Wednesday, April 27, 2016 | 1:58 p.m.
It was last year at the Beverly Hills Hotel that I bumped into my friend superstar singer Lionel Richie and told him that I was about to exclusively report on Vegas DeLuxe that he’d won a residency at Axis at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. “That’s news to me,” he responded. “I know there’d been talks, but I didn’t know it had become definite.”
On Monday afternoon, fulfilling a promise from about a year ago, Lionel arrived for his first rehearsal and sat with me for his first interview about the show, “All the Hits,” that opens tonight. “Here I am exactly as you predicted. How could I not talk with you first? But tell me, since you know everything that’s moving in Las Vegas, how long am I here?”
I told him that after his planned gigs this month and again later in the year, the hotel has another two years planned after that for a total three-year residency. He was thrilled to hear the news, then laughed: “I just wanted to make sure you knew it!”
The setlist for “All the Hits” includes “Running With the Night,” “Penny Lover,” “Easy,” “Ballerina Girl,” “You Are,” “Truly,” “Still,” “Oh, No,” “Stuck on You,” “Destiny,” “Endless Love,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Sail On,” The Commodores’ medley of “Fancy Dancer,” “Sweet Love,” “Lady, You Bring Me Up” and “Just To Be Close To You,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Brick House,” “Hello,” “We Are the World” and “All Night Long.”
Going back to January 2015 seemed like an appropriate moment in time to start our conversation:
When I first told you about this, you said that you would only come if it was a spectacular, if it was a real Las Vegas show. Has it turned out that way?
Yes. In fact, all we’ve had to do is plug in the spectaculars. I have the words down — “Dancing on the Ceiling” — so add the spectacular, and we’ll be dancing on the ceiling. Before this is all done, “All Night Long” will really seem like all night long!
Do you have any fears about going up 90 feet?
All I’m going to tell you is it ain’t me. What I’m saying to you is that the whole concept is everything that we could never pull off on the road because it’s too bloody expensive for the insurance liability. Here, because we’re stationary, we can pull off everything, so you’ve already seen the rehearsal fireworks, the flames — and, look, we have the largest disco ball in the entire world.
We’re going to take you through the ’70s and the ’80s. It’s going to be absolutely crazy. If I do my job correctly, they’ll be exhausted going their way out the door and I’m going out backstage for a nice dinner.
Who’s in the cast with you?
I’ve got a cast of five fabulous musicians. Chucki Booker is my music director who is an artist in his own right. Ben Morrow, who is the guitar player. Ethan Farmer is the bass player. Oscar Seddon, who has played with everyone from George Benson to you name it. And Dino Saldo, our saxophone player. That’s the group.
So no dancers?
No. No, sir. When you come in, we don’t kill you with dancing. My thing is we kill you with the hits.
So how do I explain “Dancing on the Ceiling”?
Well, I can’t give that away. That’s a surprise. It’s a hold-your-breath moment, though, and, on top of that, it’s the grandeur of it. In other words, what we’re going to do is a little bit of Broadway with a little bit of theater and a little bit of R&B and rock and roll.
With everything you’ve done over the years, this on the Strip is the one thing you haven’t done?
Never like this. We did it back in the ’70s and ’80s when you could do those kind of theatrics. But, then again, that was with The Commodores. But, in this case for me, I’ve not done this. This is a first for me.
It is so exciting, and we’re on an adventure. We have a team of really fabulous people. Jeff Hornaday has done a great job, and the people here at Planet Hollywood, I’ve known Robert Earl and his crazy guys for the longest time. He’s already informed me that the town is ready for him. You know Robert, so it’s his party, not mine. I’m just coming. I told him, “Make your party wonderful. I’ll show up.” That’s what’s going to happen.
This giant disco ball is going up into the ceiling?
You can’t have Lionel Richie go through an era of the ’70s without a disco ball. You got to have it. We have the biggest and best! That’s exactly what we’re planning. Again, like I said, everything you probably would have imagined, it’s going to be that and more on steroids. My job is just to remember one thing: the lyrics. The rest of it is called. The crowd will do all of the work. I’ll tell you why I say that. Watch the phenomenon, and that is, who’s going to sing more, the crowd or me? They’ll come dressed like me from the old days. They’ll have paint daubed on their face. I have to tell you, it’s karaoke night.
So you are the minister of love?
You understand … and there are people in the audience who, for whatever reason, if I decide to leave out the second verse, they’re deeply upset because they know that part, too.
They’ll just sing it without you?
And they cannot wait for me to say, “You guys do it.” And they take over. Wherever we go — in Europe now, you name the festivals around America — these are kids between the ages of what, 19 and 35 years old, they know every lyric to every song. I keep saying, “How do you guys know this?” They tell me, “My mom and dad. They played these songs in their houses every day while they were growing up.” So now what’s happening is Mom and Dad are coming, Grandma and Grandpa are coming, and the kids are coming.
After all these years, does that amaze you?
Yes, it does. I have to tell you something from the days of The Commodores. If you had said to me, “What was the goal in the early ’70s?” And there are girls in the dormitory, how do you get them outside? Join a band. And then into the ’70s, I was thinking about retiring as a Commodore. Then, all of a sudden, something came along called “All Night Long,” “Truly” and “Hello.” And, all of a sudden, we took off again. Here we are 35 years later and still going strong. It’s unbelievable.
The longevity thread through it all is love?
You know, I found the only subject that does not go out of style. I love you. People don’t want to hear, “Let’s be friends. I like you.”
That phrase does not work. It’s three corny words, I love you, in any form. Now it’s I’m looking for love, I’ve lost love, I’m suffering because of love, but the theme is love. It’s the only subject that will never go out of style.
To you, has love through the ages been fairly constant, or has there been some peaks and valleys?
No, no, no, I’ve actually walked my songs. When I wrote the songs, I wasn’t that familiar with, you know how when you’re looking in the audience and you see people crying hysterically, and I say, “I don’t know why they’re crying?”
But you wrote “Still,” Lionel.
“Still” is a song that breaks me up. And now, here we are 35 years later, I get to “Sail On,” and when I wrote “Sail On,” I was in my first marriage thinking nothing about breaking up. Then, all of a sudden, I went through my breakup, and a dear friend of mine said, “I have some inspirational tapes I want you to listen to.” He brought me all of my records and circled the songs I needed to listen to.
No kidding? You didn’t need Tony Robbins?
No kidding. Didn’t need Tony Robbins. For the first time in my life, I started paying attention to the lyrics that I’d already written. Now when I come to the show, the drama is in the audience. I’m singing the saddest song in my entire show. There’s a person laughing hysterically, I’m playing “All Night Long,” they’re crying hysterically. These songs have memories to them.
The audience does actually listen to each line of the lyrics?
Everything. Not just the melodies. It’s the words; they’re powerful. I found that I write simple. “Hello,” “Easy,” “Stuck On You,” “Truly,” “Endless Love.”
The one-word master.
You follow me? So you don’t have to say a lot. “Brick House” is “Brick House” 400 years from now. It’s just that I found that the simpler I can say it, the better it’s going to stick. You know it’s worked is when so many people have come to me for years now telling me they learned English from my songs.
So what’s going on now is actually a celebration 35 to 40 years later. I told them, “Build me a building because I love it here.” This is, for me, now. We’ve been through Las Vegas in two stages. We were here when Las Vegas hit and got quiet. That’s when we had Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Lola Folana, the whole thing. Then we went through a period of nothingness. Now this is the hottest destination on the planet.
I think that’s thanks to Britney Spears here at Planet Hollywood and Caesars across the street thanks to Celine Dion. Changed the whole thing.
The game has changed. So, I use my son, all you need is a 21-year-old son, he is my adviser. So I happen to go to him and say, “Hey, Miles, if I told you I was going to play Las Vegas, what would you think about that?” He says, “Oh my God, Dad, we are going to have a great time! Are you kidding me?”
Did you sneak in to see Britney, J.Lo or Pitbull?
I did. I sat right here in this spot. I haven’t seen J.Lo., but I sent all of my spies in and I heard. I saw Britney, and I snuck in for Pitbull. They know what they’re doing. One thing about Jennifer and Britney and Pitbull: They’re on their A-game.
And when you play the A-game, you really play it. I love the spectacular of it because it’s right here. They’re right in your face. This is better than any arena that you’ll play because you don’t really get to feel the pulse.
In building the show, are you happy about the way it’s come together?
Oh, yeah. Again, here’s what I love. Whatever we thought it was going to be, we get to tweak it for the second half. You know me, I like to add on. In other words, if this is my first impression, you come back in the fall, there’s a second impression. I’ll come back next year. Just like Elton John, Elton started off one way, and he kept changing it up. Now it’s nothing like it was when he first started.
Right now we haven’t even run our first rehearsal. This is my first time looking at the set all assembled. You’re telling me I missed the flames and the fire. Again, you’re telling me something I didn’t know yet! It’s going to be warm up there. But, you know, you have to have it.
There’s no faking around here. I love it because, truthfully, very few of us can actually do the real thing. You know, so, with me, I was very fortunate. The songs stuck around, and all I have got to do now is make that a real experience for everybody. We will!
It is incredible, when you think about it, that songs can have a lifespan of 40 years, though, isn’t it? It’s still a hit today, and you use that word hit because it is the only word you could use to describe it.
We did a festival outside London for 200,000 people in a park. I’ll give you the photo to show everybody. There are 12-year-olds. There are 9- to 12-year-olds with “Hello, is it me you’re looking for” and “Lionel Richie” written on their faces. I go, “What do they know about this?”
That’s when I realized, “OK, it’s really stuck around.” Because the truth of the matter is what my father said to me when we first started, he goes, “What makes you think The Commodores is going to be any bigger than the other groups?” I said, “Dad, you don’t understand, we’re the black Beatles. We’re going to take over the world.” Now, I think back 40 years, I think, “What the hell was I thinking?” But the truth of the matter is, it is magical. It is magic, just like you said. It’s not guaranteed.
It must have been an incredible experience, too, performing those love songs in Dubai because that’s a different culture, and love there is very different?
I told them I was them. I am Muslim, I am Israeli, I am Palestinian, I am Egyptian. I am part of that world when you get there.
Maybe your lyrics could solve that mess of different cultures and stop them trying to kill each other?
The lyrics have already done that. I’ve been in rooms where people do learn from the words. Years ago, I went into a room and it was all ladies, the wives of leaders of the Middle East. I asked one question, I said, “Ladies, why am I here?” They all laughed and said, “Lionel, up until now, we have not been able to agree on anything. We thought if we start with the first thing we all agree on, which is you, we can go from here.”
That was right in Cairo, and it was a very good feeling to hear that. It made my mouth drop because how about going to a place you’ve never been to before. The culture completely different from anything, they know every word to every song. So my joke was when I walked onstage, and the crowd rushed the stage, and security is throwing people off the stage, I turn around and go, “Is this Detroit?” It worked.
We’ve got a couple of other interviews to do, then rehearsals for the first time. But we’ve been together so freaking long that it was imperative that you be a part of this from the beginning. Let me get them to send you the photos. Maybe we’ll put them up on the giant video screens here because they are so precious.
“Lionel Richie: All The Hits” premieres tonight at 8 and continues through May 18, with a second run Sept. 21-Oct. 12. Tickets are $59 to $219, plus fees.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.
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