When Lionel Richie comes to the phone, he doesn’t begin with the customary greeting that he practically holds a copyright on. No, he doesn’t say “Hello,” but instead he exclaims this reporter’s name as if he’s greeting an old friend. Though it would have been nice to hear the singer speak the word that helped propel him to such great heights in the 1980s when “Hello” topped the charts and became legendary for its epic music video, it’s also a joy to behold that the Motown legend still approaches a telephone interview with such personal fervor.
He speaks of his own feats with a detached wonder, almost as if he’s having difficulty believing how well his career has gone. And he speaks of his place in popular culture with a gracious sense of humor.
“I actually still love the bullshit,” says the singer. “You have to know that you can’t take it seriously because it’s not serious.”
METRO: You were just playing in the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and China …
Lionel Richie: Yeah, we just did Shanghai, China, and when the minister of education comes to the show and tells me they teach English on my songs in the schools, that’s like, “OK, thank you very much, and I will leave now.”
You’ve been touring for 40 some-odd years ...
Well, the way you talk about it, it sounds like you still love it and get to really experience each city…
It depends on how fast you’re traveling. For me, I make it a point to be like, “OK, where are the best places? Take me there!” In my case, I’m in a wonderful position where if there is a royal family or if there is some kind of dignitary, you end up having a dinner with them or the royal family will come to the show. In most cases, you’d never get to even see the royal family, but in my case it happens to be that the family loves the music.
I think a certain amount of No. 1 records will do that.
And especially in certain parts of China, for example, you fall into two different categories; desirable or undesirable. Thankfully, I fall into the desirable category, so I do get access to a little more, only because they are fans.
You say they teach English to your songs in schools, so when you perform there, do they sing along loudly?
Well that’s what happens with me. We did “China Idol,” and let me give you number on this so you understand how exciting it was. With “American Idol,” you have 14 million viewers, and that means you are raising hell in America. In China there were 453 million viewers!
So when I’m up there singing “Endless Love” on the finale of the show, it was a medley of my songs. I started off with “Say You, Say me,” and the crowd took over. I kept thinking, “What the heck is going on?” I thought I was being punk’d or something. The guy says, “no, you don’t understand, every school kid here, they’re singing school songs as far as they’re concerned.” So by the time I got to “Endless Love,” I was like, “are you kidding me?” They really know every song! Of course I ask the question, “how is that possible?” And it’s the fact that Western music did not come to China until 1984.
Perfect timing for you!
So when I say to them, “Elvis Presley?” They don’t know him. They don’t know Frank Sinatra!
And 1984, that was the year when you were absolutely everywhere.
The word is called “sizzle-factor.”
That was the year you did the closing ceremony for the Olympics.
The Olympic ceremony, that was it! Again, remember at that time you have 1.8 billion people watching, that’s because we didn’t have any computers so the whole world was actually watching. No one was texting, no one was Instagramming, or Facebooking, it was like prehistoric times.
You have adapted over the years though. Younger generations know your music. On your 2012 country album, “Tuskegee,” you have seasoned vets working with you and newer artists. Plus you have the current tour with Cee Lo Green. How do you make sure the sizzle factor doesn’t become the fizzle factor?
Well, you know I think what happened with me was a couple factors. I talked with Dick Clark in the beginning and I asked, “How do you stay a teenager for 60 years?” and he said, “Always stay eye-to-eye with whomever you’re dealing with.” So his people were teenagers, so that’s who he stayed eye-to-eye with.
When was this that you talked to him?
This must have been ‘83 or ‘84, when I was actually doing it and hosting the American Music Awards, and I just had to ask him. I said, “You know, Dick, how do you do this? What’s the secret here? Give me some pointers here!” And he gave me that bit of advice. The other part of it is, I actually still love the bullshit. You have to know that you can’t take it seriously because it’s not serious. When you find yourself saying, “Oh my God, this is garbage! What’s this on the radio?” and “back in the day when I was there…” If you find yourself saying that, it passed you by. But if you’re like, “OK, I get it, this is the radical part for now,” it’s just like what was the radical part back when we did it. Every generation has to come up with some new shock value.
Speaking of which, the guy you are bringing on tour had a huge hit with what’s widely thought of as the most profane swear possible.
Absolutely! By the way, that’s a hit record! … I’d love to tell you that what is happening now with Instagram and everyone taking pictures and putting it out there, in the ‘70s we could lose a career for that. Now this is just everyday humdrum.
So what would a photo from the 1970s Instagram account of the Commodores look like?
It’s 1974. We're in Amsterdam. I’m partying my brains out; no telling what condition my condition was in. As you can imagine it was off-the-chain! We're in every club in London, every club in Berlin, and by the way, you can still get on the plane, and you can fly home and go to the first pew of the church and it’s "Lionel Jr. is back from his tour." But now if you walk out of the club sideways, there’s every imaginable television show waiting for you to trip and fall. It doesn’t give the kids time to practice very much.
You said you've gotta love the bullshit, and you still do. You must have had some sound parental advice when your daughter was going through some of the bullshit of being a celebrity.
What I said to her is this — and kids have a tendency to say sorry a lot — so all I said was, “stop apologizing, the only difference between you and me is that my family never found out about it. You all now have instagram and then take pictures and post them so I can find out. You idiots don’t know how to keep a secret!"
“Tuskegee,” which was your last album, in 2012, was all country duets of previous hits, and this tour you're billing as "all the hits, all night long." Which versions of the songs will you play?
We’re doing strictly hit versions, I found that what we try to do, if I do the show correctly, is that I make sure I know when the crowd knows when to come in. What you don’t want to do is when “Hello” is the arrangement of Jennifer Nettles, and they don’t know how to do that. But they do know that if I say, “I sometimes see you pass outside my door…” they take over. They know where to go after that.
Do you ever get frustrated that your songs are such staples? Do you ever want to perform them without the crowd coming in?
What I love most of all, it doesn’t matter what I try and sing, the crowd is going to come in and sing the exactly right lyrics. When I sing the wrong lyrics the crowd goes, “Ha ha, Lionel is on medication.”
It’s funny when you mention "Hello," because I got so psyched that when you answered the phone earlier you might say, “Hello…” Instead, you just yelled, "Pat!" Do you consciously try to not say "Hello" in conversation?
Sometimes I forget altogether. Like today, because I am doing interviews, I am conscious of it. But other times I will say, "Hello" and people will be like, "a-ha!"
Speaking of that song, did you ever see the meme of the "Lost Dog"-type sign with your picture and the lyrics to "Hello" posted to a tree?
Can I tell you that thing is viral?! That is now a T-shirt!
What’s your reaction when people do things like that?
It’s the best form of flattery. Are you kidding me? To be able to think that — where did that picture show up? London, Amsterdam, Cairo, Libya. I have people calling me saying, “Lionel, I took a picture of this, and I am in Libya.” This is what I’ve got: Everywhere on this planet, that picture is stuck to something. There was a friend of mine who was looking for an apartment in Hong Kong and the place she was looking at, the next door neighbor had that picture hanging on the door across the hall.
Looking back at the class of 1984, some of the people that were popular then didn’t fare as well. Who do you stay in touch with that you used to roll with back then?
There's only a couple. Michael would've been on the top of my list, but when you start losing Whitney and Michael and Luther, that would have been my list. I see Prince sparingly because he is touring as much as I'm touring. But when you talk about the original class of 84 you know there’s not too many left. Occasionally I will run into the Gap Band, but you don’t get to see everyone, you know? I would love to see ... what's that guy's name?
Man, what the hell? Are you in my mind or something?
No, I was just throwing that one out there.
Yeah, when you said Huey Lewis, I thought Phil Collins, but yeah, Huey Lewis and Phil Collins. But the point is that is the class, that is the club that was what radio was back then. We were the ones. The front row of the Grammys and the American Music awards, that’s the group.
While we were talking about photos that might come back to haunt you, I thought of one I want to ask you about. I would just be remiss if I didn’t ask about the photo that graced the inner gatefold of the “Can’t Slow Down” album. How did that happen?
Oh yeah that’s the real stuff! That’s the picture you want to get back. [laughs]. At the very last minute the guy was like, "can you just take one with the pole, just get on the pole and lift yourself up," and it was the end of the shoot and you think, "OK, I’ll do this pole shot, and of course out of all the other shots, we’re not going to use this one." And then you look at it 30 years later and you go, "What the hell was I thinking?"
You're were wearing lavender boots!
Oh God, please, are you going to remind me? I mean, I look at some of my Commodore hair, and if I told you that I would set up in the mirror to do it like that, that’s not an accident, would it make sense? I look at that stuff sometimes and go, "OK, here we go," but the joke is that at that time it was raising hell. The worst is when you sit down with your kids and they are like “Dad, really?”