BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
There are few more pleasant artists to talk to than Lionel Richie.
He’s unfailingly upbeat, lasers in on his interviewer with interest and is never less than candid.
And here’s another thing — he likes being Lionel Richie. As he jokes as soon as he gets on the phone during a day off from his “All the Hits” tour with Mariah Carey (coming to Infinite Energy Arena on Sunday), “Someone asked me, ‘How long is this tour going to last?’ Are you kidding me?! I’ve been on the road since 1973!”
There is much to discuss with the man responsible for some of the most durable songs in the pop-R&B canon — “Brick House,” “Easy,” “Sail On” among his Commodores treasures, “Truly,” “Hello,” “All Night Long (All Night)” from the solo vault — and he is eager to talk.
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Here is what Richie, 68, had to say about his odd-couple tour with Carey (delayed from earlier this year after he underwent a knee procedure), his recently announced selection for the Kennedy Center Honors and his possible judgeship on the “American Idol” reboot.
Q: How is your knee doing?
A: Thank God it was (only) a torn meniscus. It was nothing in the front of the knee, just in the back. It’s clean. I’m doing my full-on workout. I figure if I can run from the left side (of the stage) to the right side, I’m good.
Q: Congratulations on the Kennedy Center Honors. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
A: I gotta tell you, there are some things in life where it catches you so far off guard. I’m so proud of it. It really represents a lifetime body of work. And the others being inducted? Norman Lear, stop right there. I’ve known him my whole life, first as a fan, and then I got to know him. To go in with the class of Norman Lear …
Q: Norman has already said he doesn’t plan to attend the reception. Are you planning to go?
A: I’m going to go. I think that probably in a case like this, this is a time when we are coming apart at the seams as far as what is happening in America as the United States of America. I think as an African-American, it is my place to stand there and show kids behind me that it is possible to reach the heights like this. Whatever I have to deal with, I’ll deal with it. But this is something that needs to be seen by the public. This is a kid from Tuskegee. I was not born in Beverly Hills or raised on a trust fund. I got here by the sweat of my brow and the grace of God, so when you think of what it represents, yeah, I need to go.
Q: I think a lot of people, when they heard about this tour, thought, huh, that’s an interesting pair. So why Mariah?
A: I found that I thrive on the odd couple, and I mean that in a nice way. The most successful tour to date for me was Lionel Richie and Tina Turner (in 1984). If that’s not the odd couple, I don’t know what is! But it’s the idea of the bang for the buck. When Mariah said yes and everyone said, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “The marriage is in the hit records. The marriage is in the opposite in terms of personality.” She’s campy. I’m fun. I told her, bring all of that drama to the show. That’s what her fans are looking for. I don’t want her to tone it down — you have to be Mariah. I’m a fan of hers. My daughter Nicole — I’m a little upset about this — but she had never asked for 300 tickets for her friends across the U.S. to come see ME. But she’s meeting me in Chicago, in Atlanta, in all these cities because she is Mariah crazy. I’m not going to take it personally! But that’s what I was looking for. I want it to create the conversation. Most of my career has been based on the three words “Are you crazy?” When I wrote “All Night Long” — are you crazy? “Sail On” — are you crazy? So this is in the fine tradition of, “Are you crazy?”
Q: Do you see much of each other at the shows?
A: I make sure I see her every night when she comes off stage to tell her she was fantastic. I’m an artist and you have to understand, this is not competitive. I’m pulling for her, she’s pulling for me. We are two artists that are trying to make sure the audience gets exactly what they want from us.
Q: I caught your residency in Las Vegas last year. Would you do it again?
A: We’re going back (to Planet Hollywood) the first two weeks of December (Editor’s note: The shows haven’t been announced yet.) It’s the most fun I ever had to stand still on stage in my life. Everything you always wanted to do that’s difficult to do on tour because you have to pack it up, you could do. And I got to sleep in my bed every night (in Los Angeles). As soon as I say goodnight, I am on the plane. By the time people are having their dinner, I’m home.
Q: I know you can’t talk about your possible future on “American Idol” while negotiations are going on …
A: (Laughs) Oh, you’re going to go there!
Q: But tell me why you want to be a judge and why you think you’d make a good one.
A: I just think the word is experience. It’s being an artist, and if you don’t know anything about artistry, you’re judging a different thing. I’m a 40-year “overnight sensation,” so if anyone thinks you’re gonna spend seven months on TV and pick up at this point, you’re fooling yourself. But you have to have star material. Being a singer does not qualify you as star material. It takes a little more than that.
Q: So you really can’t tell us anything yet about if you’ll be on the show?
A: (Laughs) Keep your fingers crossed!