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Although rooted in soul and R&B, Lionel Richie became a global superstar of the pop charts, blurring musical borders in the 1980s with solo hits like "All Night Long (All Night)," "Hello," and "Stuck on You," as well as chart-topping collaborations like the Diana Ross duet "Endless Love" and the star-studded charity single "We Are the World" which he co-wrote with Michael Jackson. A consummate singer, songwriter, and producer, Richie steered the Commodores into their most successful period, fronting the band on late-'70s hits like "Easy" and "Three Times a Lady" before making himself a household name as one of the most dominant male solo acts of the following decade. During his commercial peak, he proved himself a master of smooth romantic balladry, sending songs like "Truly" and the Oscar-winning "Say You, Say Me," to the top of the pop charts, though he also had a knack for more uptempo fare like 1986's "Dancing on the Ceiling." Richie also forged a unique crossover connection to country music, writing and producing for Kenny Rogers and collaborating with Alabama. Although his popularity faded during the '90s and early-2000s, Richie updated his sound with 2006's Coming Home and was rewarded with his first Top Ten LP in 20 years. The singer's renaissance continued over the next decade with 2012's country-driven Tuskegee returning him to the top of the pop charts. Beginning in 2018, Richie began a new high-profile role as a judge on American Idol, introducing him to younger generations of fans.
Lionel Brockman Richie, Jr. was born on June 20, 1949 in Tuskegee, Alabama, and grew up on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute, where most of his family had worked for two generations. While attending college there, Richie joined the Commodores, who went on to become the most successful act on the Motown label during the latter half of the '70s. Richie served as a saxophonist, sometime-vocalist, and songwriter, penning ballads like "Easy," "Three Times a Lady," and "Still" (the latter two became the group's only number one pop hits). Although the Commodores maintained a democratic band structure through most of their chart run, things began to change when the '70s became the '80s. In 1980, Richie wrote and produced country-pop singer Kenny Rogers' across-the-board number one smash "Lady," and the following year, Richie's duet with Diana Ross, "Endless Love" (recorded for the Brooke Shields film of the same title), became the most successful single in Motown history, topping the charts for a stunning nine weeks. With the media's attention now focused exclusively on Richie, tensions within the Commodores began to mount, and before the end of 1981, Richie decided to embark on a solo career.
He immediately set about recording his solo debut for Motown. Titled simply Lionel Richie, the album was released in late 1982 and was an immediate smash, reaching number three on the pop charts on its way to multi-platinum status. It spun off three Top Five pop hits, including the first single, "Truly," which became Richie's first solo number one. If Lionel Richie made its creator a star, the follow-up, Can't Slow Down, made him a superstar. Boasting five Top Ten singles, including the number ones "All Night Long (All Night)" and "Hello," Can't Slow Down hit number one, eventually reached diamond status, and won the 1984 Grammy for Album of the Year. Such was Richie's stature that he was invited to perform at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, a spectacular stage event that was broadcast worldwide.
In 1985, Richie put his superstar status to work for a greater good, joining Michael Jackson in co-writing the USA for Africa charity single "We Are the World"; the all-star recording helped raise millions of dollars for famine relief. By the end of the year, he was on top of the charts again with "Say You, Say Me," a ballad recorded for the film White Nights but not included on the soundtrack album. The song was slated to be the title track on Richie's upcoming album, but delays in the recording process prevented the record from being released until August 1986, by which time the title was changed to Dancing on the Ceiling (in order to promote Richie's next single release). Three more Top Tens followed "Say You, Say Me," as did "Se La," which became the first of Richie's solo singles not to reach the pop Top Ten. Overall, Dancing on the Ceiling didn't reach the commercial heights of Can't Slow Down, though it was by any means a significant success.
Richie's nine-year streak of writing at least one number one single (a feat matched only by Irving Berlin) came to an end in 1987. As a matter of fact, Richie all but disappeared from the music business, exhausted after two decades of recording and performing, and also occupied with taking care of his ailing father. Richie's silence was broken in 1992, when Motown released a compilation titled Back to Front; in addition to some of his solo hits and a few Commodores tracks, Back to Front also featured three new songs, including the number one R&B hit "Do It to Me." Finally, in 1996, Richie returned to the studio with his first album or new material in a decade. With a sound updated for the era, Louder Than Words, was a moderate success, reaching the Top 30 and going gold. Appearing two years later, Time found Richie in a more familiar element, relying on his signature sound with only slight musical updates. However, it marked a commercial nadir for the veteran artist, spending only a few weeks in the lower reaches of the charts.
Richie's next album, Renaissance, was released to a favorable reception in Europe in late 2000; it was issued in the U.S. in early 2001. It fared best in the U.K., where it went platinum. Three years later Richie released Just for You, another album that was most successful in the U.K. The 2006 album Coming Home -- released the same year his popularity in certain Arab states was covered by mainstream media outlets -- found him working with an all-star cast of collaborators including Jermaine Dupri, Raphael Saadiq, Sean Garrett, and Dallas Austin. In the U.S., it reached the Top 10 of the pop and R&B charts. The wholly modern Just Go, released in 2009, featured assistance from Stargate, Terius "The-Dream" Nash, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, and Akon. His next release was much different: 2012's Tuskegee featured fully countrified updates of hits from his past, including "Easy" (with Willie Nelson), "Hello" (with Jennifer Nettles), and "Dancing on the Ceiling" (with Rascal Flatts). The album reached the top of the U.S. pop and country charts.
The following year, Richie embarked on his first North American tour in a decade. The All the Hits, All Night Long show took in some 18 different cities, before being extended over the next two years, with dates taking in cities across the world including a performance at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival. In 2016, Richie took the show to Vegas and performed a residency at the Planet Hollywood Zappos Theater. Over the next few years, Richie acted as a judge for the revived talent show American Idol, as well as playing more dates in Vegas. A recording of his show, Hello: Live from Las Vegas, was released in 2019 -- it debuted at two on Billboard -- while Richie once again embarked on a mammoth 33-date tour of North America. Heading into the next decade, he retained his role on American Idol, serving through the show's 2021 season. ~ Steve Huey
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