For Lionel Richie, who this month is being awarded the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for lifetime achievement, performing comes naturally.
Visiting the Library in Washington, D.C., correspondent Kelefa Sanneh said, “It’s so cool to be in this building. They got all these writers up here: Aristotle, Hugo, Richie!”
“I like the way that sounds,” Richie laughed. “Although you must admit, now, I mean, this is slightly overwhelming.”
“You’re here not as a tourist – you’re being inducted?”
“I keep thinking of Tuskegee, Alabama,” Richie said. “That’s where it started.”
Born in Tuskegee in 1949, Richie has been a worldwide superstar for some 50 years, first as one of the Commodores, then as a solo artist, and now, as a judge on “American Idol.”
Still, Lionel Brockman Richie Jr says his worldview was formed on the campus of Tuskegee University, with his parents, Lionel Sr., a U.S. Army system analyst, and Alberta Foster, a teacher.
Sanneh asked, “When did you first realize how unusual your childhood was?”
“Remember now, this is in the middle of the ’50s, ’60s, right in the middle of the storm of civil rights.. And we were these kids growing up on a college campus with everything available to us. That’s the Tuskegee Airmen over there!” he laughed.
“World War II heroes just walking around?”
“But you didn’t realize, they couldn’t vote.”
He says the campus was his protective bubble: “We just thought that was a normal thing: doctors, lawyers, PhDs., all Black. And we didn’t realize that was because of segregation. There was no place else for them to go, where Black people could thrive.”
Of course, Richie had his own idea of success.
Sanneh asked, “For you, growing up surrounded by Black lawyers, Black doctors, Black war heroes, and you decide to form a funk band?”
“This was disastrous!” Richie laughed. “You have to understand, to walk into my family home and say to my mom, dad, grandma, ‘Yeah, I joined this band, the Commodores. We’re the Black Beatles.’ Poor grandmother! Mom and Dad almost had a nervous breakdown. And then from the community, you could see everyone passing going, ‘Oh, there’s poor Lionel. Poor misguided Lionel!'”
He didn’t seem ‘misguided’ for long. He and the Commodores quickly signed to Motown Records, and in 1971 they toured as the opening act for the Jackson 5, led by Michael Jackson. “Michael and I – he’s about this tall – and he said, ‘Oh my God, Lionel, we sold out Madison Square Garden.’ And I said, ‘No, no, you sold out Madison Square Garden!'”
Richie, who started as backup, became the Commodores’ lead singer and songwriter.
“‘Three Times A Lady’ was the game changer,” he said. “A number one song around the world. And it was the most unlikely song, because funk was king, and I, of all things, write a waltz!”
“That’s a song that changed not only the size of your fan base, but maybe also the complexion of your fan base?” asked Sanneh.
“The massive crossover meant everybody wanted to see us.”
“But people sometimes use that word, crossover, like it’s a bad thing. How did you think about crossing over?”
“I had a big problem with it, the term crossover. Because someone asked me a question one day, ‘Lionel, how does it feel that you’ve left your roots?’ And I said, ‘Did you ask that to The Beatles? Did you ask that to The Rolling Stones? Everyone came over to borrow from us, but I can’t go that way?'”
In 1982, Richie went solo. The next year, he released “Can’t Slow Down,” which won the Grammy for best album. Its competition that year? Bruce Springsteen (“Born In the U.S.A.”), Prince (“Purple Rain”), Tina Turner (“Private Dancer”), and Cyndi Lauper (“She’s So Unusual”).
“I could leave right now and just drop the mic,” Richie joked.
The hits included “Stuck On You,” “Hello,” and one of Sanneh’s favorite songs of all time: “All Night Long,” a multilingual song (sort of):
We’re going to party, karamu, fiesta, forever
Come on and sing my song …
Tom bo li de say de moi ya
Hey, Jambo Jumbo
Way to parti o we goin’
Tom bo li de say de moi ya
Yeah, Jambo, jumbo
Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, yes!
We’re going to have a party!
Richie said, “I called a friend of mine in Jamaica and I said, ‘Listen, when Bob Marley says [scats], what is he saying?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely nothing, man. It doesn’t mean [anything]!’ So, I went back and I wrote, ‘Tom bo li de say de moi ya, hey, Jambo Jumbo,'” Richie laughed. “It means absolutely nothing!”
And then, at the height of his success, he took a break.
“My father said, ‘I’m not feeling well. Could you come check this out?’ Now, nothing would’ve stopped me, except that was a dad moment.”
Lionel Richie Sr. died in 1990 with his son by his side. “It gave me an opportunity to kind of take a look over my shoulder just a little bit to see where I was in altitude. And it was frightening.”
His father’s death, he said, changed his perspective: “I became so nostalgic. I was famous, recognized around the world, but I missed all the Christmases and the New Years.”
These days, Richie works at his own pace.
Sanneh said, “It’s now been 13 years since your last album of all-new songs.”
“That’s crazy, right?”
“How much longer will your fans have to wait?”
“The answer is, it will be this year, I promise.”
A new generation of fans sees him on “American Idol,” and on social media, although he’s less popular there than his influencer daughters, Nicole and Sophia.
Sanneh asked, “Do they give you advice about how to navigate this new kind of celebrity that exists now?”
“Yes,” Richie laughed.
“But do you take it?”
“Yes, I do! Believe it or not, I do.”
“You’ve been performer, judge, mentor, dad, grandpa, award recipient. What’s your favorite role?”
“Just being Lionel Richie,” he replied. “Although I will tell you, of all of those, the one that has taught me the greatest lessons in the world is dad. But overall, the journey of Lionel Richie – if I may speak of myself in third party – the whole adventure is just an amazing ride.”
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Steven Tyler.