It's fitting that Lionel Richie referenced The Beatles late Saturday night during his MusiCares Person of the Year acceptance speech, especially given how the all-star concert held in his honor got by with more than a little help from his friends.
Those friends ranged from Stevie Wonder, Rihanna, Usher, Pharrell Williams and Florence & The Machine's Florence Welch to teen-pop vocal star Demi Lovato , blues dynamo Gark Clark, Jr. and country-music stars Luke Bryan , The Band Perry and Little Big Town. The lineup also included The Roots, Ellie Goulding , Lenny Kravitz and more, most improbably, head Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. After delivering his blue-eyed soul version of "You Are," Grohl hailed Richie as "the muffin man" (more about that in a moment).
Appearing before a capacity audience of nearly 3,000 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Richie and his musical friends performed songs from his four-decade solo career and his previous tenure with the band The Commodores. Wisely, no one did "We Are the World," the 1985 anthem Richie co-wrote with Michael Jackson to raise funds to battle African famine, although the full video of the song was shown
The variety of musical styles featured Saturday - pop, funk, R&B, country and more - spoke to Richie's versatility as a singer and songwriter. The $7 million-plus raised at the black-tie event (ticket prices started at $1,500) was a record for MusiCares, surpassing the $7 million raised at last year's MusiCares concert honoring Bob Dylan.
Now in its 26th year, the nonprofit organization provides financial and medical assistance to musicians in need. One of them, singer Merry Clayton, appeared via video during Saturday's dinner concert. When her specially designed and equipped wheelchair broke down recently, she recounted, MusiCares replaced it within three hours.
At the end of her video testimonial, Clayton (who rock fans may know best for singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' classic "Gimme Shelter," broke into an an cappella gospel gem, "I've Come Too Far to Turn Back Now." As her impassioned voice soared, the audience cheered.
"It's a great night," former top San Diego concert promoter Bill Silva, the board chairman of the MusiCares Foundation, told the star-studded crowd. "I don't get starstruck, but ... only Lionel could bring out (Motown Records mastermind) Berry Gordy , Jr., and Quincy Jones (tonight)."
It was, nearly midnight when Richie performed his ebullient "All Night Long (All Night)" to conclude the show. His chart-topping 1983 hit, replete with faux African lyrics, sounded as celebratory as ever, with vocal support from Wonder, Grohl, Kravitz, Williams, Little Big Town and some of the night's other co-stars.
Alas, a fair number of attendees had already departed by then, perhaps because of the late hour, the hit-and-miss quality of some of the performers, and the sequence of performers. No one should ever have to follow the ever-brilliant Wonder, who turned "Three Times a Lady" into a stunning, blues- and gospel-tinged tour de force. Especially not young English singer Ellie Goulding, 29, whose thin-voiced, pitch-challenged version of Richie's "Sail On" sounded even more tepid coming directly after Wonder's one-song master class in musical transcendence.
Lovato, 23, fared even more poorly on Richie's "Penny Lover," never finding the right key and tip-toeing through the verses. (Like a majority of the night's performers, she read the lyrics, which were projected on an enormous screen at the rear of the hall, as she sang them.)
The show's host, Jimmy Kimmel , poked fun at Lovato with his introduction, saying: "Our next performer is so young, she doesn't even know who Lionel Richie is. She just knows (tonight) has something to with Nicole Richie's dad."
As if on cue, former Disney Channel star Lovato then gushed: "I grew up watching 'The Simple Life' (Nicole Richie's far-from-reality TV series with Paris Hilton ), and I just love you!"
Ironically, actor Kevin Spacey's brief but stirring a cappella version of "Mr. Bojangles," a classic not written by Richie, showed the veteran film and Tv actor to be a more capable singer than some of the vocal stars on the bill.
The best performers Saturday were able to simultaneously pay tribute to Richie's music and inject their own musical personality, none better than Wonder. Florence Welch took one of the bigger risks, transforming "Dancing on the Ceiling" into a soft, acoustic-guitar-led reverie that would have been perfect for a campfire hootenanny. Her intimate performance of the song was a low-key delight.
So was rising country star Chris Stapleton's eerie take on "Lady," which found him removing the melodrama from Richie's original version and replacing it with something that sounded haunting and haunted. A twirling Usher delivered a rousing rendition of The Commodores' 1981 hit, "Lady (You Bring Me Up)," while a too-short version of "Brick House" found The Roots' singer and rapper Black Thought easily outclassing Williams.
Too many of the performers, including Bryan and The Band Perry, sounded respectful, but innocuous. John Legend, who performed "Lady" accompanied only by his elegant piano playing, was also respectful, and his version of "Lady" hewed much closer to the original Richie recording than Stapleton's take on the same number. But by stripping the song down, he found its essence.
Then there was vocal powerhouse Yolanda Adams, who nearly raised the roof with the gospel fervor she brought to "Jesus is Love." Rihanna delivered a moody version of "Say You, Say Me," which featured a new arrangement that was a plus (she took a chance) and a minus (it didn't entirely work).
The odd man out, at least on paper, was Grohl.
After telling the audience he knew that many were probably wondering "how the hell" he even knew Richie, Grohl explained that - after he broke his leg on stage last year in Scandinavia - Richie sent him "the world's biggest muffin basket."
"I didn't bring you any muffins, but I brought you this."
With that, Grohl delivered a version of "You Are" that lacked even a hint of irony. At the end of the song, he said: "Thank you, Lionel, You are the muffin man!"
Kimmel, like many in the crowd, was taken aback.
"How good was that?" he asked. "The guy from Nirvana just sang that? Those must have been some good muffins, Lionel!"
Richie, a four-time Grammy winner who has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, only performed two songs, the heartfelt piano ballad "Hello" and the show-closing "Dancing on the Ceiling."
But his pre-performance speech was memorable, as he reflected growing up in a still-segregated American South, finding his musical feet in The Commodores, then going solo. He said he had strived to compete with The Beatles, Wonder, Marvin Gaye and other greats, and ignored stylistic restrictions.
"I didn't know there were categories," he said. "I come from a time when there were creative artists, not created artists.
He thanked his father and a host of musical collaborators, including Motown honcho Gordy, whom he praised (and teased) for always pushing him to outdo himself.
Richie may have outdone himself, Saturday, too. He provided three of the four live auction items, including a live Richie concert at the winner's home, which went for $325,000. He thanked the audience for its generosity and encouraged them to keep helping those less fortunate.
"I know why God gave me these songs," Richie said, "to stand here, on this stage, and I thank all of you for raising over $7 million to help others...
"My musical role on earth is very simple: To give a voice to the voiceless and a face to the faceless."
Of course, not all of Richie's songs serve that purpose. And to his detractors, some of his hit ballads can sound a bit, well, faceless themselves. But the best moments at Saturday's MusiCares concert demonstrated exactly why his best music has endured so long and so well.
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