Personally, if I walked into a room and found somebody sculpting my head out of strange coloured clay I’d run a mile. To be fair, the woman doing the sculpting was visually impaired, but even that doesn’t really excuse how monumentally freaky the head was. The legend that is Lionel Richie didn’t even miss a beat when he saw it, but then this was a man who would later spend much of his time dancing on the ceiling, so perhaps he was just unshockable.
To put the above in context, in one of Lionel’s most famous songs, Hello, he plays a college teacher who falls for one of his students, and creepily follows her around the building without her knowing, leaning against nearby walls in a stripey jumper and the kind of linen jacket with rolled up sleeves that was popular in the 1980s. He also rings her just to sing the song’s title down the phone at her; if I was her I’d have taken out a restraining order, but she obviously likes it as she then shows him the giant clay head. True love indeed.
Lionel Brockman Richie (perhaps his father kept badgers?) is a singer songwriter, born in 1949 in Tuskegee, Alabama in the USA. Always interested in music as a career, he was part of several R&B groups in the 1960s before joining The Commodores in 1968, both singing and playing the saxophone. Success started rolling for them straight away; a signing with Atlantic Records the same year led to their first record being released, before Motown Records snapped them as support for The Jackson Five. This obviously brought them to the attention of a huge audience, and increased their popularity.
If the question came up in a pub quiz to name some Commodore tracks then the ballads would be the first to be called; the band’s name is synonymous with the singles that your parents embarrassingly smooched to at parties, such as Three Times a Lady or Easy but the band’s main sound was rooted in soul and funk, with Brick House and Machine Gun being good examples of this.
After a decade or so in The Commodores, Richie turned his hand to writing for other singers. Kenny Rogers took Lady to number one in 1980, and Richie also produced his album Share Your Love in 1981. This was also the year that Richie and Diana Ross sang Endless Love, the song that doe-eyed couples murder during tipsy karaoke sessions. The original version however, being sung as it was by people with excellent voices, became a huge hit, reaching the top of both the US and UK music charts and was the catalyst for Richie leaving the Commodores and becoming a solo artist.
He really searched his mind for the title of his first solo album, and Lionel Richie launched in 1982. Recapturing the ballad-style of The Commodores brought him more US number one success with the first single that he released from it, Truly, and two other songs that reached the top five; You Are and My Love. He missed a trick by not mixing all three tracks into one, adding all the titles together in the order of release and creating one huge mash-up ballad. Still, he’s done pretty well for himself without these kinds of suggestions. In 1983 his second album Can’t Slow Down sold over eight million copies, won him two Grammys, and elevated his rank to superstar throughout the world. Another number one came in the form of the Caribbean inspired All Night Long; a catchy little number accompanied by a video which saw Richie sporting a huge moustache and tight leather trousers and encouraging a fake street full of people clad in pastel-coloured leisurewear to dance. And dance they do. Fairly badly but enthusiastically, which is probably a good thing; the song is only about three and a half minutes long, but if Richie has his way it looks like they still have about 12 hours of dancing to go. All Night Long is actually a brilliant song, and now it’s been mentioned, you’ll be humming it for the rest of the day.
Hello, which we mentioned earlier (that’s right, the bizarre clay head) is one of Richie’s most well-known tracks, and this plus three further songs made the US top ten in 1984. And as if his Grammys weren’t reward enough for him, in 1985 Say You, Say Me (which was the theme tune to the film White Nights) made number one in the States and presented him with an Oscar to boot. This was also the year that saw him and Michael Jackson create the We Are The World charity single, which was sung by USA For Africa; a supergroup consisting of some of the biggest megastars on the planet at the time. As well as Jackson and Richie, vocals came via Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Dionne Warwick and a host of others. Obviously this went to number one. Oh, and it sold over 20 million copies, and was certified quadruple platinum. So, quite popular then.
Not content with getting his friends to dance in the street, in 1986 Richie started imploring them to get Dancing on the Ceiling as well – they must have been really nervous every time he invited them to parties. This album spawned four top twenty hits, including the title track of the same name, the Oscar winning Say You, Say Me, plus Ballerina Girl and Se La. This was the last album that was a massive worldwide commercial success for him, and 1987 saw Richie taking a break from recording, citing exhaustion and the need to care for his ill father. ⇥ A greatest hits collection, Back to Front saw the return of Richie to show business, albeit with a much reduced recording and performing workload. New album Louder than Words came along in 1996, followed by Time, Renaissance, Just for You, Coming Home and Just Go between 1998 and 2009. His last album, the 2012 Tuskegee features 13 of his hits rerecorded as duets with country music stars such as Shania Twain and Willie Nelson. Most of these albums have fared better in Europe than in his home country, but strangely he has also become a bit of a soul legend in quite a few Arab states, including Dubai and Libya.
During the last decade Richie has also appeared at many live events, toured, discovered his fascinating heritage on the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? and raised large amounts of money for charity, including over $3.1 million dollars for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Despite this full and lauded career, Richie still felt it necessary to lower his UK credentials slightly by appearing on Top Gear in 2004, where his stint as the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was spoilt by a wheel coming off as he raced round the track, and by having to meet Jeremy Clarkson as well. More recently he has starred in a Walkers Crisps advert. Oh Lionel, bet the blind girl wouldn’t be so keen on sculpting your head now, would she?