Richie grew up on the campus of Tuskegee Institute, where he formed a succession of R&B groups in the mid-60s. In 1968, he became the lead singer and saxophonist with the Commodores. They signed to Atlantic Records in 1968 for a one-record contract, before moving to Motown Records, being schooled as support act to the Jackson Five. The Commodores became established as America's most popular soul group of the 70s, and Richie was responsible for writing and singing many of their biggest hits, specializing in romantic, easy-listening ballads such as "Easy", "Three Times A Lady" and "Still". His mellifluous vocal tones established him as the most prominent member of the group, and by the late 70s he had begun to accept songwriting commissions from other artists. He composed Kenny Rogers' 1980 number 1 "Lady", and produced his Share Your Love the following year. Also in 1981, Richie duetted with Diana Ross on the theme song for the movie Endless Love. Issued as a single, the track topped the UK and US charts, and became one of Motown's biggest hits to date.
The success of "Endless Love" encouraged Richie to branch out into a fully-fledged solo career in 1982. His debut, Lionel Richie, produced another chart-topping single, "Truly", which continued the style of his ballads with the Commodores. In 1983, he released Can't Slow Down, which catapulted him into the first rank of international superstars, eventually selling more than 15 million copies worldwide. The set also won two Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year. It spawned the number 1 hit "All Night Long", a gently rhythmic dance number that was promoted by a startling video, produced by Michael Nesmith. Several more Top 10 hits followed, the most successful of which was "Hello", a sentimental love song that showed how far Richie had moved from his R&B roots. Now described by one critic as "the black Barry Manilow", Richie wrote and performed a suitably anodyne theme song, "Say You, Say Me", for the movie White Nights - winning an Oscar for his pains. He also collaborated with Michael Jackson on the charity single "We Are The World" by USA For Africa. In 1986, he released Dancing On The Ceiling, another phenomenally popular album that produced a run of US and UK hits. The title track, which revived the sedate dance feel of "All Night Long", was accompanied by another striking video, a feature that has played an increasingly important role in Richie's solo career.