Something Else! Featured Artist: Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie has made that rarest of comebacks in 2012, and not just because he’s so successfully exploring the country roots inside his own musical muse. He’s actually fashioned a third-act record-selling triumph. With Tuskegee, Richie looks to top the Billboard charts for the first time since 1986, when Dancing on the Ceiling held on to the No. 1 spot for two weeks.

Richie, who debuted last week at No. 2 with this new duet-packed redo project, was outpacing reigning-champ Adele in album sales coming out of the weekend — powered in part by a two-hour CBS special on Friday, ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends in Concert. The show, featuring guests like Tim McGraw, Martina McBride and Kenny Rogers, was the most-watched show on television that night. Billboard figures for the week will be announced on Wednesday.

With this wave of renewed interest in his classic songs, we dug back into some of Lionel Richie’s greatest moments — as a solo artist, with the Commodores and even with another, harder-edged duet partner …

“EASY,” with THE COMMODORES (COMMODORES, 1977): 1976’s “Just To Be Close To You” was a sweet slice of soul balladry by Lionel Richie, but his massive crossover prowess became known by everyone the following year with “Easy.” The feel-good ditty in the summer of ’77, Richie delivers his folksy lines with vigor, seeming to smile the whole way through.

Even back then, you could tell there was a little country in this Tuskegee native, with the line “that’s why I’m easy, easy like Sunday morning” seemingly tailor made for George Jones or Loretta Lynn, not the same band who on the same album gave us sweaty funk standard known as “Brick House.” And so, it’s no surprise he came back to this song when he put together his Tuskegee project of country remakes of his old tunes. In an unmistakable sign of how much Richie values this song, he saved “Easy”” for his most prestigious duet partner on the album, Willie Nelson.

It’s value well placed. The naturally flowing melody, just-right gait and Richie’s committed vocal performance makes this song a timeless classic of contemporary rock. The first of a long string of such classics for Richie. — S. Victor Aaron

“WANDERING STRANGER,” solo (LIONEL RICHIE, 1982): Lionel Richie writes the kind of love songs that tells women what they want to hear and what men wish they could express. His solo debut, released in 1982, is full of them: “Truly,” “My Love,” and “You Are,” to recall just a few.

“Wandering Stranger” is different. Searching, impenetrable, the song finds Richie looking inward, questioning his purpose in life and in love, conceding his insecurities in dealing with either. “I am a wandering stranger, lost and all alone,” he sings. “I am a million miles away.” He doesn’t have any answers; he doesn’t know if he will. Even the one thing he’s been sure of all along—“And I love you, and you love me/Someday we could it make it together”—is cast in doubt.

Richie has said that he wrote “Wandering Stranger” when he was only 21, when the Commodores were just beginning to hit it big. The song was his way of explaining to his family and friends back home in Tuskegee, Alabama about the changes he was going through at the time. 30 years now since it surfaced on record, it continues to hold an air of existential mystique. — Donald Gibson

“HELLO,” solo (CAN’T SLOW DOWN,” 1983): In 1984 I’d just gotten out of college and was having my first adult experiences in the working world. By that I mean: I spent a lot of time in the car, stuck in traffic jams to and from work. So each morning me and my girlfriend got into our lovely maroon 1976 Plymouth Volare for the short drive to her office. This was followed by the much longer drive down to my office, with much sitting in the two-lane parking lot of Massachusetts route 3.

One of the many charms of the Volare (which included the awesome stall after driving through a too-deep puddle of water) was the AM radio. My listening choices were talk radio (sports or politics) and the local pop station. Though not being the biggest fan of pop music, the choice was still an easy one.

Lionel Richie’s “Hello” provides a prime example of one of those songs that gets stuck in time. In the case, stuck in time and place. I remember sitting in traffic in the late afternoon, exhausted from the new workplace responsibilities and exhausted from the Volare’s lack of air conditioning … but buoyed by shimmer of this song. It was the guitar solo. A very jazz-like thing placed in the middle of a love song. At first it seemed kind of out of place, much like how I felt every day at this office…much like how I felt in this new life of mine.

That Volare only lasted another year. Our marriage, which also did not last, went on for ten. I guess it really wasn’t me she was looking for. — Mark Saleski

“BRICK HOUSE,” with ROB ZOMBIE (HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES soundtrack, 2003): What are the chances of me, the resident metal guy at SER, participating in a salute to Lionel Richie? Man that would be almost as crazy as, I don’t know, Lionel Richie doing a duet with Rob Zombie.

Oh … wait a minute. Yes, it happened, believe it or not. For the soundtrack of Rob Zombie’s 2003 horror flick “House of 1,000 Corpses,” the shock rocker recorded a cover of the Commodores’ classic “Brick House” and enlisted the help of original Commodore Richie and rapper Trina. Maybe the most surprising thing about this cover is how much it stays true to the original.

Well, I mean, aside from the porn movie samples that Zombie layered under much of the track. And the creepy kind of atmosphere that he brings to the song. And the distorted guitars on the chorus. And the self-aggrandizing rap from Trina, which the song probably would have been much better without.

I’m joking a little. No, I’m not making it up. All that stuff’s in there, of course, but when you strip away the Rob Zombie-isms, the song is still the same at heart. Zombie doesn’t mess around with the original melody or groove – how could you? I also like the fact that Richie seems to be a willing participant in the insanity. He’s not an afterthought brought in to sing a few lines or backups to lend a little legitimacy to the cover. He’s as much a part of the main vocal as Zombie, and actually sounds like he’s having fun doing it.

It might seem a little strange, but it’s not the first time Zombie has dipped into that era of music. He also covered KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Man” in the late 1990s for another soundtrack. This version is not likely to win over Commodores fans who are probably wondering what the heck Richie was thinking, but it’s a lot of fun, and for a song like this, that’s all that matters. — Fred Phillips

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“SAY YOU, SAY ME,” solo (DANCING ON THE CEILING, 1985): Admittedly I’m not the biggest Lionel Richie fan and I used to not really care for this song. Oddly enough it took watching the animated feature Rio with my 2 year old daughter to give me a new appreciation for the song. While the song is only used briefly in the film it led me to give it another and more thorough listen. Upon listening to the song again, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the song.

Much like Richie’s “Dancing On the Ceiling,” “Say You Say Me” could possibly even be described as a pop rhapsody as it has multiple different parts that sound distinctly different from one another. While it does sound considerably dated today (some might even say it’s mired in the 80s), I’d argue that it’s considerably more musically adventurous than a lot of other material of the same era. There’s a hint of echo on some of Richie’s vocals that actually lend his vocals a little more “oomph.”

All in all it’s an enjoyable song that I’m glad I gave a second chance to. — Perplexio, from DancingAboutArchitecture and The Review Revue

“LOVE WILL FIND A WAY,” solo (CAN’T SLOW DOWN,” 1983): Since his days with the Commodores, Lionel Richie has emerged as a master pop music craftsman. His ability to write a memorable melody combined with lyrics laden with universal appeal is undisputed. By the time he released 1983’s Can’t Slow Down, Richie reigned as the Ballad King—in other words, one who tapped into the 1970s sensitive singer/songwriter movement, but updated it with 80s production values and a healthy dose of R&B. While not technically a hit, the Can’t Slow Down track “Love Will Find a Way” embodies all the qualities that make up a quality Richie song.

The track begins with a steady beat, immediately followed by that scratchy yet subtle guitar riff, along with soft piano. The catchy tempo and jazzy chord changes immediately demand attention, along with Richie’s smooth and warm voice directly addressing the listener: “Are you feeling down and lonely, feeling like you can’t go on: Just remember love will find a way.” Co-written with top session keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, the song finds a slow groove, and Richie rides that groove effortlessly with his sincere delivery. When he croons “I see the tears you cry; I see the pain that’s in your eyes,” he pitches his voice slightly higher to emphasize the emotion and romantic tone of the track.

On the 2003 remastered version of Can’t Slow Down, the “Love Will Find A Way” demo is included, and it’s a fascinating listen. Unlike many “first drafts,” this recording closely matches the final version. The jazz-tinged piano shines through even more, but the drums, guitar riff, and laid-back bass line still function as the song’s backbone. Richie did not double-track his vocals on this take, so one can fully appreciate his phrasing and gift for convincingly evoking emotion and unabashed romanticism. The main difference here is an extended piano solo, which should have been included on the album track. But that final part, where the backup singers chant questions such as “Do you want some joy in your time? Are you trying to find some piece of mind?” allows Richie to ad lib some lines even more than on the final version.

Bizarrely, AllMusic’s review of Can’t Slow Down terms “Love Will Find A Way” album padding, that the track is “pleasant but a little tedious at (its) length.” Yes, the song is the second-longest track on the disc. However, Richie’s subtle yet powerful vocals, along with the sophisticated chord changes, elevate the song from mere “padding” to a “should-have-been hit.” — Kit O’Toole

“EASY,” by FAITH NO MORE (SONGS TO MAKE LOVE TO, 1993): When this Commodores cover first emerged in 1993, few listeners took it too seriously. This is, after all, the “Epic” band with the ridiculous, hammy video and the flopping fish that prompted a later statement that the fish wasn’t harmed, with a lead singer known as much for his purported on-stage shenanigans as for his incredible vocal talents.

It seemed to be just another lark, a purposeful left-turn just to make people shake their heads. The thing is, lead singer Mike Patton’s take on the song is dead-serious — until, that is, right before then-guitarist Jim Martin unleashed his solo, when Patton cut loose with a disgusted, but tension-breaking “EEEWWW.” Such an unlikely thing, and yet it turned on a new generation of otherwise uninterested hard rock listeners to the likes of the Commodores. Faith No More’s fans didn’t all stick around, like most fans of quick-to-rise acts, but the ones who did ended up being the ones who explored the various off ramps Patton chose to explore, both in and out of the band — taking them with him to Zornotopia for a bit, and, some may say, even further, stranger reaches later on when he started his own label and just did whatever the hell he wanted to do.

The man knows no bounds, and “Easy” was just the first true indication of that. — Tom Johnson

“SWEET LOVE,” with THE COMMODORES (MOVIN’ ON, 1976): Long before “Easy” – heck, before “Just to Be Close to You” – there was this, a soaring, churchy paean to sweet, sweet love. Everything changed right here.

“Close” was, in fact, the group’s second Top 10 ballad – while “Easy,” from a year later, would become the Commodores’ highest-charting single to date. But first, there was this – a No. 5 hit in 1976 that set the template for everything that would follow as the Commodores moved from the hard-funk of Walter Orange-sung tunes like “Brick House” toward the chocolate-y smooth stylings of the group’s chart-topping era with Richie at the helm – starting with “Easy” and continuing through 1978’s “Three Times a Lady” and 1979’s “Still,” both of which topped Billboard’s pop singles list.

A fizzy combination of pop, soul and rollicking gospel, this song – like an in-the-moment sermon from a country preacher — memorably stops short just as it seems prepared to truly soar. Richie begins to break it down, ostensibly in an effort connect with anyone who hasn’t found that special someone just yet. Really, what he does is begin to chart a new path for this band, and for himself: “I know it’s been hard, trying to find your way,” Richie says, getting worked up, “but you’ve got to keep searching – hard, day by day. ‘Cause love is the only way!”

When the rest of the Commodores come crashing back in, their path has been inextricably altered. Love, or more specifically love songs, would in fact be the way from then on. – Nick DeRiso

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