The tour is called "All the Hits," but Lionel Richie's lying.
Six number ones. Twelve top 10s. A selection of "Fancy Dancer," which peaked at 39.
But all the hits?
He would need to pull a Springsteen to have enough time to punch every one out. For now, the nearly 10,000 fans packed into Seattle's KeyArena won't hear "Still," "Oh No," "Ballerina Girl" or "Love Will Conquer All."
They scream as Richie, trim and in black jeans, sits behind the piano to launch into his disco-era antidote, "Easy." So what if he's three months past his 68th birthday. The voice remains undiminished, and his surgically repaired knee, which delayed the start of this tour, looks game-ready as he glides along to "All Night Long."
It is a huge arena, but the singer cozies up with his between-song banter, reminding the audience how long “we’ve” been together, (“when you fell in love, I fell in love”) and poking fun at the seductive power of his pop balladry.
“Tonight,” Richie says, “I was in the backstage area and a man came up to me. Maybe 250, 275-pound man. Came up to me and he put his hand on my shoulder. He said, ‘Lionel, I’ve made love to you many times.’ ”
The crowd howls.
“And then it got worse. Because his wife or his girlfriend came up and said, ‘Oh, I was there.’ ”
Along with own hits, Richie delivers eight tracks by the Commodores, the group he helped form in 1968 and left, not so cleanly, in 1982. This is the only time Richie slips up, punctuating “Brick House” by calling for the audience to praise his band, who he mistakenly calls “the Commodores.”
“Here’s what makes it so strange,” Richie explains later, after the concert. “There are moments in the show. Like tonight, you heard me accidentally say, ‘the Commodores,’ because, in my brain, with the lights in my face, I can’t tell you what year it is. And so if I just let my mind roam, it’s 1978, it’s 1982, it’s 1976.”
Where does the time go? Richie’s career has stretched across a half century, from breakfasts with Hank Mancini and Sammy Cahn to his impending judgeship with Katy Perry and Luke Bryan on the March reboot of “American Idol.”
Richie has coped with scandal and stage fright, health scares and changing fashions. And yet he is not just still here, he’s the rare pop legend who transcends genre, race, even time, an icon capable of retaining his core audience while adding their kids.
It’s no wonder he’s a member of the Kennedy Center Honors Class of 2017.
“Today when he plays at Glastonbury, for instance, and you’ll have this very hip crowd that’s into very hip things and then Lionel comes on and they lose their mind,” says Lenny Kravitz, a fan as a child who has become a friend. “That’s the power of his music.”
‘I never knew Lionel could sing.’
To understand Lionel Richie — his optimism, his aversion to conflict — you have to understand his home town of Tuskegee. An outsider glancing at a map might peg the city the last place a young, African American kid would want to grow up. Alabama was where Bull Connor, the racist public safety commissioner of Birmingham, harassed civil rights advocates. But Tuskegee wasn’t Birmingham or Montgomery.
Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Normal School in 1881 and created a cultural oasis for a deeply intellectual, African American middle class.
“Growing up in Tuskegee, we saw the best and the brightest,” says Milton Davis, a childhood friend of Richie’s who became an attorney. “You knew what segregation was, but you knew what it was to have an excellent education, an excellent upbringing, an excellent community environment.”
Richie’s father, Lionel Sr., served in the military before working as a systems analyst. His mother, Alberta, taught at the local elementary school.
“Did I ever see a white sheet growing up? No,” says Richie. “I judged a person by who they were as opposed to their skin color. I was raised like that and I asked my Dad one day, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” He said, ‘Because I didn’t want you to think there were limitations. If I told you the story about black and white, what comes with that story is that they think they’re superior. So I left that story out.’”
In those days, music was everywhere. The Stones, Patsy Cline and James Brown on the radio. Gospel from William Dawson's choir at the Tuskegee Institute. And at home, Richie's grandmother, Adelaide Foster, who played piano and taught Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
“Three Times a Lady” is classical,” says Richie, of the song he wrote for the Commodores in 1978. “It’s a waltz. Where’d it come from? In the house. When I started writing I was going after Paul McCartney and Billy Joel. It didn’t dawn on me until we got there and started going that the man said, “Oh no, this song is too black.”
When the Commodores, mainly made up of his buddies at the Tuskegee Institute, got started, Richie played saxophone and stayed clear of the mic. Then drummer Walter Orange heard him singing in the shower. He pushed him out front, an experience Richie remembers as awkward and uncomfortable. His friends agreed.
“I was saying to myself, what is Lionel doing on stage trying to sing?” says Betty Neal Crutcher, a classmate at Tuskegee.
One afternoon, in 1970, somebody else made that discovery. Suzanne de Passe, the Motown staffer who had signed the Jackson 5, agreed to let the Commodores audition for her. Forty-seven years later, she still remembers why she brought them to Berry Gordy. It was Richie’s turn on a Glen Campbell hit.
“I was completely blown away that he sang ‘Wichita Lineman,’ ” says de Passe. “It wasn’t that the other guys weren’t good and that they didn’t have their choreography together. It was that there was sort of a pop influence in this R&B cover band and I thought that was very special.”
Later, as the hits flowed, they would laugh about the Temptations and the Beatles, favorite bands that couldn’t seem to stay together. “And we said, ‘We’re never going to let that happen to us,’ ” says Richie.
“We never fought,” says bassist Ron LaPread. “We called ourselves the Fabulous Freak Brothers. Anything goes. And if you did something that was funny, you can bet your bottom dollar that all of us brothers was going to laugh at you first.”
Knowing money — and the unequal distribution of it — often led to band conflict, the Commodores established a system designed to spread the wealth. If you wrote a song, you got a 51 percent royalty cut, the other guys splitting the remaining 49. In a band packed with writers, song selection would be democratic, each of the six guys getting a vote.
That worked until Richie emerged as a hit machine.
After his No. 1 on“Still,” Richie pitched his next ballad, a fragment for which he had only the opening word — “lady” — and then the melody of the verse. The Commodores voted “Lady” down.
“We had enough ballads,” Orange says today. “I wanted some up-tempo material like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool & the Gang.”
William King, who still tours with Orange in a version of the Commodores, voted for the song.
“I thought it was the craziest thing,” he says. “ ‘Lady’ was a hit. A smokin’ hit.”
He was right. Country star Kenny Rogers had already approached Richie for songs.
“I’ve made a life and a career out of finding songs that every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear and that’s what he writes best,” he says.
When the two met in Rogers’s studio, Richie still hadn’t finished the song.
“He sang, ‘Lady, duh, duh, duh, duh duh, duh, duh, duh’ and I said, ‘how could you turn down that word?’” says Rogers. “I said, ‘go finish it and I’ll do your song.’”
“Lady” spent six weeks at No. 1, and Richie noticed what it was like not to lose 49 percent of his publishing revenue.
“The check was enormous, the popularity enormous, and I was no longer referred to as Commodore,” says Richie. “ ‘Who wrote that record?’ ‘A kid named Lionel Richie.’ ”
He tried to bat down the rumors. “I’ll be a Commodore forever,” Richie told Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” in 1982.
But he just couldn’t stay. And the way Richie left remains both a sore spot and also gets to the root of the only, real criticism you’ll hear about Richie. He’s too nice. He’d rather hem and haw, leaving everybody in limbo, than deliver bad news.
“He’s almost like a matador,” says de Passe, who calls Richie an “artful dodger.” “You’re coming at him full-bore and he knows how to sidestep and let that cape do the work.”
When he finally decided he had to leave, William King, his roommate for years on the road, says Richie asked the trumpet player to break it to the guys.
“You don’t want to be here? Okay,” King says. “Say it. I said, ‘I’m not telling them. You tell them.’ ”
Richie doesn’t remember the split going down like that, but he concedes there are things he wishes both sides had done differently. The “artful dodger,” though? That’s just the challenge of wanting to be supportive, to be a friend, when you’re shooting “American Idol” all day, rehearsing for a Las Vegas residency, balancing charity requests and that thing called family. He has two daughters, Nicole, 36, and Sofia, 19, and his son, Miles, 23. Twice divorced, Richie lives with his girlfriend, Lisa Parigi.
Saying no, he concedes, has always been hard.
“Now, this is a town of the F word, you know. F everything,” he says. “I have managed to maintain my relationships without using that word. So, what happens with me is, I say, ‘Do you know what? I won’t be able to make that but I will be able to do this.’ ”
In a way, the toughest question is why Richie waited so long to launch a solo career.
His self-titled solo debut, released in 1982, was almost mathematical in its precision, alternating between perfectly crafted ballads and midtempo pop songs. Commodores producer James Carmichael came along with him, overseeing an organic production with lush strings and seasoned studio musicians. In 1983, Richie got slicker, embracing more technology, with a GS-1 synthesizer slithering through the mix. “Can’t Slow Down” did even better, with five of the record’s eight songs landing in the top 10. At that moment, Richie was as popular as the icons he had encountered when he first came to Motown, mentioned in the same breath as Marvin, Stevie and Smokey. And it was with Michael Jackson that Richie wrote “We Are the World,” the charity single that found more than 40 singers, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Tina Turner, trading lines in a packed studio.
Success came at a cost. Richie’s marriage, to his college sweetheart, Brenda, had begun to collapse. His father got sick. After his third album, 1986’s “Dancing on the Ceiling,” hit No. 1, Richie headed back to Tuskegee to take care of him. It would be another six years before he released another album.
But it would be a lesson from Lionel Sr., in part, that helped him get back.
One Christmas, the son handed the father a box holding a tiny piece of paper. “All bills paid,” it read.
By now, Richie’s six-pack of No. 1 hits found him earning close to $40 million a year.
Hence, “all bills paid.”
“What about the loan?” Lionel Sr. asked.
“Paid for, Dad.”
“Wow, what about the house?”
“Paid for,” the son responded.
“You know what he did?” says Richie, pausing for dramatic effect. “Four days later he created some new bills. I went back and said, ‘Why would you do that?’ He said, ‘Always remember, man has to worry and have something to do when he gets up in the morning. You just gave me nothing to do.’”
The story of that box, “is me,” says Richie. It is why, instead of gazing at the Grammys that sit in the oak cabinet inside his mansion, he is filming “Idol” until late at night and plotting out Vegas. It is why he can’t quite let go of the Commodores, whose glorious, funk brotherhood soured when he walked away. He hopes to one day figure out a way to bring them together again, if only for a proper farewell.
The “all bills paid” story plops Richie in 1986, at the height of his artistic and financial powers.
“Okay, so I’m 37 years old and I don’t have to work no more,” he says. “That’s a great idea. Now, I’m 37 years old. What do you think I’m going to do?”
In Seattle, Richie moves like a man who has never finished anything with a question mark. Other stars prepare for a gig alone, in a dressing room, sipping camomile.
Richie is working even before he walks into KeyArena. Out back, he huddles with the tour’s truck drivers to thank them and pose for photos. Next, he hustles to a backstage meet with fans, hugging, laughing and nodding attentively even as his handlers nervously glance at the clock.
And Mariah. The diva has been opening these shows, though Richie treats her like a headliner. As she finishes up “Hero,” he hustles to the side of the stage, with a rose, to lean over and whisper into Carey’s ear, “You killed it.”
With that, he jogs back to his dressing room. The night is just beginning.