Lionel Richie Shares Hilarious Tale of Writing 'We Are the World' With Michael Jackson

Lionel Richie and Kevin Spacey
Mike Windle/WireImage

Lionel Richie and Kevin Spacey speak onstage during Arts & Ideas: An Evening with Lionel Richie at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 10, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.

Richie looked back on his storied career during a MusiCares discussion with Kevin Spacey.

Grammy Week officially kicked off with a president and a Commodore.

Kevin Spacey, who plays President Frank Underwood on Netflix’s drama House of Cards, interviewed Lionel Richie, former lead singer for the legendary soul group Commodores, Feb. 10 at Beverly Hills’ Wallis Annenberg Center. The evening, billed as Arts & Ideas: Conversations @The Wallis, was presented by MusiCares. Richie will be honored by the Recording Academy’s philanthropic arm, which assists musicians in need of financial and medical aid, Feb. 13 at the annual Person of the Year dinner.

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In a first, MusiCares decided to hold a second event and “create an opportunity for people who might not be able to attend Saturday’s festivities,” said MusiCares Foundation chair Bill Silva. “It’s also a way for more people to take part in Grammy Week.” Tickets for the Richie/Spacey Annenberg event were $50 compared to MusiCares gala tickets, which range from $1,500 to $8,500.

Spacey proved to be a deft and funny interviewer, occasionally lapsing into his excellent Johnny Carson or Christopher Walken impersonations, and he and Richie displayed a warm camaraderie as they walked through Richie’s career, touching on everything from his grandmother unsuccessfully trying to teach him to read music to what his own grandkids call him (“Pop Pop”).

They also touched on Richie’s childhood in Tuskegee, Alabama, a town where The Tuskegee Airmen were heroes who fought for their country in WWII but returned home unable to vote. Richie, 66, got emotional telling the story of how as a 9-year old, he and his father went to Montgomery, Ala., and Richie unwittingly drank from a fountain marked For Whites Only. Some white men confronted his father, who grabbed Richie and ran off. Years later, Richie challenged his father, asking why he didn’t stay and fight. His dad simply answered, “I had a choice: to be a man or be a father.”

Richie met his Commodore bandmates while a freshman at Tuskegee Institute and he revealed how their first gig, at a freshman talent show, changed his life. “The most amazing thing happened,” he said. “Girls started screaming [as I performed]. I was going to be an Episcopal priest, but that girl screamed on the front row and I called the bishop and said I didn’t think I was cut out for the cloth.”

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By the time he was a senior,  The Commodores were opening for the Jackson 5 and each band member was pulling down at least $200,000 per year. What followed was more than a decade of massive hits, including “Easy,” “Three Times A Lady,” “Brickhouse,” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up).” 

Richie called leaving the group to go solo in 1982 “the hardest thing I ever did.” He didn’t intend to leave the band permanently, but after his debut solo album spawned such massive hits as “Truly,” “You Are” and “My Love,” and “the rocket had taken off,” jealousy festered among his bandmates.

Among the most amusing stories, in an evening filled with them, was Richie’s telling of how he and Michael Jackson came to write the phenomenally successful 1985 charity single “We Are The World” for African famine relief. Harry Belafonte had called Richie and asked him why there were “plenty of white folks saving black folks, but not a lot of black folks saving black folks,” Richie says. Richie called Quincy Jones, who was sitting beside Jackson and the two artists decided to write the song (originally, it was going to only be Richie, Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Jones on the single, but Richie’s then-manager, Ken Kragen, corralled the more than 40 artists who participated). “I’m at Michael’s house trying to write ‘We Are The World’ and his dog is barking and his Mynah bird is yelling ‘Shut up’ [repeatedly at the dog]. I see albums falling over. I look again and see more falling over and there’s an albino python [coming toward me]. I will admit I was screaming like a white woman. Michael goes, ‘Oh my God, Lionel. There he is, he wants to play with you.’ I know you want a spiritual tale about how we brought this song you, but that’s how it was for three days.”

Richie, who continues to tour and release albums, played England’s Glastonbury Festival last summer, drawing 100,000, the biggest crowd at the 2015 festival, topping such act as The Who and Kanye West. “I started singing the songs and the audience took over. I sung more songs, they got louder,” he says. “It was karaoke at its finest. It was my best time on stage ever.”

While Richie praised such current acts as The Weeknd, Adele, and Bruno Mars, whom he called “brilliant,” he couldn’t help but get a dig in at the many manufactured acts on radio. With perhaps a selective memory, he said, “When I started, it was creative artists [who] were writing their own songs. Now, the equation has changed. We’re creating artists. Someone asks ‘how did you write that song,’ and they say ‘someone gave it to me’ or ‘I passed that [TV] audition.'”

Among the artists who will be saluting Richie at Feb. 13’s event are Dave Grohl, Rihanna, Ellie Goulding, Chris Stapleton, Lady Antebellum, Luke Bryan, Usher, John Legend, and Stevie Wonder.

2016 Grammys