Twenty years ago, if it wasn't Prince or Michael Jackson, then it was Lionel Richie all over pop radio. And MTV. And the Grammys. And the American Music Awards. The former Commodore was even in Pepsi commercials - spinnin' and singin', his hair glistening with curl activator. Richie's image (clean and yuppie-friendly) and his music (melodic and decidedly soul-lite) were fixtures in the '80s. One critic called the Alabama native the "black Barry Manilow" (or you could flip that and say Barry Manilow was the white Lionel Richie).
He sold nearly 100 million records worldwide during the Reagan era, churning out such memorable smashes as "You Are," "Hello," "All Night Long (All Night)," "Dancing on the Ceiling" and many others. Twenty-two Top 10 hits (13 of them between '81 and '87). Five Grammys. An Oscar for "Say You, Say Me." Lionel Richie became one of the most successful singer-songwriters in pop.
But as the '90s blazed through, his profile cooled. There was a nasty divorce from his first wife, Brenda. He retreated from touring and recorded sporadically, producing lifeless albums that nobody but hardcore fans cared about. Well, Richie is coming back. His new album, Just For You, lands in stores Tuesday. And while the pop legend isn't trying to compete with what's hot right now, he feels that there's definitely a place for him in the current pop market.
"Man, there's got to be an optimistic approach," say the gregarious Richie, who's calling from his Los Angeles office. "There's got to be a message of love out there. You can have grunge, rock, acid rock, hip-hop, whatever, sooner or later you're gonna fall in love. It never goes out of style. And I'll be here."
Just For You couldn't come at a better time as appreciation for Richie's music builds. After appearing on American Idol last season where contestants sang some of his classics, the artist's Definitive Collection, a two-disc greatest hits set, quickly went gold. Soon afterward, Universal Records re-issued his three monster albums of the '80s: Lionel Richie (1982), Can't Slow Down (1983) and Dancing on the Ceiling (1986).
Although he appreciates the exposure American Idol gave his material, Richie laughs at the idea behind the mega-popular show.
"I am a product of a 20-year overnight sensation," says the 54-year-old singer-musician, who, for 14 years, played in, sang in and wrote for the Commodores. "The idea of putting down 12 weeks and you can be a superstar is an impossibility. It makes for great television. But it takes much more to be a professional in this business. It's a whole 'nother ball game," he says, his mellow Southern drawl slipping through. "To throw those kids out with seasoned artists? They'll get killed. It's called artist development, and the industry isn't into that right now."
Today's artists at bottom-line-obsessed labels may not find the kind of nurturing atmosphere that shaped Richie at Motown 30 years ago. But with the emergence of such back-to-melody singers as Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Van Hunt and others, the pop veteran's new music may garner some attention.
"You see, some of the newer artists are trying their best to get to where we left off," he says. "The chords, the music, the melody were always there. But rap took the melody out and eliminated all of the singers for a time. Now, we're going back to melody. R&B and pop died for a while because we couldn't get the melody back."
Just For You is "more raw - just a basic melody and music. Not contrived, just real," Richie says.
If you have your fingers crossed, hoping that the singer has returned to his soul roots full-time - evoking such stirring classics as "Easy" and "Zoom" - you can forget it. Richie is still squeezing out the anodyne adult contemporary sap that catapulted him to superstardom two decades ago. But this time around, he adds a pronounced rock edge - not a sharp, jarring one but enough fiery guitar to give the album's title track and first single some energy. The closest Richie comes to a slick urban groove is "Heaven," a sure two-step inducer with an infectious, knocking beat.
In crafting the pleasant (if slightly uneven) album, Richie employed Miami producer 7 Aurelius (known for his work with Mariah Carey, Ashanti and Ja Rule). He went to London and worked with Paul Barry and Mark Taylor, the duo behind Cher's "Believe" and Enrique Iglesias' "Hero." Lenny Kravitz produced "Road to Heaven," a twangy, Southern soul-inspired ballad with curling strings reminiscent of Willie Mitchell's work with Al Green.
Over the years, Richie's style (for better or worse) hasn't changed much.
"I quit trying to calculate a record," he says. "I just go into the studio and start writing. When I was working with younger producers like 7 Aurelius, he asked me, 'Man, how do you write a song?' I don't know. It has always just been me playing with the universe."