Although they can seem formulaic, any major awards show, particularly one like the Songwriters Hall of Fame, is very difficult to pull off. While it’s a hallowed honor, the absolute apex for a songwriter — and the ceremony is a cross between the Grammy Awards and an annual family reunion for the tight-knit songwriting and music-publishing community — it faces many of the challenges that shows like the Grammys and the American Music Awards have, even though it isn’t televised. It needs a combination of starpower and underdog; it needs musical diversity; it needs the honorees to be present (although last-minute cancellations do occur, like Jay-Z last year); it needs strong, suitable but also unexpected inductors. Sometimes they’re obvious: At Thursday night’s show, country superstar Alan Jackson was inducted by longtime producer Keith Stegall. Sometimes they’re not: Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora inducted John Mellencamp. And it also needs a high percentage of inductees that are capable of delivering a strong performance. All that, for the past 49 years. Not so easy!
And as with any such show, surprises are key to keeping the evening lively. While this year’s list of honorees was a strong one — Jackson, Mellencamp, Jermaine Dupri, Bill Anderson, Steve Dorff, Allee Willis were all inducted, while Neil Diamond, Sara Bareilles and Universal Music Group chief Lucian Grainge all received special awards — there was also a surprise performance from Ariana Grande and induction speeches from Usher, The Weeknd (who flew in from Paris just to be there) and even Mariah Carey, who delivered a sassy and funny speech inducting Dupri.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. From the top…
The show always starts off strong, and this year had one of the best we’ve seen in our many years of attending the ceremony. Brandon Victor Dixon, who is currently playing Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” and appeared as Judas in the recent “Jesus Christ Superstar” remake (hm, we sense a motif?) kicked off the night with a rousing medley of Willis’ “Neutron Dance” (a 1983 hit for the Pointer Sisters) and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” He soared through both songs with masterful ease, freestyling on the chorus of “September” while the backing singers held it down, ranging from falsetto to a guttural soul growl. In her acceptance speech, Willis praised Dixon for his brave comments to Vice President Mike Pence at a 2016 “Hamilton” performance — which of course incurred the president’s Twitter wrath — and spoke of how remarkable her career has been for someone who does not play an instrument. She also recalled her upbringing in Detroit and said she learned everything she knows from the music she heard emanating from inside Motown’s Hitsville USA studios, outside of which she spent many hours of her youth. She also spoke often of her father’s half serious warning before she left home — “stay away from black culture” and said that she told him on his deathbed: “I just wrote the music for ‘The Color Purple’ — and he was gone in an hour.”
Mellencamp told a story about his grandmother, who lived to be 100. “She was doing pretty good up to 98, but she would call me up — she called me Buddy — and go ‘Why don’t you come over and see me, I’m not gonna be there much longer.’ So I’d drive over and she was bedridden so I would lay in bed with her – and I’m 40-some years old – and she’d talk about McCarthyism and rural education. One day she said, ‘Buddy, we should pray,’ so she started saying a little prayer and then [he yelled] her voice rose: ‘Me and Buddy wanna come home!’ And I looked at her and said ‘What? Grandma, Buddy does not want to come home. Buddy has got a lot more sinning he plans on doing.’ And she goes, ‘It’s just like you, Buddy, to be a smart alec when I’m talkin’ to God. You’re gonna find out real soon that life is short, even in its longest days.’” And then he played his song “Longest Days,” followed by, of course, his 1982 hit “Jack and Diane.” “Here’s another song,” he said, introducing it. “I don’t know why I play it anymore except people like it.” Okay Buddy.
A ripple of surprise ran through the room when Grande took the stage and sang her way beautifully through her hit “Be Alright” — and then was followed by The Weeknd, who had apparently flown all the way in from Paris to be there to deliver a brief introduction to Universal Music Group CEO/Chairman Lucian Grainge, who was awarded the Howie Richmond Hitmakers honor. He spoke at length of his father’s record shop and his recently deceased brother Nigel, who ran Ensign Records, and his own early days as a publisher.
“I trace my love for music to North London, where I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said. “My father owned a small record shop, and so our family listened to just about everything — from Wagner to Ray Charles to Mozart to Elvis. Dad was also an incredible whistler. I can still see him now — face covered in shaving cream, transistor radio next to the bathroom sink, whistling along with the coda from ‘Hey Jude,’ which had just been released.
“To this day, when people ask me what my favorite songs are, I say it’s anything I can whistle.”
Next up, Stegall honored Alan Jackson his hit “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” with the house band accompanied by two cowboy-hatted acoustic guitarists, a pedal steel and a fiddler. “At the beginning we were like a couple of rats on the same log, lookin’ for a place to land,” he recalled, “and somehow we made it together: He and I and Roger Morrow wrote together in a little upstairs office on Music Row,” he recalled, choking up a bit. “And whether Alan was singing to millions or one person, the only thing he wanted to do was be a country singer. Alan, you are here tonight because you’ve written some of the greatest country songs ever written.”
Jackson returned the sentiment, saying “There’s no one I’d rather have induct me. I don’t know if I’d be standing here without your belief in me. I never took the songwriting that serious, I just wanted to sing, but someone told me I’d better write my own material. So I just tried to write songs about things that affected me in real life — and not try to write about, uh, some of the other things in the world — I think music is a relief from that sometimes.
He mentioned seeing Clive Davis backstage, whom he thanked for helping to launch his career on the Arista Nashville label. He remembered a conversation from decades earlier in which he said, “‘Clive, I wrote a song for a woman to sing’ — I’ve got four older sisters and a wife and three daughters now so … I’ve got a lot of … uh … experience — and I said to Clive, ‘I think I’ve got a song for ol’ Whitney.’ Well, the song had a line about a washing machine in it, and he went and listened to the song and said that he liked it very much but, ‘I’ll be honest with you Alan, I don’t think she’d sing about a washing machine in 50 years.’ What I’m trying to say is, I guess I’ll always be writing about washing machines.”
Jackson then changed the mood by singing his post-9/11 tribute, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” his deep and powerful voice as resonant and precisely delivered as ever.
Fantasia then took the evening to church with a rousing version of Steve Dorff’s “I Just Fall in Love,” soaring and belting and, after asking “Can I play with it a little bit?,” vamping at the end, showing off her chops with some Aretha-style gymnastics, finishing by saying “Thank you — that is a hard song to sing.”
Dorff’s son, actor Stephen, took the stage to induct his father. He remembered the early years when his dad struggled, and then the breakthrough that came when producer Snuff Garrett lined up the title song for the 1979 Clint Eastwood film “Every Which Way but Loose,” which was performed by Eddie Rabbit, “and then life changed” as Dorff reached success after success.
“A songwriter like my dad is very much in the background, yet his songs change people’s lives. Looking back, I was lucky because I got to see him instead of him being out on the road.” He then touchingly remembered his younger brother Andrew, who passed away at just 40, tearing up as he said, “Life can be unforgiving and brutal at times — but a great melody can get us through anything.”
Dorff himself recalled the great singers who performed his songs — Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Ann Murray, Karen Carpenter, even Ringo — and wept as remembered loved ones who have passed, including his parents, a sister and “most of all Andrew, who told me very often that I was his favorite songwriter, and that one day I would be standing here accepting this honor. Other than raising my children, this truly is the greatest honor of my life. It’s beyond a dream come true. I’ve loved the life of being a songwriter and I am profoundly grateful and humbled to be here among all of you.”
There weren’t many dry eyes in the house by the time he’d finished.
Dorff then sang “Through the Years,” in his (as he’d promised) “songwriter’s voice,” accompanying himself beautifully on the piano.
In a reflection of his notorious swagger, Jermaine Dupri — who has penned hits for Mariah Carey, Usher, Kris Kross and dozens of others — had not one but three people induct him. First up was Usher, who spoke of all Dupri has done to put Atlanta’s music on the map and how their generation is “young enough to be with the youngsters but old enough to realize the giants we’re standing on the shoulder of” and introduced an interesting if puzzling concept: “When suffering becomes beauty, that’s music.” He finished by telling Dupri: “You’re like the big brother I never had and also the motivator that pushed me when I was at my lowest.
Carey then took the stage to a roaring reception. “I’m winging this, although I did write down some things,” she began, and recalled the first time she and Dupri wrote together — they came up with her 1995 hit “Always Be My Baby” — and noted that they’ve worked together on nine different albums.
“I could tell some of the stories behind these songs, but I would say they’re classified!,” she quipped, using air quotes. “And I could rattle off statistics — and it seems like these things don’t matter to people who don’t actually write songs and put all their heart and soul into every moment, but Jermaine does this out of an actual love of music. We just got out of the studio the other morning at 7 a.m. — while being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, still working until 7 a.m. with me. He hasn’t changed since that first time we were in the studio together.
“I’m not gonna say that I’m favorite, but I should be his favorite,” she laughed. “And if I’m not I should definitely be top three!”
Carey concluded with a dash of her legendary shade: “Although (sigh) I am not being inducted this evening — I’ll shed a tear and move on!,” she joked, “honestly there is no one I’d rather see getting this accolade than Mr. Jermaine Dupri. I love him with all my heart.”
The unlucky task of following Mariah fell to Dupri’s collaborator and friend of 34 years Chad Elliott, who inducted him as “an ambassador of hiphop culture.” Dupri himself talked about the influence that the months he spent in Brooklyn early in his career shaped his music, and thanked the former EMI Music Publishing trio — who now run the three largest publishers in the U.S. (most quarters, anyway) — of Marty Bandier, Jody Gerson and Jon Platt, who “believed in what I was doing” in the early days. He then showed off those skills by performing a medley that capped with the song that truly launched his career, Kris Kross 1992 hit “Jump.”
Steve Wariner performed a gentle version of Bill Anderson’s “The Tips of My Fingers” before inducting his friend. Anderson thanked the people who “helped this old turtle climb to the top of the post,” he laughed. “I’ll tell you, the view from up here is beautiful.” He then performed “Still.”
Bareilles was presented the Hal David Starlight Award (for young-ish songwriters) by her friend Jason Mraz, who said, “For more than a decade, I have fan-girled to Sara’s responses to our ever changing world – earthquakes, female issues, equality,” adding that “Providing entertainment that makes you laugh makes you stronger, makes you brave.” Bareilles then performed a song from her musical “Waitress” — about which she said, “Had I known how much f—ing work it was [to write and star in a musical], I would absolutely have said no,” but said she was grateful for the experience and how much she’d learned from it. She then brought the house down with a soaring performance of a song from the musical, “She Used to Be Mine.”
Leon Bridges performed a lively rendition of “Get Down on It” before inducting Kool & the Gang members Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell, George Brown and James “JT” Taylor. While their acceptance speeches ran a little long as the show approached the four-hour mark, the group — with those members reunited onstage for the first time in 25 years — brought the crowd to its feet with a version of their 1981 hit “Celebration” that even included a verse in Spanish.
The evening came to a close when co-chairmen Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff invited Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons onstage to award Neil Diamond with the highest honor bestowed by the, the Johnny Mercer Award. Gaudio, who worked with Diamond extensively early in his career, called his “the most recognizable voice on the radio” and said, “It’s pretty easy producing his first album: The truth is, when you produce Neil, you just have to capture the magic.”
Diamond, clad in a black and gold jacket and with an air of “Let’s bring this baby home,” skipped a speech and led the band straight into “Sweet Caroline,” his voice a little gravelly on the low notes but powerful on the high ones, and even delivered a reprise of the chorus. It’s hard to imagine anyone walked out of the room without the song running through their heads, and that’s exactly the point.