Interview: Lionel Richie.
Some interviewees can take a little time to warm up. Sure, they’ll nearly always be polite – but sometimes you’ll detect a weariness, or a certain suspicion, lurking behind those first few answers. When that happens, it’s your job to turn on the charm and engage their interest, coaxing as much out of them as you can in the time available.
And then there are the Lionel Richies of this world: eager, enthusiastic, puppy-dog friendly, with an almost overpowering charm that instantly puts you at your ease.
“I have never been so happy to speak to a man this much in my whole life!” he begins, before serving up the twist. “Because you are the last interview of my day! How about that?”
When we speak, he’s in London for the Brits, where he’ll be presenting the Best Female International Artist award to Katy Perry. “Mainly I’ll just go and hang out. I have this brand new record coming out, and so it’s a little bit of rubbing shoulders.”
Moving and shaking, playing the game, and having fun while he’s doing it – that’s Lionel all over. One of Motown’s longest-serving and most successful artists, he’s been doing this sort of thing since the early 1970s, signing with Berry Gordy’s label just after it moved from the original “Hit Factory” building in Detroit to new premises in Los Angeles.
For many of Gordy’s artists and backing musicians, who had grown used to recording in their home city, the move was a traumatic and controversial one.
“They were doing great in Detroit, but then to move to L.A? Can you handle L.A.? L.A. is not Detroit. One thing’s for sure, they had no choice – because that was the bread and butter. These guys had a machine going called Motown. They would follow Berry Gordy anywhere on the planet. So I would say it was more difficult for them.”
None of this mattered much to Richie and his band The Commodores. Hailing from Alabama, they brought a fresh set of musical influences to the label – although it still took them a few months to find their feet.
“They tried to put this into that Motown formula. And we were trying to get into the Motown formula – but the formula didn’t fit the Commodores. “We pulled a track from the Temptations, Lionel! We’re gonna give that to you!” And we kept saying: well, we don’t want a Temptations track; where the Commodores track?”
“We were a bar band, you know? We were the funk group here. And then I discovered that Marvin couldn’t read music and Smokey couldn’t read music… and wait a minute, you mean I don’t have to read music to be a writer? No? OK. Fellas, we are now writers! If we can explain what we want for a record, we can write it. And then we discovered our writing talent, and it was off to the races!”
Although Richie left Motown in the mid-1990s, a strong sense of identification with the label still remains with him.
“It’s like graduating from a university. If you went to USC, you will forever be a USC graduate, you know what I’m saying? I used to call it Motown University. It was the best course that you could ever take, and you couldn’t take it unless you signed to Motown.”
And when he attends the class reunions, which of the alumni does he hang out with?
“Smokey and Stevie are my buds, and I have a very special relationship with Berry Gordy. It’s one of those situations where the master teacher and I are still very much in contact with each other. And I love that. When Berry Gordy was presented his lifetime achievement award, he asked three people to stand and make a speech on his behalf: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. And I thought: if that’s the history of Motown standing in front of us, and I happen to make that three… I had a lot of tears in my eyes that night.”
While his fellow graduates have mostly morphed into nostalgia acts, Lionel is still pumping out the product. The past few years have seen something of a commercial and artistic renaissance for him, and his newly released album Just Go – a collaboration with some of the top names in contemporary R&B – is already selling well.
“When I did this album, it was kind of a risky thing – but I always like to be a little risky. If I’m a little scared to death of what’s going on, and if I feel like I don’t quite have the control, I know that I’m in the right zone. If you talk to actors, they always like to stretch their talents a little bit. So with this one, I decided: OK, what have I not done?”
In the case, the answer lay in surrendering a certain amount of creative freedom to younger artists such as Ne-Yo and Akon, and recruiting some of the key creative talent behind hits like Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”.
“So here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna go to Akon and Ne-Yo and these guys, and I’m gonna say: OK, you are now Lionel Richie in 2009. What does he sound like? And then I’m getting out of the way. Now you got my heart beating again, as if it were 1972! And now there’s no more guarantees about anything, because I’ve given up the control.”
As a testament of faith in R&B’s new generation, Just Go sets Richie apart from those of his contemporaries who dismiss the contemporary version of the genre out of hand.
“We have one common denominator that brings us all together, and that is melody”, he explains. “Now, if you’d asked me to rap, you’d have a problem. But if you’re asking me to hum a song, I can do that. So what I was looking for was the songwriters of this generation. I wanted to give them an opportunity to go places that they normally wouldn’t go, if they had done it for themselves. That’s where the art is: to make sure you don’t lose Lionel Richie in the process of writing the song.”
Thankfully, one of R&B’s more irksome new toys – the Autotune machine, which turns dodgy pitch into robotised perfection – was left in its box.
“They’d say: Lionel, we’ll straighten that one out right there. And I said, don’t straighten that one out! Every perfect note does not mean the song is perfect – it means it’s not believable.”
As for the current tour, which lands in Nottingham on Monday night, the focus will be kept on classic values rather than gimmicky excess.
“Lionel will not fly from the back of the room; that’s not gonna happen. I’ll wait till I’m 92, and then I’ll fly in from the back of the room! I just change the lights around a little bit, show up, and the crowd puts on the best show ever on the planet.”