While they continued their studies, the group began performing in Montgomery, Alabama and quickly gained an avid following. A turning point in the group's career came when they met Benjamin Ashburn, a street-wise marketing expert who signed on as their manager. Through careful planning and extensive road tours, the Commodores gained worldwide notoriety by touring in the New York and European Club Scene. In 1971, The Commodores auditioned for the opening act of the Jackson 5 European tour. They were signed by Motown and toured with the Jackson 5 in November. They subsequently headlined in Japan and drew in 150,000 fans in four days in the Philippines, breaking the record the Beatles had set years before.
In 1974, their first album "Machine Gun" became the best-selling international album to date. The instrumental single "Machine Gun", written by Williams, crossed over from the R&B charts to the hit #22 on the U.S. charts.
The Commodores were still in university when they released two more albums. "Caught In The Act" earned them the Bronze Prize at the Tokyo Music Festival and the single "Slippery When Wet" hit #19 on the U.S. charts. The single "Sweet Love", from their third album "Moving On", became their first top ten hit when it went to #5 . After their own successful tour, they were asked by the Rolling Stones to open for them on a world-wide tour. Amazingly, the Commodores managed to continue their education by studying on the road and returning to take mid-terms and final exams.
During the rest of the 70's, the Commodores turned out more hit records including: "Just To Be Close To You" (U.S. #7), "Easy" (U.S. #4), "Brickhouse" (U.S. #5), "Three Times a Lady" (U.S. #1), "Sail On" (U.S. #4), and "Still" (U.S. #1). They performed to sold-out worldwide audiences, becoming the most successful Motown group ever. In 1977, they released a live double album "Commodores Live!" which hit U.S. #3. They also showed up in the movies in 1977, appearing with Donna Summer in the disco movie, "Thank God It's Friday".
In the eighties, Lionel Richie began writing for other musical acts besides the Commodores. He wrote the ballad "Lady" for Kenny Rogers, which went to #1. He also wrote and recorded the duet "Endless Love" with Diana Ross, written for the movie starring Brooke Shields. This single hit #1 and stayed there for nine weeks.
After "Still" had given them another U.S. pop and soul number 1 in 1979, confirming the Commodores as Motown's best-selling act, the group attempted to move into a more experimental blend of funk and rock on "Heroes" in 1980. The commercial failure of this venture, and the success of Lionel Richie's duet with Diana Ross on 'Endless Love', persuaded him to leave the group for a solo career.
In August, 1982, Richie had just recorded his first album, "Lionel Richie", when the Commodores manager Benny Ashburn died at the age of 54. The following month, Lionel Richie's first solo single, "Truly" was released, marking the end of his association with the Commodores. The single topped the U.S. charts for the first two weeks in November and was certified gold on December 9th. "Truly" was followed by two more hits from the album, "You Are" (U.S. #4) and "My Love" (U.S. #5).
His single "All Night Long," from this second album, "Can't Slow Down", hit #1 in the U.S. on November 12th, 1983. It stayed on the charts for five months, outselling "Endless Love" to become Motown's biggest selling worldwide single to date. The album stayed on the charts for three years, selling over eight million copies and producing three more top singles "Hello," "Stuck On You," and "Penny Lover."
In 1984, The Commodores continued on after Thomas McClary also launched a solo career with an album for Motown. He was replaced by Englishman J.D. Nicholas, formerly a vocalist with Heatwave, and this combination was featured on the group's enormous 1985 hit 'Nightshift', an affecting tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson that successfully captured Gaye's shifting, rhythmic brand of soul. The single reached the #3 spot on the U.S. charts and was named the Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal at the 28th Annual Grammy Awards. Later that year, the Commodores left Motown for Polydor, prompting Ronald LaPread to leave the band. Their new contract began promisingly with a major US soul chart hit, "Goin' To The Bank" (1986), but subsequent releases proved less successful.
Riding the on top of his wave of success, Lionel Richie was asked by Quincy Jones to co-write a song with Michael Jackson to help raise money for famine relief in Africa. After Michael and Lionel prepared for three days, the song "We Are The World" took only two hours to write. It became a worldwide number 1 single, with Richie, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Elton John, Kenny Rogers, Steve Perry, Bob Dylan, Daryl Hall, Bruce Springsteen and Cindy Lauper among the artists who are featured in the recording. Later in the year, he collected a number of awards at the 12th annual music awards: Favourite Male Artist Pop/Rock; Favourite Male Artist Soul/R&B; Favourite Male Video Artist Pop/Rock; Favourite Male Video Artist Soul/R&B; Favourite Video Single Pop/Rock; Favourite Video Single Soul/R&B. He also made a presence at the Grammy Awards, winning Album of the Year for "Can't Slow Down" and tying for Producer of the Year.
The song "Say You, Say Me", the theme of the movie "White Nights" starring Gregory Hines and Mikhael Baryshnikov, hit number 1 on December 21st. With this hit, Lionel became the only songwriter in history to write nine #1 songs in nine consecutive years. "Say You, Say Me" also won Richie an Oscar for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards in 1986.
Lionel's third album "Dancing on the Ceiling", released in 1986, sold over four-million albums by May 1987 and produced several hits including: "Dancing on the Ceiling" (U.S. #1), "Love Will Conquer All" (U.S. #9), "Ballerina Girl" (U.S. #7), and "Sela" (U.S. #20).
The Commodores meanwhile, made an unexpected return to the UK chart in 1988 when "Easy" was used for a television commercial for the Halifax Building Society, and reached number 15.
The following three years were trying for Richie. His personal life took a tragic turn when he separated from his wife of 17 years, his father passed away, and he developed polyps on his vocal cords. After two operations, his left vocal cord haemorrhaged in October of 1991.
He subsequently took more time between projects for "growth" and "introspection," which led to the creative ventures heard on 1992's "Back to Front", 1996's "Louder Than Words", 1998's "Time", 2001's "Renaissance", 2003's "Encore" and 2003's aptly titled "The Definitive Collectio.
In 2004, Lionel was back in the musical spotlight again with "Just For You", his first studio album release in over three years. In support of the CD, he toured France, England, Germany and the US. Later that year, he appeared on the British motoring television series Top Gear in the Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment where he was interviewed by host Jeremy Clarkson.
In November, 2005, Lionel Richie performed with Kenny Rogers on a CMT Crossroads special that gave an informative insight into their friendship both in and out of the music business. On May 7th, 2006, he performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, replacing Fats Domino, who had fallen ill. Richie released his eighth studio album entitled "Coming Home" on September 12th, 2006. It debuted at number six on the Billboard Hot 200, becoming his biggest hit LP since 1986's "Dancing on the Ceiling". It has sold over half a million units worldwide. The first single from the album, "I Call It Love", features his adopted daughter, Nicole Richie. The song shot to #1 on Billboard's Urban Adult Contemporary chart, becoming his biggest hit in the U.S. in ten years. Nicole stars in the music video for the track. On December 9th of that same year, Lionel hosted and performed live on the British television show An Audience with Lionel Richie. Two months later, he performed "Hello" on the 49th Grammy Awards show. On November 25th, 2007, he made a surprise appearance on the Australian Idol grand finale, performing "All Night Long" at the Sydney Opera House.
On May 2nd, 2008, Lionel Richie was the 21st recipient of the George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Achievement Award at UCLA's annual Spring Sing. In accepting the award, Richie said: "Forget about surviving 30 some odd years in the music business, Lionel Richie survived 27 years of Nicole Richie." On New Year's Eve, Richie performed in Times Square for the New Year's Eve celebration and ball drop and in May, 2009, he appeared on the season finale of American Idol with Danny Gokey. That Spring also brought a new album, "Just Go", which climbed to #24 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart. On July 7th, 2009, Richie performed "Jesus is Love" at Michael Jackson's memorial service.
May 30th, 2010, saw Lionel Richie performing at the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington D.C., singing "Stuck on You" and "America the Beautiful". His family has a military background.
Lionel returned to Australia in 2011 where he and guest artist Guy Sebastian toured the country and New Zealand with concert dates spread throughout the Spring. Richie and Sebastian re-recorded the 1983 single "All Night Long" to raise money for Australian and New Zealand flood and earthquake relief.
Lionel was quoted as saying that he would like to get The Commodores back together soon, "or in the next ten years, no one will care." That event may come even sooner, as after Richie made a triumphant appearance at England's Glastonbury Festival on June 28th, 2015, the 2003 album "Lionel Richie & The Commodores: The Definitive Collection" shot to the top of the UK album chart. His plans for 2016 include a three show stint in the UK called All The Hits Live.