Here’s a problem that curators in Cooperstown, N.Y., Cleveland and Canton, Ohio, rarely have to face: How do you properly maintain a Hall of Fame when so many of your most important inductees aren’t particularly, well, famous?
Yet it’s an issue the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which inducts its new class of honorees at a New York gala June 12, has been grappling with for its 45-year history. While superstar singer-songwriters spring easily to mind, the tunesmiths behind some of the most well-known songs in the popular canon can easily go unrecognized.
“When you think of a song you identify it with the performer who sang it, and not with who wrote it,” says Hall of Fame president and CEO Linda Moran. “When you hear ‘Suspicious Minds,’ you immediately think about Elvis, who’s singing it, not Mark James, who wrote it.”
In order to ensure proper recognition for writers like James, who is set to be inducted alongside the Kinks’ Ray Davies, Donovan, Graham Gouldman and Jim Weatherly, the organization tweaked its nomination process. Starting a few years ago, Songwriters Hall of Fame ballots have listed two sets of 12 nominees — one dedicated to pure songwriters, the other to songwriter-performers, with voters picking a set number of candidates from each list.
“When we kept it as one list and said pick five people, we were usually ending up with three or four performing writers,” she says. “It’s a normal thing for someone to look to a performer’s name right away.”
A 35-year veteran of the Warner Music Group’s executive ranks, Moran was tapped by predecessor Hal David to lead the organization, and her reign has seen the Hall expand its outreach initiatives, which range from master classes at USC and NYU (this year’s instructors have included Graham Nash, David Foster and Benny Blanco), songwriting competitions, a partnership with SiriusXM Radio and a scholarship program for young writers. (John Legend was an early scholarship recipient, back when he was still known as John Stephens.)
Yet there’s something almost fitting about the Hall maintaining a relatively low-key profile. Songwriters have often been a clannish bunch, more likely to seek support and validation among peers than screaming crowds — watching from the wings while their songs take on lives of their own in the spotlight.
Plus, “We’re very, very poor as an organization,” Moran says. “We have exactly one paid employee on staff.”
But that’s not to say the Hall isn’t looking to enshrine its subjects in a more permanent, physical way. The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles has housed a rotating display for new honorees since 2010, but the organization is trying to think bigger.
Last year the Hall announced it had been approached by Allied Partners, the new owners of Gotham’s Brill Building, where so many of the Hall’s honorees once toiled, to construct an exhibit in the lobby with an eye toward a larger museum space.
Moran says the talks are temporarily on hold while the owners concentrate on finding commercial tenants, but after all, in the words of Hall founder Johnny Mercer, fools rush in.
“Our ultimate dream has always been, for 40 years, to have a physical museum,” Moran says. “We’ve had many options during that time, and there have been attempts from way before Hal and I were involved. But it’s hard. I was at Atlantic working with Ahmet (Ertegun) back when he did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you think about how many years even that took.”