Success is where you find it, ex-Commodores bandleader Lionel Richie gradually discovered once he flew solo with his eponymous album in 1982. After smash hits such as “Truly,” “All Night Long” and “Say You, Say Me,” his popularity in the U.S. waned in the 1990s, while simultaneously skyrocketing in Canada, Australia and Arabic locales such as Qatar, Dubai and Libya. Last year, his unusual 10th album, “Tuskegee” — duets of his catalog classics performed with country stars including Kenny Rogers, Blake Shelton, Shania Twain and Willie Nelson — went platinum and topped the Billboard charts, his first No. 1 record in 25 years. He is backing it with his first American tour in a decade.
How surreal has your career gotten on other shores? You want to hear a ridiculous number? We just finished playing China, “China Idol,” broadcast to 453 million viewers. I walk out onstage and I don’t even finish the song — I go, “Say you …” and then I can’t hear myself singing anymore! And I’m like, “OK, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I see nothing but 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds in the front row. So how do they know these songs?” And the answer was, they use my songs in their school systems to teach them English in China.
And grown Arabic men actually cry at your concerts. There are parts of the Middle East where the key word is “hostile territory” or “the enemy.” You hear all these phrases, along with, “Lionel, I’m not sure about your protection or your safety here.” But I’ll get off the plane, and they go, “Welcome home!” Do they all agree on their religious principles? No. But they agree on the fact that they were all married or engaged to one of my songs. So my songs are in a world where they don’t play them on the radio. I mean, how is that possible?
But you were originally planning on tennis as a career. I had the amazing illusion of thinking one day I might just be a tennis player. And of course, I went to clinics. And it was actually Arthur Ashe who said to me at 17, “You’re too old — most kids get full instruction between 12 and 15.” But the very next year, the Commodores started, and that was my big passion switch.
Do you still play? I’ve made the transition out of tennis into total spectator. Jimmy Connors and I were friends, and we used to play when you could see where the ball was going. But with these folks playing today, you just hear a pop and if you’re not standing right where that ball is? Fuggedaboudit!
IF YOU GO
Where: SAP Center, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $49.50 to $125