He's one of the most famous singer-songwriters in America. But Lionel Richie says he can't read music. The author of such hits as "Easy," "Endless Love," "Sail On," and "Three Times a Lady," can't explain how he does it, though he landed No. 1 hits on the charts for nine consecutive years.

"I knew what a C-note was," he says, "but I couldn't figure this thing out. So, I found the gift. The gift was I can play what I hear, I just can't read it," he says.

Richie will be honored with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at 8 p.m. on May 17 with a star-studded celebration via PBS. Though he has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, he insists he doesn't write his music alone.

"The songs are all God, I will always say that," he says. "I'd love to explain to you where and what and how, but I was inspired. I was divinely guided. And I'm here to this day trying to explain how I got here. But it really is quite a ride."

The ride began when Richie was a kid living on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute. His dad was a systems analyst for the Army and his mom a teacher. Growing up in the Tuskegee community was not easy amid certain expectations toward children like him.

"They put a very hard standard on us that we didn't understand as kids," he adds.

Hyperactive as a child, he says he always had trouble paying attention. And he daydreamed a lot. It was only much later that he understood what those daydreams served.

"I didn't realize that daydreaming — that drifting off — was that other place where I write songs. But I didn't know I was a songwriter. So, I could not keep my mind on what was happening in front of me to save my life," he says. "I didn't realize that the words I was thinking about were actually poetic until I started writing it down."

Richie played saxophone in school and went on to Tuskegee to earn a bachelor's degree in economics. At the university, he was asked to play the horn at a talent show.

"The rest is history. From there I fell in love with something I really like to do, having no idea of HOW to do it," he says.

When he was 19 he joined the Commodores band, as a singer-saxophonist. The group eventually was signed by Motown as backup for the Jackson 5.

"When I was first learning how to write or actually starting to write, James Anthony Carmichael was my co-producer. And I came in thinking I would be ever so flowery with my lyrics, and I said, 'And when the wind blows across the blah, blah, blah,' and 'the sea and the air are all.' He said, 'Lionel, stop. What are you trying to say?' I said, 'I miss her.' He said, 'Write that down.'

"And I went to another flowery line. He said, 'What are you trying to say?' And I said, 'And I would love to have her back.' He said, 'Write that down.'"

It's then Richie realized that simplicity is the way to write songs that will resonate.