John Legend, lately seen as Jesus, took on the role of another king of kings Tuesday night: Otis Redding. He electrified the room at the BMI Country Awards in Nashville by appearing for a climactic surprise performance of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” a song that by the performing rights organization’s calculations has been played 11 million times on radio. He was there in honor not of Redding, actually, but the late soul legend’s co-writer on the track, Steve Cropper, who was receiving the Icon lifetime achievement award.
It turns out there is one thing Legend is not great at, which may come as a relief to anyone jealous of the well-married EGOT winner: whistling solos. He needed a little help from the audience to match the volume on that part of “Bay” that he achieved on the rest of the song. But it was a grand slam nonetheless, and enough of a charmer to convince you that the song would have been at least 90 percent as big of an enduring hit if it’d been Legend singing it back in 1968.
Cropper was both irreverent and teary in his acceptance speech at the end of the biggest annual songwriters’ confab in Nashville. After the one-time Booker T. & the MGs guitarist had “Green Onions” played as his walk-up music, the Stax stalwart noted, “The song you just heard, there’s no more thrill than hearing something you did on the radio, and then you get another thrill when you hear your song in movies and commercials and cartoons. But I never thought I’d be a co-writer of a song that was a promotion for adult diapers. For four years! God bless ‘em, and I’m still waiting on my shipment, by the way. I don’t know when I’ll need ‘em, but I know I’ll need ‘em some time.” Then he got serious. “Yes, it’s emotional — the Icon award is a big deal. But the tears will not stop flowing. So I’m gonna leave you with this: Goodnight, Otis, wherever you are.”
Jay-Z was another surprise guest in Nashville… on tape. He provided a video testimonial for the man who was named songwriter of the year, Jesse Frasure, who’s been in business with him for more than two years, since Frasure’s Rhythm House publishing company became a joint venture with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. The hip-hop superstar’s investment in Nashville has clearly paid off, since Frasure won the honor thanks to winning awards Tuesday for five of the most played songs of the year: “A Girl Like You,” “Marry Me,” “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart,” “Ring on Every Finger” and “Unforgettable.”
“You are an incredible writer and incredible mind, with a knack for creating these No. 1 songs out of thin air,” said a proud Jay-Z of his Tennessee partner. “Take it all in. I wish I was there to party with you guys. I know you’re all going to have a great night because you know how to party.”
The mood Frasure expressed during his acceptance speech, however, didn’t have a lot to do with partying. “This morning we were at Vanderbilt breast clinic,” the songwriter told the crowd. “Today represents a metaphor to me, the polarity of life, the ups and downs. What an amazing, crazy year. My wife had a double mastectomy three weeks ago. She’s sitting here looking stunning. So the only thing that could be more special than me standing here right now is the fact that she is cancer-free.”
BMI’s song of the year award went to Tyler Reeve and Trent Tomlinson for “In Case You Didn’t Know,” a smash for Brett Young. That country star wasn’t able to attend either the BMIs or the previous night’s ASCAPs, where Young was set to receive his own honor, because he’s on his honeymoon.
Publisher of the year went to Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. Among the many other songs honored over the course of the evening was Florida Georgia Line’s and Bebe Rexha’s massive “Meant to Be,” which presumably would have had a better shot at song of the year if so much of its success hadn’t come after the BMI cutoff date for the awards, which covered the period running from April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018.
The Icon salute was spread out over the course of the evening for Cropper, who was a part of most of the Stax releases from 1961 through 1970, before finding fame with a new generation as a key component of the Blues Brothers band. Dan Aykroyd was part of a slew of stars offering taped testimonials for the event, from Garth Brooks to Ringo Starr. Others interpreting Cropper-associated tunes besides Legend included four of Nashville’s biggest soul-influenced belters. Lucie Silvas and Mike Farris (who gushed over Cropper as “a man who boiled water at the birth of soul”) did a medley of Sam & Dave tunes that had benefitted from Cropper’s guitar riffs; , Maggie Rose delivering the Cropper-co-written “Knock on Wood”; and Luke Combs, who currently has a single in its fourth week at No. 1 on the country airplay charts, brought the perspiration with a cover of another Cropper co-write, “In the Midnight Hour.”
Why was Cropper being honored at what was otherwise a 100 percent country awards show, when he had little direct involvement in the genre? Partly because Nashville is his longtime home, and partly because there is no BMI Awards in Memphis. Still, it was an unusual move for BMI to make a non-country figure one of its Nashville Icons, when the award has invariably gone before to a country legend.
“That part I haven’t really pieced together yet,” Cropper admitted on the red carpet. “They gave me a (Nashville hall of fame) songwriters’ award here once. I said, ‘Well, I never really wrote any hit songs out of Nashville. They’re all out of Memphis! There’s a difference.’ But I’m proud of it. My first Grammy I got up here in Nashville. I had to drive up from Memphis to get it, and that was for ‘Dock of the Bay’ in ‘69. But it’s always an honor just to be invited,” added Cropper, who has long since moved to Nashville and owns a studio in town. “To be the Icon and the central attraction is a whole different deal.”
As far as Icon predecessors like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson go, “A lot of them, I never played on their records, but I knew them well,” Cropper said. “You mentioned Kris. Booker T was a brother-in-law to Kris for a long time. They married sisters — Priscilla and Rita.” Naturally, Cropper was wearing a jacket by local clothier Manuel for the occasion. “He did good on us. When I was in Memphis, you know what I was wearing there, the clothier to the king, the Lansky Brothers. He used to make Elvis’s jackets. I’m probably one of the few guys in this room old enough to have met Elvis. If Willie or Kris were here, there’d be two!”
Though the BMI room skewed youthful, that wasn’t exactly true. BMI Nashville vice president of creative Jody Williams noted that the very first Icon winner, “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson, had won his first BMI award 60 years ago that night.