He has danced on the ceiling. Partied all night long. Asked if he was, by chance, the romantic prospect that you have been in search of. Now Lionel Richie is going next level with All the Hits All Night Long, his first North American tour in a decade, complete with a special pit stop at Bonnaroo on June 14 alongside the likes of Kanye West and Jack White. Before kicking off this leg on May 29 in Vancouver, the 64-year-old Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, who has sold more than 100 million records, rang up EW for a revealing and riotous Q&A in which he dropped knowledge on songwriting, the Middle East, reality TV, the number of times someone can be a lady, and so much more. Truly.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Rounding off to the nearest hundred, how many times a week do your phone calls begin with someone asking, “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
LIONEL RICHIE: A hundred. No, I would say probably 80. Forget phone calls — on the street, friends I know… On my tombstone, it will be reading, “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
And what’s your response?
“Yes.” Or: “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Why take so many years off the road here? Did you only just now finish counting how many hits you have?
Ten years ago, when rap came in really strongly, we took our music and went to Europe and the rest of the world. We kept saying, “Well, when we get a new record, we’ll come back to America…” Meanwhile, rap was getting stronger and stronger, and so pop radio went to another thing, so I said, “Okay, guys, what if we don’t put out another record in America? We can still tour America.” Well, that took 10 years to figure out, okay? And one day I just walked in the door and said, “The hell with it.” … We did a warm-up tour [last fall], just to make sure. We were testing the waters because no one knew after 10 years: Is there going to be an appeal? Is the crowd showing up? I don’t care whether we fail, fall on our face, do whatever we got to do, but I want to know what we’re going to do in America. And of course, the overwhelming response was: Where’s Lionel Richie? Hello, is it me you’re looking for. … We got two-and-a-half hours of show and we have another hour-and-a-half of more songs, so there’s always someone that leaves the show going, “I can’t believe you didn’t play that song!” That’s when I realized how many songs we actually had.
That should be your goal: Always leave someone disappointed.
That’s going to be the name of the next tour, by the way: the I Can’t Believe You Didn’t Play My Song tour.
Are you worried that Bonnaroo is an outdoor festival and there is no ceiling?
No. We did Austin City Limits, we’ve done Hyde Park, we’ve done festivals in Germany. And I’m gonna tell you something, “Dancing on the Ceiling” without the ceiling, that’s even more incredible! Are you kidding me? It’s the next level — come on, baby! “Dancing on the Sky”!
You’re one of the featured performers at Bonnaroo with Kanye West, Jack White, and Elton John. Whose set are you most willing to crash for an impromptu duet?
Well, hey, come on now, I’m ready for any one of them. Are you kidding me? Listen, I know my homework, baby! Just in case they say, “Yo! Lionel, come on stage!,” I’m ready, babes! The easiest one, of course, would be Elton, because I went to school on Elton — I went to college on Elton, so that’s where I started out, but because I’ve been around forever now, Kanye and Jack White, you can’t not know the songs because that’s the business. … I’m pretty much prepared for just about anything. Hopefully, they’ll do something really cool, like let me come on stage and sing my song. That’s when you really did it right: “Hey, yo! Lionel’s on stage! He’ll do ‘All Night Long.’ Thank you very much!” Because it never fails that I will come on stage — it happened to me with Eric Clapton. He called me on stage one night and he said, “Okay, we’re going to do the finale, ‘Knock on Wood,’ Lionel, I’ve got the first verse, you’ve got the second verse.” By that time, they’ve already started the song, I said, “But I don’t know the second verse,” and he started singing the first verse and I said, “But I don’t know the second verse,” so I made up a second verse. And the crowd was going, “Man… were we that high?”
What kind of artisan crafts will you be shopping for at the festival booths? It’s important to have a plan.
Oh, absolutely. I go and get all of the T-shirts of everybody, because I have to have — and I hate to say it like this, but I have to have shirts that I cut up for my car washing. I have to cut ‘em up. And they go, “Dad, what are you doing with the Jack White T-shirt?” and I go, “Well, it’s simple, I gotta wash the car.” Or when I go down south — when I go to Alabama — I am the hippest guy in that: “Dude, where’d you get that T-shirt?”
Is three the maximum number of times that someone can be a lady? Ever seen a woman hit four or even five?
Yes, I have. I can answer that question for you: any lady that has more than three kids. For example, I’ve been to places and she said, “Lionel, I have eight children.” That’s eight times a lady, okay? Because I have three, and we’re about to die with the three we have. I mean, I can’t imagine eight children. You mean eight times a car? Eight times a prom? Eight times a wedding? What are you talking about? You’re going to die!
Characterize the chances of a Commodores reunion using only a Commodores song: “Oh No,” “Easy,” “Turn Off the Lights,” “Wide Open,” or “I’m Ready.”
“Oh No” — only because everything was great until we lost Milan [Williams], the keyboard player, which makes a reunion kind of strange. We’ll always get together as a band for off-and-on things. But I think I lost the spark of that fantasy, of all of us crazy guys on stage.
You wrote “Lady” for Kenny Rogers. Which seemed more unlikely at the time: that the song would go on to hit No. 1 or that he would go on to start Kenny Rogers Roasters?
Well, at the time, I’m… [Laughs] that’s good, that’s very good! I’m going to tell Kenny about this one… Well, the phenomenon was Kenny’s chicken. Kenny Rogers Roasters was a bit out of the box, I must say. If someone had said to me, “Kenny Rogers Chicken,” I would say that would have been more unlikely. I knew the song was going to be great, because when you’re 27-years-old, I mean, gimme a break, everything is great. You have no failures, so it’s perfect.
Your first solo album, Lionel Richie, contains three top five hits, including “You Are.” Were you too busy or too lazy to finish the song title?
If you go back and look at all of my songs, I don’t like long titles. “Still.” “Hello.” “Easy.” “You Are” was too long. It was going to be just “You.” You follow me?
“All Night Long (All Night)” has a nice Caribbean vibe. How does it feel to be responsible for helping estranged couples rediscover each other at Sandals?
If you knew the ridicule I got — in the middle of funk, in the middle of whatever was out there at the time — “Lionel Richie is coming out with a calypso song?” Even my own record company said to me, “Are you out of your mind?” And I said, “Guys, I’ve traveled the world. This is the rhythm that the whole world dances to on vacation.” And to answer your question: Absolutely. I mean, I could take you to Ibiza, I could take you to places — you put that song on, and that song has created more babies after the song — are you kidding me? We have populated the world.
If you’re having a loud party at your house and the cops show up, are you afraid at first that they’re there to bust you, but then suddenly you remember that they’re just going to start twirling their batons and dancing and join in the party?
Well, you saw the video, that’s for sure! [Laughs] If they have the batons out, we’re already in trouble. If they’re dancing up the street, coming up the sidewalk, then we have a different situation. But if they have the batons out and they’re not smiling, we have a problem.
You are crazy popular in Middle Eastern countries. Why? Do you think it’s the mustache?
You know what? Somebody said that to me. Now it’s funny you would say that. Somebody told me over there the mustache and the beard are big items of respect, and I didn’t want to go there — I’m hoping it’s the songs, but honestly, I don’t know what it is. There are places in the world where Western music was considered bad. You can’t play it. And I have been in parts of the world where — this is a true story — I don’t have my credentials to go from one checkpoint to the next checkpoint, and there’s a tank standing in front of us and the guy asks the [driver], “Your papers?” And the [driver] said, “I don’t have the papers.” He said, “Who do you have in the car?” And he said, “Lionel Richie.” He walks around the other side of the car, taps on the glass, I rolled the window down, he pulls down his sunglasses and he goes [singing], “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?” And then he turns around and goes, “It’s Lionel Richie! It’s Lionel Richie!” And the guy comes off the tank and we’re taking pictures! In the middle of the desert! … It was wonderful! But it was at that point that I realized that we were definitely on some different kind of steroids.
The U.S. military told you that Iraqi civilians were playing “All Night Long” when we invaded Baghdad. Did they say whether or not we used Nickelback’s All the Right Reasons to drive out their soldiers?
Oh, you are cruel! Okay, so here’s the real answer — you ready for this? How about: They were playing “All Night Long” as the troops were coming in. That’s from the shop owners’ point of view. You want to hear what the other half was? I met a commander who said they put speakers on top of Humvees. “Dancing on the Ceiling” was being played by the troops. They wanted to make sure that they knew that they were friendly. So [the soldiers] were playing “Dancing on the Ceiling” going in and [the civilians] were playing “All Night Long” when you got there. Is that cool? I’m not running for any public office, by the way. I refuse to run, and no matter whether the world tries to get me involved in public office, I will not be president, thank you very much. (laughs) I will deal with world peace away from the political scene.
You co-wrote “We are the World” with Michael Jackson. If you show up in Africa, do the people immediately hoist you on their shoulders?
I am a member of every tribe in Africa. It is probably one of the most [sighs earnestly]… and I’m saying this sincerely, it’s overwhelming, to the point where Nelson Mandela, Madiba, told me, “You are now a member of every family and every tribe in Africa.” And he was right. I go there and I just must tell you, it’s a welcome home. It’s not like I’m a visitor. I’m home.
Tell us something you probably shouldn’t from the video shoot.
We were sitting there and we’re doing Bob Dylan’s part, and Bob turns to me and Michael and says, “How do you want me to sing it?” And we all looked at each other like “What?” He said, “How do you want me to sing it?” And Stevie [Wonder] said, [imitates Dylan singing] “There’s a choice we’re making…” in Bob’s voice, and Bob says, “Oh, okay, I got it!” Are you kidding me??? Stevie had to show Bob! Or Stevie showing Ray [Charles] where the bathroom was. That was funny. It’s like, “I’ll show you where it is, Ray. Follow me!” And Stevie took Ray by the hand and took him down the hall. And I kept thinking, “What did we just see?”
You share the record for the most consecutive years writing a No. 1 single. Let’s say I’d like to write a No. 1 hit. Gimme three can’t-miss tips.
All right, No. 1 can’t-miss tip: Make sure it’s about love. Don’t go political, okay? Make it anything that has to do with love. Love falls in a couple of categories — I want you, I need you, I lost you, you know? No. 2: Somewhere in the line, use the word forever. That’s No. 2. Forever is a great word, right? And then thirdly, make sure it can apply to a wedding or an engagement or something like that. Got it? Now, you got those three down, you’re at least going to have something that’s going to last for a while. For example, don’t do a title with “2014” in it. Because it’s dead. As soon as 2015 comes, you’re over.
What is your customary way of celebrating a No. 1 hit? Do you call up the artists in the No. 2 through 10 slots, shout “You okay down there????” and then hang up?
No. The real answer is: Immediately you go back in the studio and get another one. Because there’s nothing like being ice cold with a No. 1 record. And remember, they are saying to themselves, “He’ll never get another one, so I’ll let him get past this one, and then we’ll kick his ass.” So what you end up doing is going, “I gotta go back in and get another one.”
You were back at the top of the charts two years ago with Tuskegee, on which you revisited your hits as duets with country artists like Willie Nelson, Jennifer Nettles, and Shania Twain. Which item are we least likely to catch you in: Ten-gallon hat, bolero tie, leather boots, or pick-up truck?
I was thinking you would say “chaps”! Okay, so you left that one off. That’s good…. The 10-gallon hat — I’ll tell you why. So, I’m backstage during the CMA awards and there’s Rascal Flats and the guys, and I said to them, “Hey fellas, do I need cowboy boots and a hat?” And everybody backstage overheard me ask the question and all I heard was “No!!!!” (laughs) It came from every artist who was backstage. They said, “Dude, you walk on stage with a hat and cowboy boots, it’s the end of your career!” Then it came time for us to do the show, and everybody wore Prada, everybody wore Gucci. I kept looking: “Where’s the country stuff?”
You’ve dealt with tragedy in your life. What was it like to find out that your daughter Nicole was going to star on a reality show with Paris Hilton?
Ugh. Just shoot me! Remember, now, she was the first. And so my expectation of that was going to be: disaster. My announcement to my father that I’m joining the Commodores—“We’re the black Beatles and we’re gonna take over the world!”—it sounded just about that insane. Luckily enough, I told my father, “I told you so,” and Nicole and Paris told me later, “I told you so.” But I must tell you, at the time I thought, “This is about the worst thing that could ever happen to a family.”
You’ve written so many timeless love songs. What romantic advice would you give someone? Follow your heart forever… but always get a prenup?
It takes a country preacher to get you in it — and a Beverly Hills lawyer to get you out of it. Or as I say, “Every time I fall in love, I lose a house.” Those two songs will be coming out soon.