Ever-Smiling Pop/R&B/Country Singer Lionel Richie Still Can't Slow Down

Lionel Richie is doing a lot of phoners.

"I'm like, 'What year is it again?'" the 64-year-old singer says one September morning. "They've got me Line 1, Line 3, Line 7. I'm like, 'Hold it, guys, slow down.'"

But slowing down has never been Richie's speed. Not when Can't Slow Down was a No. 1 album for him in 1983, spawning megahits "All Night Long" and "Hello," and not now. Especially not now, when he's been digging into his considerable catalog to flesh out the two-hour set list for "All the Hits — All Night Long," his first full-fledged U.S. tour in many years. Not only does it stop at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on Saturday, but Richie will be the final artist onstage for both weekends of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin's Zilker Park.

As far as that set list goes, Richie admits, lately it's more a matter of what to leave out. The plan calls for the show to reflect his entire career, spending plenty of time on his years in his seminal 1970s funk/R&B group the Commodores as well as his copious solo hits, even 1986 Oscar winner "Say You, Say Me" and "We Are the World," the all-star 1985 famine-relief single Richie co-wrote with his friend Michael Jackson. His current touring band, Richie says, has "come to the table with every possible song I've ever done in my life."

Richie laughs as he recounts, explaining, "Guys, I was 21 years old when I did that song.

"But it's a fabulous problem to have, No. 1," he says. "The second thing is I'm preparing so just in case someone screams out a song, I'll be able to play it. Even I have to go back and remember what the hell I wrote."

Besides being a very personable fellow on the phone, Richie is one of the most accomplished songwriters of the modern era. From 1978 to 1986, a Richie-written composition spent at least one week atop the Billboard singles chart. (The only one he didn't record himself was Kenny Rogers's "Lady.") He has won five Grammys, that Oscar and — even more indicative of his popular appeal — an impressive 19 American Music Awards. In the mid-'80s, the only other solo male singer as ubiquitous on the charts was his former Motown Records labelmate Jackson.

"I remember him when he was the baby," Richie says. "He was the little kid with the tiny leather coat in the corner. We spent a lot of time together; we were very close. That's probably one of the tragedies of my entire career is what happened to Mikey, because he was a sweetheart. He just couldn't get it together, that's all."

Richie's latest trip to No. 1 came just last year with Tuskegee, an album named after his Alabama hometown. He was raised around Tuskegee University (then known as Tuskegee Institute), where his grandmother was a music professor. The school became his alma mater, as Richie's group the Mystics played around campus until they broke up around the same time as another band, the Jays. Both groups shuffled personnel and formed the Commodores, with Richie singing and playing sax.

Tuskegee, the album, is a series of duets between Richie and Nashville A-listers like Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Little Big Town, all singing his hits. A few of his contemporaries like Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers show up, too.

"Those two, I feel like I went to school with both of them; Willie, obviously I missed his class completely," says Richie. "Kenny Rogers I'm sure was in the Commodores; I'm just not sure what position he played."

Tuskegee debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, where it stayed two weeks. According to the RIAA, it took about six weeks to go platinum, but Tuskegee could have been a much different project altogether. Richie says he was originally planning to write an album of new country songs — growing up in Tuskegee, he experienced country music as "the sound­track," he says — but had also been talking to top EDM names like Swedish House Mafia and Tiësto about doing dance-music versions of his tunes. The ideas wound up overlapping: when he started working in Nashville, Richie says, one artist after another would approach him with stories about their youthful experiences with his songs.

"Well, that went on to an epidemic," he recalls. "[All of] Nashville was calling, saying, 'Could I be on the record?' And then what really made it happen was [when] we couldn't figure out how to shut the album off."

It's a little different from what his record company pitched, but Richie sounds satisfied with the result.

"The other proposal that was given to me was, 'Well, Lionel, everybody else has been very successful with this, the Great American Songbook with Rod Stewart,'" he says. "'Why don't you do Gershwin — Lionel does Gershwin, Lionel does Cole Porter?'"

Richie had another idea: "I said, 'Why don't I just do Lionel does Lionel? I'm a songwriter."

Lionel Richie plays on Saturday, October 12, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands, woodlandscenter.org. Gates open at 6 p.m.; Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk opens the show.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray