We’ve been to many Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremonies, but Thursday night’s was the first one that made more headlines for what didn’t happen than what did.
As the entire world seemed to know within minutes, Jay Z, the first rapper ever to be inducted into the hall, did not appear to accept the induction, presumably because his wife Beyonce was either about to, had already, or was in the midst of giving birth to twins, depending on which completely unreliable media report you chose to believe. However, the magnitude of the honor was obviously important to him, as a large number of his family members and friends were present, his induction was introduced with a video from former President Obama, and he dispatched his longtime friend and publisher, Warner/Chappell CEO Jon Platt, to accept the award and provide comments on his behalf. (Head here for an in-depth look at that part of the evening.)
Jay’s non-appearance at the organization’s 48th annual ceremony — which, while expected, seemed to take many in the room by surprise — cast an uncharacteristically tabloid air on an event that, while never short on drama of a milder kind, is like a cross between the Grammy Awards and an annual family reunion for the tight-knit songwriting and music-publishing community. Every year, superstars receiving honors tell the room that the accolade means more to them than any other award they’ve received, because it’s an endorsement and a validation from their peers. While it may seem blindingly obvious that songwriting is the very foundation of the music industry, songwriters often work behind the scenes, unknown to the millions of fans of performers who rode to fame on their creations, and often disproportionately rewarded for their work. While it can’t do much about the latter issue, one of the great things about the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s annual ceremony is it’s a place where you’ll see superstars like Billy Joel or Tom Petty or Lionel Richie speak of people like John Bettis or Chip Taylor — who’d just walked the event’s red carpet virtually unrecognized — as equals, as influences, as icons.
The Songwriters Hall class of 2017 also included Motown founder Berry Gordy — who had been honored three times in previous years, but never before as a songwriter — R&B titan Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, songwriting duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, pop wizard Max Martin, and Robert Lamm and James Pankow of Chicago. Performers included Ed Sheeran, Usher, Jon Bon Jovi, Johnny Gill, Pitbull and others (see below for video excerpts from the performances).
And it says much about the starpower of the show that it opened with Jon Bon Jovi honoring Martin — who, with a credit on 22 Billboard No. 1 singles, is hands-down the most successful pop songwriter of the past quarter century — by singing a surprisingly slow version of their 2000 collaboration, “It’s My Life,” accompanied by just acoustic guitar, piano and violin. In the induction speech, Bon Jovi, wearing a sleek black suit and a lavender shirt, started off comically by saying that “Karl Martin Sandberg [Martin’s real name] was born in a manger in Bethlehem … you don’t buy that?” and then a similar intro about the planet Krypton, before reeling of Martin’s world-beating accomplishments and concluding by introducing him as “the Swedish cross between Jesus and Superman.” In his acceptance, Martin joked about the meaning of the word “unbelievable,” referring to a couple he’d seen that morning giving a cup of coffee that designation, before saying “and I thought about what unebelievable means to me, and it’s being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with Jay Z and Jam and Lewis and so many of my heroes.”
The energy level remained restrained through the inductions that followed: Carlin Music president/CEO Carolyn Bienstock (receiving the Abe Oleman Publishers award) was honored by jazz artisan Cassandra Wilson — in a fiery red dress — singing a sultry version of “Fever,” playing it straight but smiling and scatting and sashaying at the end. Whoopi Goldberg — who began by saying “I know it’s a little weird that I’m here, but you’ll get over it” — inducted soundtrack maestro Alan Menken by recalling their work together on a London musical version of the film “Sister Act”; he then raced through a solo medley of many of his dozens of well-known movie songs (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Whole New World,” “Colors of the Wind”). The two main songwriters in ‘70s jazz-rock group Chicago — Lamm and Pankow — were honored separately in a slightly awkward performance, the former inducted by Pat Monahan from “Train,” who also sang lead a medley of his songs, and then Lamm sang his own. Pankow had disappeared from the stage before his acceptance speech (bathroom break?) but joined Lamm at the podium after a few minutes.
The night got a welcome dose of energy when R&B singer Johnny Gill honored Babyface with his hit “My, My My” — it’s a mellow song but Gill tore it up, dropping to his knees, walking out into the crowd, vamping and drawing out the song, injecting a couple of verses from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” pumping up the crown, shouting and pumping his fist.
Veteran manager Irving Azoff, who played a key role in establishing Babyface and LA Reid’s groundbreaking Atlanta-based label LaFace in the late 1980s, had the thankless job of following Gill, but he stepped up with a characteristically low-key broadside against the Radio Music Licensing Committee — recapping their legal battle, he said his Global Music Rights performing-rights organization was “sued by criminal organization called the Radio Licensing Committee claiming we had a monopoly on 172 songwriters, so we countersued them for being the illegal cartel that they are” — before beginning Babyface’s induction with what might have been the funniest line of the night: “Like me, he got his start playing guitar for Bootsy Collins.”
Babyface’s acceptance was an odd but amusing pondering on how songwriting “is kinda like a religious experience: you don’t choose it, it kinda chooses you,” and then wondered what kind of musical accompaniment the Ten Commandments might have had, first with a cantor-like melody, and as a rap if it were to happen today. He followed with a publishing in-joke: “And Jesus and the apostles? That’s a lotta cowriters! I can’t imagine what the [publishing] splits would be!”
Benny Blanco inducted his friend Ed Sheeran with an amusing tale about how they worked together in a mobile studio while Sheeran was on the road, with Sheeran ducking in and out of the studio in the middle of doing press, meeting fans, soundchecking, “kissing babies’ heads” and saying to Bianco just before he took the stage, “It’d better be a hit when I come back.” Sheeran then tore into a fast, gorgeous solo (naturally) acoustic version of “Castle on the Hill” that cast the song in a completely different light from its heavily produced recorded version.
Berry Gordy’s daughter with Diana Ross, Rhonda Ross, sang a low-key version of his song “To Be Loved” (fittingly, also the title of his autobiography) and in his induction he spoke of how he had been honored by the Hall as a publisher and for lifetime achievement, each time thinking he was going to be recognized for his songwriting — “but then I surprised them by living for another 15 years” — and finally received the award on this night.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, one of the most successful and renowned production duos of the last 30 years, were inducted by Usher, who tore through a medley containing tantalizingly brief snippets of some of ther ballads (so brief it was hard to tell what many of them were) before he made a mistake, stopped the band and said “We’re gonna do Jam and Lewis right” and lingered on a long version of their hit “Sensitivity.” Clad in a shiny black jacket, fedora and shades, he opened up and danced, moving from one side of the stage to the other with a grace that reminds you he’s one of the most gifted dancers to emerge from R&B in the past 25 years. After their acceptance speeches, Jam and Lewis picked up a keytar and bass, respectively, and played a medley of their ‘80s hits “Human” and “Saturday Love.”
After Jay Z’s no-show, the evening closed with Pitbull, who was presented with his Global Ambassador award by actor John Leguizamo and gave a long, somewhat rambling speech that contained characteristic chestnuts like “I wanna thank my mother, because a woman made me a man”; “I always say to my kids that you can’t eat awards, but to put me in this room right now is a fairy tale”; “Let’s take music and make our own freedom — let’s make this for real the United States, not the divided states”; and, for good measure, “We’re the most powerful country in the world and we got a donkey running this place right now.” He then closed out this unusual night with a long medley of “Don’t Stop the Party” and “Give Me Everything” that included four buxom dancers and what must have been the biggest display of booty in Songwriters Hall of Fame history.