The prize celebrates "the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding," according to the Library of Congress, which established the Gershwin Prize in 2007. Since then, it's been bequeathed to a veritable galaxy of musical superstars, including Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Emilio and Gloria Estefan and most recently, Garth Brooks.
"This is truly an honor of a lifetime, and I am so grateful to be receiving the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song," Richie said in a statement. "I am proud to be joining all the other previous artists, who I also admire and am a fan of their music."
The 72-year-old Richie, who wrote "Endless Love," is responsible for a seemingly endless catalog of hits, including "Lady," "Truly," "All Night Long (All Night)," "Penny Lover," "Stuck on You," "Hello," "Say You, Say Me" and "Dancing on the Ceiling." He's sold more than 125 million albums worldwide and served as a judge on ABC's American Idol for the past four seasons.
Born in Tuskagee, Ala., Richie was a tennis star and a economics major as a student, but his passion was for R&B. In 1968, he joined the then-college funk group The Commodores and emerged as a Motown fixture, touring with The Jackson 5 and recording with Diana Ross. In the 1980s, Richie evolved into a magnetic megastar, who wrote and performed bewitching (and occasionally sentimental) No. 1 hit songs for 11 consecutive years.
Among the musician's most notable accomplishments include his co-writing of the single "We Are the World" with Michael Jackson to raise money for African famine relief. Recorded with dozens of celebrities in 1985 (including a few future Gershwin Prize winners), it remains one of the best-selling physical singles in history.
"In so many ways, this national honor was made for Lionel Richie whose music has entertained and inspired us — and helped strengthen our global connections," said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in a statement. "Lionel Richie's unforgettable work has shown us that music can bring us together. Even when we face problems and disagree on issues, songs can show us what we have in common."
Plans are in place for PBS to broadcast a television tribute concert in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 2022, to mark the occasion.