The Vault of Soul: Lionel Richie

An orange and purple tie dye design with Lionel Richie lyrics overlayed. In the center, there is a black rectangle with white text reading "Lionel Richie," and an illustration of Lionel Richie's face is mirrored to the left and right.
Graphics by Riley Vecchione

Lionel Richie is turning 75 this year (just like we are!) and we’re celebrating with a special birthday edition of the Vault of Soul. If you haven’t been following along, each week of Black Music Month, we’ve opened the 88.9 Vault of Soul with profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to read about how Lionel Richie continues to spark influence, from the ’80s to today. 


By Avieana Rivera, Music Coordinator


Lionel Richie was born on June 20th, 1949 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Growing up, his father worked as a stem analyst for the U.S. Army and his mother was an educator. Richie was raised on the campus of Tuskegee Institute, where his grandfather had worked alongside the college’s founder, Booker T. Washington, who later gifted the home to their family. Richie’s grandmother, Adelaide Mary Brown, taught him how to play the piano and introduced him to classic composers. It was then when he developed a diverse music taste, ranging from classical compositions, to rhythm and blues. 



This music taste would serve him well throughout his time at Tuskegee Institute, where he eventually enrolled as an undergraduate. It was there where he met Thomas McClary and William King. Together, they formed their band the Mystics, where Richie played the saxophone. The Mystics later combined with another student band called the Jays. This added members Andre Callahan, Michael Gilbert and Milan Williams, and solidified the formation of Commodores. They started off playing local gigs at fraternities. They shuffled through a few different band members before Richie got his turn in the spotlight as a lead singer. Eventually, Commodores landed a deal with Atlantic Records, however it wasn’t until they switched over to Motown Records that their music started taking off. With Motown, Commodores were able to open for the Jackson 5, and soon after release their debut album Machine Gun. Throughout their ’80s reign, Commodores heavily influenced the music scene, blending funk and soul music into their own sound, and doing it time and time again. Lionel Richie was a big part of this, as his voice, lyrics and image permeated the band’s image.



In 1982, after almost a decade of hits, the band decided to take a hiatus. It was during this time that Lionel Richie was encouraged by the label and other members of the band to record a solo album. His self-titled, debut album was released in October of that year, and was a massive success, selling 4 million copies and containing three hit singles. It also won him his first Grammy: Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for the song “Truly.” This success led him to pursue a solo career, being the first member to leave the band. His second album, Can't Slow Down, fittingly came only a year later, and was an even bigger hit than the first. The album sold over double what the previous had, and earned Richie two Grammy nominations. This massive break at the start of the decade painted Richie as a pivotal figure in the ’80s. His voice defined a generation, and his songs were loved for decades to come. He would go on to release nine more studio albums and start a family, eventually learning to slow down along the way. Nowadays, Richie works as a judge on American Idol, gifting his wisdom to a younger generation of musicians. 



While he was still with the Commodores, Richie honed his skills as a songwriter, not only for the band, but also for other artists. Some of his most notable songs written during this time were “Happy People,” which he gave to The Temptations, and “Lady,” which he gave to Kenny Rogers. 

Richie also had a lot of his songs appear in films. His song “Say You, Say Me” was written for the 1985 film White Nights, and won Richie his first and only Academy Award. In 1981, Richie collaborated with Diana Ross on the title song for the film Endless Love. This song was a huge success, and would later become one of Motown’s biggest hits. It was nominated for a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe award. The pair worked together again on “Missing You,” a song that Richie wrote and produced for Ross. In an interview, Richie attributed his songwriting success to God, calling Him his co-composer. Richie maintains that he is simple the middle-man, and that God is the one telling him what to write. 







  • Grammy Award, Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, “Truly” (1983)
  • Grammy Award, Album of the Year, Can’t Slow Down, (1985)
  • Grammy Award, Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (1985)
  • Grammy Award, Song of the Year, “We are the World” (1986)
  • Academy Award, Best Original Song, “White Nights” (1986)
  • Golden Globe Award, Best Original Song, “White Nights” (1986)
  • American Music Award, Favorite Soul/R&B Single “All Night Long (All Night)” (1984)
  • American Music Award, Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist (1985) 
  • American Music Award, Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist (1987) 
  • BET Lifetime Achievement Award (2014)
  • Berklee College of Music, Honorary Doctorate 



“TRULY” (1982)

“Truly” is the first taste fans ever got of Lionel Richie as a solo artist. The song came as the debut single off of his debut album, Lionel Richie. “Truly” went number one on the Billboard charts in just a month, and proved to Richie that he could have a successful solo career. The song starts off slowly, showcasing Richie’s stellar vocals and highlighting his lyrical genius. The song takes off to a steady pace, building an almost jazzy tune while maintaining a classic ballad feel. The mix of strings in the background and the clear pitch of Richie’s vocals makes it feel like he’s singing this love song directly to you. Finally, the song erupts as Richie bels out an impressive high note, before ending as fast as it begun. This song is catchy, and there’s no wondering why fans loved (and continue to love) it as much as they did. 


“HELLO” (1984)

“Hello” was a single off of Richie’s second album, Can’t Slow Down. The song went number one on three Billboard charts, and features the iconic line “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” The powerhouse ballad tells the story of unrequited love. The music video for “Hello” features Richie as an art teacher, who falls in love with a blind student. In the video he follows her around and sings to her as she goes about her school day. Eventually, he realizes that the student feels the same way after she makes a sculpture of his head in class. The song, however, does not share this resolution, ending in a lonely “Hello?”



“We are the World” was a charity single written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and recorded by a supergroup under the name USA for Africa. The song was written in order to raise money for famine relief in Africa and did just that. The group consisted of Richie, Jackson, Kenny Rogers, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, James Ingram, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Bruce Perry, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, Kim Carnes, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, and Diana Ross. The song alone raised over $60 million for famine relief  with more money raised from merchandise and promotions. It “We are the World” was the first song ever certified multi-platinum. It later won three Grammy Awards, one American Music Award, and a People's Choice Award.

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