THE ‘DIVINE GUIDANCE’ THAT CHANGED LIONEL RICHIE’S LIFE
The defining night in Lionel Richie’s life wasn’t supposed to happen that way.
“It just happened completely backwards, divine guidance,” he said. “If I wasn’t religious, I am now.”
The date: August 12, 1984, closing night of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
Organizers envisioned a grandiose Hollywood-centric finale for the two billion TV viewers and 6,829 athletes who marched into the Los Angeles Coloseum after a three-week red, white and blue spectacular.
Producer David Wolper, who had a flair for delivering big moments, wanted to end the Olympics with a “full-on production” featuring Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Richie.
“Well, everybody had a rider larger than the last person,” recalled Richie, so Wolper decided that wasn’t going to work.
Richie continued, “I would love to tell you it was my great management team or my great wisdom. No! These are divine guidance things that happen."
“So, after ‘All Night Long’ came out, I’m at a show, a Cher show I think it was, with my wife—my ex-wife now— where we are dressed up as (American) Indians,” Richie recalled in an interview we did shortly before he started his residency at the Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood in May 2016. I found the recording deep in my archives this week when it was announced his first residency in Las Vegas ends with his August 15 to October 20 engagement. Clark County commissioner Jim Gibson honored Richie with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip on Tuesday and announced Wednesday was “Lionel Richie Day.”
So Richie is at the Cher show, singing ‘All Night Long, (All Night),” his big hit in late 1983, “and this man stands up and screams, ‘I want to talk to you! I want to talk to you!” And I’m thinking ‘Who is this guy?’”
It was Wolper.
Richie, who had written and produced Kenny Roger’s biggest hit, “Lady,” in 1980, could not have had a more influential force in his corner than Wolper.
The Hollywood powerhouse was credited with starting the network TV’s mini-series craze, turning the best-selling books “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough, “North and South” by John Jakes and Alex Haley’s “Roots” into ratings gold. He produced the cult classic “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “L.A. Confidential,” the 1997 Oscar nominee for Best Picture of the Year. Two years after the Los Angeles Olympics, Wolper produced Liberty Weekend, the 100th anniversary celebration and the Statue of Liberty and its restoration.
After Richie’s epic spotlight moment at the Olympics, “You just saw Lionel Richie go into the ozone, out of orbit, not in orbit, but totally out of orbit. ‘All Night Long’ was a hit (before the Olympics) but not that big. We went from Lionel Richie to my name became ‘Lionel Richie All Night Long, Lionel Richie All Night Long.’”
Without the benefit of today’s far-reaching social media, “I went from a guy that maybe a few people recognized to a guy who cannot walk (without being recognized) on the earth again.”
And the most important part of that night was, he said, “Ronald Reagan was supposed to come on the field to give a speech just before I started singing ‘All Night Long.’” But because of safety concerns, they decided they didn’t want to have him that exposed so they said, ‘Lionel, we want you to…. give that speech.’ So can you imagine, a kid from Alabama (saying) ‘And I know I speak for the people of America and the entire world”…so now I’m going to speak on behalf of the entire world. Are you kidding me? (laughter). It changed the course of history for me.”
I asked him what it meant monetarily.
“It did not double,”he said, "it tripled. Back then if you got $150,000 to $200,000, you were kicking ass.”
“More important it became the world. It’s Russia, it’s China. I did an interview in China and they asked ‘who do you pattern yourself after?’”
"I said 'Frank Sinatra.'
“They said, ‘We don’t know him.’”
“No, we don’t know him.”
Nat King Cole?
Now I said, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t know Elvis Presley?”
“They didn’t bring American music to China until 1984. We were the first (American) music they heard,” said Richie, shaking his head, still in disbelief all these years later. “Excuse me, but forget about it.”
The world hasn’t forgotten it. And I think we’ll see him back in Las Vegas in the not-to-distant future.