Although initially just one of the vocalists and the saxophone player in the Commodores, Richie's beautiful voice, at once strong and subsequently cracking with emotion, ensured his ballads became an increasing feature of the group. And those ballads need little introduction: 'Easy', 'Sail On', 'Still' and the one for which Richie will forever be remembered, 'Three Times A Lady'.
Lionel Richie has never been happy with categorisation, but to get on in American music, especially as an African-American from Alabama at the end of the 1960s, you had to conform. "See, I'm a rocker," Richie told Creem magazine in 1978. "When we started out back in '68, if I had my way I'd have said, 'Turn the amp up on 12 and let's go.' But I couldn't do it. I had to realize one thing: this industry divides into two categories - R&B and pop." The scale of the Commodores' success, in America and then worldwide, neatly confounded the group's critics. In fact, Rolling Stone dubbed the group the 'Black Beatles', due to the scale of their late 1970s success. The group chalked up an impressive tally of US and UK singles, including two stateside chart toppers, selling over 45 million records between 1974 and 1985.
The achievement of Richie's duet with Diana Ross, 'Endless Love', in 1981, inspired him to make the break from the band he had been with since the late 1960s. Richie finally moved away from the Commodores with his accomplished self-titled debut album, released in 1982. Working with Commodores producer James Anthony Carmichael, the album contained 'Truly', a ballad on a par with his greatest Commodores moments. The upbeat 'Serves You Right', 'You Are' and the truly beautiful, downbeat 'Wandering Stranger', were highlights of Lionel Richie (the album) as well.
By the mid 1980s, Richie had become Motown's biggest and most bankable star (mainly because of the quality of his material but also because it was a simple case of the label's great artists having moved elsewhere). It was certainly the influence of former Motown labelmate Michael Jackson's Thriller that inspired Richie's Can't Slow Down. Released in October 1983, it became Richie's greatest work. Made with a huge team of people, it represented the very best of Richie the balladeer. 'Stuck On You', 'Penny Lover' and the touching, and for most of 1984, ubiquitous 'Hello' were standouts. The album's review by bbc.co.uk likens Richie's role to that of a head chef: "The late night soul of 'Love Will Find a Way', is like the musical equivalent of cooking a gourmet meal - a drizzle of piano here, a pinch of synthesizer, there; tasteful, and sweet." Although it was the up-tempo, calypso influenced 'All Night Long (All Night)' that was the album's absolute highlight, a riot of sound and, in its video, colour, that arguably could be seen as the Motown label's last truly great 45. Can't Slow Down became an enormous hit, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, selling over 20 million copies worldwide and bagging Richie the prestigious Album of the Year award at the Grammy Awards in 1985. It stayed in the UK album charts for a most impressive 154 weeks.
Dancing On The Ceiling was released in October 1986. Very much in the same vein as Can't Slow Down, it contained his Academy Award-winning song, 'Say You, Say Me' that he had written the previous year for the film White Nights. The boisterous title track was supported by a promo clip that featured Richie, through much video trickery, quite literally dancing on the ceiling. Q magazine said, "The overall standard of writing and arrangement is obsessively high." Rolling Stone called the album "an impressive standard for mainstream pop craft in the eighties."
It was a considerable period before the world heard new material from Richie. When he did return in May 1992, it was with a compilation album, Back To Front, which contained a mere three new tracks amid 13 solid Richie classics. It was an enormous hit, shooting to the No. 1 spot in the UK, and into the US Top 20. Of the new songs, 'My Destiny' became a UK Top 10 hit, and 'Do It To Me' topped the Billboard Hot R&B chart. The album marked his final release on the Motown label, the label he'd been with since the early 1970s.
It would be another four years before Lionel Richie set forth again. His album, Louder Than Words, was his first for Mercury and found him experimenting with new styles, away from the formula he'd established with the Commodores. Self-produced, the album dabbled in urban styles, such as new jack swing, which had been the craze of the day in R&B. Compared to his precious work, the album was a modest success, but it showed that Richie was able to move forward with the times. Lead single, 'Don't Wanna Lose You' reached the UK Top 20, and his supporting live shows were well received.
After 1998's Time, which was a return to more conventional balladry, 2000's Renaissance returned Richie to the UK Top 10, featuring the beautiful single, 'Angel'. A live version of the track was included on Richie's first ever live album, Encore. Released in November 2002, it was recorded in concert at Wembley Arena, London. May 2004's Just For You was one of Richie's best works of the 21st century, written and recorded in collaboration with artists such as Daniel Bedingfield, Lenny Kravitz and producers Paul Berry and Mark Taylor. The album had a contemporary sheen while containing Richie's classic mixture of ballads and mid-tempo grooves.
The contemporary edge to Richie's material continued with Coming Home, which returned him to the US Top 10 for the first time since 1986's Dancing On The Ceiling. Released in September 2006, it found Richie working with contemporary producers such as Stargate, Raphael Saadiq, Jermaine Dupri and Rodney Jerkins. Richie's renaissance continued with 2009's Just Go. Described by allmusic.com as "wholly modern", it was a step on from Coming Home, working again with Stargate, Akon and Christopher 'Tricky' Stewart. For the first time in his career, others wrote the majority of the material, with only one Richie original, the beautifully retro-sounding 'Eternity', which married Richie with David Foster's timeless production skills.
2012's Tuskegee was a perfect idea beautifully realised - named after Richie's place of birth, it located the country aspect that had always been present in his music, and via a series of duets with country stars such as Shania Twain and Willie Nelson, covering his classic songs, it made an album that was very accomplished and different. It entered the US charts at No. 2, his highest placing for years, and went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of 2012 -- of any genre -- in his homeland.
There is no shortage of Lionel Richie collections - The Definitive Collection and Soul Legends both have great merit. The title of Truly - The Love Songs ]says it all, really, a perfect sampling of his greatest ballad moments.
Lionel Richie explained at the time of his Just For You album the key to his enormous world-beating success: "Simplicity. I want to find the simplest phrase that everybody says, no matter what language you speak. So much of my career has been about saying the things the way people say them, using melodies not that I can sing but that the people can sing 'Truly' or 'Still' or 'Endless Love' - if you look at the titles, they say the entire thought before you even go into the story." With this beautiful simplicity, Lionel Richie remains a very much-loved artist.
Lionel Richie wasn't necessarily emboldened by the success of Can't Slow Down -- after all, he had experienced huge success since the Commodores -- but there is nevertheless a sense of swagger on its 1986 successor, Dancing on the Ceiling. This isn't entirely a good thing, since it means he indulges in silliness (the title track) and sappiness ("Ballerina Girl") in equal measure, seemingly without quite realizing how ridiculous either extreme is. Maybe that's because he still has a strong sense of popcraft, something that makes "Dancing in the Ceiling" stick in the head even if its lyrics are awful, something that makes "Ballerina Girl" work for a slow dance even if it is awfully sugary. This dichotomy is evident throughout the record, as Richie pulls out good music even if he indulges all of his worst impulses a little bit too much. He adds a bit more dance to this album, and while the grooves are funkier than anything since the Commodores, they run on too long -- at eight minutes, "Don't Stop" takes its title command far too seriously.
This same tendency is apparent on the ballads and slower songs, which all stay around a little longer than they should, something that gives the impression that this record is a little less focused or consistent than the two blockbusters that preceded it. While it is true that there is nothing here nearly as good as the hits on Lionel Richie and Can't Slow Down, it also is true that on a track-by-track level, it's more consistent, never having resorting to the formless filler that peppered those two otherwise excellent records. This is a good thing, but it would have been better if the record had boasted one or two undeniable singles, or, if it didn't, would at least have been a little tighter. That said, Dancing on the Ceiling is a solid, enjoyable affair -- a comedown after the peaks of Lionel Richie and Can't Slow Down, and one that suggests that Richie needed the extended break he took after its release, but a good record all the same.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
On Can't Slow Down, his second solo album, Lionel Richie ran with the sound and success of his eponymous debut, creating an album that was designed to be bigger and better. It's entirely possible that he took a cue from Michael Jackson's Thriller, which set out to win over listeners of every corner of the mainstream pop audience, because Richie does a similar thing with Can't Slow Down -- he plays to the MOR adult contemporary audience, to be sure, but he ups the ante on his dance numbers, creating grooves that are funkier, and he even adds a bit of rock with the sleek nocturnal menace of "Running With the Night," one of the best songs here. He doesn't swing for the fences like Michael did in 1982; he makes safe bets, which is more in his character.
But safe bets do pay off, and with Can't Slow Down Richie reaped enormous dividends, earning not just his biggest hit, but his best album. He has less compunction about appearing as a pop singer this time around, which gives the preponderance of smooth ballads -- particularly "Penny Lover," "Hello," and the country-ish "Stuck on You" -- conviction, and the dance songs roll smooth and easy, never pushing the beats too hard and relying more on Richie's melodic hooks than the grooves, which is what helped make "All Night Long (All Night)" a massive hit. Indeed, five of these songs (all the aforementioned tunes) were huge hits, and since the record ran only eight songs, that's an astonishing ration. The short running time does suggest the record's main weakness, one that it shares with many early-'80s LPs -- the songs themselves run on a bit too long, padding out the running length of the entire album. This is only a problem on album tracks like "Love Will Find a Way," which are pleasant but a little tedious at their length, but since there are only three songs that aren't hits, it's a minor problem. All the hits showcase Lionel Richie at his best, as does Can't Slow Down as a whole.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Lionel Richie's birthplace is Tuskegee, Alabama so for his 2012 country duets album, Tuskegee, he is trumpeted as the country boy returning to his roots. And there's something to that: as a songwriter, Richie has had success on the country charts, scoring big with Kenny Rogers of "Lady," one of many Lionel covers Kenny sang over the years. Rogers' enthusiastic embrace of Richie is an indication that the former Commodore's definition of country isn’t quite down-home, and Tuskegee proves that assumption true, with each of Lionel's partners coming from the pop side of Nashville. A few perennials crop up -- Kenny comes in for a revival of "Lady," Willie Nelson stops by to lay some guitar and vocals on "Easy" -- but the point of the album is as much to have current stars pay tribute to Richie as it is to ease him onto country-pop airwaves. Tuskegee winds up being fairly successful in this regard. No matter how many fiddles and steel guitars are added -- and there are never too many -- the songs are never so altered as to be unrecognizable, the melodies are always proudly prominent, and there isn't a speck of dirt to be found anywhere, so it's suited for any clean crossover occasion.
Apart from Pixie Lott -- a singer who has absolutely nothing to do with country -- popping up on the international version of the album and maybe the revival of the recent "Just for You," there are no surprises on Tuskegee; even the partners match up correctly, with Jimmy Buffett adding good times to "All Night Long," Shania Twain playing the Diana Ross role on "Endless Love," Rascal Flatts forcefully pumping out the good cheer on "Dancing on the Ceiling," Blake Shelton smiling along on "You Are." Even if the production has changed -- it’s not as glossy as the '80s, there are fewer keyboards and more guitars-the sensibility remains the same, so Tuskegee generates a bit of de ja vu: the surroundings are new, yet everything feels familiar. Whether that’s a comfortable bit of nostalgia or just a shade too predictable depends entirely on the tastes of the listener.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Truly: The Love Songs is Lionel Richie's second compilation album, released in 1997. The international version included the tracks "My Destiny", "Don't Wanna Lose You", "Ballerina Girl", "Still in Love", and "Oh No". Many of the tracks included on this album were performed with the Commodores.
Lionel Richie's solo career began while he was still in the Commodores, as he wrote and sang (as a duet with Diana Ross) the theme to the Brooke Shields romance Endless Love, which became a bigger hit than any of the group's singles, thereby setting the stage for his departure and his 1982 self-titled solo debut. He wasn't working in unfamiliar territory, or with new musicians. the Commodores decided to work as their own band, so their producer, James Anthony Carmichael, was able to devote his energy to working on Richie's album. Using the pop-crossover ballad style of "Endless Love," "Three Times a Lady," and "Easy" as their template, the duo turned Lionel Richie into a sleek, state-of-the-art record that, at its best, provides some irresistible pop pleasures.
The key to its success -- and the reason it was scorned by some Commodores fans -- is that Richie doesn't even make a pretense of funk here, leaving behind the loose, elastic grooves of his previous bands (a move that makes sense, since his voice never suited that style particularly well), choosing to concentrate on ballads and sparkly mid-tempo pop, peppered with a few stylish dance grooves. The ballads, of course, provided two big hits with "My Love" and "Truly," two numbers that illustrate that he was moving ever-closer to mainstream pop, since these are unapologetic AOR slow-dance tunes. The other big hit, "You Are," is an effervescent, wonderful pop tune that showcases Richie at his sunniest; it's one of his greatest singles. Throughout the first part of the record, the dance numbers are served up and they're very good -- "Serves You Right" has a shiny, propulsive groove, while "Tell Me" jams nicely. After "You Are," the record bogs down with a couple of ballads that are on the wrong side of adult contemporary -- too formless, too hookless to really catch hold -- but they don't hurt the first seven songs, which form a dynamic mainstream pop-soul record, one of the best the early '80s had to offer.
It's the sound of Lionel Richie finding his solo voice, and, the next time out, he knew how to use it even better than he does here. Lionel Richie includes two bonus tracks: a solo demo of "Endless Love" which not only fits perfectly with this record, but is less cloying, and an instrumental of "You Are" whose primary worth is to hear the detail and expertise in the production Richie and Carmichael assembled.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Lionel Richie's eighth studio album as a solo artist is led by "I Call It Love," a lightly buoyant and bittersweet single produced by Swedish hitmakers Stargate, the same team that helped boost Ne-Yo's In My Own Words. It's an ideal match, one that should've been made more than once. Too much of Coming Home is merely pleasant -- particularly the adult contemporary fare, with the exception of "I Love You" -- or too conscious of remaining with the times. While the likes of "Why" and "Up All Night" involved Richie's songwriting in some capacity, just about any twentysomething vocalist could be fronting them; the same goes for the Jermaine Dupri-produced "What You Are." The stab at emotionally cleansing reggae of the Bob Marley variety, "Stand Down," comes up short as well. That said, at least half the album should satisfy Richie's longtime followers.
Words - Andy Kellman
Back to Front is Lionel Richie's compilation album, which was released on May 5, 1992. It was his first compilation album with three new tracks. The international album also included the tracks "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "Stuck on You". It debuted at #1 on the UK Album Chart and spent 12 weeks at number one in the Dutch Album Top 100.
Renaissance is Lionel Richie's sixth studio album, which was released on October 16, 2000. Bonus tracks on international albums include "Shout It To The World", "Just Can't Say Goodbye", and "Angel (Boogieman Extended Remix)." "Tonight" was produced by Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins.
Lionel Richie spent much of the '90s relatively quiet, and when he attempted a comeback toward the end of the decade, it didn't make many waves. It wasn't until the early part of the 2000s that his profile increased considerably as his greatest-hits disc The Definitive Collection cracked the Top 20, he guest-judged on American Idol, and his daughter Nicole tramped around on the Fox reality show The Simple Life. All of this set the stage for Just for You, his 2004 return to adult contemporary soft rock. There are still gentle quiet storm overtones and subdued R&B beats on a few tracks, such as his duet with Daniel Bedingfield, "Do Ya," but the overall approach on this record is firmly within the polished, melodic soft rock that brought Richie to a massive crossover audience in the early '80s, only updated for contemporary radio.
Just for You is a well-crafted record; if anything, it's a little too well crafted, sailing by on its sleek surfaces and carefully constructed songs, leaving it as nothing much more than a collection of romantic, mature mood music. It's effective romantic mood music, though, and after a few plays, a handful of the hooks begin to sink in, even if the songs themselves are never quite as memorable as his hits from the '80s. Nevertheless, this is one of the more appealing records Richie had made in quite some time, as it's both assured and unassuming, relaxed and tuneful. Unlike his '90s records, it's consistent, both in its quality of songs and its cohesive sound, and even if it's not a full-fledged comeback, it's a solid latter-day record that lives up to his legacy.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The album was initially released in the US as a one-disc compilation in February 2003. A limited edition release of the US version included a bonus disc with rare extra tracks. A two-disc edition was released for the International market which collects 38 songs over 20 years. A special edition of the album was released later which includes a DVD selecting highlights throughout this period of Richie's career. The DVD also includes a live performance from Amsterdam and the making of Dancing on the Ceiling (as a hidden extra).