When I say Lionel Richie is one of the great mood-setters in pop music, I'm not just talking about spinning his records to better heat up date night. (Although that works, too.)
As a member of the Commodores and then a chart-topping solo star, the now-65-year-old R&B king was exceptional at composing brutally beautiful beginnings, hooking you fast, especially on the ballads. Nothing against the rest of the song, but his top skill has always been hammering your heart straight out of the gate, a talent that has helped him sell more than 100 millions albums worldwide. Think of the classical, contemplative piano on 1981's Endless Love, and then those words: "My love, there's only you in my life..." The stop-start baroque feel of Truly ("Girl, tell me only this...") The hope of a sunrise contrasted against the dread of waking up alone on the devastating Still ("You laughed at me, you said you never needed me").
Try to forget the cheesy video with that terrifying clay bust of Lionel: The cinematic preface of voyeuristic hit Hello gives the song a tricky undercurrent that most people overlook (perhaps because of that terrifying clay bust of Lionel). And, of course, there's Three Times a Lady, which I always thought was a breakup song (it's not), only because that initial piano is so subtly intense.
Here's hoping the enduring star's big Tampa gig on Monday showcases those small, intimate beginnings that make you want to sob — and sing along.
Lionel Richie, with special guest Cee Lo, performs 7:30 p.m. Monday at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre at the Florida State Fairgrounds, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $31-$131. (813) 740-2446.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife.