(photo: Tomasso Boddi/Getty Images)
Music’s elite, from Stevie Wonder and John Legend to Rihanna and Demi Lovato, gathered Saturday evening to honor 2016 MusiCares Person of the Year Lionel Richie at a dinner at the Los Angeles Convention Center. But it was Dave Grohl’s earnest, swaggering performance of Richie’s 1983 slow jam “You Are,” and the charming Richie’s own time onstage, that had gala guests smiling all night long.
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘How the hell does Dave Grohl know Lionel Richie?‘” the Foo Fighters frontman chuckled during his “You Are” intro. He then shared an anecdote about how after he broke his leg in a freak stage accident last year, he received “the biggest muffin basket I’ve ever seen; it was like 500 muffins” from the generous Richie. “So Lionel, tonight I didn’t bring you a muffin basket, but I brought you this [song],” he said, before serenading a delighted, dancing Richie.
“How cool was that? The guy from Nirvana just sang ‘You Are’!” exclaimed the evening’s host, Jimmy Kimmel.“Those must have been good muffins.”
Richie’s MusiCares dinner presentation was full of cheeky humor – a fitting tribute for a man who has always unabashedly embraced and celebrated his kitschy image. Earlier in the night, Kimmel appeared in full Commodores drag, including a massive Afro wig, quipping, “It’s hard to sing about being easy like Sunday morning dressed like this, but Lionel did it!” At another point in the evening, after screens in the dining room aired the 1985 music video for “We Are the World” (the USA for Africa charity single Richie co-wrote with Michael Jackson), Kimmel blurted out incredulously, “And that day, poverty was solved forever. Did we really just sit here and watch the entire ‘We Are the World’ video together?”
(photo: Tomasso Boddi/Getty Images)
Other amusing moments came when U2’s Bono, in a pre-taped video segment, mock-confused Lionel Richie with Guy Ritchie; when Kevin Spacey introduced Richie by singing “Mr. Bojangles” a cappella and peppering his speech with Johnny Carson and Bill Clinton impressions; and when Demi Lovato, before performing Richie’s ballad “Penny Lover,” pretended to address his daughter Nicole with: “I heard your dad was famous, so this is for you. I grew up watching The Simple Life!”
The performances, backed by musicians led by Tonight Show/American Idol bandleader Rickey Minor, were totally serious and respectful, however, befitting an artist as legendary as Richie. Highlights included Stevie Wonder crooning “Three Times a Lady”; John Legend’s stunning piano performance of “Easy”; Rihanna’s elegant “Say You, Say Me”; Usher’s high-energy rendition of “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”; Yolanda Adams bringing down the house with “Jesus Is Love”; Florence Welch’s unexpected folk-rock remake of “Dancing on the Ceiling”; Chris Stapleton’s heartfelt cover of a Richie song made famous by Kenny Rogers, “Lady”; and a celebratory “Brick House” group performance by Tori Kelly, Gary Clark Jr., the Roots, Pharrell Williams, Leon Bridges, Little Big Town, and Corinne Bailey Rae. Other performers included Lenny Kravitz, the Band Perry, Luke Bryan, and Ellie Goulding.
Richie’s acceptance speech, before he closed the night with his own performances of “Hello” and “All Night Long,” had its humorous moments, particularly when he reflected on how he has always been out of step with the music business – for instance, releasing a waltz, “Three Times a Lady,” during the peak of the disco craze.
“I did not know how the record industry worked. I didn’t know there was an R&B [category], and a pop group, or a country group,” he explained. “I did not know that there were [musical] categories – until I walked into a radio station one day and they said, ‘We can’t play your record because it’s too black.’ So I went home and wrote ‘Easy’ and I brought it back, and they said, ‘We can’t play that record because it’s too white!’ I was confused… But today I am standing here celebrating all the songs that they told me would ruin my career!”
(photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Other parts of Richie’s speech were incredibly moving. He brought a bronze bust of his late father’s hand onstage and clutched it tightly during much of his time behind the podium, and he spoke proudly of breaking the all-time fundraising record for MusiCares, which helps musicians in need.
“I know why now God gave me those songs: to stand here onstage tonight and thank all of you for raising over $7 million for my brothers and sisters,” Richie said. “My vision here on Earth is very simple. I am here to give a voice to the voiceless, and a face to people who are invisible…. We are our brother’s keeper. If you have anything in this world to give, give it all, because you take nothing with you. I am only the vessel. I am only the messenger, trying to raise the consciousness of the world.”
John Legend, Demi Lovato, Luke Bryan, Meghan Trainor, and Tyrese Gibson will pay tribute to Lionel Richie at the 58th annual Grammy Awards, which air Monday on CBS at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET.