From the trendy seventies last time, we move on up to the next decade to spend time with a single that outsold everything within touching distance and elevated its creator into the musical stratosphere. So, let’s get down to business…
When Lionel Richie left the Commodores in 1982, it was rather obvious he would excel as a soloist but I reckon even he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams the awesome success he went on to achieve. His first album as a single man contained a trio of hit singles “Truly”, which was a smooth ballad earmarked for the Commodores but which our Lionel opted to record himself, followed by the sublime “You Are” and “My Love”. When he recorded this album, the intention was to stay as a member of the Commodores, as he told me in 1981. “What Motown asked me to do was put out a solo album after the success of ‘Lady’ (with Kenny Rogers) and ‘Endless Love (with Diana Ross) because it was perfect timing. So the word ‘solo’ just meant record.”
During the nine months it took to record “Lionel Richie”, the singer performed “Endless Love” at the 55th Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles during March 1982, and later sang it live with Diana Ross at the Oscars gala before a global tv audience of 361 million. “After that evening my life changed” he said. You can say that again Mr Richie!
“Lionel Richie” was the first album from a black act to pass the one-million sales mark, on its way to platinum sales. Before its life ended, it had attracted most industry awards available at the time. “The success I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy with my first album is tremendous and a lot of fun, but I experienced enough success with the Commodores to last me a lifetime. I’m past the glitter part and the money part of it, although money is always good, but I still get a better thrill out of recording and touring.” While Lionel was courting the media, the group he left behind began to realise their main man wasn’t returning, despite his original intention. Commodore Milan Williams told the media “The actual split was emotional and for the first few days we did without him, we missed him. However, we knew in advance what was going to happen and were able to adapt so that made it easier…The separation wasn’t hostile. We have remained and will always be good friends.”
So could the ex-Commodore repeat his success? You bet he could. His 1983 follow-up album “Can’t Slow Down” was a monster release, eventually selling twice as many copies as its predecessor, winning two Grammy awards and Lord-knows-how-many other honours and what- nots. Out of the eight tracks, five were top ten singles, including two charttoppers, so Lionel had clearly got the balance just right. “All Night Long (All Night)” was the first, followed by “Running With The Night”, but it was the third that swept across the international board like a tsunami, taking no prisoners. Simply titled “Hello” the song was simply stunning, a typical Lionel Richie ballad with lyrics that melted the heart, and embraced the listener with its message of love. OK, so that’s a bit cheesy, but it was (and still is I guess) a great ballad that’s travelled well through the years.
“Hello” was the top UK single in April 1984 – see we got there in the end! – a position it held for six long weeks. To promote this slice of Richie magic, he starred in a promotional video, directed by the wonderful Bob Giraldi, with 25-year-old Laura Carrington playing a blind girl. Perhaps in hindsight, this video which attracted more than its fair share of criticism (to put it mildly) could have been scrapped for something more acceptable. Adverse spats included one from journalist Dessa Fox who wrote this in the weekly music paper Melody Maker – “The leading lady has been given a white stick, told to flutter her eyes, look enigmatic and in general behave like a sugar-fed Bambi. What she is not doing is acting human, like the rest of us. The sleaziest section of ‘Hello’ comes at the end of the bed sequence. The telephone rings and – in an insult to blind people everywhere, who know exactly where familiar noise sources are – this ‘actress’ attempts to squeeze tears from us sentimental record buyers by groping around for the telephone.” A little harsh you may think, yet I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I said the video made uncomfortable watching which obviously wasn’t what Lionel intended.
So let’s now plough on with the video’s storyline. Lionel played a drama teacher who falls in love with a blind student. He’s obsessed with her, even phoning her at home. Well, it’s as if he’s stalking her which, some journalists suggested at the time, could easily be interpreted as a trailer for a John Carpenter horror film. But, hey, wait a minute. She then decides to sculpt a clay model of his head. I’m not making this up, honest. According to Laura, the before mentioned blind student, one scene was actually edited out. “I did a naked shower scene, where the camera panned up my legs and back as I got out of the shower and groped for a towel. But neither Lionel nor Bob Giraldi thought it was suitable because they wanted the video to be wholesome.” Playing a blind girl was something of a challenge, she added, and “It took enormous concentration to block out everything that passed in front of me. But playing opposite Lionel was one of the biggest breaks an actress could wish for.”
Director Bob Giraldi added – “The song’s lyrics say it all – ‘Is it me you’re looking for?’ She sculpts this oversized head of Lionel on just what she can imagine. So from afar he had admired her and loved her, and that basically is what the song was to me.” However, the young student’s sculpting skills left a lot to be desired, but the finished clay bust did bring tears to her teacher’s eyes, so that was the main thing. Lionel, however, was beside himself – “We filmed one segment. I said ‘You really have to take a look at this.’ We filmed the second segment, and here comes the third, where I had to shoot with the bust. Again I said ‘Bob, it doesn’t look like me.’ It worried me to death to stand next to this bust. I’m going ‘Oh my God, I hope the world doesn’t see me looking like this.'” Once again Bob Giraldi came to the rescue – “Lionel, she’s blind. If she got the perfect look, what kind of exceptional person is this? It’s got to look a little skewed and off.”
Anyway, by all accounts the clay sculpture came to a sticky end. When Lionel was asked its fate he laughed it off, saying “It fell off the table in the middle of the last take. It was kinda awful”. Fell or pushed I wonder? Judging by the attention it attracted after the single was released, the ‘kinda awful’ creation could have been worth a few bob to a collector. There’s a picture of it somewhere here, so what do you think? And more seriously, Lionel actually later admitted that, in hindsight, pretending someone was blind was the worst suggestion on the planet. Erm, he wasn’t wrong in that assumption, was he, because the video was later voted as one of the worst ever filmed and relegated to wherever naff promo films end up.
However, believe it or not, the same fate didn’t befall the ‘skewed’ clay bust, known years later as the ‘classic Lionel Richie Hello sculpture’. I visited an on-line site, Tom Spina Designs, which had sculpted the head a couple of times. The first was created for an artist who wanted a life-sized candle of the bust, while the second was a resin version purchased to display in a client’s home. The site’s blurb confirmed this resin one which is like fibreglass or plastic, was foam filled and painted to look like a clay sculpture.
Hah, this single had a lot to answer for because there’s more. Decades on “Hello” was the name of Lionel’s perfume and aftershave. For us ladies, he whipped up a seductively intoxicating, vibrant and assured scent giving women a sensual and empowering blend of lemon, jasmine and Ambrox ingredients for a fresh yet warm fragrance. For the guys he mixed a sexy combination of modern notes and a classic vibe together, into a stylist blend of sparking fougere mixed with warm ambery note. Made for the night, this male aftershave is as addictive as it is explosive, and as enticing as it is seductive. Needless to say, these aren’t my words but some high-faluting marketing blurb. All I need to know is what the perfume smells like, but as it appears to be available on-line only I’m not investing £20 – £40 in a bottle of something I haven’t smelt!
So, from a ballad that sold by the millions to be revered years later as one of the most significant love songs ever, and from which Lionel pinched the line “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” to open his concerts, to a dodgy video that was shot with all the best intentions, to a pricey perfume and aftershave created to be intoxicating and explosive, Lionel Richie has done rather well for himself, hasn’t he?