Lionel Richie has been a successful part of the music world for more than half a century. During that time, he became one of only two songwriters in history to have No. 1 records for nine consecutive years. Along with selling more than 125 million albums worldwide, he also has been awarded an Oscar, a Golden Globe, four Grammy Awards and been a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2017.
His impact on the music world – that continues with his being a judge on ABC’s “American Idol” – has earned Richie the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. “Lionel Richie: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will be televised at 9 p.m. May 17 on Valley PBS.
The annual award honors living musical artists whose lifetime contributions in the field of popular song exemplify the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwi, by promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of cultural understanding and inspiring new generations of musicians. Past winners have included Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Carole King, Tony Bennett and Garth Brooks.
Richie was surprised when he was told of the honor because the Alabama native always has always just considered himself a very simple songwriter.
“People always think there’s a logical reason for why you do certain things. I was a very simple lyricist,” Richie says. “I kind of learned this over the years that people recognize simplicity better than they recognize a lot of notes and a lot of words that they don’t understand. So I kind of fell into that just by accident.
“But when I say that, that’s how I write. I am from Tuskegee, Ala. It can’t get any simpler than that in terms of growing up in life. But on the university campus, it helped me thread together those various phrases to come out in a simple way to put things.”
Richie formed several R&B groups in the mid-1960s but it wasn’t until he became a singer and saxophone player for the Commodores that his career really launched. The group produced the chart-topping songs ‘Still,” “Easy” and “Three Times a Lady.’
There has also been a long list of solo success for Richie with “Endless Love,” “Lady,” “Truly,” “All Night Long,” “Penny Lover,” “Stuck on You,” “Hello,” “Say You, Say Me” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.” He co-wrote “We Are the World” for U.S.A for Africa. Richie is one of only two sole songwriters who has written eight No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Richie credits a higher source for all of the musical success he has found over the decades.
“The songs are all God,” Richie says. “I’d love to explain to you where and what and how, but I was inspired. I was divinely guided. How it gets to me is probably divinely guided; that’s all I can say. Because there are only 12 notes, and so to find the right three, that’s all you need to make a complete record, but you need four if you want to go and really show off.
“Me and God have figured out how to manipulate those 12 notes. And I’m here to this day trying to explain how I got here. But it really is quite a ride.”
And, the ride never slowed. With his All the Hits, All Night Long Tour, Richie sold out arenas and in recent years, he also headlined festivals including Bonnaroo, Outside Lands and Glastonbury, drawing the festival’s biggest crowd ever with more than 200,000 attendees. In spring 2019, Lionel was named Global Ambassador and Chairman of the Global Ambassador Group for the Prince’s Trust, a charity founded in 1976 by Charles, Prince of Wales that helps young people all over the world achieve their dreams and transform their lives.
The secret to Richie’s long and successful career comes down to one thing. He has always been a daydreamer.
“I could not keep my mind on what was happening in front of me to save my life. I didn’t realize that daydreaming, that drifting off, was that other place that I write songs, but I didn’t know I was a songwriter,” Richie says. “I didn’t realize that the words I was thinking about were actually poetic until I started writing it down.
“So my process is very simple. Anywhere and everywhere I am on any occasion it comes to me. I either write it down, walk out of the room. If I’m having a conversation, God help you, I am going to drift off for a minute and write it down somewhere. The melody comes first, and then you go back and fill in the dah, dahs. That’s the actual process. That’s the simple version of it.”
That simple process has worked well enough to earn Richie another major award.