Though he is best known for his ballads and occasional up-tempo adult contemporary hits, there was a time Lionel Richie threw down the funk, and did so regularly. The Commodores, the band with which Richie first achieved stardom, were first-class musicians, adept at playing just about anything from ferocious funk (think “Brick House,” with drummer Clyde Orange taking the lead vocal) to lighter-than-air ballads (“Three Times a Lady,” “ Easy,” and others).
Richie was best known for the balladry, but back in the day, he sang lead on several of the group’s funkiest offerings. And though his solo material leans heavily toward the slow-dance classics like “Hello,” “Truly” and “Endless Love,” he does occasionally dip his toes back into funky waters (perhaps to remind himself and his audience that he can still do it). Let’s listen to five examples of this funkified output and marvel at how well Mr. Richie throws it down.
“Flying High”: This Commodores track from 1978's Natural High moves with breakneck speed, and features some pretty amazing bass work from Ronald LaPread. And just so we’re clear, the thing the band is flying high on is love. Nothing else - just love.
“Lady (You Bring Me Up)”: That descending bass lick and the horns that stab through the mix really make this track from 1981's In the Pocket something special. This was one of the last hits Richie had with the group; he would leave the following year to begin his solo career.
“Slippery When Wet”: This 1975 hit from Caught in the Act wraps a moral message around some juicy funk. It also sounds like the blueprint Wild Cherry used the following year for “Play That Funky Music.”
“Tell Me”: This is a mid-tempo number that uses elements of funk - particularly the bass and keyboards - to get the point across that a relationship is in trouble and something absolutely must be done to rescue it. “Tell Me” is easily the liveliest track on Richie’s ballad-heavy solo debut; it might even be the best track on the record.
“Do Ya" (feat. Daniel Bedingfield): 2004’s Just for You was full of Richie’s brand of middle-of-the-road goodness, but this track stands out for it’s slow-but-funky low end and Richie’s total commitment to his vocal performance, particularly when shadowed by the British hitmaker Bedingfield in the background.