Lionel Richie heard a lot of different versions of himself on Saturday night in Los Angeles. He was honoree at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year dinner, where generations of artists — from Rihanna and Usher to Lenny Kravitz and Dave Grohl — reinterpreted decades of his work in multiple shades of pop, funk, folk, gospel and rock.
All the selections were rooted in the romantic songwriting that has made Richie among of the most successful artists of his generation, with 100 million records sold and four decades of trophies, including Grammys and an Oscar. In his speech at night’s end, Richie suggested a strong distinction between the craft he developed while recording for Motown and the digitized hitmaking of the moment.
“I came from an era when there were creative artists, not created artists,” he said. Richie thanked several in the crowd, including Motown founder Berry Gordy. “I want to thank Berry Gordy for never just saying thank you, but it was always about what’s coming next.”
The night was a fundraiser for MusiCares, which supports musicians in medical and financial need. Just ahead of the performances was a live auction with big-ticket items, including a private Lionel Richie concert in the bidder’s home that raised $325,000. The top bid on a private performance by the Alabama Shakes was $125,000.
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Host Jimmy Kimmel turned up looking like Richie during his years in the Commodores, wearing a Seventies afro wig and a white fringed jacket, noting the singer’s many previous honors. “He has so many awards that this one he’s getting tonight goes right into the garbage,” Kimmel joked. “It’s going to be a fun night. It’s going to be a weird night.”
By weird, Kimmel might have meant the wildly disparate readings of Richie’s accessible, R&B-rooted tunes. Lenny Kravitz arrived in black leather and aviator shades to rock up “Running With the Night,” with longtime guitarist Craig Ross slashing beside him. Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch sang a folky reading of “Dancing on the Ceiling” to acoustic guitars, and country artist Chris Stapleton played an almost spooky acoustic version of “Lady” (written by Richie and first recorded by Kenny Rogers in 1980).
The Band Perry sang a less teary “Endless Love” on a slowly spinning stage at the center of the audience, their three voices in harmony as a seven-man band accompanied with pedal steel and acoustic guitars. It was faithful to the original, but with a country accent.
Some songs were unrecognizable beyond the original lyrics, but found interesting new territory, while others were more forced than inspired. The music tended to connect the deepest when in the hands of artists directly connected to the pop/R&B source, who reignited the tunes with contemporary spirit.
First among those were Usher and John Legend. Usher went big with a full band, dancing across the stage as he dove into the Commodores’ 1981 hit “Lady (You Bring Me Up).” Soon after, Legend stripped 1977’s “Easy” to its pop essence, sitting at a grand piano to deliver the heartfelt and emotionally resonant ballad, demonstrating why Richie’s originals connected so widely when first released.
Dressed in a long flowery gown, Rihanna offered a punchy but soulful “Say You, Say Me,” even if the drums behind her came on a bit strong.
Pharrell and the Roots led a Richie medley that drew from several songs and featured guest vocalists, beginning with Gary Clark Jr., who found some sweaty funk within the Commodores’ “Slippery When Wet.” Not all the guest singers made the moment larger, but the full group onstage instantly coalesced during the brassy hard funk of 1977’s “Brick House.” More was to come.
“Sit the fuck down,” Kimmel snarled with a smile, ending a lengthy pause between acts. “Stevie Wonder is waiting for you to finish your conversation.”
When Wonder sat a keyboard for his appearance, the singer made the teary pop of “Three Times a Lady” into an excited, searing vocal overcome with anxious joy. Yolanda Adams brought the night into the inspirational on Richie’s “Jesus Is Love,” her voice rising and falling with the emotion of the moment, balancing subtlety and power. Richie was the first to stand up and applaud.
As talent for the tribute was being announced in recent weeks, Dave Grohl was among the most unexpected. Standing onstage in a dark suit and sneakers, Grohl told the audience that when he broke his leg in a fall last year, he got word that Richie was sending a muffin basket, and it was a big one. Then there was a call from Richie making sure he got the basket.
Grohl’s response to a night of Lionel Richie reinterpretation was to sing the solo hit “You Are” completely straight. It wasn’t naturally within his style or range, but it was delivered without irony. Grohl sang like he meant every word, and was maybe enjoying the contradiction of a committed rocker performing an Eighties romantic pop ballad. Then he blew a kiss on his way off the stage.
“How great was that?” Kimmel asked. “One of the guys in Nirvana just sang ‘You Are.’ Those must have been good muffins, Lionel.”