When Lionel Richie released his second solo album “Can’t Slow Down” more than 30 years ago, it not only reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart and won a Grammy for album of the year. More remarkably, each of the eight tracks was a Top 10 hit. Every single song.
Now, it is those standards -- “Hello,” “All Night Long” -- with which audiences are so familiar that going to his concert is, according to Richie, like going to “karaoke on steroids.”
“You think you’re coming to hear me,” he explained. “I hope you like the people sitting around you because who you’re going to hear for most of the night is them singing. The show is in the audience.”
After wrapping international engagements, Richie is currently on tour for “All The Hits All Night Long” in the U.S. and Canada singing “every possible imaginable song I ever recorded.” Songs that he wrote or co-wrote over the decades despite not knowing how to read or write music. In fact, one of his most famous collaborations was with another musician who could not either: Michael Jackson.
“Neither one of us went near a piano,” Richie said of writing “We Are the World” in just a day and a half. “So the answer was, we hummed that song. That was a hummer. He writes his songs by humming the parts. The beautiful part with writing a song with a pro is the automatic understanding where not to go. There was no wavering. It was just our time of being connected to the universe is the best way I can say it. Because it was not a struggle to get that song. It was just divine guidance if you will.”
Richie’s songs have become known the world over and his music employed in some rather unusual ways. Richie said when U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad in 2003, they played “Dancing on the Ceiling” from loudspeakers atop their tanks, as merchants blared “All Night Long” in a friendly response. China’s minister of education told Richie that schools used his songs to teach their students English.
Perhaps the reason why “this music has seeped into the entire world,” as Richie described, is because the lyrics capture universal feelings which he admitted he didn’t experience until much later.
“I would go to a concert and see people crying in the front row,” he said. “I wrote about somebody’s hardship. I wasn’t going through that pain myself. Somebody else was going through that, I wrote it down. I wrote their story.”
He continued: “Then one day I was going through my own problems. I was going through my own divorce and the loss of my parents and stuff. A guy came to me one day and said, ‘I have some inspirational tapes I want you to listen to.’ And he sent me my albums. And here I am crying to my own music because I’d written the lyrics. It’s just that it didn’t happen to me until then. So I finally felt what those words really meant.”
Perhaps his greatest trials came with the troubles of his daughter Nicole Richie. She was a Hollywood wild child arrested twice for DUI and a reality show star with Paris Hilton. Now Nicole Richie Madden is a very settled wife, mother of two and fashion designer, who even counsels Richie about his two teenagers Miles and Sofia.
“Growing up in Hollywood, is there a counseling service for that? Because if there is, we need to plug into it,” Richie said. “And the only ones who can be the true counselors are the ones who survived it. So Nicole is the best at saying, ‘I know what you’re going through, let me handle it.’ And it’s perfect because she can say it in their language, in their terms.”
Her guidance will be especially helpful while Richie is away from home, on tour until early August. When he returns, he resumes working on two albums. One will be a follow-up to his country album “Tuskegee.” The other is a reworking of Richie melodies put to dance music.
Richie’s own playlist contains a fair amount of country music, along with standards of the R&B and pop world, including The Weeknd and Bruno Mars.
And just as many of those artists are constantly searching for new ways of expression in songwriting, Richie the master balladeer said he still faces his own challenge.
“I have tried, in my 900 years of being in this business, I have tried to find a different way to say ‘I love you,’” he said. “You know what? People don’t want to hear anything else but ‘I love you.’ Now if you’re single, that’s corny. If you’re in love, those are your words. So I have found over the years, it’s just going to be a part of the fiber of growing up. That love happens to be the only thing that doesn’t go out of style. Now if you can make it so it translates forever, in other words, it becomes our song, or becomes the family song, you’ve got show business.”
ABC News’ Brian Fudge contributed to this episode.