Lionel Richie on Coming 'Close' to a 'Nervous Breakdown' After Nearly Losing His Voice

The hit singer recalls how undergoing multiple throat surgeries nearly pushed him to the brink

Lionel Richie's usually the happiest guy in the room. And while he's a legendary showman, it's no act.

"I'll pass on exactly what my father said to me: Aptitude plus attitude determines altitude,'" he tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story and issue honoring Black History Month. "If you happen to have both, sky's the limit, but if you're only blessed with one, have the right attitude because people will love to have you around."

Lionel Richie cover
Lionel Richie. Erik Carter

That said, the 72-year-old American Idol judge, says he's seen his share of dark days. While battling a mysterious illness affecting his throat during the height of his solo career, Richie recalls feeling overwhelmed.

"About as close as you ever would've come to a nervous breakdown," says the star, of that trying time. In the early '90s, Richie underwent four separate surgeries to address an unknown condition impacting his throat.

"You don't want anybody fooling around down there. This is your identity," he says of nervousness surrounding the procedures, adding, "I never really thought that it would end."

Lionel Richie cover
Lionel Richie on the cover of PEOPLE. Erik Carter

In the end, Richie — who was also in the midst of a difficult divorce from his first wife Brenda Harvey and caring for his ailing father — was diagnosed with diet-induced acid reflux that was affecting the area.

He went on to recover and hasn't suffered since, but Richie still recalls a chance encounter with a fan during that difficult time that helped get him through.

One day while on the beach in Jamaica he says an elderly Black man pulled him aside. "He said, 'You must survive because you are our beacon of hope,'" the star says. "'If you make it, we know we can make it. If you accomplish, we know we can accomplish.' I was crying."

Lionel Richie cover
Lionel Richie. Erik Carter

For more on Lionel Richie's revealing cover story and PEOPLE's celebration of Black History Month, pick up this week's issue, on newsstands now.

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