Say You, Say Oui: The Case for Lionel Richie's Induction Into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Lionel Richie, who damn well belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Lionel Richie, who damn well belongs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Photo by Dennis Leupold
On the cover of his eponymous solo debut in 1982, a wide-eyed Lionel Richie is shown staring straight at the camera, mustache and Afro mullet intact, wearing white slacks, a pink polo shirt with a popped collar, and a green crewneck sweater with the sleeves rolled up.

While this look effectively predicted the palette of Michael Mann's Miami Vice, which would make its network debut two years later, it was not, to put it mildly, very rock and roll. And yet here Richie is, in 2022, among 13 nominees for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Just how can this be? And is it blasphemy?

The answer to the second question, in a word, is no.

As for the first question, it's important to think of the "Rock" Hall as more of a Hall of Fame for all musical genres. While early classes — the Rock Hall inducted its first class in 1986, although the physical museum in Cleveland didn't open to the public until 1995 — adhered pretty closely to what most would rightly consider "rock and roll," the Hall eventually realized there were only so many influential Black R&B forefathers and truly deserving straightforward rock bands to enshrine. Inducting middling (at best) Caucasian acts like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Journey, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Yes while shutting the door on more esteemed genre-defying acts — many of which included people of color — wasn't a sustainable model.

Hence, the tent has been shrewdly enlarged to include the likes of Louis Armstrong, the Bee Gees, Carole King, Johnny Cash, Chicago, Jimmy Cliff, Miles Davis, Depeche Mode, Neil Diamond, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Madonna, Bob Marley, N.W.A., the Notorious B.I.G., Public Enemy, Roxy Music, Tupac, Donna Summer, and Hank Williams.

But still: Lionel Richie? A man whose slick, gooey '80s ballads can at least be partially credited for influencing the discordant sonic backlash that became grunge?

This would be a tough hump to get over, if not for the fact that others hadn't previously done it. Neil Diamond, Whitney Houston, the Bee Gees, Madonna, Chicago, Donna Summer, and Depeche Mode are already in the Rock Hall. In other words, there's no credible reason to keep Lionel out.

It's fair to wonder — as Joe Kwaczala recently did on his and Kristen Studard's enjoyably geeky podcast, Who Cares About the Rock Hall? (I was a guest on this particular episode) — whether the Rock Hall would have been better off nominating Richie alongside his fellow Commodores than as a solo artist, a maneuver that would mirror how Richie's fellow '80s balladeer, Peter Cetera, gained entry with Chicago, his estranged former band. But that ship has sailed (on) and distracts from the task at hand: assessing how Richie's career stacks up when compared to those of fellow 2022 nominees A Tribe Called Quest, Dolly Parton, Eminem, Judas Priest, Fela Kuti, Duran Duran, Pat Benatar, Kate Bush, Devo, the MC5, the Eurythmics, and Carly Simon.

Among this group, Parton is perhaps the only shoo-in. Or was: Country music's fairy godmother took herself out of the running, proclaiming that she'd like to do something worthwhile in the actual rock genre before entering its Hall of Fame.

Of the remaining dozen, Richie has as strong a case as any. And, perhaps more important, he has unparalleled momentum. He was recently awarded the prestigious Gershwin Prize at a star-studded Washington, D.C., gala, having previously been named MusiCares Person of the Year in 2016 and received a Kennedy Center honor in 2017. Past Gershwin Prize recipients include Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Carole King, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett, and Miami's own Gloria Estefan, whose Rock Hall discussion will have to wait for another day.

Richie has as strong a case as any. And, perhaps more important, he has unparalleled momentum.

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Back in 2004, it was hard to envision such a renaissance — or Richiessaince, if you will. Lionel could scarcely book a gig in the States but remained popular overseas (especially in Iraq) and was promoting a new album, Just for You, when he took some time out of his not-so-busy schedule to chat over the phone with a longtime fan (me) who happened to be a staff writer for Miami New Times' then-sister paper in St. Louis, Riverfront Times.

Although his career was not exactly at a high point, Richie's confidence in his stature and hitmaking ability remained impressively undiminished. When asked about a surprisingly faithful duet with Lenny Kravitz that appeared on the album, Richie said, "Was I expecting Lenny to be Lenny? No. I was expecting Lenny to give me Lionel Richie."

Our conversation veered toward his "global dreams" of Dubai and whether it's permissible for friends to listen to "Endless Love" in the dark. But when we discussed why, unlike some of his peers, he'd failed to gain much traction among hipsters and present-day tastemakers, he replied, "I love artists who wake up one morning and say, 'I must be considered an artiste.' My litmus test is if I'm still around after 29 years — that is the test I've already passed. I don't need a publication telling me that I'm okay.... Here's my test: record sales and box office."

His success in that regard is indisputable. Richi's first three solo albums went multiplatinum, with 1983's Can't Slow Down eventually selling more than 20 million copies worldwide. He co-wrote the schmaltzy megahit "We Are the World" with Michael Jackson and sang the song's opening lyrics. Five of his hits — "Endless Love," "Truly," "All Night Long (All Night)," "Hello," and "Say You, Say Me" — topped Billboard's Hot 100 pop chart, with countless more summiting the R&B, adult contemporary, and even country charts (including "Lady," which he penned for Kenny Rogers and which also topped the pop and adult contemporary charts).

A native Alabamian, Richie would leverage that country connection to return to the peak of the album charts in 2012 with Tuskegee, a collection of his hits recast as duets with country stars including Nelson, Rogers, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, and Darius Rucker. The critical community, which largely had been dismissive of Richie to that point, embraced the release, and Richie boarded a late-career rocket ship that would soon transport him to a judge's chair alongside Katy Perry and Luke Bryan on American Idol.

I've seen Richie perform live several times over the past 15 years. Unlike many of his peers — Daryl Hall, who can no longer hit the high notes, springs to mind — he is as good now as he was in his prime. His energy level makes it nearly impossible to believe that he is 72 years old or will one day no longer be with us.

The Rock Hall has opened its doors to not just wailing electric guitarists and heavy-metal drummers but to pop craftsmen and entertainers. And knowing that the door has swung sufficiently wide, here's hoping Richie strides through it later this year. He deserves to do so as easily as Sunday morning.

The public has until April 29 to vote for the most worthy 2022 Rock Hall nominees via vote.rockhall.com.
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An occasional New Times contributor, Mike Seely is a longtime journalist who has written for many publications, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He’s now a staff writer and editor at Better Collective, which owns the gambling news sites Sports Handle and US Bets. If you believe that's a conflict of interest, bear in mind that gambling writers are best equipped to make sense of that stuff for the rest of us.
Contact: Mike Seely