Lionel Richie has some brilliant advice about getting older

·10-min read
Photo credit: Dominic Miller
Photo credit: Dominic Miller

Lionel Richie’s love songs have been the choice for many a first wedding dance and earned him four Grammys, a Golden Globe, an Oscar and over 100m album sales worldwide. Now 71, and keen to tour again, the American Idol judge tells Red about family, friends and embracing getting older.

‘Hello?’ I ask, hesitantly, waiting for Lionel Richie to answer, while applying a superhuman amount of self-restraint not to add, ‘Is it me you’re looking for?’

Undoubtedly, Richie has heard this before, yet, even after more than 30 years (Hello was released in 1983), he still laughs good-humouredly. Apparently, on meeting Prince Charles for the first time, our future monarch made exactly the same (bad) joke. But what else are you supposed to say to an international superstar, who’s managed to turn the most common of greetings into a trademark lyric? Adele, eat your heart out.

I’m speaking to Richie over Zoom from his home in Beverly Hills (audio only because it’s pre-noon in LA and Richie is a night owl, I’m politely told). Well, of course the bestselling singer-songwriter of All Night Long (All Night) isn’t a morning person – what else do you expect?

So, while I don’t get the pleasure of seeing his friendly face beamed into my sitting room, I do get to hear his voice – and what a voice it is. From Dancing On The Ceiling to Stuck On You, Three Times A Lady and Endless Love, which he sang with Diana Ross, Richie’s musical output is as legendary as he is. So much so that when he played Glastonbury in 2015, he drew an incredible 100,000-strong crowd at the popular Sunday afternoon
‘legends’ slot. ‘I love the way people come to my shows wearing afro wigs and a moustache, and that’s just the girls,’ Richie quips.

Now, after a year at home ‘gardening and clearing out my closet four times’, not to mention growing that famous afro – ‘I was amazed and surprised it was still there!’ – Richie says he can’t wait to get back on stage. ‘Please, just shoot me out of a cannon into the world – it’s time to go,’ he laughs.

And shoot out Richie will, first at the Wynn Las Vegas this autumn, where he’s due to continue his successful residency at the Encore Theatre.Then next summer, in the UK and Europe, on his re-scheduled Hello tour.

It’s evident when we talk that, even after more than 50 years in the business, Richie still loves performing. ‘A tour is the best excuse for acting like a kid you can ever have,’ the septuagenarian tells me. ‘I walk out on stage and it could be 1979, 1989,1999 or 2009, I’m back there in the bubble.’

Retiring is simply not a word in Richie’s vocabulary and, unlike some other ‘older’ stars,
he has no problem belting out the hits that everyone knows and loves. ‘I’ll never get tired of them because each show is different. Plus, everyone in the crowd wants to sing karaoke with Lionel Richie, so my job is easy!’ he says, unintentionally quoting another of his famous songs.

Photo credit: Lionel Richie
Photo credit: Lionel Richie

Richie is, of course, being modest and continues to be so throughout our almost two-hour interview (we were only scheduled to speak for 40 minutes but, as his agent tells me beforehand, once he starts talking, he doesn’t stop, and he’s so endlessly fascinating I don’t want him to).

Richie grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, when America’s south was still segregated, yet says his parents shielded him from the harsh realities.

‘I grew up in an academic environment [on Tuskegee University campus, a historically Black college] and it was very different there to what it was like outside. I didn’t realise it until later, but my parents didn’t want me to put limits on myself or what I thought I could achieve.I’ll always be grateful to them for that,’ he adds.

It’s also why Richie still believes ‘so much more change is needed’ when I ask him about the Black Lives Matter movement. He says it’s become even more important because Covid-19 hit Black communities, including those in his home state, particularly hard, and he’s recently backed Heal, which provides Uber-like doctors-on-call.

Almost unbelievably, if Richie hadn’t followed his Plan B into music, we would have never been saying Hello in the first place. Before he joined theCommodores aged 19, Richie thought about joining the priesthood. ‘Only briefly,’ he tells me, ‘because then girls started screaming at me on stage.’

Although painfully shy as a young man, he loved music – ‘everything from Led Zeppelin to The Temptations’ – and says he expressed himself by writing songs.

‘I never intended to perform them,’ he continues, ‘but the idea of going on stage with a group of people in a band felt less pressurised. It was the other Commodores who persuaded me to kiss the girls in the front row. Then, as soon as I did, I was hooked, and they had to tell me to stop kissing the girls in the front row and get on with singing the songs,’ he jokes.

That feeling of being initially invisible to girls, is what Hello is about. ‘I wrote it for all the hopers and dreamers out there who, like me, thought they never had a shot,’ Richie reveals.

Although he says he can’t read or write music (it was his grandmother, a classical pianist, who taught him how to play piano), his innate talent for songwriting was clear almost immediately.

He left the Commodores to pursue a solo career in 1981 and quickly became one of the most famous balladeers of the 1980s. He worked with everyone from Kenny Rogers, whose loss last year he says was ‘devastating’, to Michael Jackson, with whom he wrote the charity single We Are The World. So, what’s the secret to his success?

‘It’s simplicity and using three words that never go out of fashion: I love you. They’re found in every style of music, be it rock, jazz, rap or house. I just wrote down what people say to each other when they fall in and out of love. Anyone can write a difficult song with a lot of notes. But if you can write a song that people remember, that’s a hit record,’ he says.

Richie, of course, has had more hit records than most, and makes writing them sound a lot easier than it really is.

As for his own love life, although Richie’s had his fair share of ups and downs, he still refers to himself as ‘a hopeless romantic’. He married his college sweetheart Brenda Harvey in 1975 and they adopted Nicole Richie when she was a young girl [her parents were musicians and struggled to look after her].

After a very public split and divorce in 1993, Richie then married Diane Alexander (pop trivia: she was a dancer in his video for Dancing On The Ceiling) and they had two children, Miles, 26, and Sofia, 22, before divorcing in 2003.

I can’t help but ask him how he’s remained so optimistic about love given his own romantic history. ‘Some of the songs I wrote weren’t based on personal experience at the time, but after I went through my own heartbreak, I listened to them again. Suddenly the words I’d written had more depth. It’s strange to think that my own words, written years before, actually helped me through my own pain.’

Richie now lives with his long-term girlfriend, Lisa Parigi, and he says they’re blissfully happy. They also enjoyed having Miles and Sofia move back in with them during the pandemic.

Photo credit: Rachel Murray - Getty Images
Photo credit: Rachel Murray - Getty Images

‘We got to spend so much valuable time together,’ Richie says before going on to explain his approach to parenting which, given his celebrity status, hasn’t always been easy.

‘My childhood was very different to theirs because I had to come up from the ground floor,’ he explains, ‘They’re more privileged than I was and there’s no point denying that.

But while there was a period when they thought they could sit back [and enjoy
the fame], I told them that wasn’t going to happen on my watch. They’ve been handed a gift called “the family” and I’ve always tried to encourage them to make the most of that advantage,’ he says.

Nicole is now a star in her own right and Miles and Sofia are successful models, although Richie says they’re becoming a lot more entrepreneurial and business-minded now. ‘I’m happy they’ve been sharing their plans with me, but I’ve also realised it’s because they want me to finance them,’ he jokes.

‘It’s hard to inspire them in a world of very famous, non-talented people. Now everyone is on their phones and everyone is famous. I want them to understand the superficial part.I was raised by a community, but kids today are raised by the internet and that’s a challenge.’

Richie is also a grandfather, or ‘PopPop’ as they call him, to Harlow, 13, and Sparrow, 11 – Nicole’s children with her husband, musician Joel Madden. They live just streets away from him in Los Angeles and are a ‘delight’, although he admits he likes handing them back, too.

‘You have to tap into what your children and grandchildren are doing and learn from them,’ he says. ‘My motto has always been if something doesn’t work, try again because when you win, you win. When you lose, you learn.’

It’s a saying he’s used a lot on American Idol and he’s now taking his own advice and branching out in a new direction.Not only does he have his own fragrance range, somewhat inevitably called Hello, but also a Lionel Richie Home line.

‘I’ve always wanted to bring out a scent and didn’t realise, until recently, that music and fragrance both deal with notes,’he says, adding, ‘All my friends now smell like me!’

And while he counts some of the biggest names in music among these, he also keeps in touch with what he calls his ‘homeboy association’, a group of his oldest school and college friends in Alabama, where he still owns his childhood home.

‘Our friendship isn’t rooted in money or me being famous, it’s based on our shared history,’ he explains, telling me that they’re never afraid to call him out if he wears a bad jacket on TV (just not perhaps if they don’t like his latest scent!).

Photo credit: Kevin Winter/ACMA2012 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kevin Winter/ACMA2012 - Getty Images

When I tell him I have a mug with his face on and the words: ‘Is it tea you’re looking for?’, he laughs and says that’s exactly the kind of thing he’s planning to introduce to his Home range. There will be aprons with: ‘Hello, is it me you’re cooking for?’ and I imagine cheeseboards that shout: ‘Hello, is it brie you’re looking for?’ or some similar pun.

Perhaps it’s part of the wisdom that comes with age, but Richie clearly doesn’t take himself or life too seriously. ‘Death is going to be a surprise to me because I’m not making any plans for it,’ he tells me when he finally does say goodbye.

‘Turning 70 was a leap and a numberI hadn’t quite got myself ready for, but now I’m 71 and rolling with it! As long as you don’t lose the spark and passion then age doesn’t matter.’

Richie certainly hasn’t lost any of his and something tells me he’ll be dancing on the ceiling for a long time to come.

Lionel Richie returns to Wynn Las Vegas at the Encore Theater in September and October, and is due to tour the UK and Europe in summer 2022. His Hello fragrance, Home collection and other information is all available at lionelrichie.com

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