A Tuneful 'Coming Home' for Lionel Richie The award-winning singer, songwriter and producer, who bowed out as frontman for The Commodores for huge career as a solo artist in the 1980s, has a new CD — a nugget of pure pop craftsmanship that shows he's still at the top of his game.

A Tuneful 'Coming Home' for Lionel Richie

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ED GORDON, host:

If you're under 30, you might think of him as the father of television's The Simple Life star Nicole Richie. But if you're just a bit older, you'll remember that Lionel Richie made a name for himself long before as an award-winning singer, songwriter and producer. He had dozens of hits, like Lady:

(Soundbite of song, Lady)

Mr. LIONEL RICHIE (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Lady, you bring me up when I…

GORDON: And Zoom.

(Soundbite of song, Zoom)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) Oh, zoom, I like…

GORDON: They came as the lead singer of the popular ‘70s group, The Commodores. Richie left the group in 1981 and continued to leave an indelible mark on music as a solo artist. Reporter Tony Cox sat down with Richie to talk about his new CD coming home and the craft of songwriting.

Mr. RICHIE: I write from feeling of music first. The music has to make you cry. The melody on top of the music by itself has to make you cry. Or to make you - in other words, if it's All Night Long, it's got to be, you got to feel happy just from the music. Then I'm going to put you a melody on top of that. Okay. And the melody's got to fit with the thing, because I call it the da-das(ph). It's got to fit karaoke. It's got to fit in case the marching band at Tuskegee plays the song.

You know, they're not going to sing it, they're going to play it. So the melody's got to stand out by itself. And then on top of that, the last thing you put on is da-da-da. Now what is that?

(Soundbite of song, All Night Long)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night long, all night, all night long…

Now you've got the chant right, you've got the melody right, you've got the music right. It's supposed to fit.

TONY COX: When you split from The Commodores and went out on your own, I mean how significant a move was that?

Mr. RICHIE: It was a tough move. The Commodores to the rest of the world, we were a group. The Commodores and Lionel Richie were five brothers I never had. Every major challenge in my life I experienced with these guys. The first time we said, okay, Lionel, bend over across the stage and kiss the girl in the front row. Guys, I don't know the girl in the front row. They go, we don't care if you don't know the girl in the front row. When you kiss the girl in the front row, the rest of the people will scream. You learn something. As time went on, I was the shyest guy in the group.

COX: Really?

Mr. RICHIE: I was the greatest horn holder that ever lived. I took my horn to school to learn how to play it. I didn't tell them I didn't know how to play it. So this was the big secret inside The Commodores. As time went on I could play it.

But then more importantly, I didn't know I was a lead singer, I didn't know I was songwriter. When we signed at Motown I was not signed as a songwriter or as a lead singer.

COX: You were signed as a…

Mr. RICHIE: Member.

COX: Really.

Mr. RICHIE: So if anybody in the world could get out the group, it was me.

COX: You know, with the recent passing of one of the…

Mr. RICHIE: Milan.

COX: …members of the group, do you see those days differently now?

Mr. RICHIE: You know, when you lose a parent, you know it's going to come sooner or later. You know it's going to happen. Losing a Commodore, it's devastating.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) Father, help your children…

I have spent more time with Milan Williams than I had probably with my own family. And so when we were doing in Mississippi burying Milan, it was a very emotional reunion for all the guys. But we sat around and just kind of brought ourselves up to date as to what that represented. That was family.

COX: You're working around an awful lot of young folks these days, too. How do you like that?

Mr. RICHIE: When I wrote this phrase, makes an old man wish for younger days…

(Soundbite of song, Brick House)

Mr. RICHIE: Make a old man wish for younger days, yeah. She know she's built…

Mr. RICHIE: I had no idea that that was going to apply to me in the long run. The part that I'm loving the most is that in our business right now, the oldest person that I deal with on a daily basis, in creative language, is probably a 29 to 30-year-old, and so it keeps me absolutely clear on what the ground floor is doing.

Where's the new?

COX: Is this a sign that for Lionel Richie the stars have lined up and things are going right in your life and you can make beautiful music again?

Mr. RICHIE: You know, I'm in a great space. You can walk across town, and everybody's going, Lionel, how are, love you. And, you know, my mom, is this a 15-year-old talking to me? It's a 15-year-old. Then my daughter drives by the house - you can always tell when Nicole comes by: There's a helicopter overhead and 12 cars following. Nicole's coming. So the kid's doing great.

And I walk into Island Def Jam to meet the new chairman of the board of the record company. Is that LA Reid behind the desk, the guy I gave advice to as to how to get in the business in 1982? We're off to the races.

(Soundbite of music from album, Coming Home)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

COX: I had a chance to listen to the new CD single that's coming out.

Mr. RICHIE: Oh, fantastic.

COX: Sounds good, man.

Mr. RICHIE: It's so fresh. When I sat down with these great writers - Jermaine Dupri and Dallas Austin and Stargate, who did the first single - and I said, okay, here's the mantra: I want it to sound Lionel Richie 2006 and ‘07.

(Soundbite of song from album, Coming Home)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) Never thought…

Mr. RICHIE: What's going to happen with this album, this is the jumping off point for a wonderful adventure in places an established artist would not go.

(Soundbite of song from album, Coming Home)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) So find me a pretty little thing, want to keep me up all night. She told me don't be so uptight, she want to keep me up all night…

COX: Back in the swing of things again. How far do you really want to go this time?

Mr. RICHIE: That's a great question. I was thinking of retiring as a Commodore, and then this crazy country guy came along called Kenny Rogers and asked me for a song and life took another turn. And then the year after that, Endless Love came along. And then I found myself doing my first solo album.

And Ken Kragen, my manager at the time, called me into his office. And he said, I am going to make some decisions on things that you should do. I want you to go home and talk to your family. Because if you were ever planning on being anything else other than Lionel Richie, singer, songwriter, producer, you got to tell me now. And at that time I said, tell me how heavy can it be? You know.

I hosted the American Music Awards, the Oscars and We Are the World - excuse me, one more - the Olympics. At that point, the reason that I stopped, the rocket was going too fast. So to answer your question, this is something I love to do. At the same time what comes with this, I can't disappear. The impact here is the same impact in China. It's the same impact in the Middle East.

What did I really start out to be? An Episcopal priest. And people will walk up to you and start crying, Lionel, you turned my life around. You inspired me to do this. You kind of like that thing of maybe I'm contributing something to the world, that a little kid from Alabama has a pretty good thing here.

And what I've always tried to do in my life is keep a humble quality. There's something wonderful about making plans. You never been there before, it humbles you. It not where you been, it's where you're going. It's not where you start, it's where you end up. We start out with nothing, then the rest of it in between is who did you touch? How did you affect them? And what memories do they have of you?

COX: Lionel Richie, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That was Tony Cox and singer/songwriter Lionel Richie. To hear music from Lionel's new CD, Coming Home, and to hear an extended version of the interview, log onto npr.org.

(Soundbite of song from album, Coming Home)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) Come on let's be alone, baby. Say you want to spend some time with me. Anywhere we are…

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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