Newsmaker: Lionel Richie

The mustachioed hitmaker reaffirmed his popularity this week when he was announced as a headliner at this year’s Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix concerts.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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There aren't many people on the planet who could reduce Rihanna to a comparative footnote in a musical discussion. Lionel Richie is one of them, as he did earlier this week, when he was revealed as the final confirmation of three major acts performing an after-race concert at the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November.

That he appears on the same billing as the electronic-dance act The Chemical Brothers and R&B star Rihanna, as the Saturday-night headliner, certainly confirms his enduring appeal. But then this is the man credited with helping Nelson Mandela get through 27 years in prison, who co-wrote We Are the World with Michael Jackson and whose song All Night Long (All Night) was playing on the streets of Baghdad the night American troops invaded in 2003.

The 67-year-old soul crooner, who first warbled into a microphone on stage almost half a century ago, has come a long way since disappearing from the public gaze and becoming better known as “Nicole Richie’s dad” a decade ago.

With more than 100 million album sales under his belt, four Grammys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar, the singer, composer and songwriter is still going strong at a time when most would be thinking about retiring or spending time with the grandchildren (of which he has two).

But the world might have been deprived of the hitmaker behind such classics as Dancing on the Ceiling and Hello if he had followed his first two passions in life, tennis and religion.

The young Richie entertained thoughts of joining the priesthood and also won a tennis scholarship to university, where he was studying to be an accountant, but dropped out to form a band – much to the chagrin of his father, Lionel Sr.

It was while performing in his university band, he recalled in Esquire magazine, that "one girl screamed from the front row: 'Sing it, baby.' I called up the ministers and said: 'I don't think I'm going to be priest material.'"

Some might say it was inevitable he would break away to carve his own path on the stage.

He was born on June 20, 1949, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the birthplace of civil-rights activist Rosa Parks. The son of a military man and a teacher, Richie was surrounded by music from an early age. His grandmother, Adelaide Foster, was a classical pianist, and the community he grew up in was “a bubble”, with rhythm and blues, jazz and a gospel choir.

While strolling across campus at Tuskegee Institute carrying a saxophone, he was approached by members of a university group called the Mystics, who asked him if he could play. He joined the band, which later merged with a rival group, the Jays, to form the Commodores in 1968. Legend has it the name was picked after rhythm guitarist William King opened a dictionary at random. "We almost became the Commodes," he later joked. The band became a success while they were still at university, raking in US$200,000 for each of the members with hits such as Easy, Brick House and Three Times a Lady.

It was enough for Richie to quit his studies, although his father was unimpressed. "I'm sitting there with an Afro and mile-high platform shoes, standing by five other guys in platform shoes, saying: 'Dad, I'm quitting school in my second semester of my senior year. We're the black Beatles, Dad. We want to take over the world.' I can't even describe the words my father used," Richie recalled in The Telegraph.

When the Commodores were chosen to support the Jackson 5 on tour, it was the start of a lifelong friendship between Richie and Jackson, and attracted the attention of Motown Records, which signed them in 1972.

The following decade was hugely successful, producing numerous Top 10 soul and funk hits, but tensions caused a rift in the band, and Richie, then co-lead singer, left in 1982 to pursue a solo career. By then, he was already a songwriter for the likes of Kenny Rogers and had penned the Diana Ross duet Endless Love.

It was an instant hit, the bestselling single of Ross's career, and sailed to No 1 in the Billboard charts, where it stayed for nine weeks, earning Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy nominations as the theme song for the film of the same name. Three decades on, it was named the best duet of all time by Billboard magazine.

The 1980s marked a creative period in Richie's solo career, with such hits as the Caribbean-influenced All Night Long (All Night) (although by his own admission, the lyrics were gibberish), Hello and Say You, Say Me.

Hello nearly didn't make it to vinyl because even Richie thought it was too cheesy. He recalled his producer James Carmichael arriving at his house for a songwriting session: "As he turned the corner to come into the room, I turned to him and said: 'Hello, is it me you're looking for?' He said: 'Finish that song.' I kept saying to him: 'I was just joking.' So I actually went in writing this song thinking it was corny."

His ability to produce timeless classics that survive for decades is, he says, down to speaking to the everyman and using common, instantly recognisable phrases. "You find songs that relate to everyday living," he told American Songwriter in 2012. "You find titles that, if it's 1960, 1980, 1990, 2090, I don't think they're going to change too much from there. Easy is going to work just fine. Three Times a Lady will still be working. In other words, love will never go out of style.

“Kenny Rogers is the one that said: ‘If you find out the right phrase that they keep repeating over again, then that’s called your song forever.’ Sinatra told me the same thing.”

Continuing interest in his career is due in no small part to his popularity in the Middle East, after he faded from the public eye for more than a decade. By 1987, he was exhausted, and his elderly father was sick, so he took time out. His father died in 1990, and Richie's subsequent albums Louder Than Words and Time failed to make an impact.

At the same time, his personal life descended into chaos. While he has become adept at encapsulating the idea of never-ending romance in his lyrics, he has struggled to find it himself. He was married for 17 years to his college sweetheart Brenda Harvey (they adopted The Simple Life reality star and House of Harlow 1960 fashion designer Nicole, the daughter of one of Richie's band, as a child). But it ended in an acrimonious divorce when Harvey caught him with his stage dancer Diane Alexander in 1988, and she was arrested for assault.

In 1995, two years after the divorce, Richie married Alexander, but their relationship also floundered and ended in another expensive divorce. Alexander, the mother of their children Miles, 22, and Sofia, 18, famously insisted on a payout of $1.3 million a year to cover her plastic surgery and shopping expenses.

"The respondent and I had an extraordinary, extravagant lifestyle," she revealed in divorce petition papers. Even Richie, who is worth more than $260m, had to concede the numbers were "astronomical". It prompted the song Ball and Chain with anguished lyrics: "Everything about this love is all going wrong… I think maybe the price of this love is too high to pay."

It marked a decade horribilis for Richie, in which he also faced the prospect of losing his singing voice when a polyp was discovered on his larynx and his daughter Nicole went off the rails, with rumoured anorexia and arrests. But as his second marriage was failing, he suddenly found himself in demand again and back on the road on tour.

I Call It Love from his 2006 album Coming Home was his biggest American hit in a decade, a comeback helped by success in the Arab world. Quite why the Middle East has embraced his dance-floor classics so wholeheartedly is something of a mystery, but ABC News reported in 2006 that "grown Iraqi men get misty-eyed by the mere mention of his name".

In addition to Iraqis playing All Night Long (All Night) in the streets on ghetto blasters when American tanks rolled into Baghdad, in Erbil, poets have celebrated Richie's songs with creative interpretations of his works. He has performed in Morocco, the UAE, Egypt and, controversially, for Colonel Qaddafi in Libya in 2006.

His worldwide All the Hits, All Night Long tour brought him to Dubai in 2014. But it was performing before a crowd of 120,000 at Glastonbury Festival last year that really marked his triumphant return, leaving him "overwhelmed" at his reception and sending his 2003 album Lionel Richie: The Definitive Collection to the top of the British album charts. It encapsulates his extraordinary global reach.

Meanwhile, his personal life has entered a period of calm. After a stint in rehab, Nicole married Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden, with whom she has two children. Richie is now keen to give Miles and Sofia the firm grounding in reality that Nicole was perhaps lacking when she was growing up, despite their life of privilege and celebrity entourage (Sofia was most recently dating Justin Bieber).

Sofia told the Evening Standard: "He grew up in a small house and they didn't have much so he is like: 'You guys are way more blessed than I was.' We go back to Alabama all the time. He still has the same house that he grew up in."

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