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Endless Lionel

True story: During the mid-'80s, when Lionel Richie, the once and future king of marsh- mellow soul, straddled the pop-music sphere like a colossus, I owned a life-sized cardboard standup of the former Commodore that my malevolent loved ones and I would, um, do stuff to. At first, this Richie doppelgänger was used mainly as a target in that favorite pastime of arrested adolescents, suction-cup darts, with extra points awarded for crotch proximity. But later we got more creative, dressing him in different outfits every few weeks -- a bathrobe, simulated rabbi garb, and so on. I fondly remember the day when Mr. Katz, the sixty-something landlord of our poorly lit West Hollywood apartment, tried to start a conversation with Lionel, who I think was wearing a flowered muumuu at the time. Mr. Katz wasn't much of a Top 40 fan...

Eventually my cardboard replicas were lost to the passage of years, around the same time that the real Richie's fame was diluted by several doses of reality. Things began their turn for the worse in June 1988 when his then-wife, Brenda Richie, was arrested after allegedly kicking Lionel in the stomach and beating a young woman, Diane Alexander, whom she'd found with him. Charges against Brenda were subsequently dropped, and in later interviews, Richie (who wound up marrying Alexander) denied that his wife had pummeled him -- but that didn't stop late-night TV hosts from getting in their digs anyway. Richie was also shaken by the death of his father, after whom he was named, as well as a bout with throat cancer that briefly left his career in doubt. Upon his recovery, he attempted several comebacks, but 1996's Louder Than Words and 1998's Time, his two most recent collections of original material (released by Mercury and Polygram, respectively, after he left his longtime imprint, Motown), both tanked. Prior to his current tour -- he's opening for Tina Turner, who opened for him back in 1984 -- he hadn't been on the American circuit for a decade.

Richie, who turns 51 next month, sees his return to U.S. stages as an appetite-whetter for a new album, tentatively titled Renaissance, that Island/Def Jam will release this summer; set for inclusion on it is a collaboration with, of all people, the Backstreet Boys. In conversation Richie is bright, glib, and positively brimming with confidence. He clearly has a very high opinion of himself, but whereas this quality might once have seemed like arrogance, it now comes across as the sort of resilience few would have associated with such an apparent softie.

As for Richie's multitude of swoony smashes, including "Easy," "Three Times a Lady," "Truly" and the Diana Ross duet "Endless Love" (not to mention "We Are the World," the USA for Africa charity chart-topper he co-wrote with Michael Jackson), they no longer provoke the ire they once did; they're generally bland and innocuous, but hardly a threat to the music scene in general. Listening to them again even gave me a pang of regret over the whole suction-cup-darts thing -- although not over the muumuu. Actually, he looked quite fetching in it.

WW: A lot has been made of the fact that Tina Turner opened a concert tour for you back in 1984 and you are now doing the same for her. Should there be, or is this simply a matter of one friend helping out another?

LR: The thing is, I was going to do a warm-up tour anyway, before my major tour. And she said [an extremely accurate Tina impression], "If you're gonna warm up, why don't you come go with me?" And that's exactly what I'm doing. I am in the process of saying, "What can I do to make sure that enough people see me before the next album comes out? What is enough to start the interest up?" Because no one's seen me in the past ten years. And what better way to do it than to hang with Tina?

WW: Do you think the two of you make a good musical match?

LR: I'll tell you what it is. You've got two different styles of music, first of all, so you get two for the price of one. It's not a sameness. In other words, we are totally different. But at the same time, what the crowd gets -- and I'll be quite honest with you -- is two pros. I mean, Tina Turner walks out on stage and delivers something amazing. And I've been doing this long enough now that when I walk out on stage, I have to sit back and watch the crowd sing my songs. Because they know all the words.

WW: Is that unnerving for you, or gratifying?

LR: I'd love to tell you that it's freaking me out, but it doesn't at all. I think probably one of the greatest feelings in the world is to have the crowd sing along with you and at times take over the show. One of the characteristics of my show throughout the years has been the fact that when a song gets ready to come into the hook, they know all the words, so it's kind of an interesting feeling. Of course, after ten years away from an American stage, you're not quite sure what they're going to do. But they're just as enthusiastic as if "All Night Long" had come out on the radio yesterday.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts