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Back to Tuskegee: A Conversation With Lionel Richie

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First, let's start with last week's Lionel Richie announcement...

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The Academy of Country Music and Dick Clark Productions announced today that country music superstars Luke Bryan, Sara Evans, Tim McGraw and Jennifer Nettles have been added to the all-star lineup of artists scheduled to perform at the ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends -- In Concert taping Monday, April 2, 2012 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The special will air Friday, April 13, 2012 on the CBS Television Network.

ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends -- In Concert is a special concert event of country music collaborations with the legendary Lionel Richie, featuring duets from his new album, Tuskegee, along with solo performances. Some of Richie's greatest hits will be performed by today's hottest country artists including Jason Aldean ("Say You Say Me"), The Band Perry ("Penny Lover"), Luke Bryan ("Running with the Night"), Sara Evans, Lady Antebellum ("Truly"), Martina McBride ("Still"), Jennifer Nettles ("Hello") and Rascal Flatts ("Dancing on the Ceiling"). Duets with Richie include: "My Love" with Kenny Chesney, "Sail On" with Tim McGraw, "Lady" with Kenny Rogers, and more surprises to be announced.

"It has been so rewarding to have my songs embraced by country music artists," said Lionel Richie. "Since Conway Twitty recorded 'Three Times a Lady' and Kenny Rogers sang 'Lady,' I have been welcomed into the country music family with open arms. It's the ultimate compliment to have country artists record and perform songs that I've written. I've always felt right at home in country because I was raised just down the road from Nashville in Tuskegee, Alabama, where I was immersed in country, R&B, gospel and classical music. This show will be a homecoming and family reunion combined, and I'm so glad that viewers will be able to share these special moments with us. It will be a night that I will remember for the rest of my life."

Tickets for ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends- - In Concert are on sale now at Ticketmaster, priced at $200, $150, $100. Tickets proceeds will benefit ACM Lifting Lives, which works to improve lives through music.

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A Conversation with Lionel Richie

Mike Ragogna: Lionel, how did you assemble your roster of country artists for your new album Tuskegee?

Lionel Richie: Well, I gotta tell you something. It was divine guidance, and it's always the case. Let me give you my story so you'll understand. I went to Tuskegee University to become an Episcopal priest. I met a guy named Thomas McClary, and I've been in a band called The Commodores, and I got this far. Okay, so I gave you the quick story, but here's the other side. I now say, "I'm going to do a country album, I'm going to have a couple duets on it, and I've got a few people I'm going to put on board." I decide Kenny Chesney should definitely do "All Night Long," and all of a sudden, Kenny Chesney says, "I like 'My Love'" and Jimmy Buffett says, "I like 'All Night Long.'" I'm saying, "Guys, I don't think that sounds right," and now, here we are talking about Jimmy Buffett perfect on "All Night Long." In other words, I stopped figuring things a long time ago. You just kind of let it go and what's going to happen is going to be genius.

MR: Lionel, you did consider, "Hey this one would make a perfect duet," right?

LR: Well, I started out thinking that I was going to be brilliant on this by choosing the right person and then all of a sudden, for example, on "Stuck On You," I changed the whole mode of this thing. I decided instead of me picking a song that I think they should do, why don't I call everybody on the phone and ask, "Do you have a favorite song you'd like to do?" From that point on, we were off to the races. By the way, I had to be prepared for it not being exactly what I thought was going to be the perfect song for this album. The next thing was I made the worst mistake of my life, which is I decided I wanted everyone to feel comfortable on doing these songs, so I let them bring in their producers and also if they had a band, I want the band to play. In the case of Rascal Flats, in the case of Kenny Chesney...I wanted to bring in the band, like with Jimmy Buffett. Now, once I did that, I made the third worst mistake, best mistake, of my life, which was, I said, "Why don't you all custom tailor the vocals so that it fits you, and I'll custom design my vocal around their vocal," instead of them custom tailoring it around me. When I did that, I didn't realize that you don't let Jennifer Nettles sing a song by herself and then custom tailor the vocals. All I can tell you is Jimmy Buffet came in, and that was the fun of life. We talked all the way to the woods. Tim McGraw? Perfect because he loved these songs. Darius Rucker loved "Stuck On You." But when Jennifer Nettles said, "Hello," I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.

MR: Right. I imagine you listened to the takes and then you inserted yourself into the production after the fact?

LR: Well, I sang with them, because I wanted to do it with them, but then I realized that at certain points, they had a different interpretation of how they were going to hit the note. If I started singing, they were going to try to sing it like me. There were times when I would sing and then lay out. I was there with them, but I would sing it and then lay out. It allowed them to put the Willie Nelson on it, it allowed them to put the Tim McGraw on it, the Jason Aldeen. It really allowed everybody to put their own little version in, and then I went back and custom-tailored the vocals to where it complimented us.

MR: What's nice is that the production ended up, like you said, reinterpreting the song in your guest artist's world. For example, on the Willie Nelson duet, instead of having the signature horn section on the chorus, harmonica comes in.

LR: Exactly. I remember when I took out the solo in the middle of "Easy," everyone said to me, "You're taking out the solo in 'Easy'?" And I turned around and looked at everybody and said, "Willie Nelson wants to play." I said, "We'll give him anything he wants and he brought his harmonica player with him. Let him do it." But there are only a couple of times in life when you give the seniority to the brother, you know what I'm saying? There's seniority in this business, and he earned it.

MR: Lionel, I know you're very close to all of these songs and all of these re-interpretations. But were there any of these songs that when you heard them back, you went "Oh my God," knowing it was amazing?

LR: Oh yeah. Let's start first with "Endless Love." "Endless Love" with Diana Ross is the child of life. All of a sudden to go in and put a new facelift on it...it was so delicate with Diana. And with Shania, she's known for her guitar, so I had to put some muscle on it, and it came out "Oh my God!" To hear Willie Nelson come in on "Easy" was like America. It's like, "Is that a standard? What did I just do?" Of course, Jimmy Buffet on "All Night Long"--if anyone can pull off "All Night Long" in this day and age, it's almost like he didn't try. It just sounds like "Oh my God." And then, of course, you get Rascal Flatts with "Dancing On The Ceiling," and when they chose "Dancing On The Ceiling"...I'm doing a country album, right? "Dancing On The Ceiling" is country? But I felt the same way when Conway Twitty did "Three Times a Lady." I kept thinking, "I guess it is country because Conway's going to sing it."

MR: But then again, your writing, as R&B and soulful as it is, also skews country. Would you agree with that?

LR: I always tell people every day that I don't write for categories, I just write for people. So what happened with me is if there's any kind of explanation that I give at all, I say that there's really no difference between R&B and country. Both of them are real. There's no difference between "Take This Job And Shove It" and "Oh Baby, Don't Leave Me."

MR: Tuskagee, the name of the album, refers to your roots, where you grew up. You were exposed to all sorts of music including country music, right?

LR: Right, well, not including country music--ONLY country music. You have to understand something. When you grow up in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, radio was country music. We didn't have categories back then. On the radio was Patsy Cline; on the radio was Tennessee Ernie Ford; on the radio was Johnny Cash. That was called "radio." It wasn't until the '70s, until it started getting customized into "disco" and all those names. But back in the day, in Alabama, country music was pop music.

MR: What were some of the songs that you grew up with that were the closest to you radio-wise?

LR: Anything...Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley... Elvis was country, you understand what I'm saying? But they didn't refer to it as country, they called it rock 'n' roll. But look at the fans that followed Elvis and look at the fans that followed country music, it was the same group.

MR: You mentioned before, when we were talking about Shania Twain doing "Endless Love" with you, it being different than your original version with Diana Ross. Because of Shania's interpretation, you had to rock it up a little. When you listened to the finished new duet version, did you wonder what Diana's reaction might be when she eventually heard it?

LR: You would only bring up my worst nightmare. (laughs) Of course, I thought about it. But what I loved the most about how we handled it was that they are not even similar. In other words, I called Diana's "The Delicate Flower," and it's the first. It launched everything...nine weeks at #1 around the world, so give me a break. If anything, I think Shania only compliments what was there. By the way, this is the third time around. It was Diana and Lionel, Luther (Vandross) and Mariah (Carey), and now here comes Shania. It's something about those--Shania and Mariah. I mean, come on! I think if we tried to copy Diana, then it would be the insult of life because she is so special in what she did. By the way, that was in the motion picture, that had the academy nomination...I mean, there are so many things that go along with that. Actually, I call that the career maker right there.

MR: Another great moment of your career that wasn't Lionel Richie per se was the Kenny Rogers hit "Lady," and on Tuskegee, you're redoing that classic with Kenny, the song now going full circle.

LR: Well, I really get cheerful when I think about this. When I first came up with this idea, I took it to the record company and I said, "I'm going to do a country duets record." The first question the record company asked me was, "What song is Kenny Rogers going to do?" So, it told me that the blessing of this album has got to have Kenny on it because this is the guy with 22 million copies of "Lady" sold. He really did something amazing that no one else has been able to do as far as launching my career. He said a simple phrase: "I'd like to thank Lionel Ritchie for making this happen for me." He said that at the American Music Awards, and as the camera came across his shoulder and was shining on me, I had a second career going. That was the launch of who I am today, so I couldn't do this album without him.

MR: That's beautiful. That was also furthered by Alabama's hit "Deep River Woman" and you do that with Little Big Town here.

LR: I must tell you the joke with Alabama. That's three-part harmony, and Little Big Town came in with four-part harmony. The only problem I had with Little Big Town was, "What part do I sing?" (laughs) By the way, their harmony is so tight, it's frightening. The only way I could get me on that opening was I had to just let them sing it by themselves. There's no way I could get on it, so I said, "I'll scat on the background." I was like the kid who was trying to get in the song. But it was wonderful, I just loved doing it. By the way, that is one of the big requests of people. They love that song!

MR: Yeah, it became an Alabama standard, for sure.

LR: By the way, Alabama? I'll tell you the difference between Alabama "Deep River Woman" and Little Big Town "Deep River Woman." I did "Deep River Woman" with Little Big Town at 3, 4, and 5 o'clock in the afternoon. I did "Deep River Woman" with Alabama at 8 o'clock in the morning... that's the big difference of time. I don't know where these guys find all of their voice at 8 in the morning.

MR: (laughs) Speaking of voice, when you were harmonizing on this project with any one of your guest artists, you blend extremely well with them. You are so one of those vocalists who can just blend in...you understand what they're singing and you intuitively go with it.

LR: Well, I think I use that as my years of being in The Commodores. When you're with a band, you make the vocals work. A lot of times, when you get a solo artist who's only been a solo artist, they don't do backgrounds very well. We used to tease them that they don't know how to blend. So by coming from a group situation, it gave me an opportunity to go, "Okay Tim, I'll let your voice come out strong, I'll back you up." So you have to know the difference between lead vocal and a compliment.

MR: Now, speaking of background vocals, you mentored one of the great background vocalists, Richard Marx.

LR: Let me tell you, Richard came along at a time when he was just right in the pocket of success, between David Foster's studio and Lionel Ritchie's studio, between "Penny Lover," "All Night Long." And, of course, (at) David Foster's studio, he was the background for most of this stuff. So he just sat there in the pocket to view history, as far as I'm concerned, because he was sitting right there as all this went down. It was beautiful because right after that, he said, "What do you think I should do," and I said, "You're no longer a background singer, kid. Get out of here." He graduated. But I so love the fact that he took his songwriting and went on, not only as an artist, but even to this day, he's still a great songwriter.

MR: I got to interview him recently, he loves you too.

LR: What's so amazing is you can spot talent. What I love is when I can inspire, because how I got here was I was inspired by some of the greatest songwriters ever. When you walk into Motown Records and there's Marvin Gaye sitting in the corner, there's Smokey Robinson to your right, there's Stevie Wonder... I mean, listen, if I can inspire someone along the way and pass those stories along, that's what I'm supposed to do, that's my job.

MR: Well that leads into my standard question, which is what advice do you have for new artists?

LR: You have to love this business. If you're in this business for the money and the fame, don't get in it, because if you happen to get disappointed, then you're going to crash and burn. We're all in this business because we are fans of this business, and as I used to say before, find somebody who's in it - a producer, an arranger, a writer. Hang with them. A lot of this artist stuff you can't learn in a school, you have to learn it on the job. The guys who are great disc jockeys, they hung out at the radio station. Guys who are great television and movie people, they hung out around somebody who inspired them. Yes, of course, they went to a school to figure out the craft. But the guts of it, the stomach of it, the ears of it, came from somebody who mentored them.

MR: And you did it as well, you mentored.

LR: Yes, what Kenny Rogers did for me when I was making the transition from The Commodores to solo, what greater person to have than Kenny Rogers who came from a group to solo. What greater person to have than Dick Clark, who explained to me every breakup of every group in the world. What greater person to mentor me than Berry Gordy who went through The Temptations, The Miracles. I had the greatest folks in the world to tell me the stories, so it guided me as far as my decision-making.

MR: And of course, it led to a chain of wonderful solo albums, including Can't Slow Down. That is one of the great albums, one of the classic albums of all time. What do you think when you look back at making an album that made such an impression on the masses?

LR: Well you look back on it and realize there's a certain part of naivety that happens in the business. For example, I look at Can't Slow Down. I finished 8 songs on the record, and they were in such a rush to get the record out because "All Night Long" was playing that it didn't dawn on me. Albums didn't have 8 songs, they had 10-12 songs, so I left two songs off not knowing. That's a 20-milllion selling album with 8 songs on it. It's actually quite phenomenal. What I liked the most was that we had 8 songs on that album, and 7 of the songs were singles.

MR: Okay, I have to throw out a theory, please tell me if I'm right or not. "Stuck On You," which is one of my personal favorite tracks on the album...

LR: Darius would love you for that. (laughs)

MR: ...but my theory is that it probably was not meant to be a single from you Can't Slow Down album, but since it resonated so well with fans and listeners, you had to release it as one. And of course, it was another Top-10 hit.

LR: How about after "Hello," we didn't know what we had. And (back) then, songs had played long enough because you would put Can't Slow Down on and play the whole album. What we didn't realize was that "Stuck on You" just jumped-out. People said to me, "That's the next record." Normally, you have three singles, then you move on the next record; we couldn't stop the record, it just kept playing..."Penny Lover" and everything else. It was just one of those amazing things of life, it's a universal thing. I would love to tell you we had a marketing plan for that, but there was no marketing plan.

MR: That's what I thought, it happened naturally. One last question...is this truly Lionel Ritchie?

LR: (laughs) Now THAT'S funny. I must tell you, every once in a while I have to go over to the mirror and go "really"? Every once in a while, I have a flashback of the kid that grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, and I find myself some days sitting in some of the most amazing stadiums and arenas around the world and I have to walk out on stage and something goes, "Really? How did we get here!?" So the answer is, "Yes, this is really me, sometimes." (laughs)

MR: Lionel, I loved our time together, thank you very much.

LR: My pleasure, and I hope to see you and talk to you again very soon.

Tracks:
1. You Are - with Blake Shelton
2. Say You, Say Me - with Jason Aldean
3. Stuck On You - with Darius Rucker
4. Deep River Woman - with Little Big Town
5. My Love - with Kenny Chesney
6. Dancing On The Ceiling - with Rascal Flatts
7. Hello - with Jennifer Nettles
8. Sail On - with Tim McGraw
9. Endless Love - with Shania Twain
10. Just For You - with Billy Currington
11. Lady - with Kenny Rogers
12. Easy - with Willie Nelson
13. All Night Long - with Jimmy Buffett

Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger