He’s one of the most famous singer-songwriters in America. But Lionel Richie says he can’t read music. The author of such hits as “Easy,” “Endless Love,” “Sail On,” and “Three Times a Lady,” can’t explain how he does it though he landed No. 1 hits on the charts for nine consecutive years.
“I knew what a C-note was,” he says, “but I couldn’t figure this thing out. So, I found the gift. The gift was I can play what I hear, I just can’t read it,” he says.
Richie will be honored with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on May 17 with a star-studded celebration via PBS. Though he has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, he insists he doesn’t write his music alone.
“The songs are all God, I will always say that, because if I told you that I sat there and it just — but it did, it just came out,” he shrugs.
“I’d love to explain to you where and what and how, but I was inspired. I was divinely guided. And I’m here to this day trying to explain how I got here. But it really is quite a ride.”
The ride began when he was a kid living on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute. His dad was a systems analyst for the Army and his mom a teacher.
“Then the Tuskegee Airmen came along,” he recalls. “I must tell you we were born into that group. We were raised by the Tuskegee Airmen on that campus, not knowing how famous they were. And of course, my dad was in the Army, and of course the Army — it was basically a giant military base,” he says.
“My struggle was I grew up on that Tuskegee community. The struggle was I didn’t have to hide from my mom and dad if I did something right or wrong — I had to hide from the whole town. So, you have to understand, the struggle was not getting caught. If you did get caught, you were done, in terms of the whole town knew you were caught, because it was that simple,” he says.
“And more importantly, they set a standard for what we were to be because they knew that we were their hope for the future. And so, they put a very hard standard on us that we didn’t understand as kids.”
Hyperactive as a child, he says he always had trouble paying attention. “Back in the day there was a thing called ADD or ADHD, but we didn’t know what that was. That was just called having a slow part of reading. … I am going to give you the secret to my whole upbringing. If I had to use one phrase that I can remember that kind of serves me well for the rest of my life, is, ‘Lionel, would you like to join the rest of the class?’ In other words, I was NOT in class. I was daydreaming,” he says.
It was only much later that he understood what master those daydreams served.
Richie played the saxophone in school and earned a bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee in — of all things — economics. “I was an accounting minor, which was going to be the boring parts of my life. It was my home,” he says.
“So, I go back to Tuskegee to go to the university, ran into a guy named Thomas McClary, who said, ‘I understand you brought your horn to school. Would you like to be in a talent show?’ The rest is history. From there I fell in love with something I really like to do, having no idea of HOW to do it.”
When he was 19 he joined the band, the Commodores, as a singer-saxophonist. The group eventually was signed by Motown as backup for the Jackson 5.
“I didn’t put the whole puzzle together until I went to Motown and joined Motown and was a signed artist to Motown,” says Richie. “It gave me access to Stevie (Wonder) and to Marvin (Gaye) and Smokey (Robinson). … What I learned from them was: ‘Can you hear it?’ “
At first, Richie says, he was “hearing” purple prose. “When I was first learning how to write or actually starting to write, James Anthony Carmichael was my co-producer. And I came in thinking I would be ever so flowery with my lyrics, and I said, ‘And when the wind blows across the blah, blah, blah,’ and ‘the sea and the air are all’ — He said, ‘Lionel, stop. What are you trying to say?’ I said, ‘I miss her.’ He said, ‘Write that down.’
“And I went to another flowery line. He said, ‘What are you trying to say?’ And I said, ‘And I would love to have her back.’ He said, ‘Write that down.’
“What I found out was that the simplest parts of life are the parts that people gravitate to,” he says.