Lionel Richie Talks Influences, Legacy and Coming to Terms With Having ‘Never Been Hip’

After 50 years in the business, the singer leaves his mark in the heart of Hollywood when his hands and feet are set in cement.

Lionel Richie will headline a three-night
Alan Silfen Photographer

He had us at “Hello,” and we never can say goodbye to Lionel Richie. He was an American idol almost four decades before the show of that name thought to have him on as a judge for the reboot, which premieres March 11 on ABC. A few days prior, on March 7, he’ll be setting his hands in concrete at the forecourt of the TCL Chinese Theatre — a rare honor for a non-acting musician, although no one should forget that he is an Oscar winner, having picked up the original song award for “Say You, Say Me” (from “White Nights”) in 1986. Now, when the singer’s fans visit the Chinese, forecourt docents can helpfully ask, “Hi … is it this square you’re looking for?”

Variety spoke with Richie about this enviable spate of recognition, along with what kind of advice he’s offering “American Idol” contestants and why he’s set records aside in favor of his “Endless Love”… of touring.

Variety: With the array of career honors you’ve received in recent years, do you feel you’re on a never-ending victory lap?
Lionel Richie: You’re sitting at home some days going, “I wonder what else can possibly happen in my life?” Then all of a sudden you get a phone call about the Kennedy Center Honors, and another one saying, “Guess what? Your hands and feet will be on Hollywood Boulevard.” And I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is going on? Are they trying to make an announcement? Am I leaving town? Is this the farewell?

It’s quite a gamut of kudos. The Kennedy Center Honors are about as hoity-toity as you can get, and the Hollywood handprint honors are about as populist as you can get.
That’s exactly right. My first memory of Hollywood was to go to that spot, and to see all of the famous actors and their hands and feet. And I was the kid in Tuskegee, Alabama, you didn’t want near new concrete. How ironic that, here we are, one hundred years later, and my hands and feet are in something that’s going to stay around for a while.

Which means you’ve stayed around for a while.
I use Frank Sinatra as a perfect example. He went through the hippies, tie dye, protest songs and the Bob Dylans, and at the end of his life, he was still Frank Sinatra. He didn’t have to change his style for his legacy to be cemented. So if the songs stick around — people were engaged and married to my songs — luckily, and I say that with the greatest amount of humility, it stuck. People actually use these songs now as a part of their daily lives. And it’s like fabric. Which is something you can’t get a PR firm to establish for you.

Do you have an awareness of being considered cool after a period in which loving Lionel Richie was, shall we say, not necessarily the key signifier of hip?
I have never been hip in my entire career. I’ve always been popular. And that’s what I’ve been striving for. Back in the day, the Commodores were not the hippest; it was Earth Wind & Fire, it was Ohio Players. And then when I had my solo career, it was Michael Jackson, Prince and George Michael. If you think about the tortoise and the hare, I’m the tortoise. And at some point, I just kind of crawl up the back of the door and go, “I think I win.”

The film “Baby Driver” used “Easy” so often and so effectively, it felt like something had changed. Edgar Wright told Variety that Ansel Elgort, who was 20 at the time he was up for the lead role, picked “Easy” to lip-sync during his audition and blew him away.
I must tell you that I was blown away when I found out that Ansel’s audition with “Easy” was not something that they had scripted in the movie, but they decided to keep it. I loved that. It was a hell of an endorsement from the millennials.

Your last album of new material, “Just Go,” came out in 2009 and, in 2012, you released “Tuskegee,” a collection of duets with country stars, reprising your hits. Since then, it seems you’ve put records on the back burner. Why is that?

Richie with the Commodores, from left, at the AMAs with Stevie Wonder, accepting an Oscar in 1986 for “Say You, Say Me.”
COMMODORES: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock; wonder and richie: DOUG PIZAC/AP/REX/Shutterstock; oscars: photofest

The problem is that, when I get to a show, I can’t play all the damn songs I have already! So to rush a brand new song is not exactly on my front burner. But also, it’s a very unfair business now for songwriters. Until we actually start paying writers again, then there’s really no rush for me to do another album, because I could never get paid back for it. It’s the love of the music, yes, but it’s also the love of making a living. And at the end of recording this album, I owe the record company. If you can never recoup, what’s that all about? So at some point I realized, “I think I’ll just go and tour, and find another route.” That’s where I’ve been for a while.

Being on “American Idol” now, you’re being asked to empathize with struggling artists.
Oy. They are in my face, absolutely!

The business has changed so much since the era that let you thrive. You had a diamond album with 1983’s “Can’t Slow Down,” and 10 million sellers don’t exist anymore. Do you even know what to tell young people today about making it?
Exactly. Now music is “content.” When I see these kids, I tell them, if you’re in this business to get rich, then you need to leave the stage now. The first thing is, you want to love what you’re doing. … When I started, all I was trying to do was get the girls on the campus of Tuskegee University to notice the band. And, of course, five girls screamed and I realized this could be the life for me. But that’s what a 19- to 24-year-old is thinking. It wasn’t until I got to Motown that I realized there’s a business in the music business. It’s being redefined now. And my heart goes out to these [contestants], because I don’t really have a guaranteed landing pad for them at the other end called success. Believe it or not, even when I said yes to “American Idol,” I was thinking: Is there more unique talent? Because, honestly, everybody can sing. But very few people have their own style. And so I was actually pleasantly surprised when I started on “American Idol” that not only is there a ton of talent, but they’re younger than ever. I mean, these kids are 15 and 16, with more attitude than I ever had at 40. They walk out and say “Give me the microphone.” I mean, the Commodores had to talk me into being a lead singer. That’s how shy I was.

And on “Idol,” you have the unenviable task of rejecting untold numbers of hopefuls. Won’t this tarnish your nice guy image?
The nice guy part only works when dealing with fans. When [it comes to] my career, looking for a hit record or show, Mr. Nice Guy goes out the window. So you’re going to see the side that you normally don’t see of Lionel Richie, and the other side of Luke [Bryan] that you normally don’t see, which is how we all evaluate our own careers. We have to be real and honest with these folks and tell ’em, “You know what? You can sing, but you’re not a superstar.” There’s no nice way around that. That’s the part that I had to get used to, because I never had to do this on camera. And I must admit, the first couple of times, it was like, “Oh my God, I don’t necessarily like this position.” … It’s pretty brutal, but that’s what the job requires. I got this far in this business because I ran into some pretty tough cookies. Dick Clark was not an easy instructor, but he knew how to tell you no and encourage at the same time. I like that technique [where] you don’t necessarily feel insulted as much as coached. Humiliation is not the business I’m in. And I think the era of humiliation and disruptive television, where somebody tells you, “You suck! Get off the stage” — America is kind of past that point now.

I got this far in this business because I ran into some pretty rough cookies.”
Lionel Richie

Still, you haven’t really emphasized the more driven side of your personality, which obviously you have …
I remember going to my friends years ago, and saying to them, “You know, guys, am I acting too nice? I think I might change.” Because at that particular time, there was Prince, and I’m thinking, “Prince is not talking to the press. I’m talking to the press. The press knows me, I know them. I know everybody by name.” And I kept saying, “I think I might just change my persona to where I’m going to be mysterious, and I won’t talk to people.” And they all laughed and said, “Lionel, if you change your persona, then someone will absolutely think something is wrong with you.” In other words, you can only be who you are.

In a recent interview, you said, “Being on stage is one big karaoke night.” Should we understand that you really don’t mind if people come to the show and hear themselves more than they hear you?
What is my joy, honestly — I enjoy the whole concept of this — is how the loudest songs of the night are the slow songs. Because the crowd sings “Three Times a Lady.” The crowd sings “Say You, Say Me.” Probably the only song they let me sing to the ending is “Truly.” But other than that, it’s one big, loud festival. They are singing till their lungs fall out, and I just tell people when they come to the show, “I know you came to hear me, but that’s not what’s gonna happen.” And I think that’s a compliment to the artist, because I love it when actually at any point in the song, I can stop singing and they get louder.

You’re maybe the only pop star who ever used one of the most common words in the English language for a song title and took ownership of it — meaning, of course, “Hello.” When Adele came out with her song called “Hello,” there were a lot of people who felt, “Wait, Lionel owns that word.”
Even to this day, if anybody goes near certain phrases — “truly,” “hello”… if you use “all night long” in anything, they go “Oh, that’s Lionel Richie.” “Stuck on you” — that’s my phrase, right? “Brick house”… I kind of found those phrases that people just will say naturally, and “Hello” is that song, for sure. The best one-word killer pickup line in life is that.

Watch a stream of Lionel Richie’s hands and feet ceremony live from the Chinese Theatre starting at 11 a.m. PT.