Born Lionel B. Richie, Jr., on June 20, 1949, in Tuskegee, AL; son of Lionel Richie Sr., a systems analyst, and Alberta Richie, an educator; married Brenda Harvey, a musical production assistant, 1975 (divorced); married Diane Alexander, a clothing designer, 1996 (divorced, 2003); children: Nicole, Miles, Sofia. Education: Graduated from Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, AL, 1974. Addresses: Record company--Universal Music Group, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website--Lionel Richie Official Website: http://www.lionelrichie.com/.
The ballads written and sung by Lionel Richie, both as part of the group the Commodores and during an impressive solo career, have formed a soundtrack for countless American romances from the 1970s on. Richie achieved a string of successes matched by few other popular songwriters, with his compositions rising to the number one position on the American pop singles chart at least once in every year between 1977 and 1985. After a recording hiatus of ten years, Richie returned to the national spotlight in the late 1990s with Louder than Words, and was still going strong into the 2000s. The most successful interpreter of Richie's songs is Richie himself, and for a quarter century the quintessential romantic balladeer has touched Americans of all races and all walks of life.
Richie's musical personality was formed at one of African America's crucial intellectual sites: Alabama's Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). He was born on June 20, 1949, and his childhood home was actually on the school's campus, where his father, a U.S. Army systems analyst, lived with his mother, an educator who later became a school principal. Richie's musical education drew on the diverse sonic streams that passed through Tuskegee. His maternal grandmother favored classical music and reacted coolly to her grandson's first forays into pop songwriting. Northern black pop and southern soul found their ways to Tuskegee. Hoping at one point to become an Episcopal minister, Richie gravitated toward gospel music. He was also influenced by another tradition whose reach among African Americans is sometimes underestimated: "Because it was the South, it was hard not to hear country music," he was quoted as saying in the Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul.
Joined Group at Tuskegee
Enrolling at Tuskegee himself, Richie joined forces with a group of other students he met at a talent show; the attraction for the others was that Richie owned a saxophone. Richie, for his own part, was successful in concealing the fact that he barely knew how to play it. A gifted musician who had taught himself to play the piano by ear, Richie made rapid strides as a performer and composer at Tuskegee. The group, first called the Mystics, became the Commodores after the word was picked at random out of a dictionary. Richie discarded his religious ambitions in favor of courses in economics and accounting that proved ideal training for a career in the financially cutthroat music business.
The Commodores struggled for a time, gaining fans across Alabama but losing all their equipment to van thieves on a 1969 trip to New York. But they bounced back, landing a series of club appearances and signing on with a manager, Benny Ashburn, who would stay with them until his death during Richie's years of solo stardom. Signing briefly to the Atlantic record label they went nowhere, but when they attracted the attention of Motown Records executive Suzanne de Passe in 1971, they gained wide exposure when she slated them as the opening act for many of the tours of that label's brother-act dynamo, the Jackson Five.
Group Moved Toward Ballad Releases
The heavy funk sound of the Commodores did not fit the polished, smoothed Motown mold, however, and the group's first record for the label, Machine Gun, was not released until 1974. That album and successors performed solidly, and the group broke through to the pop Top Ten with the ballad "Sweet Love" in 1976. That song, a Richie composition, also marked a new direction musically for the group. Although earlier singles such as 1975's "Slippery When Wet" had been primarily dance-oriented, the group came to believe that the secret to long-lasting success lay in the cultivation of romantic balladry. "Sweet Love" proved only the first of a series of romantic numbers from Richie's pen: "Just to Be Close to You" and "Easy" rose into the pop Top Ten.
Most successful of all was 1978's "Three Times a Lady," whose waltz tempo perhaps showed the influence of the country music Richie had heard as a young man. That song, a feature of weddings for years to come, achieved platinum status for sales of one million copies, as did the album, Natural High, from which it was taken. The song propelled the Commodores and the increasingly dominant Richie to national stardom. The Commodores enjoyed a string of hits between 1978 and 1981, and no ill will arose between the group members. But Richie found himself in demand for his own creative talents alone. He wrote and produced "Lady" for pop superstar Kenny Rogers in 1980, and followed it up with "Endless Love," a duet he recorded with Diana Ross. These songs remained atop the American pop charts for six and nine weeks respectively.
Whether recorded with the Commodores, by other artists, or on his own, Richie's ballads were instantly identifiable. Simple and seemingly inevitable in their gentle progressions, they deemphasize Richie's considerable craft as a songwriter. For his own part, Richie credited God as his "co-composer" in an interview with Ebony writer Robert E. Johnson quoted in Contemporary Musicians. Richie played to his strengths on his debut solo album, Lionel Richie, which was released in 1982. Its hit singles "Truly" and "You Are" closely followed the style of the Commodores' chart successes.
Composed "We Are the World"
Richie's second and third solo albums, 1983's Can't Slow Down and 1986's Dancing on the Ceiling, broadened his reach. "All Night Long," the lead single from "Can't Slow Down," was an upbeat, tropical-flavored dance piece that resembled none of the leading R&B, disco, and funk dance styles of the time. These albums were among the biggest successes of the 1980s, and Can't Slow Down was claimed to be the best-selling release in the history of the Motown label. Gaining Richie even more acclaim and publicity than any of his solo efforts, though, was the all-star recording "We Are the World," which he co-composed with fellow pop superstar Michael Jackson and recorded with an all-star lineup of artists. Profits from sales and performances of the song went toward African famine relief.
By the late 1980s, Richie had few worlds left to conquer. He continued to enter into collaborative efforts, winning an Academy Award for Best Song and notching yet another Number One single for the song "Say You, Say Me" from the film White Nights. He tapped the country vein yet again in a recording he composed for and performed with the country group Alabama, "Deep River Woman."
In 1992, Richie released the Back to Front greatest-hits package; it included "Do It to Me," a new song that once again topped the charts. Richie moved to the Mercury label in the 1990s, and after a long break from recording, released the modestly successful Louder Than Words (1996) and Time (1998); these discs largely avoided any updating of Richie's sound with contemporary hip-hop influences.
In the year 2000 Richie raised his profile somewhat when he appeared as the opening act on the farewell tour of soul superstar Tina Turner, and penned a new release, 2001's Renaissance, that featured the teen-oriented Backstreet Boys. Richie also found himself in the spotlight in 2003 and 2004 when his daughter, Nicole, starred in the reality television show Simple Life with hotel heiress Paris Hilton. Richie followed his 2001 album Renaissance with a great hits set, The Definitive Collection, in 2003, and in 2004 with Just for You. All Music Guide deemed Just for You one of his better albums of late, calling it "assured and unassuming, relaxed and tuneful."
by James M. Manheim and Michael Belfiore
Lionel Richie's Career
Joined group the Commodores while in college; group signed to Motown Records, early 1970s; released debut recording Machine Gun, 1974; recorded platinum-selling ballad "Three Times a Lady," 1978; numerous other hits with Commodores, 1970s; began solo production work and composition for other artists, late 1970s; released solo debut album on Motown, Lionel Richie, 1982; four top-selling solo albums for Motown; co-composed and recorded "We Are the World" African famine relief recording, 1985; released Louder than Words album on Mercury label, 1996; released Time album, 1998; released Renaissance on the Island label, 2001; released Just for You on Island, 2004.
Lionel Richie's Awards
Grammy Awards, Pop Male Vocal for "Truly," 1992; Album of the Year for Can't Slow Down, 1984; Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, 1984; Song of the Year, for "We Are the World," 1985; many American Music Awards and People's Choice Awards; Oscar Award, Best Original Song for "Say You, Say Me," 1986; honorary doctorate, Tuskegee University, 1986.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Lionel Richie Motown, 1982.
- Slow Down Motown, 1983.
- Dancing on the Ceiling Motown, 1986.
- Back to Front Motown, 1992.
- Louder than Words Mercury, 1996.
- Time Mercury, 1998.
- Renaissance Island, 2001.
- The Definitive Collection Universal, 2003.
- Just for You Island, 2004.
- With the Commodores
- Machine Gun Motown, 1974.
- Caught in the Act Motown, 1975.
- Movin' On Motown, 1975.
- Hot on the Tracks Motown, 1976.
- Commodores Motown, 1977.
- Commodores Live! Polygram, 1977.
- Natural High Motown, 1978.
- Midnight Magic Motown, 1979.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
- Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
- Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock & Soul, St. Martin's, 1989.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 21, 2000, p. 75.
- Jet, August 30, 1999, p. 32; June 21, 2004, p. 56.
- People, July 20, 1998, p. 39.
- "The Commodores," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 10, 2004).
- "Lionel Richie," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 8, 2004).