Lionel Richie’s ‘Idol’ strategy: No humiliation, no BS

Friday, 01 December 2017, 12:28:26 PM. Lionel Richie recalls his early days with the Commodores: “We didn’t make it until I was 26, and we heard ‘No’ all the way through. But to me, it didn’t mean, ‘N…

Lionel Richie well remembers Axis theater, though not as Axis theater. In its first incarnation the theater at the now-Planet Hollywood was the Theatre for the Performing Arts at Aladdin.

And in the early 1980s, when Richie split from the Commodores to strike out on his own, the TPA was the place to rock, get funky, and get your Vegas on.

“We did ‘All Night Long,’ before it was a hit, in my first show here in Vegas,” says Richie, who is back onstage in his “All The Hits” extended engagement for select dates through Dec. 16. “Now, back in the day, you could put a song out and it would take two to three weeks for it to be a hit. But when I started ‘All Night Long’ people responded to it as if it was already a hit. They had no idea what is was, but they liked it.

“As time went on, and people started hearing it on the radio, it became the closing song, and of course a really big hit for me.”

That was in 1982, when Richie had just started his dominance of the Billboard Top 40 charts and MTV with such hits as, “Say You, Say Me,” “Hello,” “Stuck on You,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” and his duet with Diana Ross, “Endless Love.”

Even in Richie’s early solo concerts, he embraced Vegas staging and theatrics.

“I walked through the audience to open with ‘Truly,’ and by the time I got to the front of the stage it was, ‘Truuuuuly!’ Big entrance,” Richie says. “I was worried about the were going to snatch the Afro off my head, but my producer said, ‘Trust me. They’ll be in such awe, they won’t come near you.’ “

Richie laughs, adding, “Nobody touched me, and I’m onstage going, ‘Why didn’t anyone touch me?’ I was stunned.”

As lean and fit as he was in his Commodores era, the 68-year-old Richie is tapping into his wealth of stage and recording experience as a judge on “American Idol,” which returns in March 11 on ABC. His debut on the competition series coincides with his next set of dates at Axis in March.

Richie says he’s not anticipating being brusque or biting with the contestants, nor is he a forgiving critic.

“They basically wanted me to be Papa Bear, or The Professor,” Richie says. “I said, ‘OK, that’s in my wheelhouse.’ And I’ll tell you, Papa Bear is going to be very, very aware of, ‘You can’t B.S. me.’ I am not here to humiliate, but I am here to judge, and I’m going to tell these contestants, many of them, ‘You’re going to year a lot of ‘No’ in your career, and it .”

Richie heard it, too.

“Hey, when I was 19, 20, 21, I thought, ‘We’re the Rolling Stones, or the Temptations, or Sly & The Family Stone, you follow me?” Richie says. “We were not that. We didn’t make it until I was 26, and we heard ‘No’ all the way through. But to me, it didn’t mean, ‘No,’ it meant, ‘Not now.’ “

Even more than the show’s format and capacity to pinpoint new entertainment superstars, Richie was sold on his fellow “Idol” judges.

“Ryan Seacrest called and started naming names, ‘Katy Perry and Luke Bryan’ and I loved hearing that,” Richie says. “The show is very much, ‘Who are you hanging with?’ It’s almost like a band. When you think back to when I hosted the ‘American Music Awards’ in the day, yes, I was hosting it, but Michael Jackson was there and he was up for an award, Prince was up for an award, and Bruce Springsteen was up for an award. You know what I’m saying? Being around them made it special.”

That was in 1985, when Richie won the Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist award, impressively topping Prince and Springsteen. His stage show at Axis is heavy with his solo hits, but Richie also plucks freely from his career with the Commodores in his shows at Axis. Disco is alive with “Brick House,” and ballads “Still” and “Three Times a Lady” warm the theater.

Richie is asked what he needs to achieve for the Strip show to be a success.

“Give them what they are looking for, the songs, they want to hear, and somewhere connect with them,” Richie says. We need that, ‘Ah, he was there in 1975!’ And see a parent tell a son or daughter, ‘This is the guy!’ with a log of hand-slapping and remembering.”

The idea is for a full emotional wipeout, for the artist and the crowd.

“I’m going to leave out the back door, exhausted, and you’re going to leave out the front door, exhausted,” Richie says. “That means we — we — had a great show.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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