Lionel Richie's new country duets album, Tuskegee, has at least one glaring flaw: no remake of "Brick House." Fortunately, that's a mistake that was rectified when he and his celebrity pals taped a TV special to go with the album, as Big & Rich came out and joined Richie for the Commodores' undying salute to classical architecture.
Lionel Richie and Friends: In Concert doesn't air until this coming Friday the 13th, on CBS, but we were on hand for the taping at the MGM Grand Garden last week and can tantalize you with our observations about some of the all-star duets you'll see on the two-hour telecast.
Among those not dueting with Richie on the show: Ashton Kutcher. Hey, you're looking forward to it more already, aren't you?
But here are some of those who did put in an appearance:
Gary LeVox and Lionel RichieRASCAL FLATTS. Gary LeVox came onto the stage with a gag taped to his chest: the famous Internet meme that has a forlorn shot of 1980s-era Richie, looking like a lost pet being advertised on a signpost placard, accompanied by the text, "Hello? Is it me you're looking for?" "That is so wrong," said Richie. "That is so right," answered LeVox, who nonetheless stripped the sheet off before jumping into "Dancing on the Ceiling."
LUKE BRYAN. "I'm not even looking at that Teleprompter," Bryan said, as he launched into his introductory speech, "because your music changed my life." And, indeed, it was the one moment of the night where a guest went completely and charmingly off-script in order to share his extemporaneous love for Richie.
"When Lionel Richie walks in a room, the whole room lights up, and he teaches artists like me how we ought to walk in a room and light it up," Bryan continued. "And I'm telling you what —Can't Slow Down was the best album there ever was, baby! Mid-'80s, me and my wife, we used to go to Georgia Southern University and ride on back roads. We'd go buy some white zinfandel, with a peach color, and we'd sit on the tailgate listening to Lionel Richie and looking up at them Georgia stars. That's how it all got going. A lot of kids [were created] to Lionel Richie. So while we was riding them Georgia back roads, we was running with the night." Cue Bryan's solo version of "Running With the Night," which, in his hands, sounded like primo 1980s Survivor.
Tim McGraw Lionel RichieTIM McGRAW. At the MGM Grand Arena, ticketholders got to see a lot of McGraw, since he was stuck stranded on stage while the crew worked out some technical details… resulting in many minutes of wolf whistles that won't make the final telecast. And they had to film McGraw's exit three times, since the first two times, he and Richie walked the wrong direction while walking off arm in arm. How does that old saying go? The gals hate to see him go but they love to watch him leave?
As on Tuskegee, McGraw traded verses with the star on "Sail On"—which is so quintessentially pleasant in the typical Richie style, you have to really focus on the lyrics to fully comprehend that it's the most cheerful divorce song of all time.
JASON ALDEAN. As on Tuskegee, Aldean sang "Say You, Say Me," which he described at the taping as "right up my alley—a big, soulful love ballad." But unlike the album version, Aldean sang it for the TV tribute all by himself, not as a duet. You could tell this was a very fancy occasion for Aldean: The jeans he wore to pay homage to Richie were only about a third as ripped-up as the jeans he wore to the ACM Awards.
Kenny Chesney and Lionel RichieKENNY CHESNEY. He dueted with Richie on "My Love," just as he does on the new album. The only bonus for folks watching the show was the way Richie wagged his finger in a "no, no" motion when they got to the "You've been my lover" line that immediately followed the "You've been my friend" lyric.
LADY ANTEBELLUM. Another song and act that did not appear on Tuskegee. "I played in a lot of cover bands starting out," said Charles Kelley, "and we always had a lot of requests for your songs—especially this one," he added, introducing Richie's first solo No. 1, "Truly." Naturally, verses were traded—not with Richie, who stayed in the front row for this one, but between Kelley and Hillary Scott. Kelley even got a little cheer from the audience for a short burst of uncharacteristic falsetto he threw into the tune. Good thing he had a lot of practice on it back in his bar-band days.
MARTINA McBRIDE. Another very welcome non-Tuskegee guest, McBride introduced her solo version of "Still" as "the song that made me hooked on the great Lionel Richie" and a song "so haunting it makes you stop whatever you're doing." It certainly had that effect on Lady A's Charles Kelley, who leaned forward intently from his front row seat to hone in on this singer's singer.
Lionel Richie and Jennifer NettlesJENNIFER NETTLES. Her electrifying duet with Richie on "Hello" is easily the highlight of Tuskegee, and it had the same effect here, as the Sugarland singer seemed to creep up on Richie from behind in her black bellbottoms and quickly all but overpowered him. When Richie walked back to his seat after the duet, he exaggeratedly stumbled and staggered like a drunk, or a boxer recovering from a TKO.
Big & Rich and Lionel RichieBIG & RICH. A horn section got hired for just one number: "Brick House," the lone representative of Richie's Commodores days. There was an inevitable interpolation of "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy"—raising the scary image of what happens when a brick house climbs atop either a horse or cowboy—and a rapped salute to the honoree himself.
BLAKE SHELTON. When the show was being taped, Shelton was back in Los Angeles, for his duties on The Voice. But the show is scheduled to include the duet of "You Are" that ended the ACM Awards, albeit in its full-length version, since the ACMs had to cut out of the performance not very long into the song.
The Band Perry backstage with Rascal FlattsTHE BAND PERRY. Sans Richie, the Perry siblings sang a tune that does not appear on Tuskegee, "Penny Lover." Kimberly Perry wore her hair up, and just as alluring was the sweet harmonic uplift with which the Perrys ended the tune. "The song we're going to perform tonight is Lionel Richie's 'Scrambled Eggs'," Kimberly told the crowd. An explanation was in order, of course, with Perry explaining to the audience that "Scrambled Eggs" had been Paul McCartney's dummy title for "Yesterday." So, too, was "Penny Lover" supposed to be a dummy title for Richie's song until he wrote the real lyrics, "but a DJ urged him to stick to his first lyrics." And think of all the pennies that resulted.
Kenny Rogers and Lionel RichieKENNY ROGERS. "Lionel's gift is to make music out of conversation. You hear one of his songs, it's like he's talking to you," Rogers told the crowd. Nonetheless, apparently Richie sometimes has trouble finishing songs, as Rogers related in an amusing series of anecdotes about the writing of his smash "Lady."
"I said 'Lionel, I'd love for you to come over and write a song for me.' He said, 'I don't think I have time.' I said, 'It's gonna be part of a greatest hits album that'll sell I think a minimum of 4 or 5 million records.' He said, 'Is 7:00 tomorrow night all right?'" The next night, at their meeting. "He said, 'I pitched this to the Commodores and they turned it down'—which I thought was an interesting approach to selling a song." Richie sang the melody but "all he had was the one word. I said, 'How could they have turned that word down, I ask you?' We go into the studio six months later and we're recording. I finish the first verse of the song and I'm sitting looking at the lyric sheet and there's not a second verse. I said 'Wait a minute, where's Lionel?' I swear to God, he's in the toilet writing the second verse. He's at his best under pressure." In any case, added Rogers, welcoming his old bud back onto the stage for a duet, "The song he wrote was truly a changing point in my career."
SARA EVANS & MARC ANTHONY. On the Tuskegee album, "Endless Love" is a duet between Richie and Shania Twain, and was released to country radio without making much of an impression. With Twain presumably not eager to leave her Caribbean home for a rare public appearance, the song (originally a Richie/Diana Ross duet) was left up to two completely fresh partners at the TV taping, and both Evans and Anthony killed on it.
(You did have to wonder, though, about the wisdom of Evans wearing huge heels when she already towers over Anthony as it is. At times, it looked almost like a mother/son duet. Toward the end of the number, Evans suddenly seemed to realize this, and she spend most of their last minute together crouching.)
Nicole and Lionel Richie at the pianoNICOLE RICHIE. The sweetest moment of the taping found Richie's daughter alongside him at the piano, joining him for a simple keyboard duet. "She used to play along with me, just copying it," he explained. "She was saying 'Dad, you remember when I was 5, 6 years old…' I was writing this song and she was sitting right there with me and I couldn't believe that she remembered the song… I was just having all these great expectations about what was coming with her life, and I thought I'd write a song called 'Climbing'… She said 'I want to play it with you tonight on stage.'" And she did, and, much to their apparent mutual surprise, father and daughter nailed it in one take.