Lionel Ritchie: 'Some artists don't want to play the hits, but if you've got one, damn well sing it!
Lionel Richie nearly packed in the music business after leaving The Commodores in the 1980s, but three decades on he's heading to Belfast and giving the fans what they want. Andy Welch catches up with the legend.
Lionel Richie loves being in the UK. He says he's seen London change dramatically since he first came here with his band The Commodores around 1973; the architecture, mainly, the cultural diversity, the food and so on.
The biggest change, however, has been brought about by technology.
"I remember walking into a restaurant with a friend and before my first drink arrived, another friend called from Los Angeles to say he hoped I enjoyed my meal. A photo of me in the restaurant was posted somewhere and he'd seen it. That was about eight years ago too, it's even worse now."
Nevertheless, it's not enough to stop Richie, who begins a UK tour in February, from enjoying himself in the country while he's here.
"It's really fun to go on tour now, because all of my friends show up. "They're dotted all over the world. It's exhausting, I'll be doing promo in the day, a show at night and then seeing friends in the evening. I never want to miss anything. It actually motivates me to do another album, and to keep on touring, so I can keep up with the great friends I've made in the last century."
He laughs a hearty laugh, and apologises for joking so much throughout our interview. "I've had three double espressos, so what am I going to do?" he reasons.
He has, however, made a lot of big-name friends. When talking about Brick House, his 1977 hit single with The Commodores, he casually mentions his friend Steve dropped by the studio that night to see what the band were up to.
"Oh sorry, Stevie Wonder," he says. "I forget sometimes. I'll be talking about a conversation I had with Michael years ago, and then I have to say it's Michael Jackson I'm talking about. Or Marvin. The other person will be like 'Marvin who? Marvin Hagler?' and I have to say 'No, Marvin Gaye'.
"But believe it or not Marvin Hagler is a great friend of mine, and a big fan. Every time we play in Italy, he's there."
Turns out the former middleweight champion of the world left America to carve out a career in Italian action films.
Richie's enthusiasm for seemingly everything he talks about is infectious. It could just be the caffeine and sleep deprivation, of course, but he seems more engaged in popular culture than many artists of his age and stature.
"It's called being in the business," he responds.
"I actually like what I'm doing, and yes, it probably does show.
"You have to be in the business, you have to be eye to eye with everyone else. (Legendary TV and radio personalit) Dick Clark said something to me a long time ago when he was 70-something. He looked like a teenager still, just as he had done when I was watching him on American Bandstand in the 1950s. He said 'Always stay eye to eye with who you're dealing with'.
"I'm eye to eye with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, and Kanye and Justin Timberlake. I mean, I know they're not contemporaries of mine as such - I have my group; Sting and Elton John and people my age - but if I'm going to be in this business, I need to know who all those young artists are and what they're up to. That's my job. I have to meet them. I have to know The Weeknd and Bruno Mars or I'm not officially in the business.
"I need to know who the good songwriters are, who the bad ones are, who the competition is, who's making the best records.
"I have to be able to think like that. It is about competition, even after all these years."
Richie, who has sold more than 100 million records, placing him among the top 50 best-selling artists of all time, is bringing his All Night Long tour to the UK when he arrives next year. It's an unapologetically hit-packed show - "That's the whole point!" he says emphatically.
"You get these artists that don't want to play their biggest hits, or they'll do a reworking of it, but I say, if you're lucky enough to have a song that people request over and over again, play that damned song."
He understands why someone might not want to play a song they've performed a million times before.
Among the reasons, he says, might be that the lyrical content is unsuitable for an artist of a certain age to sing.
"Brick House might be the only one I might have a problem with," he says, referring to the line 'The clothes she wears, her sexy ways, make an old man wish for younger days'.
"We were saying it then to spoof old people, but now I am that old man. Every time we play that, the band point to me. 'Are you serious?' I say, but that bassline ... How could we not play it?
"So yes, the versions we've been playing are going to be as close to the originals as possible. If a crowd come out to hear Easy, they're not going to get a new arrangement, with a harmonica solo and Willie Nelson coming on to sing it. They're going to get it down the barrel. Three Times A Lady too, Dancing On The Ceiling, you name it, we play it." He's also just been announced as the Sunday afternoon performer at Glastonbury Festival next June.
"I'm very excited that I will be making my UK festival debut. Glastonbury has a phenomenal history and the alumni of artists who have previously played is incredible, so I'm honoured to be joining that club."
Away from the live shows, Richie is currently planning his second Tuskegee album.
Named after the Alabama town he was born in 65 years ago, Richie abandoned, temporarily at least, the soul sound he's best known for to explore country music.
"I had wanted to make a covers record, so I thought Lionel does Gershwin? Lionel does Cole Porter? Lionel's American Songbook? I quickly said no to all of them and thought I'd do Lionel does country. It not only worked, but opened the floodgates.
"Now the artists I didn't duet with first time around are calling asking why, so we're lining them up for the second album."
He's just about to reveal a few names of collaborators when his manager, who has been leaning against the fireplace in the hotel room, standing guard throughout the interview, interjects.
"He won't let me tell you!" says Richie.
"I'm terrible at secrets, that's why he stays here, so I don't just let all the cats out of the bags."
One thing he will reveal is that he very nearly retired when he left The Commodores in the early 1980s, only to be coaxed into a solo career by the success of some of the songs he'd written for other artists, and Endless Love, his 1981 duet with Diana Ross for the film soundtrack of the same name.
"After all that, Motown came along and asked if I wanted to do a solo record with them. The rocket took off again and I was hanging on for dear life," he says.
He's sceptical of U2's recent promotion in which their album Songs Of Innocence landed in the account of every iTunes user - "they spent three years making a record and gave it away?" he states, incredulously - and worries the artists following him won't be supported by the industry in the same way he was.
"How is everyone getting paid? Are they supposed to go back to working in the supermarket after they've had a No 1 record?" he asks. "I bitch and moan about the state of things now - not for myself, but for the writers and the people coming up behind me. I want them to experience the same things I did. There are some very talented people out there but they're being marginalised."
As for a real retirement, he says he never will, or at least not while he can still get on stage and remember the lyrics to his songs without a "teleprompter the size of a cinema screen".
"And anyway, what would I retire from? I fly around the world, singing, getting paid for basically going on vacation. I've never worked a day in my life."
- Lionel Richie plays the Odyssey, Belfast, on March 10. For tickets go to www.odysseyarena.com
Iconic label's hit parade
Lionel Richie was part of a huge Motown band, The Commodores, and went on to massive success with the Detroit label as a solo artist. Here are four more who did the same:
Diana Ross - as one of The Supremes, Diana Ross, was part of one of the biggest-selling groups of all time. When she left in 1970, she signed a solo deal and became one of the biggest-selling singers too.
Michael Jackson - The Jackson 5 were a phenomenon during the late 60s and early 70s, but it was nothing compared to Michael Jackson's solo career, which broke just about every record in the book.
Smokey Robinson - he was one of Motown's most successful songwriters as well as leader of The Miracles, but retired from performing in 1972 to concentrate on working for Motown. He changed his mind a year later and began a string of 10 top 10 solo hits.
David Ruffin - he was the leading voice in The Temptations, and went on to a mixed solo career in 1968.
Single topped the charts, but video was a busted flush
Lionel Richie's single Hello was a massive hit, topping the UK singles charts in 1984.
But the accompanying video, directed by Bob Giraldi, went on to become one of the most ridiculed and parodied pop videos of all time.
The video features Richie as an art teacher, who has a huge crush on a blind student. Richie pines over the student, believing his love to be unrequited. But then he discovers a clay bust of his head, which she has been sculpting and realises she feels the same way about him.
Richie later said: "It was going to be a story about someone seeing someone else across the room and falling in love. Then Bob Giraldi came along and took the seeing part out. When I saw the bust, I said, 'Bob, it doesn't look like me.' He said, 'We'll talk about it later.'
"We eventually came to the third segment, where I had to shoot with the bust. Again, I said, 'Bob, it doesn't look like me.' Bob turned to me and said, 'Lionel, she's blind. End of subject.' In other words, if she got a perfect look, what kind of exceptional person is this? It's got to look a little skewed.
"But it worried me to death to stand next to this bust. I'm going, 'Oh, my God, I hope the world doesn't see me looking like this'."