Still dancing on the ceiling

Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie very nearly gave up singing after leaving The Commodores in the 80s, but 30 years later he’s back on the road and in the North West.

Andy Welch catches up with a legend.

Lionel Richie loves being in the UK.

He says he’s seen our capital city change dramatically since he first came here with his band The Commodores around 1973; the architecture, mainly, the cultural diversity, the food and so on.

The biggest change, however, has been brought about by technology.

“I remember walking into a restaurant with a friend and before my first drink arrived, another friend called from Los Angeles and to say he hoped I enjoyed my meal. A photo of me in the restaurant was posted somewhere and he’d seen it. That was about eight years ago.”

Nevertheless, it’s not enough to stop Richie, who begins a UK tour which will include Liverpool and Manchester in February, from enjoying himself in the country while he’s here.

“It’s really fun to go on tour now because all of my friends show up. They’re dotted all over the world. It’s exhausting, I’ll be doing promo in the day, a show at night and then seeing friends in the evening. I never want to miss anything.”

He laughs heartily and apologises for joking so much throughout our interview.

“I’ve had three double espressos, so what am I going to do?” he reasons.

He has, however, made a lot of big-name friends. When talking about ‘Brick House’, his 1977 hit single with
The Commodores, he casually mentions his friend Steve dropped by the studio that night to see what the band were up to.

Steve who? “Oh sorry, Stevie Wonder,” he says. “I forget sometimes. I’ll be talking about a conversation I had with Michael years ago, and then I have to say it’s Michael Jackson I’m talking about. Or Marvin. The other person will be like ‘Marvin who? Marvin Hagler?’ and I have to say ‘No, Marvin Gaye’. But believe it or not Marvin Hagler is a great friend of mine, and a big fan. Every time we play in Italy, he’s there.”

Turns out the former world middleweight boxing champion left America to carve out a career in Italian action films.

Richie’s enthusiasm for seemingly everything he talks about is infectious. It could just be the caffeine and sleep deprivation, of course, but he seems more engaged in popular culture than many artists of his age and stature.

“It’s called being in the business. I actually like what I’m doing, and, yes, it probably does show,” he responds.

“(Legendary TV and radio personality) Dick Clark said something to me a long time ago when he was 70-something. He looked like a teenager still, just as he had done when I was watching him on American Bandstand in the 1950s.

He said: ‘Always stay eye to eye with who you’re dealing with’. I’m eye to eye with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, and Kanye and Justin Timberlake. I mean, I know they’re not contemporaries of mine, but if I’m going to be in this business, I need to know who all those young artists are and what they’re up to. That’s my job. I have to meet them. I have to know The Weekend and Bruno
Mars or I’m not officially in the business.

“I need to know who the good songwriters are, who the bad ones are, who the competition is, who’s making the best records. I have to be able to think like that. It is about competition, even after all these years.”

Richie, who has sold more than 100 million records, placing him among the top 50 best-selling artists of all time, is bringing his All Night Long tour to the UK when he arrives next year. It’s an hit-packed show. “That’s the whole point!” he says emphatically.

“You get these artists that don’t want to play their biggest hits, or they’ll do a reworking of it, but I say if you’re lucky enough to have a song that people request over and over again, play that damned song.”

He understands why someone might not want to play a song they’ve performed a million times before. Among the reasons, he says, might be that the lyrical content is unsuitable for an artist of a certain age to sing.

“If a crowd come out to hear ‘Easy’, they’re not going to get a new arrangement, with a harmonica solo and Willie Nelson coming on to sing it. They’re going to get it down the barrel. ‘Three Times A Lady’ too, ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’ – you name it, we play it.”

Away from the live shows, Richie is currently planning his second Tuskegee album, exploring country music.

He’s sceptical of U2’s recent promotion in which their album ‘Songs Of Innocence’ landed in the account of every iTunes user and worries the artists following him won’t be supported by the industry in the same way he was.

As for a real retirement, he says he never will – or at least not while he can still get on stage and remember the lyrics to his songs without a “teleprompter the size of a cinema screen.”

“And anyway, what would I retire from? I fly around the world, singing, getting paid for basically going on vacation. I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he says.

Lionel Richie will play the Manchester Arena on February 28 and Liverpool Echo Arena on March 13.