Lionel Richie is back on the charts -- The singer leaves the heartache and healing behind him

Los Angeles, everybody knows, is the place to spot celebrities. But at S.I.R. Studios, a deceptively inconspicuous major Hollywood recording facility that looks like a rundown auto parts warehouse, a door opens and out steps a man you’d swear was a celebrity ghost. We all know his quizzical face. It peered at us, eager and a little bit puzzled, from record covers in the ’70s, when he sold untold millions of albums as lead singer of the Commodores, and in the ’80s, when he sold untold millions more as a solo balladeer with easy hits like ”Say You, Say Me.”

But until this year, Lionel Richie hadn’t released an album since…my God, was it 1986? As the restless pop-music world measures time, that could just as well have been before Noah’s flood. He hadn’t meant to disappear; in 1987, when he finished his last major tour, he just figured he’d take a peaceful year off. Then in June 1988 his wife, Brenda, found him in a clinch with another woman at 2 a.m. on a Beverly Hills street and got arrested after starting a screaming brawl. The police said they found her in the other woman’s apartment, with blood on the floor and walls (the police have never said whose it was). With his personal life falling apart, Richie stretched his year off into two and kept stretching more; after he’d been away five years, you had to wonder whether he’d fallen clean off the earth.

Richie hadn’t, of course, and this year, at age 43, he finally began a careful comeback, releasing a greatest-hits album that (just as a swimmer might dip a cautious toe in uncertain water before plunging in) also offers three new songs. At first he wouldn’t talk to the press. But when one of those new songs — a fluid little number called ”Do It to Me” — became a respectable pop success and an outright R&B smash, Richie suddenly had success to talk about. So that’s no ghost haunting S.I.R. Studios.

”I felt so exposed,” he says of the recent past, ”because this is a Southern guy you’re talking to, not a city guy. And when I say exposed, I wanted to go back and close the door and get myself together. My insides were visibly on my outside, and I had to do something I’d never done before. I had to deal with it.”

So what happened for five years? The key question, it turns out, is what happened for the years before that, when he lived in what he now calls a ”fairy tale,” all the years since 1968 when ”I walked into college,” he says, ”and met these guys called the Commodores.” We’ve retreated to a subdued, almost darkened back room at S.I.R., where Richie sits erect and alert on a stool, seeming half like the confident power figure he used to be — he leans forward often, taking his visitor into his confidence with a quick tap on the knee — and half like an obedient schoolkid, politely waiting for someone to ask him something before he’ll presume to speak.

So five years ago some emotional bills began coming due? He readily agrees, his voice all at once hushed: ”It’s called years of saying I’ll get to that later, put that off for now, you know the Grammys are coming up Thursday, I don’t want to deal with that now.”

One thing he didn’t want to deal with was his stormy 17-year marriage. Another was how out of touch he’d gotten with his Tuskegee, Ala., family. A third — but here he can’t quite get his thought started, hesitating and stumbling over words as he finally calls himself an ”on-the-edge, fri-frightened, talented kid.” The kid who learned music by ear says he got nervous near people who were musically trained, but he must have had other anxieties lying in wait below that. At recording sessions for his biggest hits, after all, his coproducer would ask, ”Lionel, could you hum the violin solo to the musicians,” and he could, easily — yet still (as he relates almost in a whisper) he’d be afraid even a friend like Quincy Jones would suddenly ”turn around and say, ‘Kid, what are you doing?”’

All that anxiety couldn’t have done his relationship with Brenda any good. His wife, who advised him on his business affairs, also managed him: ”Brenda’s major in college was psychology,” Richie says, with rueful appreciation, ”and I was her only patient.” The showdown in Beverly Hills put the first touch of scandal on Richie’s Boy Scout-clean public image, and it seemed to open a Pandora’s box of heartache. In 1990 his father — Lyonel Sr., a former Army colonel, the patriarch of his family — had a heart attack and died. And after Richie developed a condition that’s a singer’s nightmare, polyps on a vocal cord, his doctor told him he needed throat surgery and might never sing again.

When he remembers how for two years his throat condition was so critical he couldn’t even ”hum out of nervousness,” he gains energy in bursts: ”I couldn’t sing along with tapes while” — he snaps his fingers — ”I drove my car!” Snap! ”Lionel Richie not having the tape recorder on means I’m not driving my car!”

Ask him about the scandal, though, and he answers with the emphatic certainty of someone who expected the question and knows exactly what his answer has to be: ”So we had an argument! (Hardly their first, he willingly adds.) But in a public place. And somebody called the police!”

Then out comes a version of the story that, though Richie doesn’t seem to realize it, contradicts some of what was published not just in the tabs but also in the respectable press. No, the woman he was hugging, Diane Alexander, then a 22-year-old actress and model, was not his girlfriend. No, Brenda, then 35, never kicked him in the crotch. No, Brenda didn’t knock Alexander down. What she did do, big mistake, was say a few juicy words to the cops, who got mad, arrested her, and then — says Richie — exaggerated to the press what had happened.

Now that’s a charge nobody, not even Richie, ever publicly made before. But Richie repeats it, with even more conviction, in a later phone conversation. He struggles to maintain his composure, though, and it’s clear that, even though he’d like to put the whole affair behind him, he’s willing to risk reigniting it to clear Brenda’s record. It’s not widely known, but he and his wife didn’t break up after their public fight; they went home and made breakfast the next morning, just like any other quarreling couple. They stayed together throughout Richie’s troubles and separated only in 1990. Now, with divorce pending and the couple sharing custody of their 10-year-old daughter, Nicole, Richie calls his ex-wife ”my best friend.”

His plague years finally ended around the start of 1990, when his dreaded throat surgery was successfully performed and his doctor told him he could sing again. Snap! ”From that moment on, I never stopped singing!” When Richie recorded his three new songs, says their enthusiastic producer, Stewart Levine, he laughed ”like a little kid in a playpen.” And Richie soberly says, he’s not nervous any more. Subtract the blaring publicity that kept reopening his wounds, and, as he recalls with calm relief, he went through a process ”like, if you will, group therapy. You realize everybody in the world is going through the same struggle.”

To remodel the business side of his act Richie hired a notable manager, Freddy DeMann, a target of media curiosity in his own right after Madonna named him factotum of her infant media empire. DeMann, who wouldn’t speak about Richie, helped him pace his step-by-step reentry into the music business and negotiated a major upcoming change: Richie will soon leave Motown Records, his longtime home and one of the last remaining independent labels, for an all-but-signed, multimillion-dollar deal with PolyGram, the international giant that distributes Motown’s product. Motown’s president, Jheryl Busby, says he even offered Richie a piece of the company if he’d stay. But Richie — who, smooth as any congressman, evades comment by praising both sides — may have left for a simple strategic reason: Motown got him hot on R&B radio, but PolyGram’s Mercury label can relight his fire in the mainstream pop world as well.

So a familiar face reenlists in the war for pop stardom. And yes, Richie does sound like a kid in a playpen. He chortles over anyone’s surprise that ”Do It to Me” has sexy lyrics. ”Hey,” he says, gleefully, ”with the Commodores we wrote ‘Brick House’ and ’34-24-36.’ I came from a bar band!”

But if he’s rash enough to rouse his bar band spunk, maybe he’ll try something else: Maybe he’ll write songs about the frightened kid he used to bury inside himself. That’s his deepest truth — and he just might forge it into an album more heartfelt than anything he ever recorded before.