ALifetime Achievement Award to Stevie Wonder was the night’s commercial draw, but–as usual–the seventh annual “Salute to the American Songwriter” concentrated mostly on the unheralded individuals who put notes on paper and who , these days, are lucky if they get even their last names credited on other people’s recordings of their songs.
Produced to raise operating funds by the Los Angeles-based National Academy of Songwriters, the “Salutes” typically give most of the stage time to writers who aren’t known as performers. The names of Kevin Savigar, Wayland Holyfield and the team of Jon Lind, Phil Galdston and Wendy Waldman are likely to draw blanks even from music fans who know their work: Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks,” Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life” and Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last,” respectively, were huge hits.
Most of the writers are good sports about performing their own material–George David Weiss, this edition’s elder statesman, was hilarious as he creaked out his version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” gamely illustrating all of the complicated vocal parts. Savigar, who absolutely refused to sing, brought along the very impressive Billy Trudel to handle the vocal work on “Young Turks” and “Forever Young,” with Savigar and Duane Hitchings supplying twin-piano accompaniment.
Songwriters who also make their living as performers were more polished, of course, but Brenda Russell (“Piano in the Dark,””Get Here”); Harriet Schock (“Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”/”One Time Lover”); and Jude Cole (“Start the Car”) here emphasized their writing skills to good effect.
Holyfield appeared as part of the evening’s token salute to country music, along with Pat Alger (the Garth Brooks hits “Unanswered Prayers” and “The Thunder Rolls”) and Sonny Curtis (“I Fought the Law,””Love Is All Around–‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Theme”) in a brief version of a Nashville “guitar pull.”
While many of the writers told informative and entertaining stories behind the material, Stan Freeman provided the evening’s main comedy spot with his interpretation of “Tea for Two” as written by Mozart, Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Muttering heard in the audience during his piece may have been from people explaining to one another who Noel Coward was, but Freeman’s use of “Tea for Two” as a countermelody for a raft of songs ranging from “For Me and My Gal” to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” was casually instructive.
The Wonder segment included Capitol Records teen act Portrait, Virgin Records’ moppet group Immature, Brenda Russell and Syreeta Wright singing songs written or inspired by Wonder (Portrait and Immature sang to prerecorded tracks) , followed by Wonder himself, who accepted the award and performed two numbers: Bob Wells and Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and a new Wonder original, “Sing Your Song.” Nice, but rather anticlimactic.
Stephen Bishop was amusing and engaging as a last-minute substitute for announced host David Foster.
Academy officers Arthur Hamilton, Dan Kirkpatrick and Steve Schalchlin produced the smooth-running evening. It was directed by Scott Sternberg and written by Jim Brochu, with Matt Kimble the production manager. Barry Fasman directed the house band for the seventh consecutive year.