Born on June 20, 1949, in Tuskegee, Ala., Lionel Richie grew up on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute. Most of his family in the previous generations had worked at the university, and it would prove important to Richie’s career as well. While studying there, Richie took an action that changed his life: He joined a group called the Commodores.
Richie was a saxophonist, sometime vocalist and songwriter for the group, which became the Motown label’s most successful act during the latter half of the 1970s. He wrote the group’s only two number one pop hits, “Three Times a Lady” and “Stills.” The dawn of the ‘80s saw Richie branch out beyond the Commodores; he wrote and produced country-pop singer Kenny Rogers’ number one hit “Lady.” His 1981 duet with Diana Ross, “Endless Love” (recorded for the Brooke Shields film of the same name), not only became the most successful single in Motown history, remaining atop the charts for nine weeks, it was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. The media’s exclusive attention on Richie caused escalating tensions within the Commodores, and by the end of 1981 he had left the group.
“Lionel Richie,” Richie’s solo debut for Motown, was released in late 1982, and reached number three on the pop charts, sold more than 4 million copies and spun off three Top Five pop hits. Its first single, “Truly,” was Richie’s first solo number one and won a Grammy. His follow-up, “Can’t Slow Down,” produced five Top Ten Singles (including the number one hits “All Night Long (All Night)” and “Hello”), reached number one and won the 1984 Album of the Year Grammy. Richie was invited to perform at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, an event that was broadcast worldwide.
In 1985, Richie joined fellow superstar Michael Jackson in writing the charity single “We Are the World.” Richie and Jackson won the Song of the Year Grammy, and the star-studded recording helped raise millions of dollars for famine relief. Four years after “Endless Love,” Richie received Best Original Song Oscar nominations for two 1985 films, “The Color Purple” and “White Nights,” winning for the latter. That Oscar-winning song, “Say You, Say Me,” reached the top of the charts and was supposed to be the title track on Richie’s upcoming album, but because of delays in the recording process the record wasn’t released until August 1986. By that time, the title had been changed to “Dancing on the Ceiling.” Although it less successful than “Can’t Slow Down,” “Dancing on the Ceiling” sold an impressive 4 million copies.
Richie’s nine-year streak of writing at least one number one single – an accomplishment only Irving Berlin matched – ended in 1987, and he largely disappeared from the music scene. Other than a compilation titled “Back to Front” that Motown released in 1992, Richie wouldn’t be heard from again until 1996. By the time of his comeback, Richie had suffered a number of personal difficulties, including the death of his father and the failure of his marriage. He wanted to update his sound in recognition of a decade’s worth of developments in urban R&B. The resulting album, “Louder than Words” reached the Top 30 and went gold, but it didn’t produce any enormously successful singles and Richie’s use of new music styles was criticized as awkward. Although 1998’s “Time” featured Richie’s signature sound with only small musical updates, it was a flop. His next album, “Renaissance,” was released in the United States in early 2001, several months after it received a positive reception in Europe.
The Iraq War revealed that Richie was a phenomenon there; Richie said he was told that Iraqis were playing “All Night Long” the night the American tanks invaded that country in 2003. As ABC News’ John Berman noted in a May 2006 report, “I have been to Iraq nine times since the American invasion three years ago, for a total of about ten solid months. . . During that time, I have seen bombs and blood, I have seen rebuilding and restructuring, and I have seen death and democracy. So what have I heard? That’s easy: Lionel Richie. Grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name. “I love Lionel Richie,” they say. Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song.”
Following a public and bitter divorce from his second wife, Richie released “Just for You” in 2004. The album was followed by “Coming Home” in 2006 and “Just Go” in 2009. “Tuskegee,” a covers album featuring contributions from an all-star list of country singers, debuted at second on the Billboard 200 chart when it was released in 2012. It rose to number one on the chart in its third week in release, Richie’s first album to do since 1986.