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Lionel Richie: 'The audience know my songs better than I do'


FLAIRS, BELL-BOTTOMS and shoulder pads have each had their day; music styles and tastes have evolved through the years. But according to soul legend Lionel Richie, love is one thing that will never change – a fact, he says, he will forever be indebted to.

“Love never goes out of style,” says Richie, who has amassed more number ones than any other singer/songwriter in his 40-year career.

“I found a subject that, for whatever reason under God’s world, doesn’t go out of style. People are always trying to find love and my music provides it. I always say that I populated the world,” he pauses. “That’s a little gross isn’t it?”

We both burst out in laughter and he, thankfully, composes himself before I do.

“The point is, I don’t care what you do – gangster rap, down on your luck songs, sooner or later, you’re going to have to get to Lionel Richie. When you say ‘I love you’ to someone, or ‘I want you’ and ‘I need you’, I’m the soundtrack. That’s what keeps me mainly alive.”

And with songs like Endless Love (his hit duet with Diana Ross) and Say You Say Me, 64-year-old Richie has given birth to timeless love classics that will continue to live on for years to come – and by his own admission, keep those birth rates up.

“Right now, you would think I’ve met everybody,” he says. “Then, here comes the kids and they go, ‘My mum said,’ or ‘my dad said’ and you realise, here comes the next generation.”

Rising to fame as the frontman of 1970s group The Commodores, Richie made his solo debut in 1982 with his self-titled album and the number-one hit, Truly. Later No.1s came in the form of Hello?, All Night Long and the 1985 hit We Are The World, which he co wrote with Michael Jackson.

EARLY DAYS: Richie as part of The Commodores

But although his songs, which he affectionately calls his ‘children’, hold a special place in his heart, the star admits he’s always bound to forget the words to one of them when on stage.

“It always happens, it never fails! Out of all of the 250 million songs that I have, I will forget one. But I’ve been doing this for so long, I kind of vibe off people. The crowd knows the words, the songs and the melodies better than I do. My job is just to walk on stage.”

Richie is refreshingly honest, open (and surprisingly funny) throughout our interview. Perhaps it was the sun in St Kitts, where Richie recently headlined the island’s annual festival, that showed formality the door – but whatever it was, I was grateful.

PROUD: We Are The World earned Michael Jackson and Richie the award for best song of the year at the 1986 Grammy Awards

As we reclined in our wicker armchairs, him with an ice-cold glass of water and me armed with my trusted dictaphone, this could have been mistaken for a long overdue chat between two old friends – minus the recording device, of course.

“This is the closest thing to a paid vacation you’ll get in your whole life,” Richie enthuses. “And on top of that, it’s really, really relaxing. Look at me, I’m all laid back and chilled. If I could tell you I was suffering, I would be lying.”
Still, it wasn’t long before I caught Richie “working out” on stage in front of an audience of 10,000, gathered for the island’s famed event.

“Some people go to the gym to work out, I go and do a two-hour show. Over here [in St Kitts], it’s like the gym and sauna all wrapped into one! That’s probably why I’ve been in the business so long. I work out all the time.”

Boasting such an acclaimed catalogue of music, can Richie possibly pick his favourite song to perform?

“Well, you can’t beat Hello? and you can’t beat All Night Long,” he said, after moments of agonising. “I enjoy those two songs because I don’t have to perform them, the crowd do!

“I don’t know how I was blessed to have those two. Of course there are the Commodores songs, but to pick just one is a little difficult. It’s like asking which one of my children do I prefer,” says the father of three.

He recently revealed in an interview that it was actually his own songs that got him through one of the most difficult times of his life, after losing his father and divorcing first wife, Brenda Harvey-Richie, the mother of first daughter Nicole, at the same time.

ALL NIGHT LONG: Lionel Richie at the 2013 St. Kitts Music Festival [PIC CREDIT: Dionne Grant]

So widespread is the popularity of Richie’s music, it was reported that Iraqis blasted out All Night Long as a welcome song on the night when US tanks went into Baghdad in 2003.

“I can go into places where this guy or this country doesn’t like this guy or that country, I can go where the religion doesn’t match up or where they don’t allow Western music in that country and yet people will say, ‘I was married on your song’.

“I couldn’t script that if I wanted to. It’s just one of those strange things that tells me this is the job I’m supposed to be doing.”

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