Lionel Richie nearly gave up singing after leaving The Commodores in the 80s, but 30 years on he can’t wait to play Glastonbury. Andy Welch catches up with a legend
Lionel Richie’s enthusiasm for seemingly everything he talks about is infectious.
It could just be caffeine and sleep deprivation, of course, but the jetlagged US legend seems more engaged in popular culture than other 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 personality 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.
“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 Ireland and the UK later this 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 been announced as the Sunday afternoon performer at Glastonbury Festival 2015.
“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, and 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 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 for the writers and the people coming up behind me”.
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.
Lionel Richie plays the Odyssey Arena, Belfast on March 10 and Dublin’s 3Arena on March 11.
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