2017 Honoree Spotlight: Lionel Richie
Singer and songwriter Lionel Richie is one of the world’s best-selling artists with a prolific career that always focused on what’s next.
A native of Tuskegee, Alabama, Lionel Richie’s musical career began with a chance meeting in college at the Tuskegee Institute, which he attended on a tennis scholarship. Richie was carrying a saxophone and was approached by members of an R&B group called The Mystics, who asked him if he knew how to play. Richie said yes and joined the group, which after adding other members would be renamed The Commodores.
Early on, Richie was unsure whether to pursue that career and was actually considering becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. As he told Esquire in 2012, he was performing when he heard a girl in the audience yell “Sing it, baby!” and then called the ministers to say, “I don’t think I’m going to be priest material.” Many years later after co-writing “We Are The World,” which raised $60 million for humanitarian relief in Africa, he’d get a letter from one of the ministers saying, “Congratulations. Your Ministry is doing quite well.”
Against the wishes of his parents, Richie left school, pursued music, and traveled the world with The Commodores, who signed a record deal in 1968 with Atlantic Records before being picked up by Motown Records initially as a support act to The Jackson 5. The Commodores had remarkable success with a series of hits like “Brick House,” “Three Times a Lady” and “Sail On.”
Richie recalls being pushed as a young musician and went from saxophone player and pianist to singer and songwriter. He never had any formal music training but sat in on recording sessions with other Motown artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or Smoky Robinson and would ask questions. Richie once asked Gaye, “Which music conservatory did you graduate from?” Gaye responded by saying, “Little brother, I cannot read or write music.”
This moment encouraged Richie to not let his own lack of training keep him from writing music, and he became a prolific songwriter with an ability to write songs that crossed genre boundaries. In the late 1970s, Richie was writing both for his group and for other artists. He authored “Lady” for Kenny Rogers, which reached #1 in 1980, and he produced Rogers’ 1981 album Share the Love, which had three songs in the pop charts Top 15.
Richie also recalls being driven by Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records. He said that he’d approach Gordy when he had a #1 hit, hoping to get congratulations from the legendary music mogul. Instead Gordy would tell him about the great records all the other Motown artists were about to release, essentially saying to Richie, “That’s great. But what’s next?” Richie said this impacted the way he approached his career.
“Berry Gordy [had] a wonderful way of pitting all the children against each other,” Richie told CBS. “So I kept always writing to have one more to come behind the last one, which was the answer to having [many] years of success.”
In 1982, Richie launched a solo career away from the Commodores. He was one of the most successful solo acts of the decade and had 13 songs reach the top ten, including nine #1 singles such as “Endless Love,” “Truly,” “All Night Long,” “Hello” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
Across his decorated career, Richie has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, received five Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and he was given The Songwriters Hall of Fame’s highest honor in 2016.
After being announced as one of the five Kennedy Center Honors recipients in 2017, Richie said, “I am incredibly humbled to be included amongst such a prestigious group of individuals, both past and present. To think that a kid from Tuskegee Alabama with a dream could be so fortunate to achieve all of the blessings that have come to me throughout my career.”