EDITORS — With the Tokyo Olympics postponed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, The Associated Press is looking back at the history of Summer Games. Lionel Richie, then just starting his solo career, spoke to the AP recently about his performance at the closing ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Lionel Richie was just beginning his career away from the Commodores when he got word he was wanted for what would be the biggest solo gig of his life.
The Los Angeles Olympics were just a few months away and closing ceremony producer David L. Wolper had a problem. He wanted to put on an all-star singing finale to close out the games, but the stars weren’t cooperating.
Michael Jackson was out because he was a Pepsi spokesman and this was a Coca Cola Olympics. Frank Sinatra wasn’t available, and neither were other artists whose managers didn’t want them appearing in an ensemble act.
So it was left to Richie to bring the curtain down on the first Olympics in the United States in 52 years.
“Next thing I know is I’m on a football field out in the (San Fernando) valley somewhere rehearsing with all these people diving and dancing all over,” Richie recalled in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I was just getting my feet wet after the Commodores. I think I had done a couple Vegas shows just to warm up, but nothing like this.”
The audience would be vast, so the song had to be good. Some 92,000 people had tickets to the LA Coliseum that night, and an estimated 2.6 billion more would tune into the closing ceremony on television.
Richie’s new solo album had several hits, but he knew there was only one song to end the celebration that was the successful Los Angeles games.
He would do “All Night Long.” And he did it almost all night long, singing for 9 minutes as athletes danced on the field and people rocked in their seats.
“I basically just re-enacted the entire All Night Long video and brought it to life on stage,” Richie said. “For the first time in my life they were saying don’t worry about the budget and just do the song. It was a brilliant moment.”
Before Richie took the stage there had already been a spaceship dubbed “The Aluminum Taco” by producers that hovered over the Coliseum, depositing a 10-foot-tall alien who got out and hung around the Olympic flame. The E.T. movie had just come out two years earlier, and aliens were still a theme.
Break dancers were big at the time, too, which is how Richie found himself surrounded by several hundred of them as he paraded around the stage inside the Coliseum. Among the break dancers was a 16-year-old named Cuba Gooding Jr., who would go on to big things of his own in Hollywood in later years.
“He turned to me and said, Mr. Richie I want to make sure this works, we’ll make you look good,” Richie recalled. “I said, kid, your mom and dad aren’t going to be looking at me they’ll be looking at you. Go out and have the best time of your life because they’ll remember this for a lifetime. Years later he came up to me and said do you remember me backstage?”
Richie hit the stage in white pants and a sparkling open blue glitter blazer. As he began singing some of the break dancers began crashing around him because the stage was slick with evening dew.
As the words came out, the dancing in the stadium began. Athletes from around the world partied like it was 1984, and kept partying until they were finally told to leave the stadium.
“Well, my friends, the time has come,” Richie sang in the song’s Calypso style, “to raise the roof and have some fun.”
Richie was already a star on the verge of breaking out. Now he was a global superstar, something he found out quickly enough the next day.
“I was sitting in traffic and a guy four cars up was crossing the street and saw me and yelled ‘Lionel Richie, All Night Long, All Night Long.' All the people started honking their horns and a Japanese family on the way to visit Disneyland started screaming,” he said. “I realized, holy crap, I’m no longer the invisible man.”
It was an iconic Olympic moment that elevated closing ceremonies which were mostly an afterthought at previous Olympics to a new status.
And it was a signature moment for Richie, whose career is still in high gear at the age of 71. Richie is a judge on “American Idol” and would have been touring Europe this summer had the pandemic not interfered.
“That was it as far as a performing highlight,” he said. “You can’t get any bigger than the whole world watching.”