Lionel Richie: from Student to Teacher
Tennis with the chairman; exploring an exit over breakfast
He knew how to work a room and charm a crowd. If the new series of American Idol is any indication, Lionel Richie still does.
It was about ten years ago when I witnessed the former Commodore applying that skill in a professional setting. Sure, I had met and interviewed Lionel when he was in the band, but this was different. The managing directors of Universal Music companies around the world were gathered in a hotel suite, awaiting the star’s presence and weighing the sales prospects of his latest album, about which they’d been briefed.
Then Lionel stepped in. Within minutes, he had criss-crossed the assembly, smiling, chatting, laughing with each executive, one-on-one. Without introduction, he seemed to know all their names, their markets, the last time he played there. I saw no notes in the star’s grasp, no aide discreetly whispering in his ear, ahead of a handshake, that this man is from Amsterdam, or that one runs Singapore. It all seemed so natural – and, of course, was one of the irrefutable reasons why those managing directors would willingly work Lionel’s latest project in their respective countries. And the next one. And the one after that.
“For two days a week, Professor Richie is going to talk about the reality of what it takes to be an artist,” Lionel told the New York Times earlier this month about his new tenure as an American Idol judge. “Instead of sitting here moaning about how the world has changed since I started, I’m going to tell them what it takes.”
More than four decades in the spotlight (and in the company of record executives) have clearly taught Professor Richie how to handle artistry and its demands. But who was his first serious instructor?
“I met Berry on a tennis court,” Lionel once explained to me, although he acknowledged that the first time the Motown founder had seen him was during a Commodores show at the Hollywood Bowl. “I won the first game. But I learned that you wouldn’t leave his house until you were beaten. This man hated to lose. He will beat you. I call him my master teacher. What better teacher?”
Truth is, the ambitious musician/songwriter from Tuskegee, Alabama, would have been introduced to Gordy long before that tennis game – but almost certainly in the company of the band. “I was not from the Detroit school,” Lionel said. “I was one of the kids who came in on the second wave. It was a strange time. I used to joke with the Commodores: ‘We’re standing in line with fifteen other acts who want to make it at Motown.’ ”
Lionel’s fellow musician, Thomas McClary, recalls in his newly-published autobiography, Rock and Soul, that the Commodores first met Gordy during a 1974 recording session in Los Angeles. “That day,” he writes, “Berry Gordy entered the studio while ‘Machine Gun’ was playing and the atmosphere was vibrant.” The chairman asked the group what the track was called. “The Ram” was Milan Williams’ reply. “It sounds like it should be called ‘Machine Gun,’ ” declared Gordy.
Thus armed, the Commodores marched into the upper echelons of Motown’s gold and platinum hitmakers of the 1970s. “Machine Gun” sold 500,000 copies, and subsequent singles did even better; “Easy,” for instance, reached 1.1 million in 1977. But their albums were the real floor-shakers and revenue-makers: Commodores (1.7 million), Commodores Live! (1.6 million), Natural High (2.1 million), Midnight Magic (2.7 million).
While this was happening, Lionel said he took every opportunity to continue his “studies” – in particular, sitting in on recording sessions with other artists when Gordy was present. “He was extremely opinionated, he wanted his way. He would ask what everybody else thought, but he wanted it his way. Something that I would let go, he would do it over.”
When he began contemplating opportunities beyond the Commodores, Lionel confided in Gordy, over breakfast. “I was really flustered, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I told him everything.” The chairman was calm, even sombre. “He finished his meal, and quietly told me that this was nothing new.” Others had faced the same challenge: David Ruffin, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson. “He told me the stories behind those. It was almost like group therapy. It became clear to me that a path [like this] was already set. ‘Don’t think it hasn’t happened before,’ he said. ‘Be smart about your decision – don’t just say you quit.’ ”
For all that sage advice, there was tension ahead. The other teacher in Lionel’s life – the Commodores’ longtime manager, Benny Ashburn – was concerned that he didn’t have contracts with each individual member of the band. “Lionel was being tapped to do a solo project,” Thomas McClary notes in Rock and Soul, “and it was apparent that he was torn about what to do. On the one hand, he was in a group where his light was too bright for some and he was scrutinised for having evolved into a breakout star. On the other hand, he had never been on this journey alone and felt anxious about doing so.”
Lionel’s artistic evolution had brought a new figure into his circle: Ken Kragen, manager of country-pop crooner Kenny Rogers, for whom Lionel had written and produced a Number One hit, “Lady,” in 1980. Ashburn was concerned about this extra-curricular activity. To help keep the Commodores on track and together, he proposed to Motown that they cut an album of Beatles songs. The band had occasionally been called “the black Beatles,” because they were musically self-contained and internationally popular, like the Liverpudlians. (McClary claims that he had the idea of creating the “black Beatles” even before the Commodores came together.)
Motown was less than enthusiastic about Ashburn’s proposal, but Berry Gordy did grant a wish of Lionel’s: to record a duet with Diana Ross for the soundtrack of Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, Endless Love. “Diana had just left Motown,” said Lionel. “Berry was the only person who could have made that phone call to her. How difficult for him it must have been.” His company’s bottom line was bolstered, though. “Endless Love” went on to sell close to 3 million singles for Motown in the U.S., with comparable numbers elsewhere in the world. The bounty extended to Richie as the song’s writer and producer.
So it was no surprise that when we spoke, Lionel gushed about Gordy. “He had a fever like you’ve never seen before. In [his] first 25 years, he had a fever about getting things done. People feared him.” And for good reason, Richie added. “I’ve watched him walk onto a floor [at Motown], turn to a person and say, ‘You’re fired, and your boss is fired,’ and then take over the department. ‘If you can’t do it,’ he said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Once you hang around that…”
What Lionel learned hanging around that evidently impressed the people responsible for rebooting American Idol. Executive producer Trish Kinane spent time in his company, then notified ABC-TV network executives that he had to be on the judging panel. “I went to the producers and I put my foot down,” Kinane told the New York Times. “I was like, ‘Lionel Richie is the uncle, historian, the wisdom that we are missing on this show.’ ”
While watched by millions, each new contender on American Idol will, with luck, feel as if Lionel Richie is speaking only to him or her. Just like each of those Universal Music managing directors in that hotel suite, once upon a time. “Just to be close to you…”