Lionel Richie "now stands at the pinnacle of pop music, recognized around the world as the most successful singer/songwriter working today," Charles Whitaker announced in a 1987 Ebony article. "His string of nine No. 1 hits," Whitaker continued, "in nine consecutive years, is a music business record." Richie began as a lead singer with the Commodores, a funk/pop group that came to the attention of music fans in the early 1970s, and started forging his distinguished solo career in 1982. Since that time he has garnered many awards, including three Grammys, several American Music Awards, and a 1986 Oscar for Best Original Song with his hit theme to the film White Knights, "Say You, Say Me."
Richie was born in Tuskegee, Alabama. His mother and father, a school principal and a systems analyst for the U.S. Army, respectively, lived on the campus of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where his grandfather had worked with the college's founder, black leader Booker T. Washington. As a child, Richie was exposed to many different kinds of music, particularly by his maternal grandmother, Adlaide Foster, who taught him piano and preferred classical composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven. Even then, Richie showed signs of the talent he would later become, though his grandmother did not then appreciate this fact: "During my lessons," Richie recalled for Todd Gold in People, "I kept trying to make up my own songs, and it annoyed her." The fledgling artist was also influenced by the ballets and symphonies he attended at Tuskegee, but he preferred listening to gospel, rhythm and blues, and country.
Richie eventually enrolled in Tuskegee Institute; his initial goal was to become an Episcopal priest. He brought with him a saxophone that an uncle had given him as a child, though he did not know how to play it--according to Gold, "he thought it would help him meet girls." Regardless, it helped Richie to meet five other Tuskegee freshmen who were forming a musical group and sought him out because they heard he had a saxophone. Apparently, Richie's lack of prowess on the instrument proved no obstacle--he told Robert E. Johnson in Ebony that the men who would later become the Commodores "took ... two years to find out that I'd had no training on the sax." While Richie and the group practiced, aspiring to, as he put it for interviewer Lynn Van Matre of the Chicago Tribune, "revolutionize the music business," or "come out with a new sound, you know, and kill them," he also gave up his clerical ambitions in favor of an economics major and an accounting minor, which helped both the Commodores and himself in later business dealings.
The Commodores first began to gather a following when they won the opportunity to open for the Jackson Five's concerts in the early 1970s. Around the same time, they signed a contract with Motown Records, and after a two-year period of searching for the right producer and arranger, began to put out albums. At first the Commodores gained a reputation for party and dance music with disco-oriented hits like the instrumental "Machine Gun," and the song responsible for the dance craze of the same name, "Bump." Another of their most popular singles was "Brickhouse."
But by the mid-1970s, most of the Commodores, including Richie, started to feel that funky dance tunes were too ephemeral. They wanted to move towards writing and recording ballads, which they thought more likely to become timeless standards. In the same period, Richie worked more intensely on his songwriting skills than previously. The Commodores' 1975 album Caught in the Act contained their first ballad hits, "Sweet Love," and "Just to Be Close to You." They followed these up with more slow songs, which gained popularity in large measure due to Richie's romantic lyrics and smooth singing voice. "Easy," "Three Times a Lady," "Sail On," and "Still" confirmed Richie and the Commodores' change of style.
Richie was already working on other projects in 1980, including producing an album and writing the song "Lady" for country artist Kenny Rogers. In 1982 Richie decided to leave the Commodores to pursue a solo career, though his decision was not due to conflicts within the group. His first album on his own, Lionel Richie, gained him a hit with "Truly," which also won him his first Grammy, as Best Male Vocalist, in 1983. His string of hits, some of which helped Richie earn his music business record, includes 1983's "All Night Long," "Penny Lover," and "Hello"; and 1987's "Dancing on the Ceiling." Richie has also had great success with film themes such as "Endless Love" and the Oscar-winning "Say You, Say Me." Perhaps his most far-reaching and influential musical project, however, was the song "We Are the World," which Richie co-wrote with pop superstar Michael Jackson. The disc was recorded by U.S.A. for Africa, and its profits were donated to the cause of famine relief in Ethiopia.
Richie believes his success as a songwriter comes from God, whom he told Johnson was his "co-composer." He explained further: "I give credit to my co-writer because all I did was write down what He told me to write down." Richie also revealed to Johnson that he prefers to collaborate during the night. "In other words," he said, "from about eleven to about seven in the morning is a very wonderful time because ... God ain't worried with too many other folks ... I know He is very busy during the day, so I wait for late night, and it works for me."
Regardless of the authorship of Richie's songs, along with the phenomenal mainstream popularity that he enjoys come accusations from some critics that he has abandoned his black musical roots, especially after the hit he recorded with the country group Alabama, "Deep River Woman." Richie responded to this issue for Whitaker in Ebony: "I'm trying through my music to break the stereotype that says to satisfy Black people you have to play something funky. I'm broadening the base, trying to show that Black artists are capable of playing all kinds of music." ~~ Elizabeth Thomas
Winner of three Grammy Awards;, six American Music Awards; two American Black Achievement Awards from Ebony magazine and one People's Choice Award; Academy Award for best original song in a motion picture (White Knights), 1986, for "Say You, Say Me."