After leaving the Commodores, Lionel Richie became one of the most successful male solo artists of the '80s, arguably eclipsed during his 1981-1987 heyday only by Michael Jackson and Prince. Richie dominated the pop charts during that period with an incredible run of 13 consecutive Top Ten hits, five of them number ones. As his popularity skyrocketed, Richie moved further away from his R&B origins and concentrated more on adult contemporary balladry, which had been one of his strengths even as part of the Commodores. After 1987, Richie fell silent, taking an extended break from recording and touring before beginning a comeback toward the end of the '90s. He settled into a relaxed recording and touring schedule. Through the early 2010s, his albums switched between sophisticated R&B, surprisingly pop-oriented material, and even contemporary country.
Lionel Brockman Richie, Jr., was born on June 20, 1949, in Tuskegee, Alabama, and grew up on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute, where most of his family had worked for two generations prior. While attending college there, Richie joined the Commodores, who went on to become the most successful act on the Motown label during the latter half of the '70s. Richie served as a saxophonist, sometime vocalist, and songwriter, penning ballads like "Easy," "Three Times a Lady," and "Still" (the latter two became the group's only number one pop hits). Although the Commodores maintained a democratic band structure through most of their chart run, things began to change when the '70s became the '80s. In 1980, Richie wrote and produced country-pop singer Kenny Rogers' across-the-board number one smash "Lady," and the following year, Richie's duet with Diana Ross, "Endless Love" (recorded for the Brooke Shields film of the same title), became the most successful single in Motown history, topping the charts for a stunning nine weeks. With the media's attention now focused exclusively on Richie, tensions within the Commodores began to mount, and before the end of 1981, Richie decided to embark on a solo career.
Richie immediately set about recording his solo debut for Motown. Titled simply Lionel Richie, the album was released in late 1982 and was an immediate smash, reaching number three on the pop charts on its way to sales of over four million copies. It spun off three Top Five pop hits, including the first single, "Truly," which became Richie's first solo number one. If Lionel Richie made its creator a star, the follow-up, Can't Slow Down, made him a superstar. Boasting five Top Ten singles, including the number ones "All Night Long (All Night)" and "Hello," Can't Slow Down hit number one, eventually sold over ten million copies, and won the 1984 Grammy for Album of the Year. Such was Richie's stature that he was invited to perform at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, a spectacular stage event that was broadcast worldwide.
In 1985, Richie put his superstar status to work for a greater good, joining Michael Jackson in co-writing the USA for Africa charity single "We Are the World"; the all-star recording helped raise millions of dollars for famine relief. By the end of the year, he was on top of the charts again with "Say You, Say Me," a ballad recorded for the film White Nights but not included on the soundtrack album. The song was slated to be the title track on Richie's upcoming album, but delays in the recording process prevented the record from being released until August 1986, by which time the title was changed to Dancing on the Ceiling (in order to promote Richie's next single release). Three more Top Tens followed "Say You, Say Me," as did "Se La," which became the first of Richie's solo singles not to reach the pop Top Ten. Overall, Dancing on the Ceiling didn't match the success of Can't Slow Down, but it still sold an impressive four million copies, although Richie's reputation for sentimental ballads was beginning to incur a backlash in some quarters.
Richie's nine-year streak of writing at least one number one single (a feat matched only by Irving Berlin) came to an end in 1987. As a matter of fact, Richie all but disappeared from the music business, exhausted after two decades of recording and performing, and also occupied with taking care of his ailing father. Richie's silence was broken in 1992, when Motown released a compilation titled Back to Front; in addition to some of his solo hits and a few Commodores tracks, Back to Front also featured three new songs, including the number one R&B hit "Do It to Me."
Richie wasn't bitten by the recording bug again until 1996, by which time he'd endured his share of personal loss: his father had passed away, and his marriage to wife Brenda -- the muse behind some of his most successful ballads -- had fallen apart. In approaching his comeback, Richie attempted to update his sound to reflect a decade's worth of developments in R&B. The result, Louder Than Words, was a moderate success, reaching the Top 30 and going gold. However, it didn't produce any major hit singles, and Richie's nods to contemporary production trends were criticized as awkward. Released in 1998, Time found Richie in a more familiar element, relying on his signature sound with only slight musical updates. However, the album flopped, spending only a few weeks in the lower reaches of the charts.
Richie's next album, Renaissance, was released to a favorable reception in Europe in late 2000; it was issued in the U.S. in early 2001. It fared best in the U.K., where it went platinum. Three years later, on the heels of enduring a very public and bitter divorce with his second wife, Richie released Just for You, another album that was most successful in the U.K. The 2006 album Coming Home -- released the same year his popularity in certain Arab states was covered by mainstream media outlets -- found him working with an all-star cast of collaborators including Jermaine Dupri, Raphael Saadiq, Sean Garrett, and Dallas Austin. In the U.S., it reached the Top 10 of the pop and R&B charts. The wholly modern Just Go, released in 2009, featured assistance from Stargate, Terius "The-Dream" Nash, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, and Akon. His next release was much different: 2012's Tuskegee featured fully countrified updates of hits from his past, including "Easy" (with Willie Nelson), "Hello" (with Jennifer Nettles), and "Dancing on the Ceiling" (with Rascal Flatts). The album reached the top of the U.S. pop and country charts. ~ Steve Huey
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