The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Lionel Richie’s “Hello”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Lionel Richie – “Hello”

HIT #1: May 12, 1984

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

A word of advice: Don’t start by saying, “I love you.” That’s probably coming on too strong. You should work up to that. It’s an ending point, not a starting point.

Lionel Richie probably knows this. Richie had a whole lot of success writing ballads about love. By 1984, Richie was one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and almost all of his #1 singles had been love ballads. “All Night Long (All Night),” Richie’s previous chart-topper, was the one outlier. But where most of Richie’s ballads are simple testaments of glowing, undying love, “Hello” is something else. Richie sings it from the point of view of a hopeless overthinker, someone fumbling around in the dark. He wants to start by saying, “I love you,” but that’s only because he has no idea what else to say.

In real life, a character like that would either chicken out before saying anything, or he’d come off as a stammering and intense creep, scaring off whoever he’d decided that he loved. But we don’t hear any of that on “Hello.” We just hear this poor guy’s inner monologue.

There’s no big story behind “Hello.” Richie had the song’s big line in his head for a while: “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” But Richie couldn’t finish the song, and he thought it might be too corny to complete. Richie does not strike me as someone who ever worried too much about being corny. You could argue that every single thing that Lionel Richie ever did in his public life smacks of corniness. Even Richie thought “Hello” was corny. He was right. What he didn’t yet understand is that “Hello” is the best kind of corny.

James Anthony Carmichael, Richie’s co-producer, heard Richie working on “Hello,” and he badgered Richie into finishing the song. Richie had the song all done by the time he made his self-titled 1982 solo debut, but he didn’t put “Hello” on the record. Richie’s wife, who loved “Hello,” told him that the song was good, that he needed to release it. Finally, Richie put “Hello” on Can’t Slow Down, the sophomore album that turned out to be a career-peak blockbuster. It’s the last song on the record.

“Hello” is a silly song, but its silliness works. The music is pure early-’80s adult-contempo cheese — the expensive-sounding synth sustain, the soft electronic ripples, the fake woodwinds, the quasi-Spanish smooth-jazz guitar solo from veteran Wrecking Crew session guy Louie Shelton. In the ’80s, all that production frippery often had a way of drowning out melodies. On “Hello,” though, it all builds the song up, pushing it from one dramatic crescendo to the next. “Hello” isn’t really an R&B song, though it hit #1 on the R&B chart. It’s a down-the-line blockbuster ballad, one that’s awfully well-realized.

I haven’t been especially kind to most of Richie’s ballads in this column. For me, most of those blur into one gloopy whole, whether or not Richie sang them. Too many of those songs lack structure or intention or specificity. They’re tension-free odes to dramatic bliss. They go nowhere. “Hello” does not have that problem. Richie doesn’t express happiness on “Hello.” He expresses anguish — an emotion that, for whatever reason, tends to be a whole lot more compelling when rendered in pop-music form.

Richie starts out “Hello” on some kind of internal journey, thinking words that he couldn’t say out loud: “I’ve been alone with you inside my mind/ And in my dreams, I’ve kissed your lips a thousand times.” He builds up to that first belt-it-out chorus, and yes, it’s silly. You can picture Richie’s inverted eyebrows, his face locked into a rictus of sincerity, delivering a bad pickup line with all the intensity he can muster. But really, Richie is playing a guy with a problem: “Tell me how to win your heart ’cause I haven’t got a clue.”

Like so many great ironic-singalong ballads, “Hello” hits at something deep and maybe uncomfortable. Richie builds the song up again and again. He changes the chorus as the song goes on. His narrator is completely lost: “Are you somewhere feeling lonely, or is someone loving you?” He imagines that the person he’s singing to is way better at navigating the world: “You know just what to say, and you know just what to do.” He might envy this person. He might even resent this person. You can hearing him transforming a crush into something dramatic inside his own mind, telling himself his own tragic-romantic love story when he’d be so much better off just starting a conversation with someone and seeing where it goes.

We’ve all done that shit. It’s the worst. It’s hard to think about. So when someone like Lionel Richie takes that feeling and turns it into a big and obvious pop song, we want to laugh. Laughing is easier than acknowledging the sad, embarrassing reality that a song like that depicts. (When I say “we” here, I mean me. I have definitely laughed at “Hello.” If you have never laughed at “Hello,” if I’m unjustly implicating you in my own self-excoriation, then deepest apologies.)

“Hello” would probably have a rep as a silly song even without its video, but the video pushes it over the top. Bob Giraldi, director of the “Hello” video, was responsible for some of the most dramatic Hollywood-musical visions of the early MTV era: Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” Jackson and Paul McCartney’s “Say Say Say,” Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield.” (“Love Is A Battlefield” peaked at #5 in 1983. It’s an 8.) Giraldi also directed Richie in his video for “Running With The Night,” the follow-up single to “All Night (All Night Long).” In that video, Richie and Sheila E. meet up at a wedding reception for a heavily choreographed dance number. (“Running With The Night” peaked at #7. It’s a 7. Sheila E.’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “The Glamorous Life,” peaked at #7. It’s a 9.)

Richie liked acting. He wanted to do more. So Giraldi came up with a whole storyline for the “Hello” video, knowing full well that the song did not lend itself to another big dance sequence. Richie would play a theater teacher at some kind of school for the arts, and he would pine for one of his students, a blind woman. Richie would be wracked with angst and uncertainty, but it would all pay off in the end, when he would learn that his student had been so into him that she’d made a clay bust out of his head. (Laura Carrington, the actress who played the student, would go on to spend five years on General Hospital. According to IMDB, she hasn’t worked onscreen in the past 27 years.)

There are plot holes to this story. How, for instance, does the blind student know what Richie’s face looks like? Has she just been feeling his face during classes? Richie himself was not sure about this video, but he trusted Giraldi. In the oral history I Want My MTV, Richie says, “I hesitated for a moment. But you don’t hire Picasso and then tell him how to paint.” Richie also tells a funny story about getting upset over the clay bust. Richie was worried that the statue didn’t look enough like him. Giraldi had to tell him, “Lionel, she’s blind.”

The “Hello” video is not a Picasso, but it is a prime piece of golden-era MTV cheese. Richie kind of acts his ass off? His acting style is big and hammy, but it suits the medium. (We can understand, I think, that this is Richie literalizing his inner monologue, not actually singing the words out loud, thinking the blind girl can’t hear him.) When Richie calls the girl on the phone but can’t bring himself to say anything, singing the song’s chorus out into his empty apartment, it’s both moving and ridiculous, like so much of the best melodrama.

The ridiculousness of “Hello,” both the song and the video, served Richie well. It remains one of his biggest hits, and it might be the biggest hook he’s ever written. “Hello” has an appeal that goes beyond language barriers. For instance, in John Woo’s 1992 shoot-‘em-up masterpiece Hard Boiled, quite possibly the greatest action movie ever made, there’s a quick scene where Chow Yun-Fat and Theresa Mo sing each other a line from “Hello” — in English and everything. (I couldn’t find video of that scene online, but it’s in there.) “Hello” is the kind of thing that sticks in your head for days, that demands group singalongs. It endures. Richie will be in this column again. Look for him.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1994, during their rowdy and lo-fi underground-tape period, Three 6 Mafia built the extremely grimy Kingpin Skinny Pimp/211 collab “Pimpin’ & Robbin'” on a sample of “Hello.” Here’s that song:

Three 6 Mafia production masterminds DJ Paul and Juicy J apparently liked “Hello” so much that they sampled it again, nine years later, on their protege Frayser Boy’s 2003 track “Dogg Azz N***a.” Here’s that song:

(Three 6 Mafia’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Stay Fly,” peaked at #13. As a guest rapper, Juicy J will eventually appear in this column. Frayser Boy has never had a single on the Hot 100, but he did win a Best Original Song Oscar — an award that Lionel Richie has also won — for co-writing “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow, with Paul, Juicy, and Crunchy Black.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld had to choose between staying with his girlfriend and doing a big, goofy stomach voice. Here’s “Hello” soundtracking the montage where he considers his options and makes his decision:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Twista rapping over a “Hello” sample on a 2005 song that’s also called “Hello”:

(Twista will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Hello” soundtracking the scene from the 2005 movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin where Steve Carrell attempts to get familiar with the big box of porn that Paul Rudd has just given him:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the reggae version of “Hello” that the dancehall star Busy Signal released in 2014: