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Lionel Richie On Risk-Taking, Passion And Topping The Charts At Age 62

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Lionel Richie has another hit on his hands. Renowned for his storied career in soul and R&B, Richie recently released an ode to his southern roots "Tuskegee" -- named for his hometown in Alabama. The album features 13 of Richie's timeless hits, performed this time as duets with today's country stars.

Richie asked each of his collaborators to create new arrangements without making the song unrecognizable. The result: a new twist on old favorites that has rocketed to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 200. Richie joins Ray Charles as the only other artist in history to have a No. 1 album on both the Billboard Country Albums and R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts.

Richie's career began over 40 years ago as the front man for the Commodores, the popular 1970s Motown band. With hits like "Brick House," "Three Times a Lady," "Sail On" and "Still," Richie catapulted to stardom, with three platinum albums, five Grammy awards and an Academy Award in 1984 for Best Original Song. The Huffington Post caught up with Richie to find out what it's like to be back at the top of the charts at age 62.

With so many accolades, I imagine some artists would kick back at this point in their careers. Why try again with "Tuskegee"?

A lot of people ask me that and my answer is "this is all I know how to do." If you ask me what my hobby was when growing up, I would tell you "writing songs." And probably the best part of what I do is taking it one step further, reinventing every day. For example, when I wrote "Three Times A Lady," they said, "Oh my god, you can never write anything better than that." So I wrote "All Night Long" -- something totally different. And they said the same thing. So that's what I do, even after all these years. I try to find another avenue. I'm from Alabama and it was time for me to go back and discover my country roots.

Of your many duet partners on "Tuskegee" -- from Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett to Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain -- who surprised you the most and why?

Normally, when one does an album and brings in other artists, most of the arrangements are still geared to the original artist. For instance, in a Sinatra album, all of the arrangements are geared to Sinatra so that the songs still feel very Frank. I decided instead to customize each song to the style of my partner so that the songs, while never entirely losing their original feel to the listener, could really jive with my collaborator. I let them record it the way they wanted and put myself into their tracks, their arrangements. I don't know if I'll ever have the courage to do that again, but it sure was exciting.

So, given that, I would say Jennifer Nettles really blew me away with her version of "Hello." When she said, "I'm going to sing 'Hello' the way I would sing 'Hello'," I said, "Give it your best shot." And when I heard it, I said "oh my god -- what the heck are you doing?" Because she has a voice that is just unbelievable. When she came out, all I could think of was, "how do I get back on my own record?" So she surprised me the most with her vocal power. (See the slideshow below for a performance by Richie and Nettles.)

What ignites your creativity?

Passion first. Whether it's falling in love, falling out of love, being lonely for love, or searching for love, there's a passion to all of it. So what I seek out in my life is real true emotions. Authenticity. And when I sit down to write, I tap into that. You know how it feels when you're listening to a great sermon and you feel "ahhhh, that hits a chord, he's speaking to me"? That's where I go to write. I look at touching others. And then try to say it in the very simplest way, distill it down to the basics.

Your songs are to you, I imagine, your babies. What is one of your very favorites and why?

Interestingly, I actually had to live life for my own songs to come full circle and touch me in the deepest ways. In the past, sometimes, when I would sing All Night Long at a concert, I might see someone crying. And that didn't make sense because that's supposed to be a happy song. Or when I would sing "Still," I might see someone laughing. And that didn't make sense because that's supposed to be a sad song.

But now, having been through the experiences of my lifetime, I hear these songs, and even the words I wrote myself, very differently. I wrote "Still," for instance, about another person's breakup, not my own. I now feel it differently, having experienced two divorces. But if I had to choose, it would be "Easy Like Sunday Morning," because it was from a part of my life when I worked so hard and everyone tried to make me into something and someone I didn't want to be. I just wanted to be myself. And so that song will always resonate for me.

And "Hello" will also probably be one of my favorites forever. I wasn't the jock in school growing up -- too slow for track, too small for football, too short for basketball -- so I wasn't the most popular kid on the block. "Hello" will always remind me of those times when I saw a guy walking into a party with a beautiful girl and I dreamed that she was looking for me. And what I learned was that there was an entire world of people who felt invisible as I did and dreamed like me.

Looking back, what was it, or who was it, that first led you to believe that you could be a successful artist and musician? What gave you the courage to go for a dream?

I give a great deal of credit to the Commodores. I grew up in a small community, a place where everyone seemed to know me. They knew that I couldn't play football; that I played tennis, which, in Alabama during the civil rights movement, didn't earn me Mr. Popularity. That I was a smart kid. And that community impression became my impression of myself.

But when I went to college, I met a guy from Florida, Thomas McClary, who didn't grow up with me. He said, "I heard you brought your horn with you. You want to join a band?" And he introduced me to the drummer, who was from Florida. And then to the keyboard player, who was from Mississippi. They didn't seem to care that I wasn't the basketball player, the football player, the lover. It was so freeing to see myself through their eyes and not buy into the limitations I knew from my own small town.

These guys gave me a chance because they said, "Hey Rich, can you sing?" And even though I was just a shower singer, it was a little secret of mine, I had the chance to go for it. Then I met Suzanne De Passe, who discovered the Commodores for the Jackson 5 Tour. She said she liked the lead singer and I thought, "who, me?" And then we joined Motown. Finally, there was Dick Clark. He told me I was going to host the American Music Awards. When I said, "I have no experience," he said, "I know. You school boys are all the same -- you think you need a diploma before you think you know what you can do. You can host the show because I say you can host the show." Sometimes you find that there are people who can see your potential before you can see it. Or believe in you before you do.

Did you deem it risky to sing? Would you call yourself a risk-taker?

Joining the Commodores didn't seem risky to me at the time. I believed in the dream. Of course, I was young and naive. It sure was risky to my mom and dad! "Hey, I'm quitting school to join a group called the Commodores, we're the black Beatles and we're going to take over the world." They didn't love it. And when they told me it was risky, I said that if it all goes wrong, I can still be a lawyer or a doctor by age 27. That this was my time to go for it. That's when they said, "OK, take your shot." Becoming a songwriter, that was risky. Because they were my words, my voice. I wasn't just singing someone else's story. I went for it because I knew if I made it, it would be on my own songs.

You now have a daughter, Nicole, in the public eye. Having lived in it for so long, what advice do you find yourself giving her?

Well, her generation is experiencing something that my generation never had to worry about. In mine, we had privacy. I could go to London, Rome, Amsterdam -- do something completely crazy, out of my mind -- and return home as little Richie. No one would know about it. Even in celebrity we had privacy. Now, everything one does is captured for eternity. I want to see Nicole's generation run for president. I don't know how it will be possible when every high school tweet, every frat picture, every move is captured on someone's phone.

So I tell her, always remember one thing -- whatever you do now is forever. Our parents could tell us stories and we believed what they told us. It won't be so for this generation. Their kids will be able to see and know things that they never would have wanted to share. We really don't even know what the consequences of all this exposure will be to future generations.

At this stage of life, what's one rule you feel you can break with impunity?

To a certain degree, I can be brutally honest. My grandmother used to always say, "if you are afraid of the truth, don't ask children or old people." Children don't know better and old people don't care. Tact is good but at a certain point, a person knows what he likes and doesn't like, what he is willing to do and not do, and honesty becomes the way to go. I can now change my mind without feeling guilty. I love that I can simply say no and not have to explain why.

What's one thing you wish you knew when you you were growing up?

I wish I would have understood what marriage was all about. We fall into love so easily because it is so innocent and so magical but the reality of it is so different. Marriage comes with a great deal of responsibility. A lot of compromise and work. If I knew then what I know now, as the expressions goes, I would've figured out a lot of things and that would have changed my whole life's course. But even though I wish I knew better, I wouldn't really change anything.

What do you want people to know about you that they might not already know?

I'm a jokester. I really love humor. My father used to always say to me, "You can lose your job, your house, your money. But if you lose your mind, then your life is over. And the only way to keep your mind, is to have sense of humor -- about yourself and about life." He had a very serious life and yet he had a great sense of humor. So I live my life by those words. I try to find the adults who still have the children in them -- and hang around with them. It's much more fun.

Is there any stage, literally or metaphorically, on which you still yearn to play?

Yes. The one role I want to play is Dad. I have great stories, great lessons and I want to share them with my kids, and with my grandkids. Of course, it's their lives and they will all do what they want to do anyway. But I want to pay attention to their growing up. Because the best thing that happened to me when I was growing up was that somebody was paying attention to me. If I could win on the fatherhood stage and as a great friend to those in my life, then I will be really happy.

Will you ever retire?

I don't know how! That's the good news for me. I keep waking up every morning with another idea. This is the love affair i'm having. Someone asked me when i'm going to retire and I said "from what?" You only retire from a job. And this has never been a job. It's my life.

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