Lionel Richie was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he was exposed to country, gospel, R&B and classical music in equal parts, creating a musical foundation so strong that it has been able to withstand the industry’s boundaries and barriers throughout his storied career. Young Lionel was a wide-eyed dreamer with a big but vulnerable heart who strived to please his grandmother, a classical pianist whose nod of acceptance meant everything to him. Like many boys, he struggled at times to find his place in a world that could make him feel awkward and out of place.
“Did my grandmother have an influence on me? Absolutely. In fact, every time I play one of those chords, wrapped around a little country vocal, wrapped around a little R&B twinge, that’s the house,” he says. “That’s the lady who lives in that house. I can almost see her face every time I come up with something else new as a song. She’d always ask that question, ‘Now where did that come from?’ Or, ‘Who told you how to do that?’ It’s a part of that air in that house and around that town and in that community. It’s just a part of life.”
Despite the national civil rights battles, Richie felt safe in the nurturing cocoon of the family’s home located on the campus of Tuskegee University (a home he still owns today), where he was taught that anything was possible and failure wasn’t an option. His house served as ground zero for his friends, where food and fellowship were bountiful. “It was wonderful because success really was not due to money; it was due to the fact of warmth and security,” he says. “You knew you were loved not only by your mom and dad and your grandmother, but also the whole town. The whole town adopted you.
“It was a house of laughter and fun and craziness in the midst of some serious moments in history and life,” he says. “It’s just that the kids never knew it. They never taught us prejudice. Even to the day my dad died, I said, ‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me about some of that?’ He said, ‘Because I didn’t want to pass that onto you. Those are my memories. I wanted you to understand that you have no limitations. We had limitations, but you don’t.’ I use that as my mantra when I go forward now.”
Buoyed by this support, he dared to buck the academic traditions surrounding him as a college student to help form the Commodores, plotting and practicing with the group in his Tuskegee basement to become “the black Beatles.” They achieved the seemingly impossible when they landed a major label deal and garnered hits including “Sail On,” “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady” and “Still.”
He eventually left the Commodores and Alabama, embarking on a whirlwind solo career that earned sales of more than 100 million albums, 22 Top 10 hits, five Grammys, an Academy Award for Best Original Song, a Golden Globe and a host of other awards from virtually every other major entertainment organization. He has shaped popular culture as his music has served as the soundtrack of several generations around the world.
His music has remained at the forefront of his fans’ milestone moments – first kisses, first wedding dances, first break-ups and first children. It’s impossible to separate those memories and his music because they are inextricably intertwined. Quite simply, our lives wouldn’t have been the same without his music. “Every Lionel Richie song that I can think of I had a personal experience with – high school homecomings, proms, you name it,” says Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox. “Lionel was always playing in my house. His music always said what we felt and couldn’t express.”