November 09, 1981 12:00 PM

On a typical day early this year, Lionel Richie practiced from noon until 6 as a lead singer of the nation’s top soul group, the Commodores. Scarcely missing a beat, Richie the producer took over next and worked till midnight coaxing a bunch of Kenny Rogers vocals onto long-playing vinyl for Rogers’ album Share Your Love. Then Richie the composer toiled until 3 a.m. on the theme for Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love.

When all was sung and done, the result was a near burnout—and a pop music phenomenon. In August, Richie, 32, was associated as singer, writer or producer with three singles that were simultaneously in the Billboard Top 10. The Endless Love theme, which he not only wrote but recorded with Diana Ross, eventually reached No. 1; the Kenny Rogers song I Don’t Need You made No. 3, and the Commodores hit Lady (You Bring Me Up) No. 8. By September there were three more songs in the Top 100 that had Richie’s name on them.

“Unlimited creating is finally taking a car you’ve been driving 30 miles an hour to 160,” says Richie. “I had never gone flat out before with all my ideas at one time. I could have blown the engine. Now that I know the machine can go that fast, I’m cooling off a little.”

So pop’s hottest property won’t be revving up for another recording session—his own solo LP this time—until December. Meanwhile, he’s turning down proposals from other performers who want him to work more record-production magic for them, even declining an offer to produce Rogers’ guaranteed-smash Christmas album. (When Lionel declined, Rogers promptly went to Richie’s wife, Brenda, 29, and signed her on as a production assistant.) Richie is wary, he explains, of getting bogged down in the business end of the business. “I believe an artist has to know what helps him create,” he observes. “You’ll notice most artists get four or five hit records and they disappear, because all of a sudden meetings become more important than writing. Or they order $20 million worth of things, and then they have to take care of it all.”

Richie still dresses in jeans, sneakers and cotton T’s. Though free from financial worries, he is, according to wife Brenda, “as stingy as Kenny Rogers is extravagant.”

“Yeah, I get nervous signing checks for over $2,000,” Lionel admits.

“When did it get to be that much?” she teases.

Claiming he would destroy himself if he settled in the pop power centers—New York, Los Angeles and Nashville—year round, Richie keeps his main residence in Tuskegee, Ala. He was raised there, on the campus of famed Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. Although Richie’s luxurious house in Beverly Hills affords him access to top composers and producers, he says of Tuskegee, “This place keeps me writing and happy.”

His grandfather worked in the institute’s business office during the Booker T. Washington days, and grandmother Adelaide Foster still lives in the family home across from the college president’s house. It was Adelaide, 87, who first tried to teach the young Lionel to play the piano.

“She’s a piano instructor,” says Lionel, “but at the time playing the piano or clarinet was considered sissy.” Her example and her musical tastes for Bach and Beethoven did influence him, though, blending with the gospel he heard from the institute’s choir and the Temptations and Supremes sounds that came over the radio. Richie eventually learned to play piano by ear. By then he had discovered, he says, that he “was too small to play football, too short to play basketball and too slow to run track.”

Richie’s permanent detour into music was almost a whim. “I would love to say I went to Juilliard, then went to Berkeley to get my master’s degree and that someone discovered me writing music,” he says. “But that’s not the way it happened. Two days after I began attending classes at Tuskegee, I ran into a guy named Thomas McClary who wanted me to join a group.” Soon, Lionel says, “there were six little guys sitting in my grandmother’s house talking about taking over the world. We wanted to be bigger than the Beatles.” He also remembers that at Tuskegee “I learned my lesson about drugs and got the hell away from them. I don’t do them; instead I drink peach Hi-C and take vitamin C.”

The group moved to New York, found a manager and won their first gigs on ocean liners and later opened for the Jackson Five. Since then the Commodores have recorded two platinum albums and a string of hits—among others, Easy, Sail On, Still and Three Times a Lady. (The production quality of Three Times, a favorite song of Rogers and wife Marianne, is what prompted Kenny to call and ask Lionel to work with him.)

Despite his emerging star status as the group’s musical and creative focus, Richie insists he has no intention of abandoning the Commodores. “I can only name about three people who’ve made it after leaving a group,” he notes. “I think I can do my own album and still sing and tour with the group. Besides, these guys are like family. We’ve been together for a long time.”

He recognizes, too, that while he’s never lacked ambition, he has not always been the first to know what he would do next. “The first group I ever joined was the Commodores,” he says. “Later my first outside-production was Kenny Rogers and my first motion picture theme was for Franco Zeffirelli. Sounds to me like I was just walking backward and bumped into success.”

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