Small talk with Lionel Richie

The Grammy-Award winning singer speaks to Time Out ahead of his concert

R&B crooner Lionel Richie is set to ‘sing all the hits, all night long’ as he comes to Shanghai this month. He tells Time Out about opening for the Jacksons and the power of three little words

You were in Shanghai last year for a performance on TV talent show Chinese Idol. How was that experience for you?
I am still trying to get over it. I think it was the most incredible experience ever, only because 450 million people watched it – are you kidding me? That was just… that was showbusiness on steroids. It
was fabulous.

Did you get to look around the city at all?
Yes, I remember food. Food, food and nothing but food. We went for food in a tall building, food in a short building. I don’t remember the names, but we ate the entire time we were there. The Chinese fans are incredible and I didn’t realise that aged eight to 80 they know my songs. ‘Say You, Say Me’, ‘Endless Love’ – they know every word to every single song. ‘All Night Long’, ‘Hello’… it’s phenomenal.

What do you think it is about your songs that speak to people here?
Probably the best answer would be that ‘I love you’ translates around the world and regardless of whatever I’ve done in my life, I’ve found the three words that the whole world can relate to: ‘I love you’.

Apparently your songs are used to teach kids here English too...
Ha! Well, if I could figure out how to monetise my textbooks, I would be probably the richest man in the world. But, other than that – what a compliment. Of all the ways to learn English, they chose my songs to do it on. It’s incredible.

You’ve been playing the same songs for years. Do you ever get bored?
Not at all. Because when I walk out on stage, the passion is also in the audience. They know the songs and they’re excited to sing them, probably even more than I am on certain nights, so the fact is I go out and sing along with my fans.

In the early days of The Commodores you opened for The Jacksons. What was that like?
Oh my God, that was probably the greatest classroom ever for learning how to do live shows. If you can survive the opening act for seven, eight, nine and ten-year-olds, you can do anything. The thing we learned was that no matter what it is that you do, do it all in the first three songs because the crowd may not stick around for the last half. So whatever you do, give it to them hard in the very beginning.

How about when you opened for The Rolling Stones?
I hate to say it, but it’s the same rules. There’s no difference between fans who want to see Michael and Jermaine and fans who want to see Mick and Keith – there is absolutely no difference. They don’t want to watch anybody else other than that group, so the answer is you have to give it to them hard. And of course we survived them both, thank God.

Is it true that you nearly became a professional tennis player before you joined The Commodores?
Yeah, that’s exactly what that was. It was probably the best thing that didn’t work in my whole life, only because the level of tennis is so, so heavy. I went to a clinic and they told me at 19 years old I was too old to turn pro. It was at that particular time that I joined The Commodores, and the rest is history – thank God.

Lionel Richie is at Mercedes-Benz Arena on Tuesday 8 April.