He writes the songs that make him sing: Lionel Richie is celebrated

Veteran music star is feted by friends and peers on PBS

The new special “Lionel Richie: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” airs Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).

For those unaware that Lionel Richie also wrote many of the hits he has sung, a prestigious honor offers a major reminder.

The four-time Grammy Award winner and current “American Idol” judge received The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in a March ceremony in Washington, D.C. — adding him to the ranks of such earlier winners of the accolade as Paul McCartney, Smokey Robinson, Carole King and Garth Brooks. The event was taped for a PBS special to be televised Tuesday, May 17 (check local listings).

The new special “Lionel Richie: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” airs Tuesday on PBS (check local listings).

“They epitomize the word ‘popular,’ ” Richie reflects of George and Ira Gershwin, the composing siblings who contributed numerous classics to the American popular-music catalog. “When you mention ‘Gershwin’ and your name happens to be next to it or associated with it, it is the best honor you can have.”

Anthony Anderson serves as host of Richie’s Gershwin salute, and the performers include fellow “American Idol” panelist Luke Bryan, past Gershwin Prize honoree Gloria Estefan, Yolanda Adams, Chris Stapleton, Andra Day, Miguel and Boyz II Men. Richie reflects, “All of these artists walk on stage and they start singing these songs, and a lot of times I say to them, ‘I am so happy God gave me those songs first.’ It’s very sobering when people actually acknowledge that not only do they like your songs, but they know all the lyrics.”

While a Commodores member, Richie wrote such tunes for the group as “Easy,” “Sail On” and “Three Times a Lady.” Then as a solo artist, he gave himself popular material including “Endless Love” (a duet with Diana Ross), “All Night Long (All Night),” “Truly,” “Hello,” “Stuck on You” and “Say You, Say Me.” He also co-wrote “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Penny Lover” and (with Michael Jackson) one of the entertainment industry’s most successful charity efforts ever, “We Are the World.”

Had fate not intervened, Richie might be applying his talents to another sort of numbers. “I went to Tuskegee (Institute) to be an economist,” he explains. “I ran into a guy who said, ‘I understand you brought your horn to school. Would you like to be in a talent show?’ The rest is history.”

The better part of 60 years later, Richie (who also will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame later this year) says that in getting the Gershwin Prize, “I am kind of taking a deep breath in and thinking about my grandmother, who in her time — in the early 1900s — she was going to be, and was, should I say, a concert pianist. Think about that ambition back at that time, and to have her grandson actually end up where I’m ending up now, it’s pretty astounding. I must tell you, I am quite humbled by this honor.”


Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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