Say you, say him — say Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Florence Welch, Dave Grohl, Demi Lovato, John Legend, Jimmy Kimmel, Ellie Goulding, Lenny Kravitz, Luke Bryan, Usher, Chris Stapleton, and (why not?) Kevin Spacey, too. In Los Angeles, a delightfully random cavalcade of stars came out on Valentine’s eve to honor Lionel Richie in a celebration that lasted, if not all night long, then still a pretty wild, confetti’d chunk of it.
Richie looked on from a prime center seat as his life and catalog were revisited for a good cause basically dressed up as a party: the MusiCares Foundation, which provides financial, emotional, and medical support for struggling and less fortunate members of the music industry. (Every year one honoree is chosen, and typically they’re the kind of stars who don’t need last names: Bruce, Bono, Aretha, Elton, Quincy).
Lenny Kravitz emerged first (in a very Lenny-ish pair of leather pants) while he delivered the night’s opener — a raucous, straightforward take on “Runnin’ With the Night” — before host Jimmy Kimmel came out in his own best (worst) Commodores jumpsuit to rally the crowd: “Who’s ready to party, karambo, fiesta, forever? Are you ready to jambo jambo? Do you know what that means? It means people did a lot of drugs in the ‘80s. But it’s gonna be a fun night,” he promised. “It’s gonna be a weird night.”
Weird arrived almost immediately in the form of Florence Welch, who is consistently great live, though maybe not ideally suited to “Dancing On the Ceiling,” which she turned into a sort of earnest, jangly Lilith Fair jam that never really samba’d above the baseboards. A video tribute from Bono followed, in which the U2 frontman made some silly dad jokes about confusing Lionel with filmmaker Guy Ritchie (homonyms: hilarity!) before revealing the obscure and actually pretty fantastic trivia bit that Bob Marley and the Wailers’ first-ever U.S. concert appearance came at Lionel’s personal invitation.
The whole evening, in fact, was a sort of Six Degrees of Richie celebration, detouring through dozens of charming and unexpected connections from throughout the star’s four-decade-plus career. That inclusiveness helped make appearances by fans like Chris Stapleton, who brought his faithful, muscular take on the 1980 ballad “Lady” next, feel as timeless and organic as Kenny Rogers’ original recording (if even more impressively bearded). An extended “We Are the World” video clip — Richie famously co-penned the supergroup charity anthem with Michael Jackson — was mostly a chance to revisit stars like Bob and Bruce and Stevie and Cyndi in their fluffily coiffed mid-‘80s prime, and hold time until the Band Perry came out and offered a lovely, if slightly unsettling, take on the lush, goopy 1981 movie theme “Endless Love.” (Unsettling only because it meant watching the three siblings gaze into each other’s eyes while delivering lines like “I’ll hold you close in my arms/I can’t resist your charms.”)
Rihanna was unbilled and therefore a total surprise when she appeared in a swirl of pink lace and sequins to deliver “Say You Say Me.” She suspended her cool remove for the performance, turning Richie’s adored but corny 1986 ballad into an orchestra-backed torch song and clutching emotionally at the money notes before wrapping with a demure smile for Richie, who beamed back.
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Usher brought it back to party mode with an uptempo take on the Commodores’ “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” and Demi Lovato good-naturedly took Kimmel’s crack that she wasn’t old enough to know who Lionel was and ran with it, addressing his reality-star daughter (who appeared earlier in the night via satellite) and mock-gushing: “I heard your dad was famous, so this is for you — I grew up watching The Simple Life and I just love you, Nicole!” before delivering a throaty “Penny Lover.” Luke Bryan came and went quickly with “Can’t Get Over You,” and John Legend’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” elegant if unsurprising, was followed by a super jam “Brick House” group performance ring-led by Pharrell and featuring turns by Tori Kelly, Gary Clark Jr., the Roots, Leon Bridges, Little Big Town, and an erratically mic’d Corinne Bailey Rae. Ellie Goulding and gospel star Yolanda Adams both got warm applause but felt more like solid setups for Stevie Wonder and the first bona fide standing O of the night: A scatting, joyful “Three Times a Lady.” Dave Grohl arrived, as he often does, to lift a long evening with goofball humor — there was an extended anecdote about Lionel sending him a giant get-well basket of pastries after he broke his leg last year onstage during a Foo Fighters set — and a suave, Rat Pack-y swagger through “You Are” punctuated by shouts of “Thank you for the muffins! You are the muffin man!”
Kevin Spacey, apparently a longtime friend, followed with his own a cappella soft-shoe “Mr. Bojangles” and a series of impressions (Bill Clinton, Christopher Walken, Johnny Carson) before introducing the man of honor. Richie, finally taking the stage, paid sincere, passionate tribute to his hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama and his later creative home, Motown Records, and added several pointed references to race and the current political climate. And then came the opening notes of the one song the room had been waiting for all evening: “Hello.” It was him the well-heeled crowd was looking for, and they got that deathless piano ballad plus a giddy, crowded all-star reprise of “All Night Long” before grabbing their goody bags and heading out into the great fiesta forever, fancy shoes yanked off for dancing and faces plastered with smiles.