Lionel Richie: Easy like a Sunday morning

In an industry where styles keep changing, the R&B singer has kept up with the times while still being true to his voice.

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Last Updated Nov 28, 2010 9:00 AM EST

In an industry where styles keep changing, the R&B singer has kept up with the times while still being true to his voice. Bill Whitaker reports:

Four decades after starting his meteoric rise to superstardom, and Lionel Richie is still packing them in, at places like the O2 Arena in London. 

Long after many of his contemporaries' stars burned out, Richie's still shines -- these days with a warm glow.  His generations of fans flock to bask in it as he romances his audience.

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Women weep when he sings; and men? "Men don't say much," he told Whitaker. "They call my name and give the secret signal that says everything: 'Lionel …' (clenches fist) 'You're alright, man.  Hang in there, boy!'"

Last year Richie released his 14th solo album, "Just Go," a collaboration with contemporary songwriters half his age.

"I decided instead of trying to figure out what should Lionel Richie be in 2009, I'd pose that question to some of the greatest writers of the time," he said.

Like chart-topping hip-hop artist Akon.

"They know their generation, they know their technology, they know their sound better than anybody," Richie said. "The only thing I can deliver that's different is, I sound like Lionel Richie. Can't change that sound!"

To watch Lionel Richie and Akon perform "Just Go" click on the video player below.

Lionel Richie - Just Go by LionelRichieVEVO on YouTube

When asked what it was like to work with Richie, Akon said, "It's an uncontrollable, happy feeling.  Like, I know a lot of artists would love being in my position."

In position to work with an artist who has sold more than 100 million records. He's won a Golden Globe, an Oscar and five Grammys, which are on display in what he calls his "Blood, Sweat and Tears Room."

He remains a music heavyweight by never resting on his laurels.

"The industry keeps changing; it's never the same," he said. "You can go to bed tonight and style is this way; you can wake up the next morning, the style has changed."

Richie's style certainly has changed since his breakout with the funky R&B band, The Commodores, in 1968. 

"I was a full-fledged, afro-wearing, platform shoes-wearing Commodore!" he said.

To watch The Commodores perform "Brick House" click on the video player below:

The Commodores - Brick House by steelydan1979 on YouTube

He grew up in Alabama, and went to Tuskegee University, where the six Commodores met as freshmen.  Richie was planning to be an accountant.  They soon found the stage had greater appeal and bigger rewards than the books. 

"It was the most amazing thing in the world for me, when you pick up a microphone, you grab the band, and girls started screaming.  Over and out! It was the beginning of something."

Something big!

The band played at the top of the charts through the 1970s with funky beats and ballads.

They set out to be the black Beatles; they ended up with a sound all their own. 

"'You're once, twice, three times a lady...' Now, nobody, not one R&B band in the world, was in this category," he said. "And if it worked, it was gonna be amazing. 

"And if it didn't work, I'm out of business!" he laughed.

It worked.

Richie's songwriting was working, too. "Endless Love," a duet he wrote and sang with Diana Ross, was Ross' biggest-selling single ever.  That came right on the heels of the smash hit, "Lady," which he wrote for Kenny Rogers.  

To watch Lionel Richie and Diana Ross perform "Endless Love" click on the video player below.

Diana Ross and Lionel Richie - Endless Love (Live at the Academy Awards) by DianaRossTV on YouTube

By the early '80s, Richie's star was outshining the rest of the group.

Their response?  "It wasn't good. It wasn't good, because you could see the anxiety on their faces, because it wasn't 'Lionel Richie and the Commodores.'  I was a Commodore."

"These were your buddies," Whitaker said.

"It was not even buddies.  These guys were my family." 

But it was time to go.  Richie broke from the Commodores to launch a solo career.

But there was an up-side. Flying solo, Richie's career was like a rocket taking off, and hitting warp speed. 

His first solo album, "Lionel Richie," sold more than four million copies;  his second, "Can't Slow Down," earned two Grammys. 

To watch the music video for Lionel Richie's "Hello," click on the video player below.

Hello by Lionel Richie by GiraldiMedia on YouTube

And Richie and Michael Jackson wrote the supergroup mega-hit, "We Are the World" for African relief in 1985. 

Now a bona fide superstar, he was -- like the title of his next album -- "Dancing On the Ceiling." 

But he described his life at the time as "Constantly album, tour, album, tour."

"Were you able to enjoy it?" Whitaker asked.

"Get a car to 100 miles an hour, roll down the window and stick your head out the window. Tell me what you see. That's pretty much where it was going."

"It's a blur?"

"Little vignettes happening along the way."

Vignettes like closing the '84 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and winning the Oscar for "Say You, Say Me," from the movie "White Nights."

Say You, Say Me by Lionel Richie - Topic on YouTube

But at the height of his career, he just had to bail out. Exhausted, his first marriage breaking up, he went home to care for his ailing father. 

"I'm thinking, it's going to be a couple of months and then I'll get back to work," he said. "It was two-and-a-half years."

After his father died in 1990, Lionel Richie returned to music, only to find that music had moved on -- R&B eclipsed by rap. Though his recent releases have been moderate hits in the U.S., he remains a huge star in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His fans adore him; critics haven't always been so kind, with comments like "sappy" and "cheesy."

"Yeah, oh yeah," Richie said. "And then you realize, the biggest gangster-rappers in the world, the biggest heavy metal guys, sooner or later they're going to say, 'I love you' to somebody [with] Lionel Richie playing in the background!"

These days, he's attracting a new generation of fans, who have one burning question: "Are you Nicole Richie's dad?" 

His adopted daughter, Nicole, best known for her reality TV show with Paris Hilton, "The Simple Life," was getting more press than Richie … and not all good. 

Whitaker said, "It must be painful to see her as tabloid fodder." 

"Well, I told her when she got into it, 'When you say you wanna be famous, what comes with that is the survival of it. Famous, it looks simple, but it consumes you.'"

But now that she's the mother of his grandchildren, he says, "the most amazing thing happened: She got it in balance." 

Today, divorced from his second wife, at 61, he's got two younger children, a grand house, and, he'll tell you, a good life. 

He makes it all sound so easy. 

"For years I used to drive a Ferrari and I tried to drive it as fast as I could," he said. "And then I found out the secret to having a Ferrari: you want to drive it as slow as you can so people can see you in it!

"I've slowed it down to the point now where I'm enjoying the ride."

Editor's Note: In 2017 Lionel Richie was named a Kennedy Center Honoree.