Lionel Richie at 70: Seventy facts to know about the hitmaker
To celebrate his 70th birthday, we dig out facts about the performer who shows no signs of slowing down as he heads into his eighth decade
1. Lionel Richie was born in the US city of Tuskegee. Located in the state of Alabama, the city is famous for its notable African-American educator Booker T Washington and civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks and Sammy Younge Jr.
2. He was an athlete. Richie was a tennis player before anything else, earning himself a sports scholarship at the Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated with a degree in economics.
3. He nearly chose the altar over the stage. He considered joining the Episcopal Church to become a priest, but decided to join the Commodores instead.
4. His first band wasn’t the Commodores. It was a group called the Mystics. They would go on to merge with a band called the Jays to finally form the Commodores.
5. He experienced stage fright. A shy young man, Richie had to be convinced by band members to switch from saxophone to lead singer.
6. The Commodores wasn’t supposed to be serious. The group was formed in college and was created as a way for its members to kill time and meet girls.
7. He dropped out of university: When the band became serious, Richie quit college in the second semester of his senior year to pursue music full time. His father wasn’t very happy about it.
8. He toured with The Jackson 5. Their support slot on that tour in the early ’70s resulted in the Commodores landing a record deal.
9. He learnt the piano by watching his grandmother play. Richie would watch and memorise the hand movements of his grandmother, a classically trained pianist, when he was younger. He would soon learn to play by ear.
10. His grandmother initially hated ‘Brick House’. Richie recalled how his grandmother, a churchgoing woman, was outraged by the saucy 1977 funk number. He credits the song’s popularity and the massive payday it yielded, for eventually changing her mind.
11. He loved writing ballads. This was Richie’s main contribution to the Commodores. While he co-wrote the barnstorming Brick House, it was ballads such as Sail On and Easy that defined him as a songwriter.
12. ‘Easy’ was inspired by life on the road. Tired of going on year-long tours as part of the Commodores, Richie wrote Easy to express how show business was more graft than glamour.
13. ‘Three Times a Lady’ was written for Frank Sinatra. Because the song was written as a waltz, Richie thought it wouldn’t fit with the Commodores. Producer James Carmichael, however, insisted the song be used by the group.
14. ‘Endless Love’ is the duet of duets. The song was written for the 1981 movie of the same name, and Richie’s collaboration with Diana Ross was an international success. The track was covered by everyone from Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey to Shania Twain.
15. His band made it extremely big. By 1978, the Commodores had four platinum and 14 gold records, along with a tour that raked in $6.5 million (Dh24m).
16. He is a breast cancer campaigner Richie has raised $3.1m for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. His activism was motivated by his grandmother, who was diagnosed with the disease in her eighties, but lived until she was 103.
17. He can write a hit in a bathroom. Richie began writing for others in the late 1970s – he composed the second verse to Kenny Rogers’ hit song Lady during a bathroom break.
18. His solo career began in fine form. His debut single, Truly, won the 1982 Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal performance.
19. He gave a future ballad king his first big break. Listen carefully to a few tracks on Richie’s solo debut, particularly the minor hit, You Are, and you will hear the backing vocals of a then little-known American singer and future ballad king, Richard Marx.
20. It was his second solo effort that made Richie a pop phenomenon. The numbers and accolades don’t lie; 1983’s Can’t Slow Down sold more than 20 million copies and won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
21. The African section in ‘All Night Long’ is actually made up. Time constraints and the lack of a Swahili translator pushed him to make up the words.
22. His biggest hit was a joke: Hello, released in 1984, started out as a joke between him and producer Carmichael. Richie greeted him with the famous line: “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”
23. ‘Hello’ has been the subject of a popular meme shared by Muslims. The search for halal meat while on holiday was best encapsulated in a meme of Richie, with the lyrics changed to “Halal, is it meat you are looking for?”
24. The video for ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ was a record breaker. Made for the reported cost of $400,000, the video was the most expensive of the time. It features Richie and friends dancing suspended from the ceiling.
25. ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ shattered his marriage. It was during the video shoot for the 1986 song that he met Diane Alexander. His affair with the dancer led to his divorce from wife and high-school sweetheart Brenda Harvey.
26. He has a sweet tooth. He is a big fan of oatmeal cookies and carrot cake.
27. He co-wrote a global anthem. Richie co-wrote the benefit single We Are the World with Michael Jackson. The final version was ready only a few hours before the recording session. The song sold more than 20 million copies.
28. He is an Oscar-winner. Richie won the Best Original Song Academy Award for Say You, Say Me in 1986. The track appeared in the 1985 dance drama White Nights, starring Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
29. He took a time out at the peak of his fame. Exhausted from touring and recording, Richie took 10 years away from the limelight in 1987 and returned to his family home in Alabama to take care of his ailing father.
30. His first greatest hits collection is the best. Released in 1992, Back to Front collects all of Richie’s singles and hits from his days with the Commodores, through to his key solo albums. Although a few collections were released since, this is all you need.
31. He was Nelson Mandela’s stylist. Richie was Nelson Mandela’s stylist for the duration of his 1990 visit to the United States.
32. He is big in Baghdad. An ABC news reporter has been quoted several times saying that Iraqis love Richie, and his songs play regularly on the local radio.
33. ‘Hello’ was the soundtrack to a big sale. There are reports of the song Hello playing during an oil and gas auction held at Baghdad’s Ministry of Oil.
34. His music was used as a teaching aid. After a guest appearance on Chinese Idol, fans told Richie that a handful of his songs were used in their curriculum to learn English.
35. His name inspired one of the world’s greatest football stars. Messi’s parents, both massive Richie fans, named the FC Barcelona star after the singer.
36. He even inspired rappers. In American rapper Biggie Smalls’s 1997 track I Love the Dough, the line “Rich like Lionel” references Richie’s then massive fortune.
37. He is a fussy seafood eater. Richie completely avoids crab, octopus and mussels.
38. He was a natural talent. Despite his huge aptitude for songwriting, Richie never actually studied music theory and can’t read or write music.
39. He had a health scare. He almost lost his singing voice after doctors found polyps on his larynx, which were operated on between 1988 and 1991. He thankfully made a full recovery and resumed heavy touring.
40. He stands up for his colleagues. He is an ardent supporter of working songwriters, and cites their unfair treatment as part of the reason he has avoided releasing new material regularly.
41. He is the king of comfort. In 2016, he launched Lionel Richie Home, a line of ornate dinnerware, glassware and home decor items, followed in 2018 by a line of bath towels, duvets, decorative pillows, quilts and sheets.
42. He has green fingers. Richie is a skilled gardener, and spends plenty of time tending to his flowers, including his favourite, the bougainvillaea.
43. He loves all things design. Richie collects fireplaces, is constantly poring over design magazines and frequents art galleries throughout his travels.
44. He is an avid art collector. Richie has spent his hard-earned fortune on several expensive pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
45. He is a fan of today’s pop stars. Richie loves Drake and Bruno Mars, both of whom he considers talented storytellers: “These are guys who are real singer-songwriters,” he says.
46. He played for Colonel Qaddafi. In 2006, Richie suffered heavy criticism after performing in Tripoli for the late Libyan dictator.
47. He has sold a lot of records. In his time as a solo artist, Richie has sold more than 100 million albums.
48. He sent Dave Grohl a care package. After Grohl (of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) broke his leg during a concert in Scandinavia, Richie sent him a giant muffin basket while he was recovering.
49. His music helped Nelson Mandela. During one of Mandela’s first visits to the United States, the South African president expressed to Richie that his music had been a great comfort during his time in jail.
50. He appeared on ‘The Simpsons’. In the 2007 episode He Loves To Fly and He D’ohs, Homer Simpson finds himself flush with cash. Eager to enjoy his fortune, he hires a private jet with entertainment provided by Richie.
51. He thinks fan tattoos are a step too far. Speaking to British TV channel ITV last year, he said: “I am glad you are a fan, but there is a point where you go ‘really?’”
52. He was pranked by Stevie Wonder. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in April, Richie recalled how Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since shortly after birth, lured Richie into his car to hear an album. Stevie Wonder sat in the driver’s seat reversing the car backwards to Richie’s horror. “He would stop and say, ‘I got you,’” he later said of the skit.
53. He had a friendly rivalry with Michael Jackson. “If it wasn’t for Thriller, I wouldn’t have written All Night Long,” he said in an interview with US broadcaster Jimmy Carter. “We had this wonderful competitive time together.”
54. His songwriting process is direct. Speaking to the US press in 1983, he explained that he begins with the chorus, followed by the song’s mood and then the verse.
55. He was diagnosed as being ‘overly sensitive’ as a child. He credits that condition for powering his creative process.
56. Richie doesn’t know what inspired his greatest hits. “I went to the studio wanting to write a happy song and instead I wrote Still, a very sad song,” he said. “Another time I went in to write a sad song because I was miserable and instead it was All Night Long.”
57. A Lionel Richie museum is in the works. He bought his family home in Tuskegee, as well as the surrounding lands. He plans to eventually turn it into a Lionel Richie museum full of his awards, clothes and other items he accumulated from his near five-decade career.
58. He bid farewell to Michael Jackson in song. In 2009, Richie performed as part of the Michael Jackson public memorial service in Los Angeles. Standing beside the casket on stage, he sang the 1980 Commodores gospel track, Jesus is Love.
59. He was Nicole Richie’s legal guardian and then adoptive father. He adopted Nicole when she was three, when his friend and musician Peter Escovedo and his partner Karen Moss could not afford to provide for her. Richie legally adopted Nicole at the age of nine.
60. He made his Middle East concert debut in Dubai in 2014. Dressed in black, Richie was in fine form. He greeted the crowd with “Yalla habibi” and launched into a two-hour concert full of back-to-back hits.
61. He performed a private concert for Emirates airline in 2012. To celebrate the Dubai carrier’s new route to Washington DC, he performed to a crowd of VIPs in the US capital. “He was very professional,” promoter Tom Ovesen said. “ He arrived five minutes before the show, stepped on stage and killed it.”
62. He also performed a private gig in Abu Dhabi in 2013. It was rumoured to be part of a lavish wedding. That said, he managed to go to Dubai and make a backstage appearance at the My Music X Festival, where he took a photograph with 1990s RnB singer Keith Sweat.
63. The UAE hosted a Richie tribute act in 2014. Dubai’s Millennium Airport Hotel held a concert with Richie impressionist Jason Leigh, who donned the suit and afro and had fans singing all night long.
64. He is the sensitive judge on ‘American Idol’. The singer was a teary mess on March 25 after the spellbinding audition by 17-year-old blind singer Shayy.
65. He still has it. The singer drew the biggest crowd at the world’s biggest music festival. Around 100,000 people saw Richie perform at 2015’s Glastonbury festival in a concert that he described as “a real hoot.”
66. He wants to return to the Commodores for a reunion tour. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2014, he said that two of the five members of the band are still not convinced.
67. He made his debut Abu Dhabi performance in 2016. In The National’s review of the Formula One after-race concert, we stated that: “Richie’s greatest trick is making it seem so very effort-free.”
68. He will release a new album on August 23. Titled Live from Las Vegas, the album was recorded during his residency at Zappos Theatre at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino.
69. He is set to play a huge show in London. In what looks to be an amazing gig, Richie will team up with Stevie Wonder to perform at London’s picturesque Hyde Park on July 6.
70. He isn’t planning on slowing down. At 70 years old, Richie is well into an international tour, which kicked off on May 28.
Updated: June 19, 2019 07:27 PM