Lionel Richie is launching his most extensive American tour in years this month, and he wants his fans to know the show will be extremely heavy on songs they know and love. He’s even called the tour All the Hits All Night Long. “I’ve been around artists that say, ‘I just won’t play my hits. I’ll play something new,'” he says. “That’s why I’m saying it’s all the hits all night. This is just back-to-back karaoke on steroids.”
We spoke to Richie about the tour (featuring special guest Cee Lo), his enduring global appeal, the possibility of a Commodores reunion, what the gibberish means in “All Night Long” and the infamous video for “Hello.”
What’s going on right now as you’re prepping for this tour?
First off, we finished a Pacific Rim tour about three-and-a-half weeks ago. They said I’d have all this time off, but it’s taken me that long to get over the jet lag. But the truth is that we’re ready for the tour. It’s just a matter of tweaking the show a bit. We’ve been touring since 1978. People always say that I haven’t been touring. The truth is that I just haven’t been touring America.
How do you put together a set list for a tour like this?
You cross your fingers and hope you nailed it. The good news is that we have probably more than four hours of music. Trying to pick between them is the hard part. We have to go back and figure out the party songs, the marriage songs, where did you just go to college … We have a pretty good list. We also have to back ourselves up and prepare about ten audibles just in case we get to a certain place and they start screaming for a song we aren’t quite ready for. We’ll have an arsenal of favorite songs and other songs.
I see you’ve been playing a lot of Commodores material.
I tried for years to say that I wouldn’t play much Commodores stuff. Then I realized any artist that wouldn’t play the old stuff was just shooting themselves in the head. People want to hear the whole package. In other words, if you’re lucky enough to start in a group and then go solo, people want to hear everything you’ve done. They want every part of your career.
It’s clear you have a bigger audience in Europe than in America. How did that happen?
For some weird and wonderful reason, Europe has this sort of reputation. It takes forever to get the Germans, but once you get them they never leave you. That’s true for France and many other countries over there. It’s also due to the fact that we just kept coming back. It’s the same with Japan and Australia. Those songs are a part of their lives, just like in America.
The only reason I stayed away from America is because rap came in so strong. That’s when I said, “OK, do we stay in America or do we solidify the rest of the world?” That’s why we spent so much time in Europe and Asia. America was going through a transition, so we had to make sure we were solid in the rest of the world. But thank God, now that I’m coming back to America, I’m finding out that the audiences never left. In fact, they want to see us now more than ever.
And they’re bringing their kids.
That’s right. We’re playing Bonnaroo this summer and we played ACL last year. There was a 19-year-old kid in the front row with an AC/DC shirt on. He was singing along to every word. I said, “Where did this guy come from?”
You took a 10-year break from releasing new albums in 1986, right at the peak of your career. What exactly was your reasoning behind that?
Well, it wasn’t planned. The only reason I stopped is because my father got sick. I knew if I did another album I’d have to go on tour. At the time, I’d done the album/tour thing for 20 years in a row. I said, “Let me just deal with dad here for a moment.” I didn’t realize he was going to die. It turned into a three-and-a-half-year struggle.
At the same time, I went through a divorce. And because of the stress and pressure of all that, I had my first vocal surgery. It was a one-two-three punch and it freaked me out. I took a real psychological toll because I didn’t know if I’d ever sing again. I spent years just waddling in disgust. And then all of a sudden I woke up one day and said, “Let’s get out of town. I’m never stopping again.”
Tell me the story of how you wrote the “jambo jambo” lines in “All Night Long.”
I needed some words in Swahili or African something that said “infectious partying.” I called my dear friend from Jamaica, Dr. Lloyd Greig and said, “What does Bob Marley mean when he sings ‘Huah jaa huah jeebee goo?” He said, “That means absolutely nothing, man. That means nothing.” So I called some friends at the UN. I told them what I needed. They said, “Lionel, there are 101 African dialects.” I said, “Wait, does one tribe not know what the other is saying?” And he says, “Absolutely.”
After that, I hung up the phone and just made it up. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve traveled the world and people go, “Oh my God, Lionel, the fact the put mambo with mumbo jumbo…” They’re telling me what it means and I don’t want to tell them it doesn’t mean anything to me!
I feel like every time I turn on VH1 Classic there’s some different snarky show making fun of the video for “Hello.” Do you ever get tired of everyone making fun of that thing?
No. You’ve got to spoof it. Even I go back and look at it and go, “Really? Did I work on having hair like that?”
The story behind that is really simple. [Director] Bob Giraldi shocked me on “Hello.” It was a straightforward love story and he said, “No I’m gonna make the girl blind.” I said, “Why do we have to go that heavy? Just make it a love story.”
Then I get to the video shoot and there’s this God-awful looking clay model of my head. I said, “Bob, this doesn’t look like me.” He said, “OK, we’ll do the scene and we’ll talk about this later, Lionel.” We get to scene two and I said, “Bob, I see the bust here. It doesn’t look like me.” He says, “Scene two, now we’re getting closer.” It happens again with scene three and then finally we’re getting right to shoot the scene where I discover that she’s done it. I say, “Bob, it doesn’t look like me.” And he looks at me and says, “Lionel, she’s blind!” [Huge laughter] And I said, “OK, I get it.”
Have you ever thought about reforming the Commodores or maybe bringing them onto your tour as guests of some sort?
I’ve been testing the waters. Believe it or not, it can be hard to get five guys onstage. We lost Milan Williams, the keyboard player, to cancer. Over the years, I’ve experimented with guys. I said, “Let me just get three of them.” We’ve done a couple of shows together. But to get the other two, if I could pull that off, I will be the miracle worker of life. I’m not going to say no. I’m just gonna say, if it’s in the clouds it’s gonna happen.
The other two just don’t want to do it?
No. There’s two ways to look at this. Somedays I feel like it’s what Paul McCartney said: “The memories of the Beatles are better than the Beatles.” It’s a superstition that’s haunting us. On the other hand, you have to pull away the 30 years of whatever you are thinking about each other. You have to forget about it and just come on stage.
Then again, when you’re in a group, you have to understand it’s hard to break those old guys. No one cares anymore about whatever you were mad at 30 years ago. No one cares. That’s called the group thing. Every group experiences that stupid kind of paralysis.
Right. I guess with many groups, resentments just fester for decades.
Yeah. I call it the stupid gene. You say group, you automatically inherit that stupid gene.
Do you see yourself still on the road in 20 years, still playing in your 80s like Chuck Berry?
You have to have a marker. There are a couple of guys that set the marker. I used to hang around George Burns, and I kept asking him, “When are you going to retire?” He had a great line. He said, “Stay booked, kid. Don’t ever stop being booked. You’ll live as long as you’re booked.” That’s number one. The next marker is, “How old is Paul McCartney? How old are the Rolling Stones? How about Chuck Berry?” If they ever decide to let it go, I’ll know what the marker is.
Every time a Beatle goes, “I enjoy doing this,” I think, “Me too. Let’s keep it going.” As long as you’re healthy and you love doing it, I can’t think of retiring and going fishing or bowling. I think I would probably pass away if I did that.