Feature Lionel Richie has a new album and world tour and has been labelled an unofficial peace envoy to the Middle East.
Can't slow down
Lionel Richie has won an Oscar and a Golden Globe. He has a new album and world tour and has been labelled an unofficial peace envoy to the Middle East. Michael Odell meets a man who shows no signs of slowing. For a diplomat, the arm dripping with beaded bracelets might be deemed rather garish. The bowls of sweets and nuts in his opulently appointed suite at London's Dorchester hotel might suggest a frivolity unusual for a man of high table politics. Also, there's his manner - the backslapping, effusive "How ya DOING?" suggests perhaps a lack of the gravitas we expect from our world leaders. And yet here he is, serving coffee with a smile and plumping up a cushion for me on the sofa: Lionel Richie, unofficial peace envoy to the Middle East.
"Search me. I don't know what it is." He shrugs and guffaws like a man who has won his third lottery in a week. "Listen, I'm more than pleased if anyone likes me or my records. But to bring people together from both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict, well that just blows me away, if I can use the expression. It wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I wrote Dancing On The Ceiling or All Night Long, that's for sure. But it's a crazy world and my music is just about the only common ground that certain politicians have."
Ah yes, Dancing On The Ceiling and All Night Long. To most, a couple of ultra-commercial pop/soul numbers that helped establish him as a solo mega star in the mid-Eighties. But more recently he has discovered that these songs have assumed a military importance all their own. During the "shock and awe" American pre-invasion bombing of Iraq in 2003, Richie has heard that All Night Long was the anthem of choice among bleak-humoured Baghdadis. And last year he says he met the commander of an American armoured brigade on a flight from London to the US. The soldier told him that Dancing On The Ceiling was his troops' preferred war song, played at full volume from their Humvee armoured cars as they advanced into the Iraqi capital.
"That blows my mind. A war being fought to my songs? It's not gratifying in the way that it normally is when you hear someone likes your music," he says slightly ruefully. Lionel Richie first realised that he might have a small role to play in world politics a few years ago when he was invited to play at a Unesco dinner in Geneva. Suha al-Taweel Arafat, wife of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, attended. After his evening performance he received an invitation to tea with her the next day.
"I have no pretensions to political influence, believe me. I was only happy to fly in and perform a couple of my songs for a worthy cause. But when I went to tea I couldn't help but ask her. I said 'Why me, why am I here?' And she said very calmly and politely: 'In the Middle East there are many entrenched problems. We can't agree about anything but? we like you.' And when Mrs Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian president, had a 'Women Of The Middle East' dinner she invited me and said, 'You're the common ground here, Mr Richie.' Amazing!"
His unlikely role as a peace envoy has even more starkly come to life. In April 2006, just days before the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Libya by the Reagan administration, Richie got a call from the US State department. Colonel Qaddafi had decided to hold a Peace Day as part of a process that would see Libya rejoin mainstream politics. One of Qaddafi's sons suggested Lionel Richie as the perfect American artist to celebrate the new entente.
"We had two days to prepare - from the phone call to landing in Libya. The venue was his bombed home and the show was scheduled on the anniversary of the hour he lost his daughter Hanna in the bombing. "I'd love to tell you we were great friends but we only met the daughter and their sons. The Colonel stayed at the back of the room and nodded to Hello and All Night Long. The atmosphere outside was tense. But inside, it was like a show in Atlanta, Georgia. The Libyan diplomats were up and dancing to Easy."
After 10 minutes in Richie's presence, it's easy to spot his special diplomatic gift. It's hard to imagine even the most grizzled ideologue not being relaxed by his hearty laugh, easy charm and general sunny disposition. He's not so much a "glass-half-full" kind of guy as one who always sees his drink fizzing over with bubbles, cherries and a couple of sparklers. He's almost 60 but looks 40. He doesn't act like someone who has sold 100 million albums. In fact, he brims with the youthful zest of someone who hopes you will give him his first record deal.
Although he has sometimes been critically derided as "the black Barry Manilow", in retribution for the cheesier end of his ouevre, he remains one of the biggest-selling acts in history. He was born on June 20 1949 in Tuskegee, Alabama. His parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. He read economics at college and he knows his way around the US economy as well as the music business. "I love business," he says. "I studied economics and accountancy and to a lot of people their eyes just glaze over at the thought of these dry subjects. But I love seeing how a business or an economy works. And I love talking about it. Whenever I get to hang around Rupert Murdoch I soak it up. I had a wonderful dinner with Armand Hammer before he died. Do I have a view on Obama's stimulus package? Yeah. We're screwed. That's my overall diagnosis. I saw it coming too. When 17,000 people lose their pension because of financial mismanagement and then it happens again and again? it's the baby-boomers' apocalypse.
"How do we pay the baby-boomers back for all the money we took off them all these years? Answer: we don't. Then we had a couple of wars and an inflated housing market. We're in a pickle and a very screwed situation. And it's global. There's nowhere to hide." Interesting though this is, try to imagine Richie as your accountant and you immediately realise what a waste of charisma this would be. He was right to abandon his parents' dreams. Once he had formed The Commodores and they had been signed to Motown and supported the Jackson 5 on tour it was clear he would never look back.
"Every now and then I do imagine what other road my life might have taken. I hear my father's words when I walked into the room and said I had joined a band: 'Now what in hell do you wanna go and do a stupid thing like that for?'" His laugh rattles the tea cups again. It's clear his mother and father couldn't have been more shocked had he thrown up a promising middle-class life to join the circus. But their efforts were not wasted: Richie can be a serious and observant man. He has toured the world many times. It is his time spent in the Middle East that has had an indelible impact on his sense of his place in the world.
"Look at my face," he says. "That's been my passport in my many travels around the Middle East. I could be from Lebanon or Qatar or the UAE or Libya. People pick up on that. When I step off the plane in any of those places the first thing they say is, 'Welcome home' because they don't know where we originated. And when I first travelled to the Middle East I thought, 'These people look awfully familiar'. African Americans don't have a great sense of their history prior to life on the plantation. There's the great trauma of slavery and previous to that, a great sense of a lost world. We didn't have papers saying "Mtumbo is now named Richie". Once we were off the boat as slaves we were given new ID and we had to make our way in the world. But in Egypt and in Qatar and the UAE I feel something. I feel at home."
Most fascinating of all to him - and a potential home if it were not for his constant touring and his family in California - is Abu Dhabi. For Richie it is a place where thrusting modernity meets the lost history he talks about. "Abu Dhabi I love. It's a melting pot. The way I see it: Dubai is the Las Vegas of the Middle East. That's where the money is invested. But in Abu Dhabi they got oil. It's on the edge of the culture and religion, a mix of the West and the established Muslim religion. I could live there because the kids I meet there all know about USC and Duke. They all trained or studied in the US and came home. The new generation is not strange and distant. We share so much. And yet the fathers and grandmothers are more traditional. You are landing in a 21st-century place but at the same time the ancient roots are there for all to see. You don't get that in America so much. Nothing is more than 300 years old. For me that makes what I find in the UAE or Morocco or Libya truly breathtaking."
Richie may have an interest and respect for ancient roots but in so many other ways his life is steeped in the craziness of the 21st century. One of the reasons he could not up sticks and move to the UAE is his family. And the member of that family who might find it hardest to adapt to life outside the Hollywood showbiz bubble is his adopted daughter Nicole. To a new generation it is she, and not Lionel, who is the most famous Richie but for altogether different reasons. Along with Paris Hilton, the heiress and socialite with whom she attended kindergarten, she has become one of the decade's most notorious
"celebutantes" following their appearance on the US reality TV show The Simple Life. The two self-avowedly spoilt rich kids entertained millions by getting their hands dirty doing regular jobs such as farming and sausage-making in rural Arkansas. The pair's ditsy narcissism has come to symbolise the age, especially with what has followed since: a distinctly unhealthy link between personal disaster and career progression. In 2006 Nicole Richie fell prey to drink and drug problems. However, she wrote a novel, The Truth About Diamonds, loosely based on her life story, which is now being made into a film.
It is clear Richie is not entirely comfortable talking about her. He is never less than cordial and warm, but at the mention of her name he clasps his hands together and makes a close inspection of his shoes. "The Simple Life brought me face to face with reality. They call it reality TV - well it did the job. Up till that point being a parent was cool. I talked to other parents and their kids all did the same things: 'Oh, my daughter is swimming or playing soccer or going to "Mommy and Me class".' Fabulous! No problem. And then one day Nicole walked in the living room and said, 'Dad, they gave me a TV show'. I said, 'Great, finally you got a job. What's it about?' She said, 'We play spoilt rich girls who've retired. We don't have to work any more.' I said, 'Well you should be able to pull that off.'
Then they asked if they could borrow my house. That's when I turned. I said the exact same words my dad said to me when I said I'd quit school to form a band: 'Now what would you want to go and do a stupid thing like that for?' Those two turned me into my dad. But? they squeaked right through and so they say 'I told you so'. When people stop you and say, 'I love your daughter, she's so funny,' I take it as proof that she pulled it off."
Richie, meanwhile, is touring his new album, cannily roping in the latest R&B producers like Akon to update his hallmark pop trappings. But at the same time he is working on his legacy. Like every major act of the past 30 years now re-forming, he is planning to do the same. Why has he decided to go back now? "The last 10 years we've been talking about re-forming [The Commodores]. But the danger is you talk and talk and nothing happens. When Milan Williams, the keyboard player, died of cancer, that was pretty much a wake-up call. You always think there's time. That's a myth. We have to do it soon. We've got two originals still in the band but we need more discussion with the three on the outside. And why not? The Jacksons are talking about it and we toured with them on their first Madison Square Gardens Show and two major US tours. The wheel has turned full circle.
"It was amazing. When I first saw Michael and his brothers I thought, 'What a gimmick! They have four guys and a midget!' I thought he was just a very short little man who could sing. Well he soon put me in my place, didn't he? I was mid-twenties and wanting me and my band to rule the world and I found out the job was already taken by a little kid." Richie gets dewy-eyed talking about the old days. Though he is better known for crooning saccharine love ballads, let's not forget that he started out writing songs like Brick House, an oblique tribute to women with big backsides. And no matter how many romances he may have soundtracked, he is surely the best known pop romantic to have suffered spousal abuse (his first wife Brenda Harvey flew at him after discovering him with another woman in 1988). These days the twice-divorced star and Valentine's Day favourite says he knows that the secret to a good relationship is not flowers, plane tickets or frocks. It's "humility".
"Young men have egos. I had an ego. There are certain things that go with this job, and the attention of beautiful women is one of them. But you grow up and I have big responsibilities. You learn. And perhaps the most important lesson is that you have to put the relationship right at the centre of your world no matter if you think you've got more important things to do. And I admire men who can do that.
"The chairman of my record company met me at his home. His wife went to get drinks. About seven minutes later she came in and said, 'The dog got out.' We continued the meeting for a few minutes and then she came back: 'The dog got out.' Me and the head of my record company cancelled the rest of the meeting and we ended up in the park looking for his golden retriever. That, to me, is getting priorities right."
Richie may not make it as a diplomat but he's certainly an elder statesman. He may not be in the lineage of classic soul singers but he's a pop icon. "I'll settle for that," he smiles. "I see myself as a guy who got lucky. And then some." Lionel Richie's latest album, Just Go, is out now.