For a time in the ‘80s, it seemed like the most popular songs in the U.S. were being made by perhaps five people: Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Lionel Richie. Richie’s success was of particular interest considering where he’d come from – he’d gone from playing tremendous funk music with the Commodores, to plying audiences with soft balladry and mid-tempo pop songs, both in his latter days with his former band, and as a solo artist.
But there was more to the man – who turned the word outrageous into a catch phrase at the 1985 American Music Awards – than most listeners knew. Each of his solo albums was full with quality material, some of which never made a dent at radio or on the singles charts. There were also songs that he wrote and produced for other artists that helped them stand out. His induction into this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame class was built on all of these things, not just the stuff that made him ubiquitous on Top 40 radio.
Let’s listen now to a handful of the deep cuts, the rare stuff – Lionel Richie’s Great Underrated gems:
“Love Will Find a Way”: Side 2 of Can’t Slow Down began with this six-minute slow-burner that acts as a reassurance – to a friend, or a former lover, or even just whoever had the song playing in their Walkman in 1983 or ‘84. On an album so crammed with hits, the track stands out not simply as filler, but as a strong album cut – a cool song you couldn’t hear on the radio.
“Se La”: Though released as a single in 1987 and hitting the Top 20 (and serving as Richie’s final single of the ‘80s), one almost never hears “Se La” played on the radio anymore. It’s a shame – a quasi-reggae track about peaceful co-existence could be a useful thing, in this moment or just about any other.
“The Good Life” (Kenny Rogers): At the beginning of Richie’s solo career – right around the time he was exiting the Commodores – he found an unlikely collaborator in country music legend Kenny Rogers. Richie wrote and produced Rogers’ No. 1 pop hit “Lady,” and then got the call to produce the singer’s follow-up album, 1981’s Share Your Love. That’s where this Richie-penned paean to fidelity can be found – a soulful piano ballad with gospel background vocals, something one can imagine Richie himself singing.
“Serves You Right”: The first cut on Richie’s self-titled debut record still has remnants of the Commodores funk (particularly in Nathan Watts’ bass work), combined with the smooth vocal delivery that was quickly becoming Richie’s trademark. An auspicious beginning, all around.
“You Mean More to Me”: How this beautiful ballad from the 1982 Lionel Richie album never warranted release as a single is a mystery we shall perhaps never solve (it was, however, the B-side of the “You Are” single). As luck would have it, though, we can cue it up whenever we want and bask in its melody, letting its sentiment fill us, and remembering a time long ago when the idea of the Commodores’ singer making music on his own was something of a novelty.