Is Lionel Richie The Nicest Man In Showbiz? Hanging Out With A Couple Of Commodores, November 2007

The exuberant tale of 26-year old Lionel Richie and Commodores fanboy that gets to meet to his hero – three times…

One-time-a-Lionel I knew was going to happen. Universal Records appreciated my daily on-air ravings about the magnificence of all things Lionel Richie and had put my name on the pre-concert meet ‘n’ greet list. It was a list of competition winners, music industry types and their bewildered children, and me. At 8.30pm, with our backstage passes freshly pressed onto our breast pockets, we were ushered through the corridors of Vector Arena and into a furniture-less room. Pre-Lionel nerves swept through the air and almost everyone was to take the almighty risk of squeezing a toilet stop in before squeezing the great man’s hand. If only we’d known the plush floor-to-ceiling curtains were hiding half a dozen toilets and a much larger room nobody would’ve had to dangerously venture out of the meet ‘n’ greet room. One-time-a-Lionel was to be in a disguised bathroom.

Luckily we all made it back in time. It was agreed that the fifteen of us standing silently in a perfect circle would not be the most welcoming entrance so we made attempts to strike relaxed stances of no particular pattern. Someone started talking about who the new All Black coach should be and the room of tense Lionel well-wishers suddenly became alive in standard Kiwi small talk.

It didn’t feel right though. I was here to talk about Lionel Richie and the Commodores and not Wayne Barnes and his Wikipedia entry. I decided to whip out a few of my old Commodores LPs from my bag and start showing them off. “Lionel’s gonna’ love you,” gushed one woman, “Look at the afro!” said another. Conversation was back on track, caps removed from vivids and plans of what to say when he arrived debated. Someone was heard plotting to sing the word “Hello” to Lionel to the tune of his song.

It was 8.50pm and Lionel was to be onstage in only 10 minutes. Just as we thought time was running out in he strolled, accompanied by the obligatory minder. He can look tall and a little gangly on stage, but in real life he seemed smaller. Compared to my old Commodores photos the hair was a lot smaller too. But the wide smile was still there, the gold crucifix around the neck still dangled with combined religious / opulent fervour and he looked dapper in a black collared shirt, shimmering pants and equally spectacular shoes. And at 58 years, whether through good genes or a good surgeon, he looks healthy and happy in the knowledge that he is Lionel Richie and if he wasn’t so famous he could pass for 45.

After being presented with a pounamu from the record company, Lionel began to work the room. I was second to be introduced and snapped in a photo with him and had my line ready for blurting: “I’m friends with your old Commodores buddy Ron LaPread and he co-hosts a soul and r&b show with me on the radio.” Boom! I was in. Lionel looked me in the eye as we shook and said with that warm southern drawl, “Well you’re in store for a great show, this is a Commodore show tonight!” He told me Ron was backstage and I should come say hi afterwards. The old LPs remained hidden away as the minder said there wasn’t time for signings, but there’d be time-a-plenty for that later. Lionel had charmed both the men and the women and within five minutes was gone. One-time-a-Lionel next to the hidden toilets was over.

Two-times-a-Lionel would be just a couple of hours later, the small matter of his sold out Auckland concert in between. He’d said it would be a “Commodore” show and it only took until the third song before he sat down behind the piano and uttered the words he says before every Commodores song: “A little Commadaww right now!” The song, a rollicking seven minute version of Easy with a bit of My Love thrown in, saw the trademark Lionel Richie grin firmly in place and it barely left his face the rest of the set.

Early on in the performance he announced it would be “an extra special show,” and we would soon find out he really did mean it. This would be different to the show in Christchurch and different to the dates in Australia ahead. Ron LaPread, Commodores bassist and New Zealand resident for more than 20 years, had endured five months of me asking whether he was going up on stage with Lionel Richie. He always gave the impression he’d want to, but said he wasn’t at rehearsal so how could he? Mate, you wrote Brick House! You don’t need any rehearsal! Keeping his cards close to his chest, I, like everybody else, was in the dark as to whether he’d be up there in front of the sold out crowd. Maybe Lionel hadn’t even asked yet and if he did, would Ron say yes?

“The only reason there is Lionel Richie is because there was the Commodores!” said Lionel to loud applause in between songs. Then it happened. He mentioned his Commodore brother by name and to everyone’s delight called Ron onstage. The two embraced and Lionel dedicated the concert to his old friend. Ron waved to the crowd and left to a knowing ovation – proof that he hasn’t slipped entirely under the radar with all these years living in New Zealand.

That might’ve been it for the mini Commodores reunion, but just over 90 minutes later with the crowd standing to ovate Say You Say Me, Lionel decided to turn up a the heat a little and said the line so many hoped he would: “I can’t do this next song until I bring out Ronald!” On to the stage strolled a beaming Ron, bass guitar in its rightful place hanging from his neck. He joined the band for a riotous medley of Brick House and Fire, his fingers popping and slapping the strings just as good as when he’d first carved those grooves 30 years before.

Seeing him up there reaffirmed what I’d known for years: Ron LaPread is not just one of the great bassists, he’s also one of the most criminally underrated. To borrow a line from Bruce Springsteen, he makes that guitar talk. In his hands the bass is as much a lead instrument as the electric guitar, and in the case of the Commodores stew of r&b, funk, country, ballads and dance-pop, perhaps even more so.

It’s rare a concert’s defining moment isn’t a musical one, but even better than the music of the Lionel / Ron reunion was seeing the two lifelong friends arm in arm triumphantly leaving the stage. That was the moment of pure joy that will stick in my mind for years to come. Lionel would return for two more songs before fare-welling the Kiwi fans and retreating backstage for high-fives with his fellow Tuskegee homeboy. This would take place in a room mercifully a luxury-notch or five up from the earlier meet ‘n’ greet facility. This would be the scene of two-times-a-Lionel.

It took me back to the first time I met Ron as a 19 year old studying for a communications degree at AUT. The class was set a radio paper assignment where we had to do a 10 minute interview with anyone we wanted and I knew there was a Commodore in my midst so I set about tracking him down. The interview took place in my living room and 10 minutes became hour which in turn became two. Ron precariously sat on a long since deceased rickety wooden chair (barely suitable for small white people) and entertained me with stories of the Commodores and all their famous friends.

That day I also played him a copy of the then new Lionel solo album Renaissance and started a trend that still remains: It’s not Lionel who sends Ron copies of his new CDs and DVDs, it’s me. One of the benefits of working in radio is the free stuff and I make sure Ron never goes without. As recently as the week before the concert, I sat down with him and watched Lionel Richie Live In Paris and was witness to him singing along to solo hits like My Love just as much as storming Commodores funk like Fancy Dancer.

So here we were, seven years and five Lionel Richie CDs and two DVDs later and backstage at the star’s first New Zealand concert since his Dancing On The Ceiling commercial heyday. Ron motioned to me with his hand to come over and chat with him and Lionel. There were about 20 people in the room nibbling on finger food and sipping from glasses, but all eyes were on the two Commodores having an animated conversation full of hand gestures, laughs and back-slapping. They were talking in a way only close friends can where it’s a lingo only they know and it required deep concentration on everybody else’s part to figure out exactly what each hilarious tale was about. Every time a punch line was reached they would both double over in laughter and try and get the next line in with “But Pread, Pread, what about when…..” or “Richie! Richie! Remember how in Fort Worth that time…”

“Pread” and “Richie” were having the time of their lives and with my bag of Lionel and Commodores records in hand I walked over to an introduction of “Richie, you gotta’ meet this guy!” Ron then explained the story of being interviewed by me in a house filled with thousands of records, more than 30 of those being by either Lionel Richie or the Commodores: “Tim rang me up a week later and said ‘Hey Ron, I got an A+! And now look, he’s a radio star,” said Ron with liberal use of the word “star”.

I managed to explain that it was now Ron who was the radio star thanks to our Sunday night soul show before Ron’s beautiful daughter Soraya encouraged me to cut to the chase and show Lionel all the old records I’d brought along.

This is the fun part. Most music legends have forged their extraordinary careers by yes, being proud of what they’ve done, but more-so by actively not dwelling on it; they are always looking forward and it is not uncommon for them not to have laid eyes or ears on their old albums for years, sometimes decades. “Wait a minute…How do you have this stuff!?” said Lionel laughing, keen to take the trip back in time and curious to see just how big that afro really had been. With every old album sleeve shown Lionel and Ron had stories to tell: “Pread! Pread! Remember this one? We had no money then!” Two minutes later and having fast-forwarded from a 1975 album to a 1978 album: “Oh we had money then!,” they joked as they looked at a Three Times A Lady era photo dominated by afros, bling, outrageous glasses and the hippest clothes money could buy.

For the next 45 minutes Lionel laughed, posed for photos, signed autographs and entertained the room with stories of everything from the time he had to sing Hello on helium on a German game show to when a Swedish TV host played a practical joke on him by disguising herself as a confused Japanese reporter who thought Three Times A Lady was the ultimate tribute to ménage a trois. Those small-town lads from Alabama sure know how to tell a good story and I went home a very happy man.

Thinking that would be it for me and Lionel it was great to get a call the next day from Ron’s son Mark saying I was welcome to join the family for a drink with Lionel that night after dinner. Three-times-a-Lionel was to be in the private dining room of one of our city’s premier hotels and I arrived at the instructed time of midnight. The arrival time might sound debaucherous but the mood was anything but. The LaPread family (Ron, his wife Fari, daughter Soraya and son Mark) were playing host to Lionel, his manager, his personal assistant and several other friends of the family. They’d enjoyed a delicious meal (I kept hearing ravings about the duck) and everyone seemed in a relaxed, happy mood. Ron and Lionel were at it again, sitting opposite each other at the long table, leaning inwards across it as they told story after story about the old days.

After talking with Lionel’s fairly extraordinary PA Michael for 20 minutes (a young multi-millionaire businessman with a criminal law degree and wristwatch worth more than my annual salary), Lionel got up and walked down towards my end of the table. He was bathroom-bound but stopped to pat me on the shoulder and say, “Ahhh, Tim, my Commodores man! I gotta’ talk to you when I get back. This is the guy who knows more about me than I do!” he said cracking up. Stopping briefly to realize the Bee Gees had once said the exact same thing to me (and was this a concern), I had to say something and tossed back the line “That’s OK, I’ll get you up to speed.” Lionel thought it was funny even if Michael was shaking his head.

When Lionel returned to the room he pulled up a chair next to me and I got the ball rolling by telling him I’d ensured he made the news while in New Zealand. That day I’d written a news story for Newstalk ZB (that played on nearly half the country’s radio stations) saying last night’s concert was the first time in more than 25 years he and Ron had performed onstage together. “Now I don’t know whether that’s strictly true or not Lionel, but I thought it sounded good,” I confided. Pressing a finger on his lips and looking ponderously upwards, Lionel paused for a few seconds before replying with “I don’t know whether that’s strictly true either but it was the right thing to say, well done!”

Turns out Ron and Lionel did perform together at Lionel’s 40th birthday party some years back, but this was indeed the first proper concert since Lionel left the band in the early 80s. Your faith in The Radio Network’s news credibility needn’t be tarnished.

Lionel and I spoke for a further 10 minutes before he gravitated down the table back towards the man he was clearly having so much fun seeing again, Ron. Ron’s daughter Soraya had been put in charge of the background music and had quietly swapped out a Sly and the Family Stone CD in favour of an early Commodores best of. Soraya is a fellow Commodores diehard and putting on that CD was like lighting a firework you’ve never seen before and waiting for the explosion. Will it go off fantastically, will it fizzle out spectacularly, will anyone even notice it?

Playing quietly beneath the chatter in the room, song one on the CD went by largely unnoticed. Song two was a different story though. Machine Gun is a song that has never gone by unnoticed; it was a big hit in both the US and UK and became a colossal hit in places as far flung as Nigeria, the Philippines and even little old New Zealand. Slowly both Lionel and Ron’s heads began to nod to the beat. They started to interrupt their own conversations with comments like “Damn!” By song six, the funk classic Slippery When Wet, both Commodores were revelling in hearing just how good they were. Listening to music in the presence of the people who made it is always special because you get to see how they react to their own songs. Ron pulled out his traditional air bass guitar and Lionel marvelled at how high he sung. We would find out four songs later that the tragically long forgotten ballad This Is Your Life is Ron’s all time favourite Lionel song.

After Ron stood and thanked everyone for coming and giving Lionel such a good taste of New Zealand it was time to bid farewell, which really meant it was time for final photos, final anecdotes, final jokes, final signings, final accolades and ultimately, about 20 minutes later, the final goodbye. It was 1.30am and I walked home, this time safe in the knowledge Lionel will definitely be touring this way again soon. He even mentioned he’d so loved performing with Ron again that he’s going to relearn many of the old Commodores songs he hasn’t played in years and add them back to his set. This Lionel / Ron reunion may not just be a once off.

The next day everyone wanted to know what he was like. Lionel Richie is funny and engaging in person and (best of all for his fans) clearly rejuvenated in his career. He’s already finished eight songs for next year’s as yet untitled CD and it will be his sixth full studio album of the past 12 years, a remarkable pace for someone who first started recording back in the early 70s. His PA Michael kindly told me he’d get Ron to hook me up with a copy of the new work as soon as it’s released. “Oh no,” I said, “it’s me who hooks Ron up!” It’s the least I can do for him, especially with what he’s done for my career. I just think how different things would’ve been if the chair had collapsed with Ron in it all those years ago.

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