Lionel Richie will receive the Johnny Mercer Award, the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s highest honor, on Thursday night at the induction ceremony in New York. From early fame with the Commodores to finding his own voice, Richie remains a master at crossing genres and embracing unique collaborations. He spoke with Billboard about his musical journey thus far, including the story behind breakthrough hit “Three Times a Lady” and his views on the change in tempo when the music industry went corporate.
The Song Hall also will honor Elvis Costello, Marvin Gaye, Nick Jonas, Tom Petty, Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards, Chip Taylor and Seymour Stein. The B-52s, James Corden, Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff, Jennifer Hudson, Marcus Mumford, Roger McGuinn, Rachel Platten, Sister Sledge, Jussie Smollett and Jon Voight are among the presenters and performers slated to appear.
Secret stash of songs: “My grandmother was a classical piano instructor at Tuskegee University. I grew up in a house and in a neighborhood where Bach and the classicals were just present every day in my home and yet I was born and raised in Alabama, so country music was very much a part of my everyday listening. With ‘Three Times a Lady,’ this was before the days of me having a piano in my own home. So I wrote this song on the university campus. It’s funny how I started writing things. I didn’t only write things for the Commodores. I also would write songs with somebody in mind, who I thought could sing it… and I thought Sinatra. Back in the day I would find someone else. Remember, we were a funk, party band from Alabama competing against the Ohio Players, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire. So a waltz was nothing close to what we needed at the time. But when my co-producer James Carmichael learned that I had this secret stash of songs, what he said to me was, ‘Let’s go back and see what you’ve written for other people.’ And I played him ‘Three Times a Lady’ and said I want to give this to Sinatra. And he said, no you won’t, you’re going to give this to the Commodores.”
Once, twice: “When I wrote ‘Three Times a Lady’ the inspiration came from, and this is the joke of the family… my father. He’s a very warm and huggy guy any way, but one day he decided to get up and make a toast to my mom, about how he felt about her. It was just out of the blue — I don’t think it was a birthday. I always say when a man makes a statement in the middle of nothing, there’s no special occasion, he’s guilty for something [laughs]. My sister and I looked at my dad and said, ‘Dad, are you OK?’ He said, ‘She’s a great lady, she’s a great mother, and she’s a great friend.’ And I thought that was a great little toast, so I wrote basically this waltz — it wasn’t considered an R&B song. Well, it now becomes a hit around the world, it’s our first Commodores smash record and I went on Johnny Carson to explain that basically it came from my father’s toast. And that part of the story was that you can never really repay your parents for all they’ve done for you. And my dad after that called me and said, ‘Son I saw your interview with Johnny Carson,’ and he said, ‘I was very touched by the fact that you said you can never repay your parents for all they’ve done for you. But let me ask you a question, Would you try? Would you try to repay your parents as much as possible?’ [laughs] So when the royalty check came out he was looking for his check… I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to pay him off for ‘Three Times a Lady.’”
Theory Is overrated: “I didn’t know I was a writer. I thought you had to be able to read and write music and understand theory before you could write songs like that and then as I got into Motown, I realized probably half of the great writers there couldn’t read or write music. Once I got that permission, if you will, it set me free from the standpoint of technically trying to write the notes down. And we met James Carmichael, who was a master arranger at Motown, and it was just very easy to translate that to the record. The beautiful thing about it was, I think by not knowing so much theory, it set me free from the rules. I didn’t know there was an R&B chart, and a classical chart and a pop chart. When I was writing I thought I was competing against the ‘music business.’ Motown didn’t have a pop department and an R&B department — we just had Motown.”
When music went corporate: “We went thought an incredible period, a period in the music business where we did 20 years of hit music back to back. For 20 years we had just no problem, here’s the next record. Then there was a period where corporate America discovered the music business, and they started buying up all of the record companies, and putting them under one tent. When we went thought that period and Motown was sold and it became PolyGram, and then Polydor and then Mercury and it went through Universal. It was going through so many different name changes. Just imagine, I had the same promotional team for 20 years. Were they ready to go with the next single? Of course! It was basically simultaneous release around the world. You dropped ‘Three Times a Lady’ on Monday, it was in every country on Thursday. That’s just how it worked. Then we went through a period where we blurred the lines a lot. And now we’re back to regional releases so you’ll have a hit in London, maybe it’s a hit in Germany.”
The opposite of “Hello”: During that time, I wrote a song that’s the opposite of ‘Hello,’ which is ‘Goodbye.’ I lost my mom and my dad and my grandmother in that period of time and I never really write the goodbye song so at one point I sat down and wrote Goodbye [sometime around 2005]. It was probably one of the hardest songs I’ve ever had to write in my life. It was about, saying goodbye. You’ve had a great life, you share the memories, you appreciate all of the joys and the events that you’ve done and you’re basically saying goodbye to a person you spent a lifetime with. It is one of those songs I was so excited about, and of course during that period of time they sold the company again and the song was never really heard. It was never released as a single, and the album got lost. It came in and it went out. At that time it was more important that they acquired a label than to put out the music.”