06/01/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT
"I thought my life was pretty darn good, retiring as a Commodore," says Richie, 59. Then his solo career led to five No. 1 smashes plus an Oscar for "Say You, Say Me." For his new CD Just Go
, songwriters Akon and The-Dream were happy to help their hero. Says Richie: "They know more about my career than I remember."
"This was before I even had a concept that the hair could grow longer than that," Richie says of his high school years in Joliet, Ill., where his family moved from Tuskegee, Ala. A member of his high school tennis team, he also played the piano and saxophone, but he admits, "I was so far away from rock and roll. I was going to be somebody's lawyer."
As a Tuskegee Institute frosh, the econ major joined a campus band that became the Commodores and opened for the Jackson 5. "Our original look was jeans and a shirt," says Richie. But to compete with increasingly funky fans, "we had to come with as much flash as we could."
Michael Jackson and Richie wrote, recorded and shot the all-star video for "We Are the World" in about 10 days. Jokes Richie (with Jackson in the L.A. studio where the Grammy winner was created): "Three of those days were Michael and I chasing Bubbles [Jackson's chimp] down the hallway."
The singer and his first wife, Brenda (at an awards dinner in New York City), became parents when they took in 3-year-old Nicole, whose mom was struggling. "That smile right there," he says, "is the part that sold everything."
Richie says playing a club owner in The Preacher's Wife
opposite Whitney Houston and pal Denzel Washington
"was kind of intimidating. I was a deer in the headlights."
Richie says Nicole's rebel years make her a great sister to Sofia, 10 (in L.A.), and Miles, 15 (not pictured), whose mom is Richie's ex-wife Diane: "Nothing like the finally-calmed-down sister saying, 'Dad, I'll handle it.'"
"Nicole now says, 'Dad, I don't want you to spoil her,'" Richie (at home in Beverly Hills) says of 16-month-old Harlow. "But Granddaddy and Grandma will try to do as much as we can to bring back the old tradition of spoiled."