Among accolades such as selling over 100 million albums and achieving countless honors from an Academy Award® to four Grammy Awards, one of the accomplishments Lionel Richie is actually most proud of is his Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Tuskegee University.
“Normally, the titles career musician and college graduate are mutually exclusive, but they’re not for me,” he laughs. “That’s not typically the story with these things! Let’s start with the fact that I was born and raised on the university campus…”
Tuskegee, Alabama boasts a rich history, being both the birthplace of Miss Rosa Parks and the home of The Tuskegee Airmen. It wasn’t necessarily Lionel’s goal to expand or add to that legacy for his hometown, but when chance to pursue music presented itself, he jumped at it. While attending Tuskegee University, he bumped into a couple members of The Commodores (known as The Mystics back then) walking across the grounds. At the time, he happened to be carrying a saxophone.
“They thought I brought my horn to school because I could play it,” he admits. “I didn’t tell them that I was bringing to school so I could learn how to play it. The joke I tell all the time is, ‘I was the best horn holder who ever lived for the first two years I was in the band!’”
He did learn thankfully. He also slowly became confident in the spotlight. Following the group’s signing to Motown, Richie found his footing after learning a rather eye-opening truth.
“I discovered something,” he affirms. “I started interviewing top artists of the time like Marvin Gaye, and I realized that most of them couldn’t read music. My grandmother was a classical piano teacher, and she tried to teach me, but I never entirely grasped it. I thought that was a pre-requisite to songwriting though. The key was given to me, and I realized, ‘Holy crap, I can do this too!’”
In The Commodores, he developed a groundbreaking style that defied genre categories, penning smashes such as “Three Times A Lady,” “Still,” and “Easy.” Another unexpected opportunity came knocking when Kenny Rogers asked Lionel for a song. He’d never given a song to another artist up until that point, but “Lady” became a milestone. Lionel would go on to write “Endless Love” for the film of the same name, dueting with none other than Miss Diana Ross. The single garnered an Academy Award® and a Golden Globe nomination, and Motown asked him to do a solo album. The self-titled debut would cement him as a star in his own right and earn him his very first Grammy for the hit “Truly.”
“My lyrics became an outlet for poetry,” he says. “I could tell stories through my writing. I don’t consider myself a singer as much as I do a storyteller. Initially, I was more surprised than anybody else that these stories were pouring out of me. I found myself creatively. I always say my basic mantra, ‘Thank God for The Commodores, because I never would’ve discovered Lionel Richie.’”
Diamond-certified “Album of the Year” winner Can’t Slow Down followed in 1983, giving the world classics such as “All Night Long (All Night),” “Penny Lover,” “Stuck On You,” and “Hello.”
His music continued to push boundaries and unite listeners worldwide. It’s because he wasn’t afraid to break genre barriers and craft something singular and timeless.
“I have it all in there,” he declares. “I grew up in the south, which is country. I lived on a college campus, which is gospel. I had Motown and Philly—international and rock ‘n’ roll. I had classical on top of that because of my grandmother.”
“It was rocket time,” as he puts it, and the next year he performed at the historic 1984 Olympics Closing Ceremony. In 1985 Lionel co-wrote one of most important pop songs in history, “We Are The World,” for USA for Africa and the album We Are The World. That same year “Say You, Say Me” would achieve an Academy Award® and Golden Globe Award for “Best Original Song.” When he went into the studio to make his next album, he didn’t hold anything back. Lionel upped the ante yet again with 1986’s seminal Dancing On The Ceiling, which remains one of his most infectious and incendiary offerings to this day.
“It’s funny,” he goes on. “Every time, I’d leave the studio, they’d say, ‘You can’t do better than that.’ Or, radio DJs and critics would tell me I couldn’t do this or that. The more they tried to put me inside a box, the more I rebelled and wrote outside the box, which in my rebellion produced some of my greatest copyrights. Back then, rebellion was a plus.”
A decade later in 1996, he began a run of powerful, personal albums that commenced with the Gold-certified Louder Than Words and followed by 1998’s Time and 2000’s Renaissance. The 21st Century saw Lionel once again magnetically attract the zeitgeist to him. Whether it was collaborating with Lenny Kravitz or collaborating with everybody from Ne-Yo and The-Dream to Akon on 2009’s Just Go, his latest renaissance was well underway.
Along the way, Lionel never forgot something he gained by spending time around Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Peck, Sydney Poitier, and other Hollywood royalty during the dawn of his career.
“I got the chance to observe real famous people before fame, and it helped me learn how to be humble,” he explains. “What helped me in my growth and survival is I found out what a true superstar is. You know what that is? Familiar. It’s somebody you can identify with. I strived to be a part of the world as opposed to being this person who flew off to the moon and came back to visit every once in a while. Nothing is on top of the pedestal. Instead of standing still up there, you have to get off the pedestal and be a part of the community of music and creativity. You can’t stop participating.”
He certainly hasn’t, and that’s why he’s been recognized with some of the world’s most significant honors. Boston College and Tuskegee University bestowed honorary doctorates upon him, while he remains an active member of one of the most prestigious fraternities in history, Alpha Phi Alpha, who also counts Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. amongst its brethren. The United Negro College Fund presented him a “Lifetime Achievement Award”—making him the first recipient to graduate from a UNCF school.
In addition to a total of four Grammys, he won ASCAP’s “Publisher of the Year” and “Lifetime Achievement Award,” as well as 16 American Music Awards, five People’s Choice Awards, A World Music Lifetime Achievement Award, TV Land Icon Award, Germany’s Echo Award for Lifetime Achievement, Hong Kong’s Rojo Award, Goldene Kamera Award, Italy’s San Remo Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences Governors Award, and more. He received the Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award presented at Harvard University. He’s been inducted to both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and knighted in France receiving the Legionnaire Award. In 2016 he earned Songwriters Hall of Fame’s most prestigious accolade, the Johnny Mercer Award. Most recently, he received the Ivor Novello PRS for Music Special International Award in London. Always giving back, his charity work extends from Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center to UNICEF and The Art of Elysium.
In 2012, the trailblazer creatively returned home with his tenth full-length album Tuskegee. The idea was to invite some of country’s biggest names to reimagine Lionel’s smashes. As soon as word got out, the proverbial floodgates opened and Nashville clamored to collaborate. The final tracklist includes Shania Twain, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, and Little Big Town. It would mark his third number one debut on the Billboard Top 200 and go platinum.
“It was a very special moment,” he remarks. “The question was asked, ‘Lionel, why are you trying to go country?’ I answered, ‘I’m not trying to go country. I’m coming back to country. I was born and raised in Tuskegee, Alabama: I was not born and raised in Hollywood, California. The community opened its arms, and I felt so at home. Instead of trying to sound like the originals, I had all of these artists cut the records how they would naturally cut the records. Then, I jumped back on it. It was risky, but it came out magical.”
2013 saw him launch the All the Hits, All Night Long Tour, selling out arenas worldwide with a setlist of his brightest and best anthems. He took the jaunt overseas and sold out legendary venues like two nights at the O2 Arena in London. Lionel also headlined Bonnaroo, Life is Beautiful, and Glastonbury, drawing the festival’s biggest crowd ever with over 200,000 attendees. His cultural impact continues to resound as loudly as ever with guest mentor spots twice on NBC’s The Voice, first at the request of Christina Aguilera and then for Pharrell. He also did a medley of hits on the finale of 2013’s China Idol, drawing an audience of over 453 million people.
In 2016, he received one of his biggest honors yet being named MusiCares “Person of the Year.”
“I’m really very proud of this,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the Academy Award of our music business because it means you have a career. You’ve survived the journey, if you will. The people who have been there defy categories. When you say Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney. Are you kidding me? When I got in this business I wanted to be like them. When you get recognition like this, it’s everything. It really is the top of the mountain when it comes down to what your industry gives as recognition for great work.”
Later that year he launched his Las Vegas headlining residency show, “Lionel Richie - All the Hits,” at The Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. In an unforgettable evening featuring his brightest and best anthems which have defined the music icon’s unparalleled career, Lionel took fans on a spectacular musical journey, performing a variety of his seminal hits. The highly successful residency wrapped in October 2018 after a three-year run.
In 2017 Lionel embarked on the North American ALL THE HITS TOUR with very special guest Mariah Carey. Richie shined as a judge on ABC’s American Idol for the 2018 season, alongside Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. He has returned to the judge’s chair for the 2019 season of Idol.
The music icon earned further distinction in late 2017, first from the SAG-AFTRA Foundation as the inaugural recipient of the Recording Artists Inspiration Award. Followed by the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors at the 40th annual national celebration of the arts.
In March 2018, Lionel put his handprints and footprints in cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX in Hollywood, one of the oldest awards in Hollywood. TheTCL Chinese Theatre handprints ceremony is rich in tradition and provides over six million people a year who visit the site an opportunity to experience the lore of Hollywood up close, where the handprints and footprints of Hollywood’s most notable talents lay.
Ultimately though, Lionel’s story is still continuing to unfold in the most wonderful and surprising ways. — Rick Florino