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A warm ‘Hello’ for Lionel Richie at star-studded Gershwin Prize tribute

Library of Congress concert on Wednesday marks a return for the annual Washington event

Lionel Richie, the 2022 Gershwin Prize recipient, celebrating onstage at the close of his tribute concert in Washington. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
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Lionel Richie does not age. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the performer’s steady string of iconic hits are so pervasive that it is impossible to date Lionel Richie. The man is time itself; his songs the very air we breathe.

Which is exactly why the Library of Congress dubbed Richie the 2022 recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, for singer-songwriters whose music becomes indelible. Fresh off the 72-year-old’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination, the award comes as a surprise to no one. Well, no one except Lionel Richie.

“It humbles me to think that a little kid from Tuskegee, Alabama, can now be walking down the halls of the Library of Congress? Gimme a break, I mean, oh God,” Richie said from the red carpet before heading inside DAR Constitution Hall for a star-studded tribute concert Wednesday that featured fellow Gershwin recipient Gloria Estefan, R&B crooner Miguel, ’90s super group Boyz II Men, country star Luke Bryan, “Rise Up” singer Andra Day, gospel legend Yolanda Adams and vocal powerhouse Chris Stapleton.

And yes, a concert, masked but in person.

“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m just glad to be out of the house. Tonight we’re here we’re wearing proper pants,” joked the evening’s host “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson, whom Richie called on personally to emcee.

The last Gershwin Prize was awarded to Garth Brooks on March 4, 2020. A week later the world shut down. With songs that exude the very definition of familiar — “All Night Long,” “Hello,” “Easy” — Richie wasn’t just deserving (duh), he was necessary.

Garth Brooks won the Gershwin Prize, and his tribute concert was quite a scene

“His music resonates and heals at a time when we need it the most,” explained Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, before highlighting one of Richie’s biggest hits, 1985′s “We Are the World,” co-written with Michael Jackson to aid famine relief. “Listening to the lyrics today it continues to offer hope and remind us all of our collective spirit and our shared humanity,” Hayden said.

Richie’s endurance as a songwriter was made clear as each artist took a turn performing some of his timeless greats. Gloria Estefan, the queen of lifting a crowd to its feet, strutted to the stage in black platform heels and started the party with “Dancing on the Ceiling,” loosening up the only-in-Washington crowd of politicians and power brokers. The evening would not be stuffy, despite all the shouting from behind the required masks.

Lionel Richie can’t slow down, and we’re all the richer for it

Day launched into a haunting rendition of Richie’s 1983 hit “Hello” in raspy layers that made it uniquely hers. Days after delivering a fiery performance at the Academy of Country Music Awards, Chris Stapleton’s rendition of 1986′s “Say You, Say Me” got two thumbs up from Richie himself. Miguel cha-cha’d to 1982′s “You Are.” Boyz II Men jogged over to shake Richie’s hand after their cover of his Commodores ballad “Easy,” which the now-trio ended with their signature harmony.

But the standout performances of the night went to Luke Bryan, who has served alongside Richie as a judge on “American Idol” for the last five years, and gospel mega star Yolanda Adams.

“This guy is everything you believe he is, I promise you,” said Bryan, who sat down at the piano to sing “Lady,” the breakout 1980 ballad Lionel Richie wrote for country star Kenny Rogers. Bryan’s take was confident with a hint of I can’t believe I’m doing this in front of Lionel Richie. After the last “You’re my laaaaadaaay,” Bryan wiped his brow.

But oh man, Yolanda Adams. What can be said when it needed to be felt? Luminous in a shimmering floor-length gown, Adams took the crowd to church with the 1980 Commodores hymn “Jesus Is Love.” She didn’t bring the house down, she brought it up. From his box Richie had his hand in the air, testifying.

When the man of the hour finally got onstage to address the crowd, he was still in shock, despite the Grammys, the Golden Globe, the Oscar, a Kennedy Center Honors.

“This is absolutely outrageous,” said Richie. “As my grandmother would say, this is about as high cotton as you’re ever gonna get.” The singer then quickly ran down the last seven decades — his Alabama upbringing to the Commodores to the Gershwin. “Do you understand what I’m saying here? That’s ridiculous.”

2017 Kennedy Center Honors: Lionel Richie can't slow down and we're all the richer for it

Reflecting on the advice he got from “the old school” guys like Henry Mancini, Sammy Cahn and Quincy Jones, Richie said his inspiration came from listening to God humming to him. The singer said that through his entire career he has had one goal in mind: Love.

That’s it. That’s the message. “All people want to hear is ‘I love you,’” he said. “The day we realize we’re a family and not a tribe. We’re a family and not a party. We’re a family. The day that happens, we will clearly be united together as one.”

The singer’s speech underscored a point that Anderson made earlier in the program: “If you don’t love Lionel Richie, something is wrong with you.”

After a quick costume change — black leather pants and an Elvis-approved jacket — Richie himself closed out the night with “We Are the World” and “All Night Long.” The former got the audience thinking and the latter got them on their feet once more, shouting through their masks the best they could: “We’re going to party, Karamu, fiesta,” and, reflecting Richie’s legacy, “forever.”

“Lionel Richie: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” airs Tuesday, May 17, at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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