NEW YORK — It was way back in 1967 when six young men met at Alabama‘s Tuskegee Institute met at the campus talent show. They formed an R&B funk and pop group that they called The Commodores. Over the next 15 years, with mega-hits like “Brick House,” “Easy” and “Three Times a Lady,” they became superstars.
But it was lead singer and songwriter Lionel Richie who stood out from the group, earning him the lion‘s share of attention. In 1982, Lionel went solo and in more than three decades of music since then, he has had America dancing on the ceiling, selling almost 100 million albums with. He’s had 22 top 10 hits, five Grammy awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
And now Lionel Richie is back. His long anticipated C.D., called “Just for You” arrived in stores this week, and he thinks it is probably his broadest reaching album to date. In an interview with MSNBC's Deborah Norville, Richie talked about music, the Commodores, going solo, his divorce, his daughter Nicole, and even his good friend Michael Jackson.
On his new album
DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST: Why so long between the last album and “Just for You”?
LIONEL RICHIE: Record companies have gone through so many changes now that I‘ve just kind of watched over the last three to four years how many record companies I‘ve been in. I'm in Motown and I‘m in Mercury, Island, Island-Def Jam, Polygram, Polydor. It‘s been a merging nightmare for an artist. [They put out all of the great songs in a collection.] They know people are going to buy.
So one day they came to me and they said would you like to do a new album? I said, “I‘ve been waiting around. Thank you very much. The answer is yes.” And so this is it.
What made this album so great was my chairman over in London came to me and he said, “Something interesting has happened.” He said, “I just signed five guys all claiming to be the next Lionel Richie.” And he said, “I just thought for a minute I‘ve got Lionel Richie already. Would you give me a Lionel Richie album?”
And I said, “You mean, you want me to be myself? You don‘t want me to be like anybody else?” He said, “Absolutely.”
And so it was easy to write this album, because all I had to do was play myself.
On how music has changed through the years
NORVILLE: Did you feel like there‘s been pressure over the years? Music has changed. And there was the hip-hop. You even did a rap song at one point.
RICHIE: I call it "the new era of music and the music business." There are two types of artists. I call them “the artist that is actually created,” and “the artist that‘s creative.”
These days, everyone is talking about “the old school” so I decided on this record, instead of writing and doing "the old school," let me write with “the new school." Let me go out and do a little research, writing with the new school. What I wanted to put the blend together and see what the old school and new school is all about.
What‘s interesting is the old sound is the new sound. I went to Daniel Beddingfeld, who I did a song with, and I said, “Daniel, what kind of song do you want to write?”
And he looked at me and said, “Let‘s write a Commodores song.”
And I said, “Well, I could do that. I don‘t need that. Let‘s do something else.”
So he said, “What about Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson?”
And I realized, “Oh, my God. This guy has studied the old school.” And there‘s nothing I could do. He‘s coming from all of those wonderful songs, and he wants to now do one kind of song like that with me.
You have to understand something here. I mean, if you look at Usher...if you look at Alicia Keys or Norah Jones, that‘s Roberta Flack. Isn‘t that Roberta Flack singing there? If you look at what‘s happening… Outkast could be any group that we had back in the day.
NORVILLE: Isn‘t it weird that you‘ve kind of lapped yourself musically, that you‘ve come back full circle?
RICHIE: I‘m laughing. You want to hear the funny story, right? I‘m sitting there in the studio and I said, “I‘m looking for a drum sound. I‘m looking for a drum sound.”
And the guy came down the hall and said, “Here‘s your drum sound.”
And I heard it, and I said, “That‘s perfect,” because he looped one for me. And I said, “Where did you get that drum sound from?”
He said, “A Commodore album.” He sold me my drums. And that‘s where we are now.
On how personal music is to him
NORVILLE: There‘s one part as you get into the chorus of “Just For You.” Lionel Richie is going through some personal stuff if you listen to the lyrics.
RICHIE: What‘s so great about this album is—and the roughest thing about this is this: When you‘re in pain, where you're going through changes in your life, all of a sudden all of the emotions come right to the surface.
If I‘m having the greatest day of my life you can kind of mask it a little bit. But when pain comes in or indecision or confusion, all of your thoughts are right here in front of you.
And so with me on this album, of course, with the divorce, going through that, and the changes of the business and the changes in my life, what do you to want to write about? I can write it in five seconds. It‘s right in front of me.
NORVILLE: Is it cathartic to do that?
RICHIE: Absolutely. If you can imagine the word group therapy. It‘s like I can write a thought down and then exactly six months later I‘ll put it out and someone will walk up to me and go, “Lionel, I felt the same way.” And that means I‘m not the only one going through this.
Real is the best. In other words, if you can find a subject like that—over the years it will never go out of style. “Easy like Sunday Morning” will never go out of style. “Sail On.” “All Night Long” will never go out of style because I didn‘t get gimmicky. It‘s a statement.
And of course, this album, “Just for You,” because of what‘s happening not only in my life and what‘s happening in the world, you know.
How I wrote this song in the first place with Paul Barry in London was we were looking at the news one day. And what was happening that day was the war in Iraq. And we‘re listening to the explanations of the war. And I said, “You know, it‘s so funny. When I was growing up in Alabama there was the thing called truth. The truth and a lie. And now we‘re sitting there in the gray. We‘re accepting the gray now. We‘re not quite sure if it‘s the truth. We‘re not quite sure if it‘s a lie.”
And we don‘t know who to blame. Which is part of the song.
And the second part of it is, is that when I was growing up in Alabama, you just throw God‘s name around. You just didn‘t put him in certain groups. Now he‘s the head of every political party. He endorses every political party and he is the general and reason for every war. So whose side is God on now?
So all of a sudden, I said to myself, “My heart is breaking just for you,” which is actually me, because I dedicated this album to myself. This is for me because this is a turning point in my life. I‘m too old to say that I‘m innocent. So you can‘t go there. but at the same time I‘m also in shock, because here I am, of course, dealing with my daughter, looking at her value system and her generation saying "That‘s shocking." When my mother and father looked at my generation, they said "That‘s shocking."
On his daughter Nicole
NORVILLE: Your daughter Nicole was picked up with the heroin possession charge. How did that happen? I mean, you‘re in the music business. You certainly have seen the drug stuff back and forth.
RICHIE: You know, it‘s funny. When I was growing up, my father started giving me advice. And “Son, let me tell you, I don‘t want to you make the same mistakes that I did. So let me tell you about this.” It‘s funny about a kid. You can go to any room in the house, just don‘t go through that door right there.
NORVILLE: What was this day like when Nicole was appearing in court?
RICHIE: To me, it was actually a great wake-up call for her. I know this may sound terrible, but I was glad it happened. Because I could no longer buffer her anymore. And I wanted her to have a real life experience. Could I have made it kind of less in the public eye, take the edge off? Yes, I could.
NORVILLE: So you went with the tough love?
RICHIE: I remember my father one day, I got stopped for speeding. And he didn‘t come down to pick me up right away. That little half an hour sitting there in the cell was like all I needed as a wake-up call. For Nicole, she left out of that courtroom, and I could see in her face there was going to be a change.
NORVILLE: What did she say to you?
RICHIE: She said, “I don‘t want to do that again.”
And I said, “So what are you going to do about it?”
And she said, “I need some help.”
And I said, “I‘m very happy to hear that.”
Then, here are the great words: “Can you help me, Dad and Mom?”
NORVILLE: And you and Brenda, your first wife, Nicole‘s mom did something really extraordinary. You went to rehab with her.
RICHIE: We checked in. We checked in with her, which is interesting, because I wanted her to understand that this is not her problem alone. This is a family problem.
And regardless of the fame and the fortune we were going to go in as a family, and we were going to try to recover as a family. And of course, she did a great job.
I learned so much about myself. I thought I was there to save her, and I was there to save me. Because as parents and as loved ones we are sitting there thinking we‘re the ones that are to going to go and save them, but how do we ourselves survive through this?
NORVILLE: What did you learn? What one thing that has helped you as a father?
RICHIE: You know, what we always do sometimes is we try to go in and we say, “I know what‘s happening.” No, we don‘t know what‘s happening. And we‘re facilitators. We go in and make excuses for them.
But she wasn‘t on heroin. Believe it or not, I found it out. She just happened to have that in the car that she was driving. It wasn‘t hers. Her thing was pain pills. She was on Xanax and stuff like that. That was her.
NORVILLE: That‘s so sad, a 22-year-old kid taking pain pills.
RICHIE: Let me tell you something, I know this may sound strange, but I was so glad it wasn‘t heroin. I was so glad. I know if I had to pick one I said OK because once I found out, “You‘re not doing heroin, are you?”
Once I found that out the rest was easier to deal with. And it was a little bit more of a sigh of relief, as a parent. But what did my father say to me years ago? “One day you‘ll have a child, and you‘ll get yours back.”
It‘s coming back. And then Nicole taught me a great lesson about parenting.
NORVILLE: And she‘s had a great run since then. I mean, “The Simple Life.” Who‘d have thunk it? She and Paris Hilton have been friends since they were little girls.
RICHIE: Preschool, elementary school, high school. And the joke is that they actually put a show around their every day living.
NORVILLE: Are they really this ditzy?
RICHIE: They are not only ditzy. “Crazy” is the word. And every little joke that you see them playing, God bless the parents of the Hilton family and the Richies, because we survive their antics on a daily basis.
We don‘t know what they‘re going to do from one day to the next. And I had to develop a sense of humor about them. And once I found out that they‘re just winding us up. Of course they‘re doing what they‘re supposed to do. They‘re teenagers.
What did you do with your parents? We annoyed the heck out of them. Are you kidding me? And they couldn‘t understand us. And when I brought home Jimi Hendrix albums and stuff, they asked, “What is that noise that you‘re playing?”
And, I was like, “Excuse me, that‘s the greatest music in the world, Mom. What are you talking about?” And they didn‘t understand what we‘re talking about.
On Michael Jackson
NORVILLE: Tell me about Michael Jackson. You‘ve been friends with him when you were with the Commodores. You guys toured with the Jackson Five. What do you think about everything that‘s going on in his life now?
RICHIE: I‘m a little worried about him. Fame is an interesting animal. You can rehearse for everything, but fame can destroy you because there‘s no course that you can take to say, "I'm prepared for it."
In Michael‘s case, I met him when he was 6 years old. Where he was in the studio every day. They would take him to school and right after school take him right to the studio. He didn‘t have a play period.
So when I say to him, “Michael, will you please—it‘s time for you to grow up and let‘s get real.” Well, he is being real. We didn‘t go to school together, but I can say [I did] the following things: Pep rally, bonfire, basketball game, football game. We had those experiences. He didn‘t.
So you‘re experiencing now a guy at 45-some-old years old now. But here‘s a guy 45 years old who‘s trying to relive his childhood. They are beyond serious allegations. So what‘s happening right now is I told him I don‘t care if he ever puts out another hit record in life. I don‘t care. What I do care about is that he survives his fame. He‘s got to get over this. In other words, just get over it. Let‘s get the jacket off. Let‘s get the shoes off and the socks. Let‘s forget the socks and the gloves. I don‘t want to see that anymore.
I want you to be so real because he‘s got to survive this. And if he doesn‘t, this is going to be the worst thing that could have ever happened to him in life.
NORVILLE: Have you spoken to him? I know he‘s Nicole‘s godfather.
RICHIE: We are very close and we‘ve known each other and we have spoken. He sounds in great spirits.
I mean, I‘m not so much worried about that. But is he up for the challenge? This is going to be a challenge for him. This is going to be really something. Because it‘s coming straight down, not only press... we‘re going into legalities now. Can he survive this? This is going to be a rough one and he can‘t call it. I don‘t believe anybody else can call it.
On key moments in his career
NORVILLE: What is that like to hear your name and go marching up and get an Oscar?
RICHIE: You know what it was. It was an out of body experience because, first of all, it was Gene Kelly that said and the winner is. And, as I‘m walking up, Gene Kelly is holding the big gold man and it was surreal.
My mom was there. My dad was watching from Alabama and, what did my father say that was so great? He was driving around Tuskegee and he said, "You know, son the greatest thing I ever did was named you junior." It was a highlight, one of the highlights of my life.
NORVILLE: Another one has to be the Los Angeles Olympics closing ceremonies.
RICHIE: Unbelievable. Two point six billion people live and it didn‘t dawn on me how huge it was until, I mean I finished the show. I got in the car. I drove away. The next morning I got up and went to the studio like any other day and it was like a parade. I was Lionel Richie all night long. Lionel Richie all night long.
And it‘s s been that way ever since.
NORVILLE: You were also a part of that incredible song that did so much for famine relief “We are the World.” When you look at the video, you see you standing next to Kenny Rogers with every other major singer that was doing anything at that point in time. Did you all realize what an impact that was going to have?
RICHIE: I think the interesting thing that happened was when it came out, Michael called me on the phone and said, I love how he says it, “Lionel, and we turned on the TV and there was London, L.A., New York, Japan and they showed different clips of them singing 'We are the World' in all the countries, in Australia. We had no idea that it was going to be to this degree.”
NORVILLE: And there is also a song on your new album called “One World” that almost seems like a sequel to that anthem.
RICHIE: And surprisingly enough they called and said they want “One World” to be for the closing of the Olympics. So here we are, what is that 1984 to 2004, 20 years later we‘re talking about doing the closing of the Olympics again with another song, how about that?
On his old songs
RICHIE: I can‘t remember when “Hello” was not in my life, you know. It‘s been around that long and in every country, in every part of the world, People go, “Hello. “Hello Lionel Richie.”
Believe it or not I‘ve had people say to me they learned English on my songs. "Hello is it me you‘re looking for," “All Night Long,” and “Truly” and they learned the lyrics.
What‘s happening now is that when I do a concert I‘ll be in Germany or I‘ll be in Southeast Asia somewhere, it doesn‘t matter, they will sing every word in English. It‘s almost like a huge karaoke night.
NORVILLE: I think one of the turning points when I was reading up on you in your career was when you wrote “Lady” for Kenny Rogers. That really launched you in a major way. How so?
RICHIE: I wrote the song, actually it was called “Lady.” I also did “Jesus is Love.” And, it was a gospel song in the place of a regular ballad and I gave the song to Kenny Rogers and 18 million copies... It was off the Richter scale and I love it.
NORVILLE: Talk about something else going off the Richter scale was “Endless Love. "Where were you life wise when you wrote that?
RICHIE: I didn‘t realize it then, but I can say it now. I was in my transition period. I didn‘t consider leaving the Commodores. It was not on my mind the day I wrote “Lady” and “Endless Love.” What I was trying to do was bring more focus to the Commodores and myself by writing outside of the Commodores because that was as a songwriter we can get more recognition.
The interesting part about it was the press took it and went one step further. What they said was, “What‘s a guy like Lionel Richie doing in a band like the Commodores?” Now try to go back to rehearsal after that.
The press started getting to the point where the guys were feeling a little bit uptight because this guy Lionel is messing up the group.
NORVILLE: You wrote “Ballerina Girl” for Nicole, didn‘t you?
RICHIE: For Nicole, and she never lets me forget that by the way. I would go to her little ballet classes, if you can imagine Nicole in ballet classes. I look at her now and go “nah.”
But believe it or not I would go and I came home and just writing that song was just her song.
Coming to Broadway?
NORVILLE: The music lives on and this music may be coming to Broadway. Taking a page from “Mama Mia,” taking a page from “Smoky Joe‘s Cafe,” you‘re looking at your catalog to come up with a way to tell the story on Broadway.
RICHIE: There‘s a story to be told on Broadway and it was brought to me. A great Broadway guy came to me and said, “You know what, there‘s an entire Broadway musical sitting there for Lionel Richie.” It‘s a little bit country. It‘s a little bit R&B there. It‘s a little bit pop. It‘s an experience of people have grown up with these songs. Let‘s bring it to Broadway.
On his divorce
NORVILLE: Is the divorce final now for you?
RICHIE: It will be in about probably another month or so but it‘s all done.
NORVILLE: Are you OK? I mean there was so much publicity. There‘s so much personal information that came out there.
RICHIE: I guess I‘ve been in public life long enough now. I‘m not comfortable with it because I was born and raised in the south. In the south, we don‘t talk too much about our personal business.
But in show business I‘ve gotten to the point now where it‘s just kind of public. It‘s out there. It‘s done. It‘s over. But I‘m OK and we‘re okay. Diane is fine. I think she got some very bad advice and remember now that I‘m learning, from people who are not in the business.
I know how to handle an interview. I know how to handle the hits of maybe good press, bad press, good reviews, bad reviews. But then when it‘s talking about your mother, your father, your sister, your wife, your kids, they don‘t know anything about it, so they‘ll take advice from people not realizing that they‘re also famous.
What's in the cards?
NORVILLE: A viewer emailed us and asked, “As host of the Motown 45, did you all have any conversations about a Commodores‘ reunion?”
RICHIE: You know what was so interesting about that when the Commodores came to perform they wanted them to do “Night Shift” and so I‘m sitting there watching them rehearse “Night Shift.” And they‘re sitting there watching me do “All Night Long” and we fell out laughing.
The answer was "What are you doing over there?" So finally when they finished, we looked over at each other and said, “You know what we have to do, right? “ And they said “absolutely. “
So, it took the Motown 45 to kind of bring us to the realization that that reunion is right around the corner. I can almost tell you that. That was a very good thing that happened at the Motown 45.
NORVILLE: You‘ve got masses of huge fans international but isn‘t there some way that loyal USA fans can have access to one large USA event or concert?
RICHIE: The answer is yes. It‘s coming. The announcement was it's coming soon because we were going to do a warm-up tour of the world. When we put tickets on sale in Europe and they went out in three or four days completely.
And so we decided from there enough of that. We‘re going to do the world tour now big time, so we‘re rethinking it and on lionelrichie.com you‘ll get all the information. On top of all of that, they‘re talking about some huge television network thing.
NORVILLE: The amazing thing is, Lionel, you don‘t have to do anything else. You could sit back and chill. But I know every time as you‘ve been sitting between the show’s commercial breaks you start composing.
RICHIE: But the beautiful part about it is, is that it‘s still something I like to do.