Lionel Richie’s life and music career has been a fascinating and eventful one. He is a famous singer, songwriter, musician and record producer as well as an activist. Lionel Brockman Richie was born on June 20, 1949 in Tuskegee, Alabama USA; son of a system analyst and an educator1. He grew up on the campus of Tuskegee Institute before his family moved to Illinois, where he graduated from high school. Being a great tennis player, he was granted a tennis scholarship and went to Tuskegee Institute, where he graduated with a major in economics in 1974. While he was in college, he joined the Commodores, a soul music group[i].
His music career began in Tuskegee where he formed a number of groups in the mid 1960s. When he joined the commodores in 1968 as a singer and saxophonist, he signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records for one record then moved to Motown records. The Commodores became an established and popular soul group, something that is mostly attributed to Lionel’s talent. He spent more than a decade as the lead singer with the Commodores and became a famous face and a ladies’ favourite. The group’s first records such as Machine Gun and Brick House were a hit. Lionel continued to write more romantic songs such as Easy, Three Times a Lady and Sail On which had tremendous success. In the late 1970s, he composed songs for other artists at a commission. Lionel established a strong friendship with Kenny Rogers for whom he wrote the number one hit Lady in 1980 and produced Roger’s album Share your Love in 1981. In the same year, alongside Diana Ross, he composed and sang the theme song for a romantic drama film ‘Endless love’. The song became a hit single for UK and US pop music charts. This further encouraged Lionel to take his own path in his music career.
He left the Commodores in 1982 to pursue his career as a full-fledged solo artist, although his decision did not negatively affect the group, which according to Grove’s Dictionary, gave him a boost because there was no conflict of interest (Pratt and Boyd, 51). He was replaced by Skyler Jett as the lead singer in 1983. In this year, Lionel’s hit album which had three hit singles that still carried Commodores style, won him his first two Grammy Awards as Best Male Vocalist and Album of the Year, and sold over ten million copies. Several hits followed after that and Lionel boasts of five ballads that have been top ten in the UK and US charts. The peak of his career was a result of a number of rich, sentiment and funky creations such as Hello, All Night Long, Say You, Say Me (which was used as the theme song for the film ‘White Nights’ and won an Oscar Award), Stuck on You among others. “It was his intention to have the hit single Say You, Say Me ready at the same time the movie was released with this song as its theme”. He worked with the legendary pop star Michael Jackson and co-wrote the USA for Africa charity song We are the World which was recorded by an all-star artists group to raise millions of dollars for famine in Africa and consequently became a famous hit in 1985. He continued with this trend and his songs held top position on the Billboard’s Year End 100 chart for up to four weeks.
In 1987, he finally took a break to take care of his ailing father in Alabama after an exhausting work schedule and nearly two decades of non-stop recording and performance. When his father died in 1990, Lionel made a come-back after releasing his fourth album Back to Front which was a compilation of the previous albums and it held first position in the Dutch Album Top 100 chart for twelve weeks. He embarked on a more relaxed schedule which saw his recording and performance career remain at minimum. For a long time, he had been under pressure to change his music style with the changing times, but in 1996 he released Louder than Words which maintained his soul music style which has come to be known as contemporary R & B. Unfortunately, from this release on, his compositions did not achieve the success of his earlier songs although he maintained popularity in Europe as compared to the US. In this regard, since 2004, Lionel has produced an impressive top forty singles in the UK. He made a break-through when he released a studio album titled Coming Home which contained a single I Call it Love in 2006 that starred his adopted daughter Nicole Richie in the video, and it became his biggest hit in the US in ten years.
In recent years, Lionel Richie has performed in famed shows such as American Idol, Australian Idol, Sydney Opera House and many others. His spring 2008 album, Just Go was also a big hit both in US and Europe. To this day, he takes his performing career seriously and is set to take concert tours of Australia and New Zealand in March and April 2011. So far, he has sold more than a hundred million records throughout his career.
His family life however has not been without controversy. In 1975, Lionel married his college sweetheart Brenda Harvey and they informally adopted Nicole Camille Escovedo, the two-year-old daughter of one member of Lionel’s band and raised her as Nicole Richie[ii]. The couple legally adopted her at the age of nine. During their marriage, Lionel also had a relationship with Diane Alexander in 1986 which resulted in an ugly confrontation between the three parties. He finally divorced Brenda in 1993 after seventeen years of marriage. He married Diane in 1995 and they had a son, Miles and a daughter, Sofia in 1994 and 1998 respectively. They divorced in 2004. Nicole gave birth to Lionel’s grandchildren a baby girl and a boy in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
Apart from music, Lionel Richie has been a breast cancer activist inspired by his grandmother who was diagnosed with it in the 80s but recovered and lived to 104 years. He helped to raise over $3 million for the Breast Cancer Foundation. He also planned to re-record the charity tune We are the World alongside Quincy Jones, and several other artists have asked to take part which is also expected to pay tribute to the late Michael Jackson.
Lionel Richie has had a blissful career which was not short of ups and downs. In total he has produced a total of thirty four albums and three hundred and fifty two albums in nearly four decade of singing, writing and performing. His songs are still favorite soundtracks for many of his fans and he is perceived as one of the most accomplished artists of all times.
 John Johnson, Will Stardom Spoil Lionel Richie (California: Ebony 1985) 20.
John Johnson Lionel Richie’s Career Soars with Oscar and New (California: Jet, 1986) 52-56.
i John Johnson, “Will Stardom Spoil Lionel Richie,” Ebony (Chicago: Ebony, 1985) 21.
[ii] Timothy White, “Lionel Richie’s Chart History,” Billboard (California: Billboard, 2010) 40.