Librarian of Congress shares why Lionel Richie is perfect pick for Gershwin Prize

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews tonight's Gershwin Prize for Lionel Richie (Part 1)

The Library of Congress is handing out its annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Lionel Richie will receive the honor Wednesday night in the nation’s capital in a special taping at DAR Constitution Hall that will be broadcast on PBS on Tuesday, May 17.

“I’m actually getting goosebumps because it’s one of my favorite artists, but everyone’s favorites, the superstar Lionel Richie,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden told WTOP.

Past recipients include Paul Simon (2007), Stevie Wonder (2009), Paul McCartney (2010), Burt Bacharach & Hal David (2012), Carole King (2013), Billy Joel (2014), Willie Nelson (2015), Smokey Robinson (2016), Tony Bennett (2017), Gloria & Emilio Estefan (2019) and Garth Brooks (2012), who all provide input into who should be the next honoree each year.

“They get a say,” Hayden said. “These are all superstars, but they respect each other’s achievement in popular music. … When you think about all these people giving input into who they think should win the highest honor in achievement in popular music, you have an all-star selection process and group — and you end up with an all-star like Lionel Richie.”

Richie’s prolific career ranges from his group The Commodores to his solo hits.

“I remember when some of those songs came out, of course, ‘Brick House,’ but also ‘Three Times a Lady’ and ‘Easy’ at the same time he was with The Commodores,” Hayden said. “Then when he went solo, my goodness, ‘Endless Love,’ ‘All Night Long,’ ‘Hello,’ ‘Say You, Say Me,’ and ‘Dancing on the Ceiling,’ then he co-wrote ‘We Are the World.'”

As always, the star-studded concert will include an array of special guest performers.

“We’re really excited because there’s going to be performances by previous honoree Gloria Estefan, Boyz II Men, all of them, Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Andra Day, Miguel, Yolanda Adams and a special performance by Mr. Richie himself,” Hayden said.

Indeed, the event ends with a grand finale performance by the actual recipient.

“He wanted to do, especially at this time and we know it’ll be just as relevant during the broadcast, ‘We Are the World’ — he specifically wanted to be the one to perform that and he’ll probably bring on some of the other performers to help him with that,” Hayden said. “Then we all said, ‘Please, sir, you’ve got to do ‘All Night Long’ as a wrap-up!’”

Richie has had quite the memorable past few years. In 2017, he was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors; in 2018, he became a judge on “American Idol;” and earlier this year, he was nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with winners announced in May.

“What Mr. Richie is doing now as a judge on ‘American Idol,’ he is mentoring other young artists,” Hayden said. “With all of his fame and achievement, he’s still helping others.”

Hayden knows a thing or two about helping future generations at the Library of Congress.

“I’m the first person of color to be Librarian of Congress since 1802 and I’m also the first woman,” Hayden said. “It’s significant because librarianship is a female-dominated profession. About 85 to 90% of people who work in libraries are female. … Then as a person of color … people that looked like me were forbidden by law to learn how to read.”

She’s always loved reading and music as her father recorded with The Chi-Lites.

“You can hear him playing violin on some of The Chi-Lites songs,” Hayden said. “That was Dad! … So, it’s a special treat for me to be involved with the Gershwin Prize.”

Wednesday marks the first Gershwin Prize ceremony since March 2020.

“Right before the pandemic, literally a week before, we had Garth Brooks and he just was magnificent, he brought people together, we had bipartisan karaoke,” Hayden said. “For the first Gershwin after the pandemic to have Lionel Richie, who is just as magnificent and can bring people together with music, there will be more bipartisan karaoke.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews tonight's Gershwin Prize for Lionel Richie (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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