Lionel Richie wants to teach you how to be a real ‘American Idol’

March 9, 2018 GMT

LOS ANGELES — The “American Idol” hopefuls singing for their survival on the stage of a Hollywood nightclub next door to the Museum of Death were, as usual, a diverse bunch — gender-wise, looks-wise and otherwise. But most had one thing in common: They did not know what to do with their hands while receiving compliments from Lionel Richie.

Based solely on 21st-century record sales, the biggest star on this season’s “American Idol” judges’ panel is the pop titan Katy Perry, whose qualifications for the position include an ardent fan base and a willingness to be outsized and unpredictable on television. Between takes on a recent Friday, her unamplified laugh rang through the room like the cry of some exotic bird.

But in Richie — who joins Perry and country dreamboat Luke Bryan at the judges’ table — the show may have found an ideal counterweight for Perry’s screwball enthusiasm. All three judges have sold a lot of records, but only Richie can speak with the authority of a man who started out in the age of Motown and has survived into the age of the meme.

For Richie, the “Idol” gig is another opportunity to do what he’s become adept at — trading on millennial pop culture’s ironic fascination with his pleading 1983 hit “Hello” without letting himself become the joke. (During this year’s Super Bowl, Richie appeared in a spot for TD Ameritrade, playing a version of Lionel Richie who won’t be baited into speaking the words “all night long,” dramatizing his own refusal to go full William Shatner.)

But it’s also a chance to share wisdom both profound and practical, gleaned from six decades of lived experience. “American Idol” is a machine that confers ephemeral insta-fame on anyone it touches; Richie hopes to teach this year’s contenders to convert momentary heat into something that lasts.

“Hip means now,” Richie said. “I’ve never been hip. I’ve always been popular.”

Someday, you may have the good fortune to meet Lionel Richie for dinner.

If it happens, chances are he will recognize you first, because he has been famous a long time, and knows what someone waiting for a blind date with Lionel Richie looks like. You will recognize him because he’ll be dressed exactly like Lionel Richie.

On a recent Thursday evening he was wearing an elegant black overcoat — his “London coat,” he said, as opposed to his “L.A. coat,” because by Los Angeles standards it was Londonishly cold out. Around his neck were two rings on a silver chain. A double-looped black scarf grazed his sternum like a lei. Every so often he paused to adjust the scarf ever so slightly, as if confirming that it was still there. Hello, scarf.

At 68, Richie is as busy as he’s ever been. There is “Idol,” of course. Beginning this month, there is also a return to the residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, a place where a proven draw like Richie could conceivably fiesta forever. There is the home-goods line, whose Instagram feed features many photos of Richie’s bejeweled hands touching jacquard towels and fine bed linens. There are also grandchildren, to whom the pop icon is Pop-Pop.

“For a Gemini who probably has about 15 to 20 minutes of attention span,” Richie said, “this is pretty darn good.”

Although he has made cameo appearances on both “American Idol” and “Canadian Idol” (as well as their rival, NBC’s “The Voice”), his decision to join the judges’ panel full time is a surprise. Like many artists whose achievements predate it, Richie has criticized the show over the years for promoting cookie-cutter talent. In 2009 he suggested to Blues & Soul magazine that “Idol” would have quickly sent Mick Jagger and James Brown packing.

When reminded of these comments, Richie smiled and lowered his head until it was almost touching the table, as if he’d just been ambushed with a cringeworthy childhood photo.

“Was I a fan of these shows?” he said. “Absolutely not. I was not.”

But when he was asked to join the reboot — “Idol” is getting a fresh start on ABC after 15 seasons on Fox that ended in April 2016 — Richie said, he began thinking about how best to make use of the platform. For years, he said, he’s watched an increasingly dysfunctional music business fail to mentor artists for the long haul.

“For two days a week, Professor Richie is going to talk about the reality of what it takes to be an artist,” he said. “Instead of sitting here moaning about how the world has changed since I started, I’m going to tell them what it takes. You think it’s just singing? No, it’s not. What kind of style do you have? What kind of stamina do you have? How many times can you take ‘No’? How many times can you come back? That’s an artist.”

The “American Idol” executive producer, Trish Kinane, who worked on the Fox version of the show from Seasons 12 to 15, as well, said Richie genuinely wanted to share his expertise. “I think the viewers can really smell it when people are fake, because they’ve seen these shows so often,” she said. “I think it excited him to think that he could be helping more than one person, through this process, change their lives.”

Perry said she insisted Richie join the judges panel after running into him one night at the Sunset Tower and spending hours listening to him talk about his experience in the music industry. “It was just jaw-dropping,” she said. “I went to the producers and I put my foot down. I was like, Lionel Richie is the uncle, historian, the wisdom that we are missing on this show.”

Richie has “bountiful grace,” she added. “When he speaks, the whole room listens. He takes his time, he has patience, he doesn’t feel the need to prove. He is Lionel Richie.”

Had “Idol” existed in the 1960s, when Richie was of auditioning age, he would have gone nowhere near it. As a young man, he was painfully shy. He likes to say he thanks God for the Commodores, because without them, he’d never have discovered Lionel Richie.

He was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, and grew up on the campus of Tuskegee University, a few doors down from the Oaks, Booker T. Washington’s former home. He was a freshman economics major at Tuskegee when one of his future bandmates spotted him carrying a saxophone case and offered him a spot in the band that would become the Commodores.

At the time, Richie said, he’d been contemplating dropping out of school to join the Episcopalian clergy. Then he did his first show with the band. The curtain rose, Richie heard the sound of young women screaming in delight, and there went his interest in the priesthood.

After a nationwide tour opening for the Jackson 5, the Commodores signed to Motown, and Richie began to learn the lessons only experience can teach. Once, before a show, he decided to say hello to the members of Parliament-Funkadelic, whose dressing room was down the hall. “The door opens,” Richie recalled, “and that was when I realized, This is not Kansas, ladies and gentlemen.”

Richie, who had been an Air Explorer Scout back in Tuskegee, spent about 30 minutes in P-Funk’s lair that night. “Everybody was talented, everybody could sing, and everybody’s naked,” he said. “They’re like, ‘This is the record business, man.’”

With the Commodores, Richie helped write the deathless wedding-reception staple “Brick House,” but soon discovered he had a knack for ballads.

“I’m your James Taylor guy, you know?” he said. “I was your Carole King guy. I was your Marvin Gaye guy. Very sensitive. One of the things I heard growing up was, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Richie, the problem with Lionel is he’s too sensitive.’ And of course, all that meant was that I was a songwriter. I was not a football player, and I was not going to be a hunter. I’m the guy that shot a bird one time and cried over the bird for the next two days, you know? That’s just who I am.”

Tuskegee was a bubble of Black achievement in the pre-civil rights South, and Richie said he grew up insulated from many of the cold facts of race in America, including the de facto segregation of pop and R&B on commercial radio. When he began coming into his own as a writer he was almost willfully ignorant of those categories. His hits for the Commodores could be sentimental, even saccharine, but were also sneakily genre-defying. “Sail On” is a lonely-loadout lament fit for a mid-70s Jackson Browne album; the 1977 smash “Easy” was pure country.

In 1978, the Commodores released the Richie-penned “Three Times a Lady” and many black radio stations drew the line, refusing — at the height of funk and disco — to play a waltz. Richie and the Motown promotion executive Skip Miller summoned a group of unconvinced DJs and program directors from around the country — “My biggest haters,” Richie said — for a sit down at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. There, with Kanye Westian bravado, the not-yet-30-year-old Richie announced his desire to be the greatest songwriter who’d ever lived — as opposed to the greatest Black songwriter — and then asked them personally to give his record a shot.

“But you’ve got to play it for a week or two, just to make sure,” he told them. “You can’t put it on at 11 o’clock at night. Put it on in drive time. If it doesn’t go, I’ll never bother you again.”

It went. Richie’s reputation grew. In 1980, Kenny Rogers called to commission a ballad, and Richie wrote, arranged and produced “Lady,” the first record of that decade to top three different Billboard charts.

At Motown’s urging he recorded a solo album, then another. He still assumed he would retire as a Commodore. He said everything changed after the 1984 Olympics. During the closing ceremony, in front of a worldwide television audience, Richie performed “All Night Long,” dancing on a mechanical riser like a single man atop a wedding cake.

At first, this didn’t feel like a turning point. “I left the house,” he said, “went and ran around this field for 20 minutes, got back in the car and left the stadium.”

Then he stopped at an intersection. “I am three cars back from the red light,” he said, “and people are walking up to the car.” He tapped the table urgently, imitating the manic energy of a swarm of excited fans. In that moment, he said, “I became ‘Lionel Richie All Night Long.’ Lionel Richie All Night Long! Lionel Richie All Night Long! These people have just gotten off the plane from Taipei, but they know Lionel Richie All Night Long.”

This period blurs together when he talks about it now. It wasn’t all one year, but it feels that way. The Oscar nomination for “Endless Love.” The Olympics. Leaving the Commodores. Sitting with Michael Jackson, writing the USA for Africa charity single “We Are the World,” and meeting Jackson’s albino python Muscles, who slipped into the studio unnoticed and greeted Richie with open jaws. (“Lionel, he wants to say hello to you,” Richie recalled Jackson said. “Why are you screaming?”)

For a natural workaholic the pace was addictive at first, but Richie said being a star on that level also brought with it “unbelievable stress.”

“You’re the astronaut,” Richie said, “and everything on planet Earth is falling apart.”

He went home to Tuskegee to care for his dying father. Doctors found nodules on his vocal cords. His marriage grew strained, then imploded in tabloid-ugly fashion — in 1988, his first wife, Brenda, was arrested on an assault charge after catching Richie with another woman and kicking him in what newspapers referred to, perhaps politely, as the “stomach area.”

By the end of his most successful decade, Richie found himself at home in Tuskegee, living in his childhood bedroom. When he was at his lowest, a family friend dropped by, saying he’d brought some inspirational music.

“And he brought my albums by,” Richie said. “He’d labeled which songs to listen to. He said, ‘Be sure to listen to the lyrics.’ He gave me my music back.”

So Richie sat in his old bedroom, where he’d spent many nights grooving to Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsys” under black light, and listened to his own songs, the ones that had touched so many and brought them so much joy, so much comfort. He sat and cried and found the strength to go on.

He owns that house now, along with much of the land around it. Someday he wants to turn that land into a beautiful garden. And in that garden he intends to build another little house, where he’ll keep all his memorabilia and awards. A kind of Lionel Richie museum, which visitors to Tuskegee might add to their itineraries along with Booker T. Washington’s house and the field where the Tuskegee Airmen learned to fly.

It may go without saying that the house he means to build in that garden in Tuskegee will be a brick house, but Lionel Richie says it anyway.

Richie may be the only pop star who has counted both Nelson Mandela and Moammar Gadhafi among his die-hard fans. Of course, both of them are gone now. So, too, are many of the artists Richie thought of as his contemporaries, including Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston. In the time that Richie has been a public figure — and a parent to children who are also navigating public lives — the very nature of celebrity has been transformed by social media.

Richie’s youngest daughter, Sofia, has been romantically linked to Scott Disick, the estranged partner of Kourtney Kardashian. Over dessert, Richie considered how the hubbub around this liaison compares to the early 2000s, when his daughter, Nicole, had her own moment of infamy while joined at the hip to Paris Hilton.

Richie said there’s no comparison. “I’m a veteran now,” he said, “but Nicole was the Gulf War. Nicole and Paris were Vietnam for me. Because I had no experience. What’s happening now with Sofie is leaps and bounds easier, because I know how to approach it. With Nicole, it was like being shot in the head every morning. Did she get arrested? For what? We didn’t know what was coming next.”

He laughed. To hear Richie describe it, fatherhood is a job not unlike being the elder-statesman judge on “American Idol.” You’re there to provide an example of constancy in an ever-changing world. The fact of your presence serves as a lesson unto itself.

“There are moments where life should have scared me,” Richie said, “but it didn’t. Why? Because I was 19 and my parents were the mountain. And I get it now.

“You know, one day I pulled out of that driveway with the Commodores, in a van with five guys with Afros the size of Kentucky. There was no Instagram, no nothing. They didn’t know where we were until I called them again. I’m sure it was not what they wanted. But I give them all the props in the world, because they faked it very well.” — (The New York Times)