TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Number One in the U.K. on Monday, March 26, 1984.
SONGWRITER: Lionel Richie.
PRODUCERS: Lionel Richie, James Anthony Carmichael.
BACKSTORY: Welcome to one of those occasions where a Motown record was a bigger hit – and first – in Britain than in America. “Hello” spent – count ’em – six weeks at the top of the U.K. charts as winter turned to spring in 1984. In the U.S., the record held the summit for two weeks in May. Not that Lionel Richie’s countrymen and women failed to show him the love: every one of the five 45s from his second album, Can’t Slow Down, reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, “Hello” among them.
“I tape my idea with just the piano,” explained Richie in the liner notes of the 2003 deluxe edition of Can’t Slow Down. “Then Carmichael takes that tape and says, ‘Meet me at the studio.’ He puts the rhythm and the music around that piano. His job is to make it sound like a ‘record’ without destroying the innocence or sensitivity of the original thought.” Richie is referring to record producer James Anthony Carmichael; the two of them began working together when Richie was in the Commodores at Motown in the 1970s. “My mission is to help [Lionel] reach his destination,” said the producer in his Can’t Slow Down comments.
Carmichael added, “I loved ‘Hello.’ It was a monster hit. But Lionel didn’t want to finish it. I had to beg him. After I did my part on it, it was my turn to hate the song.” In fact, that song was originally written for Richie’s first solo album, but the singer and his producer decided to omit it – despite the objections of Richie’s then-wife Brenda and his creative assistant, Rita Leigh. “We thought it had tremendous potential,” Leigh told Lionel biographer Roberta Plutzik, “and we thought ‘You Are’ was the one to drop. Of course, that song turned out to be a hit, too.”
“Hello” had another asset: a mini-drama promotional video directed by Bob Giraldi, who had been previously responsible for videos by Michael Jackson (“Beat It”) and Richie himself (“Running With The Night”), among others. In this, the storyline featured Lionel as a teacher, lecturing to a class, which includes a young, blind student, played by Laura Carrington. The video was a major success on MTV, helping to boost sales of “Hello” and Can’t Slow Down.
REMAKES: For a song so strongly identified with its original writer/performer, “Hello” has attracted a significant number of cover versions. Actress, singer and Grammy-winning composer Zooey Deschanel was one: her “Hello” was heard in the movie soundtrack of 2016 animated comedy Trolls. Easy listening stars drawn to the song included Paul Anka, Shirley Bassey and Gloria Lynne. The old-school actor Howard Keel baritoned it and another Richie tune, “Lady,” on his Just For You album. Likewise, Luther Vandross cut “Hello” and Richie’s “Endless Love” for his 1994 album, Songs. Lionel himself revisited the hit on his 2012 album, Tuskegee, pairing up with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland.
FOOTNOTE: “Hello – is it beer you’re looking for?” It was only a matter of time before Lionel’s song was spoofed, but it’s to the superstar’s credit that he did the spoofing. Lion Breweries of Australia created a TV commercial in 2013 for its home draft-beer dispenser, Tap King, and persuaded Richie to appear in it. The one-minute spot featured a thirsty man searching for satisfaction in his fridge, in which Lionel appears, singing “Hello” and sampling the delights of Tap King. It was filmed on a custom-built set in Los Angeles, but presumably Lionel gets free beer every time he travels Down Under.