About Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie’s genius for crisply soulful pop and broadly inclusive romantic balladry flowed from his unique upbringing. Being born in 1949 Alabama meant being surrounded on all sides by signs of segregation. But Tuskegee, where Richie grew up, was a small, vibrant center of Black power, art, and learning—so much so that he and his friends called it “the bubble.” The Commodores formed there in the late '60s, with Richie playing sax and singing, then signed to Motown, where they became a one-band jukebox stuffed with both groove-inducing funk (1974’s “Machine Gun,” 1977’s “Brick House”) and swoon-worthy suaveness (1978’s “Three Times a Lady”). They were stars, but the group became their own bubble constricting Richie’s broad songwriting talent and appeal, and in the late ’70s he started stepping out.
As his ballads continued to effervesce, Richie shifted from R&B to a more adult contemporary sound: He wrote “Lady” for Kenny Rogers (1980) and recorded “Endless Love” with Diana Ross (1981). With hip-hop in ascendance, his solo music was a mellow shelter amid the young genre’s revolutionary promise, focusing on familiar sounds and timeless ideas—like calypso and baby-making on 1983’s “All Night Long.” Today you can’t even say “Hello” without invoking the guy, let alone words like “Easy,” “Still,” or “Truly,” to pull just a few names from his long stream of relaxed-fit, sensual singles. Even a topical song like “We Are the World,” which he cowrote in 1985, was all-inclusive in its plea for African famine relief. Richie’s 2012 Tuskegee featured remakes of some of his hits that sound gently soulful, or maybe they sound country-esque, but always universal and moving. A bubble big enough for most.
BORNJune 20, 1949