When Lionel Richie presented the Ahmet Ertegun Award to Clarence Avant during an expletive-laced speech at the 2021 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, who could have guessed he’d be on the ballot for the first time a little more than three months later?
Of course, Richie is an eyebrow-raiser for purists. The Tuskegee, Ala., native made his star in the R&B and MOR pop worlds, starting with the Commodores at Motown and setting up an enormously successful solo career that made him a major ’80s artist. And while he’s had up-tempo moments like the Commodores’ “Brick House” and the solo party anthem “All Night Long (All Night),” Richie’s main merit is as a contemporary crooner, bringing on the swoon with the likes of “Easy,” “Still,” “Endless Love” (with Diana Ross), “Hello,” “Penny Lover,” “Truly,” “Stuck on You” and … well, you get it.
And being an American Idol judge for several seasons doesn’t exactly engender great rock ‘n’ roll cred.
So Richie would seem a hard sell for the Hall, despite having a daughter (Nicole Richie) married to Good Charlotte‘s Joel Madden and despite enjoying the company of Kid Rock, who brought a cake onstage for Richie’s 65th birthday concert in suburban Detroit. And, lest we forget, the “Lady” man also popped up in Foo Fighters’ Studio 666 film. From the fringes, however, is the track record of an undeniably enormous star — one who may just fit the Rock Hall’s ever-expanding embrace for reasons like these five.
He’s Got a “Brick House” of Hits (and Other Honors)
With the Commodores and on his own, there’s no questioning Richie’s track record of album sales and hit singles. He’s sold more than 100 million records worldwide and, as a solo artist, has notched 13 Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100; one of those, “Say You, Say Me,” from the 1985 film White Nights, won Academy and Golden Globe awards for Best Original Song. He was also the first artist to receive a Diamond Award from the Recording Industry Association of America, commemorating sales of more than 10 million copies of his 1983 album, Can’t Slow Down. He received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Johnny Mercer Award in 2016 and a Kennedy Center Honor the following year, among other laurels.
He Has Friends in Rock’s High Places
Richie has demonstrated he knows whom to call when he needs to inject a little rock flavor into his music. That’s Toto‘s Steve Lukather wailing on Richie’s 1983 hit “Running With the Night” and “Say You, Say Me” three years later. Eric Clapton laid down licks on “Tonight Will Be Alright” from 1986’s Dancing on the Ceiling. Peter Gabriel contributed backing vocals to “Ordinary Girl” in 1996. Former Steppenwolf guitarist Larry Byrom played on four tracks from 1998’s Time. And Lenny Kravitz co-wrote, produced and featured on “Time of Our Life” from 2004’s Just for You.
He Heeded a Certain Call
In the wake of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise money for the long-running Ethiopian famine during the mid-’80s, Richie’s manager Ken Kragen was approached by Harry Belafonte to come up with an American response. Kragen then recruited Richie to help write “We Are the World,” which wound up being a collaboration with Michael Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Stevie Wonder. Richie and Jackson spent a week working on the song at the latter’s family home in Encino, Calif., with the all-star recording session taking place on Jan. 22, 1985, in Los Angeles, just after that year’s American Music Awards. Among the Rock Hall members on the project are Jackson and his brothers, Ross, Wonder, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Journey‘s Steve Perry and Fleetwood Mac‘s Lindsey Buckingham. Released under the banner of USA for Africa, “We Are the World” came out March 7, 1985, and has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and won three Grammy Awards. A companion album featured tracks by Springsteen, Perry, Turner, Chicago, Prince & the Revolution and Huey Lewis and the News, as well as “Tears Are Not Enough,” co-written by Bryan Adams for the Canadian ad hoc troupe Northern Lights. Richie also led a performance of the song to conclude the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.
He Joined the Rock ‘n’ Roll Country Club
For his 2012 album, Tuskegee, Richie took some of his old songs for a country spin, performing duets with old friends (Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson) and Nashville’s younger hitmakers, including Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Shania Twain, Rascal Flatts and others. He even did a “Margaritaville”-flavored “All Night Long” with Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band for good measure. Does this sound familiar? Eagles did it — or, rather, country did it for them — with Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles in 1993. (They did join Travis Tritt as part of his “Take It Easy” video.) And the Doobie Brothers joined the country club for Southbound in 2014. Both of those bands are in the Rock Hall, so why not Richie?
He Was Worthy of Worthy Farm
Richie raised eyebrows at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival, drawing nearly 120,000 to his performance during the coveted Sunday Tea Time spot — reserved for music legends — June 28 on the Pyramid Stage. It was the prestigious fest’s largest gathering of the weekend (beating out the Who, Kanye West, Florence and the Machine and Burt Bacharach), and Richie wowed the British faithful with a 15-song set that included solo favorites and Commodores hits (“Easy,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Lady [You Bring Me Up]”) before ending with the one-two punch of “All Night Long (All Night)” and “We Are the World.”