Lionel Ritchie He has sold more than 100 million records worldwide making him one of the world’s best-selling artists
Lionel Brockman Richie Jr. was born on June 20th 1949 in Tuskegee, Alabama. He grew up on the campus of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) before his family moved to Illinois where he graduated from Joliet Township High School with a tennis scholarship. Ritchie returned to his old stamping ground in Tuskegee where he graduated with a major in economics before briefly attending Auburn University, but by now his fortunes had changed.
As a freshman at Tuskegee Institute Richie had met the guys who would become the Commodores. The band hit the local club circuit (with Richie as their saxophonist) in Tuskegee, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, before being invited to New York to attend an audition in 1971. Unbeknownst to the band, the audition was for the support slot on the upcoming Jackson 5 tour – they only found out two weeks later when informed that they were successful. They toured with the Jackson 5 for two and a half years; this caught the attention of the legendary Motown Records, which at that time had the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes (with Diana Ross) and Stevie Wonder under its wing.
The Commodores’ first release under Motown was an instrumental dance number called ‘Machine Gun’, which immediately went to No. 7 on the Billboard charts and stayed there for 15 weeks. This was also the title of their first album (1974) and with catchy tracks like ‘Girls Are My Weakness’, ‘I Feel Sanctified’ and ‘Gonna Blow Your Mind’, their funk/soul combination was a success from the off.
1975’s ‘Caught In The Act’ saw the band deliver even stronger material, with Richie’s and (drummer) Walter Orange’s contrasting vocals complementing up tempo funk songs like ‘Slippery When Wet’ and ‘Wide Open’.
‘Caught in the Act’ was released in February 1975 and in October 1975 they released ‘Movin’ On’ an album notable for introducing a more soulful tone to their funk repertoire, the single ‘Sweet Love’ reached No. 5 on the Billboard singles charts.
‘Hot on the Tracks’, released the following year, was still funky but ballads like ‘Just to be close To You’ signalled the direction the band would take in a few years’ time. The band’s self-titled fifth album was released in 1977 along with ‘Commodores Live!’ (1977) featuring shows in Atlanta and Washington DC.
‘Natural High’ (1978) denotes a notable change in their sound and style, slower R&B numbers and a more sophisticated form of funk replaced the up tempo beat on their earlier work, and with the release of monster hit of ‘Three Times A Lady’ The Commodores, and Richie in particular, were now major stars. It wasn’t all plain sailing mind you, the band endured some criticism for their next album ‘Midnight Magic’ (1979) which their fans considered to be watered-down pop.
The beginning of the new decade saw The Commodores continue their prodigious output, with ‘Heroes’ (1980) and ‘In the Pocket’ (1981) best known for the Richie-sung numbers like ‘Lucy’, ‘Why You Wanna Try Me’ and ‘Lady (You Bring Me Up)’.
In the beginning of the 1980’s Richie began to consider a career as a solo artist. He was already penning many of the Commodores’ hit songs and in 1980 he wrote and produced country singer Kenny Rogers’ No. 1 smash hit ‘Lady’ and went on to produce Rogers’ 1981 ‘album Share Your Love’. In the same year Richie sang ‘Endless Love’ with Diana Ross, which became the theme song for the movie of the same name (starring Brooke Shields). ‘Endless Love’ topped the charts for an incredible nine weeks, becoming the most successful single in Motown history.
Richie got to work on recording his first album for Motown, simply titled ‘Lionel Richie’ (1982). It was a huge success reaching No. 3 in the charts and selling over 4 million albums, the single, ‘Truly’, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
His second album ‘Can’t Slow Down’, released the following year, defied expectation. It spent three weeks at No. 1 in the Billboard album chart, 160 weeks (59 consecutive weeks) in the Top 10 and a total of 160 weeks in the Top 200. Unsurprisingly ‘Can’t Slow Down’ won a 1984 Grammy for Album of the Year. The same year Richie was invited to perform at the closing ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he was now a superstar.
‘Can’t Slow Down’ spawned four top ten hits, the most widely-known was the overtly sentimental ‘Hello’ which was accompanied by a notoriously inane video.
In 1985, Richie co-wrote ‘We Are the World’ with Michael Jackson, a charity single which involved 45 music and movie stars to raise money in aid of the famine in Ethiopia. ‘We Are the World’ was 1985’s bestselling single with sales in excess of 20 million copies for which it received three Grammy Awards, an American Music Award and People’s Choice Award.
At the end of 1985, he was on the charts again with ‘Say You, Say Me’, a song recorded for the movie ‘White Nights’ (1985), which starred Russian ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, Helen Mirren and Isabella Rossellini, for which Ritchie won an Oscar. The song was featured on the album ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ (1986) other hits included ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ ‘Ballerina Girl’ and ‘Se La’. The album did well in the charts although nothing like the phenomenal ‘Can’t Slow Down’.
In 1986 his eleven-year marriage to his college sweetheart, Brenda Harvey, began to collapse when Ritchie began dating Diane Alexander. Coinciding with a slower phase in his career he separated from Harvey in 1998 after she attacked both he and Alexander in a hotel for which she was arrested and charged with spousal abuse and assault.
In 1992 Ritchie released ‘Back to Front’ a best-of album with a couple of new tracks. The year before his next release, ‘Louder than Words’ (1996) Ritchie married Alexander.
Subsequent albums ‘Time’ (1998), ‘Renaissance’ (2000) excited little interest. ‘Just for You’ (2004) was notable for the guest appearances of Lenny Kravitz and Daniel Bedingfield. In the same year his marriage to his second wife, with whom Ritchie had a son and daughter, ended in divorce. His 2006 album ‘Coming Home’ sparked some interest as Richie’s adopted daughter, Nicole -reality TV star and aspiring actress- appeared on the music video of the album’s lead single, ‘I Call It Love’.
Richie released ‘Just Go’ in early 2009 and the same year performed at Michael Jackson’s memorial concert. His live appearances are few and far between but guaranteed to sell out. He’s somewhat of a megastar in the Arab world and in recent years has performed in Morocco, Dubai, Qatar and Libya.
In 2012 he released his latest album, Tuskegee, featuring thirteen of his hit-songs performed as duets with a variety of country stars.
Lionel Ritchie remains powerful force in popular music and, at 64 years old, still going strong.