“Hello” Lionel Richie

“Hello” Lionel Richie

HollywoodOn Productions: Janet Donovan & Brendan Kownacki
Photo & Video credit: Brendan Kownacki

GQ called him the “Commodore of Love” — NPR said he was “The Key to Peace in the Middle East” — Lionel Richie is a man who has seen and done it all. Richie has four Grammys, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, the Kennedy Center Honor and was the first recipient of the RIAA Diamond album award. Now add to that list the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress.

The Gershwin Prize “celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song” according to the Library of Congress. The annual honor is a wonderful celebration of creativity in music, but more than that, this year it also marked the return of in-person events after COVID. The 2020 celebration celebrating Garth Brooks was less than two weeks before things locked down due to the pandemic and was one of the last public events attended by media and law makers in Washington.

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

The evening before the concert, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden welcomed guests to join her in celebrating the guest of honor at a dinner where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced him:  “The incomparable Lionel Richie.”

“I am not just honored in just being honored,” said Richie. “I am overwhelmed and honored. This is amazing. I was just thinking coming down the steps how far a person can go with an Afro in 1968 and my parents said: ‘What on earth are you thinking?’ and the truth lies with this: I was thinking about something far more exciting than the status quo.  I was raised on the University campus by the Tuskegee Air Force Base and the thing they kept saying to us kids over and over again is that failure is not an option.  We want you to commit to life and do beyond what you think your capabilities are, so it was really quite amazing when I discovered the gift of writing.   What I didn’t realize was that I had an opportunity to speak to the world and as I traveled the last forty years of my life – I can’t believe I just said that – and I am addicted to three words: I love you.  And that is in any language, any country, in any religion and in any politics. Can you imagine a world where everyone has the same feelings? Can you imagine a world where everyone has the same kids? Can you imagine a world that doesn’t have politics? They have famiies, they have friends, they have communities. Those are the people I see when I travel around the world.  So when I see this audience tonight, I am so moved because America stands for everything and everything to me because I am a guy who started out in Tuskegee, Alabama and ended up at The Library of Congress.”

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

To celebrate Lionel, the concert evening kicked off with a performance from 2019 Gershwin honoree Gloria Estefan. Estefan sang the 1986 dance hit “Dancing on the Ceiling” which slowly got the crowd warmed up with attendees up on their feet and clapping to the poppy beat. “That’s what Lionel does to people” bellowed Estefan as the crowd began to thaw at the idea of being at a concert again, even if they were still wearing masks to attend.

Actor and comedian Anthony Anderson served as a host for the event, mentioning that Richie personally called and asked him to do it. “I’m just glad to be out of the house,” he said. The COVID jokes would be a steady current through the night, but the sense of joy helped to spark a feeling of normalcy after 2 years without these types of events. “If this was a Zoom meeting, I would have been crying ALL NIGHT LONG,” joked Anderson, referencing another Lionel hit, also noting that he put on “proper pants” for the occasion. Anderson kept the mood light and even crooned a few Richie lyrics himself before the end of the night. Before the show began, he told Hollywood on the Potomac that he will always remember “Brick House” by Lionel and the Commodores as a song he listened to with his father, and “Hello” as the soundtrack to love during his teenage years.

Another theme for the night was the sense of togetherness that Richie inspires in people. A tense budget vote was taking place in the House of Representatives at the same time as the concert, keeping some members of Congress from attending, and clearly showing how divided Washington is currently. There were plenty of references that music can cross party lines, “Maybe we should send Lionel to Congress,” joked the host, before relenting that he didn’t deserve such torture.

Next to the stage was Andra Day decked out in a blue dress and wide brimmed hat, singing a sultry and breathy version of “Hello” which combined her soulful style with the 1984 chart-topper.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden then took the stage with members of Congress to present the Gershwin Prize to Richie, and said that song can “show us what we have in common.” Before the show, Hayden told us that Richie is “just as cool as you think, However he is just as loveable as you think.” Richie’s response when he got to the podium was the call the occasion “surreal” and “outrageous.” He described his humble Alabama childhood and then recalled “As my grandmother would say, this is about as high cotton as you’re ever gonna get.”

The 72-year-old Richie tipped his hat to the “old school” artists who came before him, like Quincy Jones and Ray Charles. He said that when he reflects on his career, that the driving force behind all his success has been love. “Love is the only answer to everything we’re doing.”

Next to perform was Chris Stapleton, singing “Say you, Say me.” and Miguel performing “You Are.” Country star Stapleton brought his trademark twang and helped to showcase the range of Richie’s music. Miguel’s rendition was jazzy and upbeat and got a thumbs up from Richie, clapping from the honoree’s box.

Boyz II Men performed “Easy,” blanketing the room in harmony. The trio called Lionel a “beacon of love…for little tykes like us” and thanked him for being an inspiration during their career. The group had previously covered the song in 2007 on their album, Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA.

When fellow American Idol judge Luke Bryan took the stage, he had to kid about seeing his colleague get such accolades. Luke spoke about Lionel’s energy and enthusiasm for work, even when it isn’t easy. “We all have bad days, I wake up and I’m having a bad day and I think, somewhere Lionel Richie is NOT having a bad day,” he said. While Richie is known for pop and R&B music, in 1980 he wrote and produced “Lady” for Kenny Rogers. Bryan belted the song out from the piano on stage and showed what a master Richie was through the years with the songs he created.

Gospel powerhouse Yolanda Adams closed out the tributes in a sparkling gold gown with a rendition of “Jesus Is Love,” and then came the man of the hour.

When Richie returned to the stage, his swagger was as present as ever. Before the concert began, the one song that people kept mentioning on the red carpet was “We are the World,” the 1985 charity single that Richie wrote with Michael Jackson to help raise money for starving people in Africa. Even Richie himself mentioned this to be a career milestone moment because of the impact it had. “We thought all we had to do was recognize people are suffering” he said, reflecting that more than three decades later, the message of the song is still powerful and represents that people should band together in times of crisis.

The audience sang along to “We are the World” as the heaviness of the conflict in Ukraine hung in the air, but the words and melody helped to prove the premise of the event, that songs can be powerful and have deep meaning.

Richie closed out the evening with a lively version of “All Night Long” that got the audience dancing again and proved that once again, the Library of Congress had found the right honoree with reach, range, and talent to celebrate.

PBS stations will broadcast the concert — “Lionel Richie: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” — at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, May 17 (check local

See more from the Red Carpet here: