Talk about a change of plans! Lionel Richie says he was once set on becoming a man of the cloth, but a group of spirited young women helped change his mind.
Opening up in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, the American Idol judge and award-winning hitmaker, 69, reveals secrets to his decades-long success — and journeys back to how it all began.
“I left my mom and dad’s house to go to Tuskegee University, and I met my Commodore friends there,” says Richie of the funk-soul band he joined at the historically black college. “At the time I was seriously considering being an Episcopal priest. [But] the first time I played with the Commodores, a group of girls screamed. Up until that moment no one, no girl had ever screamed at me.”
Their enthusiasm was life-changing. “I didn’t play basketball, football, baseball. I played on the tennis team, and no girl ever screamed at the tennis court. It was right after those girls screamed, I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna be priest material.'”
Richie says that his parents, on the other hand, weren’t big fans at the time. “My dad and mom did not understand the Commodores, because they didn’t understand that times had changed,” he recalls. “I was this Martian that showed up at the house one day with an afro. Everything I basically stood for in the beginning of my career, my mom and dad did not understand it, not one bit. Nor did the community.”
He continues, “[Tuskegee, Ala.] was an academic community. My father was a military man. You could imagine what he was saying to me at that particular time.” But Richie followed his heart, to amazing results.
“Surprisingly enough, my plan worked. The Commodores got our first hit record in 1974. We went from opening for the Jackson 5 to headlining Madison Square Garden with Bob Marley as our opening act. From then on I realized I could write songs and I could sing.”
Next up was setting out on his own. “Transitioning into my solo career started with Kenny Rogers and the song I wrote for him, ‘Lady’,” he says. “It was monumental, across the board No. 1, forget about it. Then of course, “Endless Love” with Diana Ross. I’d never done a duet with anyone let alone written one. From there, the world just took off with Lionel Richie hanging on the back of the rocket.”
Asked how he managed to survive the throes of major fame in the ’80s and early ’90s, Richie says he took a much-needed step back. “Get in your car, get it up to 100 miles an hour, stick your head out the window and tell me what you see. That’s how fast I was going. Everything became this blur.”
He adds, “What was happening around me at the time was chaos on all levels. Chaos at home [with then-wife Brenda], chaos in the career, chaos with my friends, chaos with family. I did something that most people don’t do; I bailed out.”
At the time Richie’s father had fallen ill and he took time off to care for him back home in Alabama.
“I always say there’s a plan and then there’s God’s plan. I left the road for about two years, and during that time a lot of my friends crashed and burned. I wasn’t the only one on that [fame] rocket. It was happening to Michael [Jackson] and Prince, the whole group. I needed that time off. It probably saved me.”
These days the star—who’s dad to Nicole Richie, 37, Sofia Richie, 20, and Miles Richie, 24 — is busier than ever. In the midst of his second season judging American Idol on ABC, Richie just announced his upcoming new album Live From Las Vegas and Hello Tour and is busy promoting his new Endless Love home decor line. He’s also working closely with Prince Charles as Global Ambassador to the Prince’s Trust International charity.
But for his 70th birthday in June, he’s planning to slow down again, just for a bit. “I have been on stage my whole life,” he says. “On that big day I’m gonna find me someplace quiet where I don’t hear a drummer or cymbal crash, look down the long end of that beach, and go, ‘How the hell did I get this far?'”