Lionel Richie is a charmer. It’s something past midnight in LA, but he is eager to chat about his return to South Africa in March.
“Munya, how are you? It’s Lionel.”
He mispronounces my name, but that’s okay because I note that he avoided saying ‘hello’. Also, he’s giggling a lot, easing me into an interview I have been dreading.
“It’s early there where you are and it’s late here. Either you are trying to wake up or you have just woken up,” he says before I have quite grasped that it is really him.
The conversation quickly moves to how I grew up with his music as my parents were, and still are, huge fans of his. He’s fascinated when I point out that we had no TV set when I first heard his music.
“Wow, that’s a great story. What’s happening now is that we’re celebrating three generations of fans in our shows. You get the Bieber group who only have three and we have nailed on three and we think we are doing alright,” he says, sounding satisfied.
It is a rare thing to make cross-generational music and Richie is part of that group which the likes of the late Michael Jackson are in.
“We, the ’70s and ’90s groups, were the last people to do huge simultaneous releases world-wide. That’s one. Two, without the internet, we did more touring than people do today. You had to have the mystique that is not there today. Back then, the only way to see an artist was to go see them. So we had stadium after stadium filled. If you were lucky enough to make a video, like All Night Long or Dancing on the Ceiling, it became pop culture,” he says, sounding a bit melancholic.
“I joined the Commodores because I knew that the girls loved the band. Here I am, 40 years later, and the music and touring is still here, it is still humbling,” he adds.
I wonder if now is a good time to talk about Adele and her hit song Hello, which saw some people tie it to Richie’s classic of the same name. I don’t know how he feels about it and if he is sour, that might kill what could be a great conversation. I bite the bullet and at the mention of her name, he takes over the reins.
“What’s so funny is as soon as she said ‘hello’, everyone says: ‘Oh that’s Lionel Richie’. In other words, certain songs, or words are synonymous with certain artists. If you think of words like ‘hello’, ‘truly’ and ‘easy’ that’s all me. The Hello song sold only because Adele said ‘hello’. But you know, you can’t copyright a word, but when she said ‘hello’, everyone asked me how I felt about that. Every interview she will do for that record, they will ask her: ‘What did Lionel say?’ She has to get permission from my fans to go ahead, otherwise they’d ask her: ‘Why did you use Lionel’s word?’” he says, enjoying my chuckles.
“If you want to see the real impact of what we have done over the decades then come to the show. The crowd takes over when I say ‘hello’. They sing it for me and it has got to the point where I have to ask the fans if I can sing, too. Every time I go on stage, a different city sings it differently. In this crazy world we live in it’s amazing to have those two hours that people don’t care about race or religion – it is just a time for them to have fun,” he added.
One of his biggest successes outside of his own studio albums is being responsible for penning the Grammy-winning single, We Are the World, with Jackson. Richie reflects on the time it happened and what state he was in.
“It was a special song at a special time when the world paid attention. When I played All Night Long at the Olympics, 1.7 billion people were watching TV. That doesn’t happen anymore. I miss the old days. I miss the time where the movie star, the recording artist or the president was a mysterious, iconic person. You didn’t know the flaws, no one talked about that. Now all we want to look for are the flaws and that’s sad because there will never be treasured people again. There’ll be no one like Madiba again. I miss knowing people only for what they do,” he says.
Lionel Richie will perform on the following dates:
March 13: Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban;
March 16: Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, PE;
March 18: Cape Town Stadium;
March 20 and 21: Ticketpro Dome, Joburg.
Info: www.lionelrichie.com. Book at www.bigconcerts.co.za and Computicket.