words, easy like Sunday morning is easy like Sunday morning. I don't care what year, what time. I [wanted] to make sure that I didn't put a time on it.

Which made it timeless.
Timeless, exactly. You know, people constantly need hope. We are living in a world where hope is sometimes hard to put your arm around. We live in a wonderful subliminal world where we get to enter [people's] cars and their homes. Your song "Happy," for example, puts a smile on anyone's face, I don't care how bad they're feeling. That's a smile song. "All Night Long" is a smile song. There are people who are dark in their lives. There are people who are bigots, there are people who are struggling in life and there are people who are successful. But not everyone is on the light side. And when you find a guy [who says], "Lionel, I love that song. That's the greatest song in world. I got married [to] this song." There's no color. There's no political value here. He likes that song for the message. 

I found that the more love you put into it, the more you find out what the world is striving to get their arms around. 

Well, that's the hope that you bring to so many people lyrically and musically. You lift their lives, and so it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that MusiCares wants to honor you. How does that feel? 
First of all, it was the greatest surprise ever. MusiCares is the top of the line. You know what it means? It means not only you have a body of work but you also survived the journey. When I got that call, Pharrell, it was as if someone had said I've won a lottery. Honestly, I started out with [looking up to] James Taylor [and] Bob Dylan. I mean, when you start thinking of [past MusiCares honorees], these are the people I [respect]. When I got the phone call, it was like, "Are you kidding me?" It's bigger than even [a] GRAMMY. This is going one step further. I'm actually giving back again. Because here we are celebrating a body of work and all the great stories I will tell about my [career]. But there are also tragedies and hardships in our business, and MusiCares represents the safety net. It's our safety net.

I didn't realize how deep MusiCares goes [in] helping people get back up on their feet financially. I didn't realize that until I started doing my research. I mean, I think it was $4.4 million just last year in assistance.

Wow. That's amazing.
That's amazing. I mean, we're not talking about little dollars. $4.4 million last year alone, to assist brothers and sisters, is a major accomplishment. But at the same time there's much more to be done. If I have anything to do with it we're going to try to break the [fundraising] record and keep on going. But I mean, I'm just honored to be here. That's the most important thing you have to understand. I'm humbled by the acceptance but also I'm actually honored to step forward.

Honestly, I don't know anybody who could be more deserving, because you're gracious and just incredibly generous. The good part here is that you recognize just how fortunate you are. In fact, when I first met you, it was so humbling. And it totally makes sense, because you're incredibly generous to the people who helped you get to where you are. And that's what MusiCares is about, it's about lifting others. At this stage in your career, what is left for you to accomplish?
I think I'm blessed. [But] I can't tell you how many times in the course of a day I'm asked the question, "So why are you doing this? When are you going to retire?" And my answer is, "Retire from what? I never had a job in my life. This is the best hobby." I'm doing exactly what I love to do and that's why you can't get me to stop. And you know, I've been asked so many times, "Why don't you write your book?" I said, "Because I'm not done yet." Somebody else is going to have to write this book.

A current four-time nominee, Pharrell Williams is a 10-time GRAMMY winner, including two wins for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical. He is currently a coach on the reality television singing competition "The Voice." In 2008 Williams founded From One Hand To Another, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing children with tools and resources to help them meet their unique potential.

Watch the 58th GRAMMY Awards on Monday, Feb. 15 on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT. Luke Bryan, John Legend, Demi Lovato, and Meghan Trainor will take part in a special tribute to Richie, who will also take the stage to perform one of his classic songs.

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