Earlier this week, Lionel Richie walked offstage and saw his manager standing there with tears in his eyes. “The first thing he said was, ‘OK, I’ve got some news for you,'” Richie says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I thought, ‘This is the worst news I’m ever going to hear in my life. Who died?’ I took that road first. He goes, ‘You’re now an inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.'”
They spent roughly the next 20 minutes celebrating. “It was a screaming match,” says Richie. “I went, ‘Can you believe it? Are you sure?’ And now I understand that he was crying because he was so happy.”
We spoke with Richie about what the honor means to him on a personal level, his hopes that the Commodores will get in one day and make him a double inductee, his feelings about his fellow inductees, what songs he hopes to sing on the big night, and how American Idol has brought him an entirely new fan base.
Thank you. As far as I’m concerned, this is the holy grail of what we do in the business. This is heaven. If you get to heaven, this is it.
You’ve won Grammys. You’ve won a Golden Globe. You even won an Oscar. This feels different, I imagine.
This is. You know what it is? You start looking at the names. That’s the part. It’s a fraternity/sorority of hierarchies that defines the record business, the business that I’m in. The part that makes it so wonderful is that a lot of times your peers are voting for you to join this club. That’s on top of the fans, but the most important part is your peers want you there. That says a lot after a lifetime of work and a lifetime of writing and touring. When the club says, “We want you in,” that’s very cool.
Yeah. It’s the same club as the Beatles, Stones, Temptations, Marvin Gaye …
I was the kid that was a fan to practically everyone in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. To go from fan to in it … they let the fan in the club. Can you imagine?
People always wondered whether they’d let you in first or the Commodores in first.
I kept thinking about that. I thought, “They’re probably going to bring in the Commodores first since that’s the rite of passage.” But you know what? I’ll take it any way they slice it. You can’t go back and orchestrate history. “Wait guys, I can’t go in until they get in.” I’ll just take it as it comes.
You could be a double inductee if they take them in.
Your lips to God’s ears. Listen, I always says the same thing about the brothers. They weren’t a band to me. They were a family. I happened to luck out and have five more brothers I could grow up with. I would not be Lionel Richie without the Commodores. I discovered so much about myself in that band. I’m sure coming down the line, it’s going to happen. Right now, I’m going to bathe in this glory. This is one of those things where, at this point in life, you just take it as it comes.
It’s a cool class this year with Pat Benatar, Carly Simon, Dolly Parton, Duran Duran, Eminem, Judas Priest …
I love the class. I mean, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. What makes it so wonderful … Carly Simon is the only one I have not met out of this entire group. The real synergy in this is that it’s a great class since they are all legendary. Last year, Carole King was inducted. Believe it or not, my writing career started with “You’re So Vain” and Carole King with Tapestry. That’s when I spent time on Martha’s Vineyard island. So how ironic is this? The class is still rolling along and I’m in it.
Of course, Dolly was my real inspiration in terms of when I first crossed over into country. Every other day, it was Kenny Roger and Dolly. Again, the family is all intact.
Dolly said about a month ago that she was country and didn’t want in. She changed her mind last week and said she would indeed take it.
[Laughs] You know what it is? I understand what she’s saying. When Dolly came up and when I came up, every category was its own staple. In other words, country was a group and R&B was a group and classical and jazz. There was pop and rock & roll. Everything was a group. But since that time, it’s all turned into music. It’s all turned into the respect of each other. More or less, the categories came down and we’re more or less looking down at the brilliance of the music and celebrating the careers. That’s the key.
I tell people every day, “This is not an easy business to survive.” If you happen to be still living, that’s the one to acknowledge. That’s a big celebration. You’re being acknowledged by people in the music business. That is everything.
The term rock & roll is pretty loose. You can argue it encompasses rap and soul and even country.
How about rock & roll got its roots from blues and R&B? If you go back and look at the chords that everyone is playing in the Sixties through the early Seventies, that’s all Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry and Lightnin’ Slim. Those are blues players. To all of a sudden say this is a special category onto itself is sort of leaving the rest of the business out.
I like where we are now. I like what it’s doing. It’s all-encompassing since we’re all in the music business. That’s what makes it so beautiful. We can stand next to each other and look at each other and go, “Wow, we did it. We made it.”
Inductees tend to perform about three songs. How will you possibly boil your career down to just three?
[Laughs] Well, the big problem with me is probably not getting me on the stage, but “Please, Lionel, can you leave the stage?” Honestly, I think when you’re lucky enough to have a catalog that, thank God … I’ll pick it the night of or a week before. I like to vibe when I go onstage. I’m sure “All Night Long” will be in there somewhere, but we’ll see what the rest is going to be. I like to keep that under wraps just in case I get there and vibe something differently. But just to be onstage with that group … what a group! What a show. It’s going to be a great show.
There tends to be a big all-star jam at the end of the night. Are you able to see a scenario where it’s you and Dolly and Carly and Duran Duran and even Eminem, maybe?
Listen, put me on the mic and I’m ready to go. But are you ready to listen to my guitar playing? It sucks like you’ve never seen before. But put me on a vocal and I’ve got you covered without a doubt.
You mentioned “All Night Long.” I can see that as the grand finale where everyone comes out to sing a few lines.
If that happens, in that case, I’ll be the proud papa of that finale. Are you kidding me? The Eurythmics are playing, right?
Yes, they are.
Do you know how long I’ve been waiting to stand next to Annie [Lennox]? For years we used to pass and I’d go, “Oh, my God, let’s do a show together. Let’s do something together.” Finally I get the chance to at least be on the stage with her. I love the class we’re in. This is pretty much a very special hit-after-hit-after-hit class.
I spoke to Annie yesterday. She basically said, “I’m 67. I don’t like touring. I don’t perform much. But for this, I’ll get onstage and perform.”
[Laughs] Listen, she’s been telling me that for years. And remember, we’re all approaching each other as fans. And for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to have that performance is monumental. I think we’ll all be glad to see everybody onstage. That’s what we celebrate, the journey of each one of us. There’s a history.
I’m with American Idol. I try to tell the contestants, “It’s not about how well you sing. It’s whether you have a style that people recognize without looking at you. Also, they fall in love with your journey, your struggles. They identify with all of that.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, we didn’t all walk onto that stage and say, “Thank you very much.” We struggled. Each person has a story that is more unbelievable than the other one. It’s going to be a celebration of life, just a celebration of our lives and careers. It’s just going to be a celebration of being on that stage with such great talent.
Are you thinking at all about who should induct you?
I’m still trying to get over that they called my name. But no. Not yet. I’m sure after the initial adrenaline hit wears off, you’ll probably ask me that question next week and I’ll start calling some names. But for right now, I’m just amazed that this honor has been bestowed on me. It’s so cool.
It’s a rare year where all the main inductees are still alive. That almost never happens.
Listen. I told that to somebody the other day as a joke. They said, “Aren’t you happy to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?” I said, “Guys, I’m happy to be alive.” The thing about it is that the journey is so difficult. Rock & roll can be lethal, I say as a joke. And to be in good health enough to walk onto that stage, to be able to perform still on that stage and feel like you’re still vibing, that’s all part of the journey.
I’m must happy to be alive and well and enjoying the activities and festivities. It’s not an easy business, by no means. I can’t say that enough. We take for granted when you’re starting out in the back of the van and I am the roadie. I am the saxophone player. I am the manager. When you go from there to here, there’s a lot of moving parts along the way that are all designed to take you out, not bring you in.
I was just watching video of your Glastonbury set from a few years back. You’re playing to at least 100,000 people and the average age appears to be about 20. They know all your lyrics, and some are even dressed in costumes like you in the Eighties. What was it like to be in that moment?
That was when I knew that we had reached another level. I tell this every day to people. They say, “Lionel, do you still enjoy performing?” I go, “I love performing because I go to every show now to see the crowd perform.” What you saw at Glastonbury was the crowd performing on steroids. I have never gone in my life to where the security guards had rehearsed a “Dancing on the Ceiling” routine. They were security guards at the front of the stage with their choreographed movements. I said, “OK, we’ve gone to another level.”
Glastonbury was probably one of the greatest moments. It was supposed to rain, but the sun was shining — beautiful. And then about 140,000 people show up of all makes and colors and ages. And they know every word. I didn’t sing “Hello.” I didn’t sing “Dancing on the Ceiling.” I kept trying to fight the audience. “Would you like to let me in for a moment?” And every time I stopped singing, they got louder. It was amazing.
Do you think American Idol is introducing you to a whole new audience that didn’t know you before?
I can answer that in a quick word: Yes. When I’m going into restaurants now or going down the street, I go, “Is that a nine-, eight-, 10-year-old kid going, ‘Hi, Lionel!'” Not “Mr. Richie.” It’s, “Hey Mom, Dad, there’s Lionel.” And the parents, of course, start apologizing. “Mr. Richie, I’m so sorry.” They go, “No, no Mom. That’s Lionel! That’s Uncle Lionel!”
And so the answer is yes. I have moved into another realm of consciousness. It’s because, if you can get a 10-year-old to wave at you from a car passing you in the street, we’re doing amazing, amazing business here.
That sums it up, but I really I look forward to seeing you perform at the ceremony in November.
It’s probably going to be one of the greatest nights because I can now appreciate that time in my life. Normally we’re so busy trying to survive that you don’t really enjoy the moment. That’s going to be an evening where I just sit with all my friends and peers and just take it in.