Hello again, Lionel Richie

By Lydia Jenkin

One-man jukebox Lionel Richie is returning to New Zealand with a musical mate for a show he's calling ''an event''. He talks to Lydia Jenkin
Lionel Richie is coming back with tour buddy John Farnham.
Lionel Richie is coming back with tour buddy John Farnham.

Lionel Richie last had his New Zealand fans dancing on the ceiling back in 2011, when he was here for a national tour.

"God, it feels like only yesterday," he says down the line from Los Angeles. The 64 year old has been touring the world fairly non-stop since then so it would be understandable if all the shows blended together a little, but there's a reason why New Zealand shows always stick in his mind.

"It's really simple for me to remember New Zealand, actually, because the bass player from The Commodores, Ronald La Pread, lives in Auckland. So every time I think of coming down there I think of Ronald and his lovely family.

"We always try to catch up and I bring him out to play with me somewhere in the course of the show because it's hard for me to play Commodores songs with a Commodore sitting in the audience watching me," he laughs.

"It feels very comfortable to have him around me because we share so many memories."

This time he's not touring on his own, though - despite being more than capable of headlining his own shows, Richie has teamed up with Aussie rocker John Farnham.

"I think the word I'm going to use is 'event'. Every now and again you're looking for something that is eventful and with John, that's what it will be.

"When Tina Turner and I toured together everyone was saying, 'Tina Turner and Lionel Richie together, that's called a lot of music,' and yeah sure, it is a lot of music, but it will be a lot of fun."

One can imagine that with their combined fan bases there's going to be a lot of underwear being thrown on stage, too.

"I don't want to be in competition here, I don't wanna brag too much, but it's going to be an evening of complete, out of control, trouble. I mean, I've spoken to John on the phone a few times now and I think we're gonna be trouble. We're gonna have some fun on that stage for sure."

Richie may have been performing for four decades but he still manages to turn most of his audience into screaming teenagers, and when he steps out on stage he often forgets all about age or years - it feels the same as it always did.

"Every time I walk on a stage, I forget what year it is. I've always been looking at the white light, the spotlight in my face, so every now and then I have to turn to my right and left just to see if The Commodores are still there. I can get lost in those songs."

What he does find fascinating is that the crowd in front of him are getting younger.

"I'm going, 'Is that a 22 year old? Is that a 30 year old? What year is this?' I guess the kids are bringing the parents along or their parents have passed on their tastes in music to their kids.

"One generation of fans taught another generation who we are."

It probably helps that his songs continue to pop up in mainstream culture on a regular basis, whether they're from his early days in The Commodores, the genre-bending tracks like Three Times A Lady and Easy that marked his first foray into songwriting for the band (inspired by Marvin Gaye) or his solo R&B classics.

Thirty years ago, All Night Long was just capping off a four-week run at the top of the Billboard chart, but since then it's been played at the Olympics, a Nobel Peace Prize concert in 2006 and most recently in the final of 2009's American Idol. So what makes people continue to connect with those songs?

"Well, I think if people associate it with any event in their lives, then they want to keep hearing it," he says.

"Those songs become locked in for people. So maybe they fell in love to the song, or someone close died and that was their favourite song. I've heard a lot of great stories."

Despite his continually hectic touring schedule these days, Richie remains very glad that he didn't follow a career in tennis, which is where he was heading until he met the guys from The Commodores.

"I remember I actually went to a tennis clinic and I got told, at the ripe old age of 17, that I was too old to turn pro," he laughs.

"But it was the best advice I ever got because I put the tennis racket down, picked up the sax and became the greatest horn holder ever.

"I wouldn't call myself a player - because I could twirl it better than I could play it - but thank God for that revelation because otherwise I never would've bumped into the Commodores.

"Plus, I played tennis when you could still see the ball. Now I can't see anything! I just hear a 'pop, pop, pop'."

Richie is equally grateful to still be performing because now his youngest kids are old enough to come along and realise what dad does when he's away.

"It's the greatest pleasure. My kids obviously missed the 70s and 80s, so I've been walking around my house being famous for quite a while - except they don't know what the hell I do for a living," he laughs.

"Now they're old enough for me to put them on a plane and take them with me, and it's amazing to be able to see their faces when I walk out on stage and to take them to these different countries that they have no idea about. They still just abuse me as 'Dad' but it's a pleasure to be able to introduce them all to this side of my life."

It's an equal pleasure for them to be introducing him to new music, he says, and he doesn't mind that his songs don't excite them as much as some younger artists.

"It's like having a great A&R department in my house. If I ever want to ask their opinion about music, they go: 'Oh my god, Dad, you've got to listen to Lorde, she's an amazing songwriter.' So they've introduced me to her, which is great - now they've finished educating me, I know exactly how good she is.

"They'd never admit to liking my music because that's not cool. You can't say you love your dad's music out loud but I know they appreciate it on some level."

Lowdown

Who: Lionel Richie

What: National tour with John Farnham in 2014.

Where and when: Performing at CBS Arena in Christchurch on Thursday, March 20, Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth on Saturday, March 22, and at Vector Arena in Auckland on Sunday, March 23.

- NZ Herald

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