Lionel Richie Brings Back the Gershwin Prize

An onstage photo of Lionel Richie and Carla Hayden

Lionel Richie accepts the Gershwin Prize for Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Lionel Richie smiled, the cameras flashed, the bass thumped, the music soared and the concert celebrating the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song popped back into life two years after COVID-19 shut down much of public life in the nation’s capital.

It was a misty, chilly night outside Constitution Hall, but the crowd warmed up as soon as the house lights dimmed, getting on their feet for Gloria Estefan’s show-opening version of “Dancing on the Ceiling,” and later raising hands above their heads and swaying to Boyz II Men’s cover of “Easy.”

“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m just glad to be out of the house,” emcee Anthony Anderson quipped in his opening monologue, drawing an enthusiastic round of applause. “We’re here. We’re wearing proper pants.”

It really did seem that easy, with two years of pandemic shutdown blahs melting away. It was the first Gershwin concert since 2020, when Garth Brooks and friends rocked the house.

“This is absolutely outrageous,” Richie said when Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden formally presented him with the Gershwin Prize onstage, flanked by members of Congress. He invoked his Alabama roots, adding, “As my grandmother would say, ‘This is about as high a cotton as you’re ever gonna get.’ ”

The show, taped before a mostly full house (pandemic restrictions still meant that masks were mandatory) will be broadcast on PBS stations at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, May 17,  and on PBS.org and the PBS Video App as part of the co-produced Emmy Award-winning music series.

The Gershwin Prize is named for George and Ira Gershwin, the brothers who wrote much of the American songbook in the early to mid-20th century and whose papers are preserved at the Library.

The prize honors a living musician’s work. The Librarian chooses the honoree after consulting with a panel of music specialists from across the industry. Previous recipients, in order, are Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Sir Paul McCartney, songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and the late Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and the most recent honoree, Brooks.

“In so many ways, the Gershwin Prize was made for Lionel Richie,” Hayden said at the show.

Richie, born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1949, was a student at the town’s famed university when he joined the Commodores in 1968. The band hit its stride in the mid-’70s, with huge hits such as “Brick House,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Still,” and “Easy.” He then launched into his own career and another stratosphere of success, going on an 11-year run of writing No. 1 hits. His self-titled debut album sold four million copies; the follow-up, “Can’t Slow Down,” sold 20 million. His hits during that span included “Endless Love,” “Truly,” “All Night Long” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.” With Michael Jackson, he co-wrote “We Are the World,” a 1985 ballad by a group of all-star performers that raised more than $65 million for famine relief. The music video of the song became a cultural milestone of the 80s.

Richie’s career as a singer, songwriter and producer kept going. He’s won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, four Grammy Awards and sold 125 million albums. Since 2018, he’s known to a new generation of fans as a judge on “American Idol.”

The show capping that career had a fun vibe all night. At the red-carpet step and repeat before the concert started, fellow “Idol” judge Luke Bryan – no slouch himself, having sold more than 75 million albums — charmed the line of reporters and photographers with stories of growing up listening to Richie on the radio, then working alongside him.

“Anytime I have to sing Lionel Richie songs, I don’t have to do much homework,” he said. “I just have to go out there and karaoke.”

The show, as always, was part concert, part taped television show.

The stage setup was spare. There was a rhythm section to the audience’s left, with two keyboards and a pair of back-up singers to the right. The screen behind the stage showed clips from Richie’s career during the short breaks between performances. Richie and girlfriend Lisa Parigi sat in the honoree’s box to the audience’s left of the stage, next to Hayden.

Andra Day singing onstage, wearing a blue sleeveless top and a large blue hat.

Andra Day dazzled with her performance of Richie’s “Hello.” Photo: Shawn Miller.

Onstage, Andra Day dazzled, both in her baby-blue outfit and her rendition of “Hello.” Chris Stapleton – who also performed at the Gershwin concert for Brooks – came out in all black to sing Richie’s Oscar-winning ballad, “Say You, Say Me.” Bryan played a baby grand piano to sing “Lady.” Miguel did a smooth rendition of “You Are,” Yolanda Adams belted out gospel and before you knew it, Richie was closing the evening with two songs, “We Are the World” and, of course, “All Night Long.”

For Richie, his career of genre-crossing hits, popular with international audiences across the racial and economic spectrum, has always been about what unites people.

“Love is the only answer to everything we’re doing,” he said in his brief acceptance speech. “We may live in different places, but these songs are as popular on the other side of world as they are  here in D.C. …We’re a family, not a tribe. We’re a family, not a party.”

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