Lionel Richie’s songwriting voice is a sappy, ballad-oriented one.
You’ve learned something already, haven’t you?
For some Richie will always be beyond the pale. And it’s true that he did essentially the same thing so often that even his fans could easily get tired of it. He staked out his signature territory with Three Times a Lady, which bores me by the first time he sings “Twice”, and has continued to cover that territory for four decades. Sure, he’s released dance-oriented records from time to time, but give Lionel Richie a piano, a blank piece of paper and a couple of hours, and nine times out of ten he’ll give you a ballad. He can’t help it.
In the late 1970s, the tension between his soft, smooth ballad writing and the harder R&B leanings of his Commodores bandmates eventually led to tensions in the band, which were added to by the fact that the group’s one-time sax player and maker of synthesiser noises had grabbed the limelight for himself. So his decision to go solo was not a surprising one. But he left his band with a legacy of strong love songs. It should hardly need saying that one of those songs is Easy, a record so wonderful that I am willing to give him a free pass, pretty much, for anything else he’s done, even Say You Say Me. But I’d like to speak up in favour of the country-tinged Sail On, from 1979’s Midnight Magic.
Richie’s talent is founded upon his ability to craft simple melodic hooks, both in the piano accompaniment and the vocal melody, and Sail On is a great example of this. The dual piano-and-guitar part that begins the song is one of those immediately identifiable, “Surely someone’s thought of this before?” moments that record producers and radio programmers say nightly prayers for. But Sail On is a song bursting with inspired moments, of which the intro is just the first.
Sail On one of Richie’s most obviously country songs. Even before he took a batch of old songs and remade them with country musicians a couple of years back (2012’s Tuskegee); before, even Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with Lady, there was evident in his songs an audible country-music streak, a legacy Richie’s childhood in Alabama: “I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens … not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was… By growing up in Alabama, I had a melting pot of the whole pie: R&B, gospel, country.”
The harmony vocals of Richie and (I assume from the video) bassist Ronald LaPread are pure country from the outset, but as the two are singing in their lower registers, it’d be possible to miss it. When those higher voices come in (again, the video suggests these are drummer Walter Orange and guitarist Thomas McClarey, though all this may be artistic licence on the part of the clip’s director), it becomes unmistakeable. Lady aside, this was the most obvious song for Richie to dust off for his Tuskegee self-covers album*.
By the time we get to the final choruses, the song has found its way into territory that would come to be called yacht rock: smooth harmonies, horns, mellow vibes, nautical metaphors. So it’s an intriguing blend: downhome at the start and uptown-aspirational at the end.
A quick word about the performance of Walter Orange, the unsung hero of Richie’s Commodore-era ballads. His syncopated bass drum work is a key element in what makes this track (and Easy) a fusion of R&B sensibilities with country (or in Easy’s case) pop ballad writing. Whether the feel is straight eights or a shuffle, country drummer’s play one and three on the kick, pretty much. They might sometimes do the Mick Fleetwood heartbeat thing (adding a second strokes on the kick on “and” three: one, two, and three, four), or the Neil Young thing (a second stroke on the quaver after one and/or three), but the feel is straight, unsyncopated. Orange (with LaPread locked in on bass) take a less obvious route, and give the song a definite funk/R&B underpinning. When Richie went solo and he lost these guys, his ballads were never again as interesting.
*Of course, it hardly needs saying that the original version is much the superior. For a start, it doesn’t have an ass-clown like Tim McGraw singing half of it. The drummer realised he wasn’t playing a heavy metal power ballad. Most importantly, it isn’t Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life. Seriously, two voices in absolute, mathematically perfect harmony is a freaky sound. It’s not possible out in the real world. Please. Stop. Doing. It.