Lionel Richie has reserved a single song for his set at the Recording Academy’s MusiCares Person of the Year gala: “All Night Long.” Otherwise, acts such as Pharrell Williams, Luke Bryan, Stevie Wonder and Demi Lovato are free to pick whatever Richie song they want to perform Feb. 13 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
“The good news is I’m going to wait until the last minute to pick my songs,” Richie says. “The rule I told everyone is, ‘Don’t do it like I did it. Make it yours.’”
Richie’s songbook is a 1970s and ’80s hit parade dominated by ballads like “Hello” and “Truly” and feel-good uptempo chart-toppers led by “Dancing on the Ceiling” and “All Night Long.” His recent career revival was led by the album “Tuskegee,” which debuted at No. 1 in 2012 and featured Richie duetting with a legion of contemporary country singers on his classics. Richie spoke about his writing style, future philanthropy and his upcoming Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood.
While “Tuskegee” is filled with country flavors, musically it shows how unrestricted your songs are in terms of a genre.
From the point I got to Motown, I had the license to go after Paul McCartney and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel, not knowing and not realizing there were R&B and pop departments (at other labels). If I had been at Warner Bros. or Sony, they would have put me in the R&B department, but I was with the biggest crossover company in the business. I credit Skip Miller, who was the head of promotions. He gave me permission to write anything I wanted. “Say You, Say Me” was not a taboo nor was “Three Times a Lady,” a waltz in the middle of the disco era. Radio wasn’t so restricted. We’re in format hell right now, but back then the crazier you were in your writing, the more attention people would pay to you.
You’re being honored for your charitable work with the American Cancer Society, UNICEF, United Negro College Fund and, of course, USA for Africa. How did “We Are the World” affect your own ideas of philanthropy?
“‘We Are the World’ made me understand my responsibility — (it) gave me the clarity to understand we are our brothers’ keeper. I found out we can save a lot of lives, we can make people aware of hunger and discrimination. The second half of my life, I decided, was going to be used to take my celebrity and give back to people who don’t have a voice.
What’s your next step in these efforts?
I’m really going to go full blast with educational programs. I’m concerned that we’re not educating our kids, we’re not prepared as a society to face issues that affect America. My mom was an elementary school principal and my father was a systems analyst, so by having that kind of background, I’m aware of being in a well-informed community and a well-informed society.
Besides touring the world with your All the Hits All Night Long show, you’re starting your first Las Vegas residency April 27. What can you tell us about it?
It’s gonna be All the Hits All Night Long on steroids. All the elements we couldn’t put into the (traveling) show we’re using — the hydraulics and flying from the back of the room. And it will be karaoke at its height. If you want a private concert of me singing to you, this is not your show. You’re coming to hear the loudest version of “Truly”; “Dancing on the Ceiling” is going to be a soccer chant.