Lionel Ritchie - Guest Judge on April 8, 2003

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"Simplicity," Lionel Richie explains, "is the key to what I do."

These are surprising, even shocking, words from an artist whose achievements--creatively and commercially--have been anything but simple.

Richie is, after all, one of the world's most recognized and rewarded performers. He's sold nearly 100 million albums and notched 22 Top 10 hits--13 of them during a jaw-dropping swing between 1981-87. Five Grammy Awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe--not to mention piles of American Music Awards and People's Choice Awards--grace his shelves. Only Richie and Irving Berlin have scored No. 1 hits in nine consecutive years.

Richie believes that a hit song is one that is rendered with great craft and conveys simple ideas that are heartfelt, and resonate with listeners of any age, race, creed or nationality. That was true in the past of "All Night Long (All Night)," "Truly," "Hello" and "Endless Love," and it's true of the 13 songs on Richie's eighth solo album, Just For You.

"I want to find the simplest phrase that everybody says, no matter what language you speak," he says. "At one point I was actually going to make the title of this album 'Simplicity.' So much of my career has been about saying things the way people say them, using melodies not that I can sing but that the people can sing. 'All Night Long' will always be 'All Night Long.' 'Easy like Sunday morning' will always be 'Easy like Sunday morning.' 'Stuck on You' is 'Stuck on You.' 'Truly,' or 'Still' or 'Endless Love'--if you look at the titles, they say the entire thought before you even go into the story.

"And that's why the music has stayed around so long."

But let's not mistake this simplicity Richie describes for the intricacy of craft. Writing songs that stand the test of time, as he's done since the early days of the Commodores, is no simple task but rather an exercise in taste, experimentation and adventure. It requires a open-mindedness and daring that allows the artist to establish a signature sound and then be willing to take it into different areas-- as Richie does to great effect on Just For You.

Richie pursued fresh directions with Just For You, resulting in his broadest-reaching effort to date. He journeyed to England to work again with Paul Barry and Mark Taylor ( the duo behind Cher's smash "Believe") who were also part of Richie's last studio album Renaissance . Released in 2001, Renaissance sold more than two million copies worldwide. Then he went to Miami to get the vibe of 7 Aurelius, who's made hits with Mariah Carey, Ja Rule and Ashanti.

And while Richie was in Florida, Lenny Kravitz dropped by to check things out. "And Lenny said, 'So we're not gonna do anything together?" Richie recalls with a laugh. "And the next thing I know, we recorded three songs." Richie took "Road To Heaven² (produced by Kravitz and written by 7 Aurelius) and "Time of Our Life" for Just For You, and "Destiny," their other song, will appear on Kravitz's next effort.

Throughout this process, Richie pursued one creative goal and vision for the album. "I wanted to be as organic as possible," he explains, "no gimmicks, nothing flowery. It's kind of an old-fashioned way of doing things, but I wanted a kind of rawness and natural sound to everything."

Just For You then, is full of those organic kind of touches. The stirring rhythmic throb of the title track. The folky Celtic flavor of "Just 2 Be With You." The Middle Eastern whirl of "She's Amazing" and the soulful gospel anthemics of "I Still Believe." The ebb and flow of "Ball & Chain," which starts with just Richie's voice and an acoustic guitar and builds to a sweeping, electrified rock bridge.

The song "One World² was another new avenue for Richie. This time out, the co-writer of "We Are the World," the all-star USA For Africa hit for famine relief, goes even further on a socio-political limb, making observations with an inherent optimism amidst equally probing songs about loves won and lost.

"I've never gone into politics or religion that much," he says, "but on this album it was kind of necessary for me to say the phrases that people are thinking. Because here we are again; the world seems to be in turmoil, but the world has always been in turmoil. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

"I want to send a message to the world that says 'People, as critical as it looks, we're OK. We are in control, whether we feel it or not."

Richie's perspective comes from nearly four decades of making music, since he co-founded the Commodores in 1967 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Signed in 1971 to Motown--where Richie wrote the hits "Standing on Shaky Ground" and "Happy People" for the Temptations--the Commodores became one of America's most popular bands by the mid-'70s, shaking dance floors with "Machine Gun" and "Brickhouse" and setting the slow dance mood with "Easy," "Three Times a Lady" and "Sail On."

Richie began stepping outside the Commodores in 1980, after Kenny Rogers' hit version of "Lady" led to him producing the singer's 1981 album "Share Your Love." "Endless Love," his 1981 chart-topping duet with Diana Ross (covered in 1994 by Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey), was Motown's most successful single and further fueled Richie's solo ambitions.

Those took full flight with 1982's Lionel Richie, a quadruple platinum affair that was followed by two more multi-million sellers, 1983's Can't Slow Down--which won a Grammy for Album of the Year--and 1986's Dancing on the Ceiling. He subsequently took more time between projects for "growth" and "introspection," which led to the creative ventures heard on 1992's Back to Front, 1996's Louder Than Words, 1998's Time, 2001's Renaissance, 2003's Encore (International release) and 2003's aptly titled The Definitive Collection.

"Taking time to sit back and watch and think about what you've seen is important," Richie says. "Traveling did a great deal to me. I found that when I travel and just sit in the corner and watch, a million ideas come to me."

"Just For You" provides a home for dozens of those ideas, and Richie says he's ready for even more travels. He plans a world tour in support of the album--"For about the next six years," Richie says with a laugh. And he's not entirely kidding.

"We'll start in July and just keep going. I'm going to be off and on to make the next record and stuff like that, but basically I'm going to be a touring, writing and performing artist for a while. And, to be honest with you, I can't think of anything better."


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