Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Vote '22: Lionel Richie

It's hard to believe that the first Top Forty hit that bathetic balladeer Lionel Richie ever appeared on was an instrumental, 1974's "Machine Gun" by the Commodores. Y'all know what his voice sounds like by now, right?

THE SONG: "It was plain to see/That a small town boy like me/Just wasn't your cup of tea/I was/Wishful thinking." I love how Lionel, who grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, learns hard on his country-boy diction in that last word, making it "thanking." "Sail On" is of course a Commodores song rather than a Lionel Richie song, which will become significant later on. 

THE CASE FOR: Lionel Richie was inescapable in the early 1980s: Every last single he released between 1981 and 1987 made the Billboard Top Ten, and he placed nine hits in the Top Five. (The string was broken when he released a single with the country-pop group Alabama, which still made the Top Ten on the country charts.)

This was after he had spent the back half of the 1970s putting out a series of tasty records with the Commodores that ranged from danceable funk to quiet storm. The fulcrum between the two halves of his career was his first "solo" single, the duet of "Endless Love" with Diana Ross, which stayed at Number One for nine weeks in the second half of 1981, surpassing the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie" to become the biggest duet of the rock era. Lionel wrote and produced that one.

THE CASE AGAINST: The Commodores had several songwriters in the group; at first, Lionel Richie was just the one who was responsible for a couple of ballads per album. Eventually, those ballads came to define the band, with "Three Times a Lady" and "Still" both reaching Number One, and eventually pushing Richie into a solo career. There was a snap and a rhythm - not to mention a lyrical detail - to even easy-listening songs like "Easy" and "Sail On," records that were unmistakably recorded by a band. "Easy" even had a honest-to-God guitar solo.

After "Endless Love" blew up, and Richie went out on his own, he left the band behind and began making records that floated on a bed of pillowy strings, with lyrics that were almost self-consciously banal: "You are the sun/You are the rain/That makes my life this foolish game/You need to know/I love you so/And I'll do it all again and again."  No more would anyone wonder what exactly it meant to be easy like a Sunday morning.

I mean, just look at these song titles: "Truly," "You Are," "My Love," "All Night Long," "Hello," "Stuck on You." It takes a real sense of purpose to be that generic. 

In general, I think we are intended to include the work of his signature band when we consider the nomination of a solo artist like Richie. But the Commodores, with hits like "Brick House" and "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" and other songs that he didn't write, had an identity apart from Lionel Richie's work. It wasn't until his very last single with the Commodores, "Oh No," that his work got as anonymous and as easily digestible as his entire solo career would prove to be. That's why I am disinclined to give him full credit for the Commodores material on this ballot.  The Commodores made Lionel Richie so much better than he was as a solo artist. 

THE VERDICT: Lionel Richie's solo work reminds me of Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Everything that might possibly offend anyone has been carefully scrubbed away, so that there isn't the slightest reason for anyone to object to it. But there isn't the slightest reason for anyone to remember it, either. I vote NO for Lionel Richie. I always liked In the Heat of the Night better anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Richie was MASSIVELY popular in the first half of the '80s. Co-wrote "We Are the World," closed the '84 LA Olympics. He's already won more selective honors than the Rock hall - Kennedy Center Honors and the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for Songwriting.