The music industry’s return to whatever passes for normal these days has been hit and miss, to put it mildly: Grammy Week, Coachella, and the first publishers’ week in three years have seen an uneven balance of caution and carelessness — some events have a relatively high percentage of masks and distancing, some have hardly any at all, and at each one you hear tales of how severe someone’s bout with Covid was or wasn’t, and that someone else couldn’t make it because they’d suddenly tested positive.
The “publishers week” we’re referring to is the usual combination of A2IM’s Indie Week conference, the National Music Publishers Association’s annual meeting, and the closer, the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which is one of the most unique and memorable awards shows in the business — which is a parallel event to the Clive Davis pre-Grammy Gala in that it’s invite-only and features a number of once-in-a-lifetime performances. Not only is it the annual family reunion for the songwriting an publishing industry, over the years we’ve seen performances from Neil Diamond, Drake, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Van Morrison, Cyndi Lauper, John Prine, Leon Russell, Elvis Costello and dozens of others, along with several completely unique homages: Lady Gaga singing Four Non-Blondes’ hit “What’s Up” to Linda Perry; Stevie Nicks belting “The Rose” to Bette Midler; Emmylou Harris performing Eric Clapton’s heartbreaking hit “Tears in Heaven” for the song’s co-writer Will Jennings; and one year, the evening ended with Billy Joel and Garth Brooks duetting at the piano in matching Stetson hats.
.@st_vincent covering “sweet dreams are made of this” in homage to Eurythmics – songwriters hall of fame is back! pic.twitter.com/DeuK47F6OR
— Jem Aswad (@jemaswad) June 17, 2022
And after a three-year pandemic-induced hiatus, like a lot of universities, this year’s SHOF saw the Class of 2020 finally getting its day: Mariah Carey, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (Eurythmics), the Isley Brothers, Steve Miller, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (the Neptunes), Rick Nowels, and William “Mickey” Stevenson were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Songwriter Paul Williams received the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award, Universal Music Publishing Chairman-CEO Jody Gerson received the Abe Olman Publisher Award, and rapper Lil Nas X received the Hal David Starlight Award — the first rapper to receive that honor since Drake.
Performances included St. Vincent delivering a stunning Eurythmics cover while the legendary duo performed an acoustic song; Jon Batiste and Usher honoring the Neptunes; Steve Miller performing a trippy, extended take on “Fly Like an Eagle”; the Isley Brothers delivering a long medley of their hits, spanning from 1959 through the early ‘80s; a stellar medley of Mariah Carey’s hits was sung by Yolanda Adams, Wayna Morris and a remarkably talented 13-year-old YouTube star named Liamani Segura; and while it technically wasn’t a performance, Carey showed yet again that she has a second calling as a standup comedian, delivering a hilariously wacky yet deadly serious eight-minute acceptance speech filled with comic asides, heart-rending anecdotes from her early years and concluding by mocking the infamous, unfair meme that made fun of her statement that she’s a songwriter — she was inducted and praised by no less an authority than Questlove and she’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame now, so chew on that, haters. (Read Carey’s full speech here.)
Against that backdrop, the Hall returned with a show that was impressively normal given the restrictions under which it was staged: Outwardly it was largely business as pre-Covid usual except for a fair number of masks — which were recommended but not enforced. But behind the scenes there was an enormous amount of caution, with no backstage area, onstage microphones replaced after every performance or speech, and exceptional caution given the relatively advanced age of many of the people in the audience.
But given all that, it was still a party, and a great one at that. While many of the attendees had seen each other earlier in the week, many had not, and the inductees savored their belated moments in the sun, with a few acceptance speeches stretching into double-digit minutes.
After a heartfelt welcome-back speech from Hall president-CEO Linda Moran, the peaks came at the beginning and the end: Having St. Vincent open the show by covering Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” not only was one of the greatest tribute-artist/song pairings we’ve seen in our many years of attending this show, it sent a strong signal that it was back in a big way. St. Vincent, who had either shaved or bleached her eyebrows, delivered the song as if it were her own, replacing the synthesized orchestral passages with skronking guitar solos, demonstrating the vast if not-obvious influence that Eurythmics’ synthetic pop chill influenced her own sound. In her induction speech, St. Vincent spoke of first seeing the “beautiful, orange-haired androgynous creature wearing a suit and tie, looking like a dictator… Some moments are seared into our memories.”
Next, Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox — clad in a full camouflage outfit — and Dave Stewart gave gracious thanks during their speech, which they delivered with their arms around each other. Stewart recalled first meeting Lennox in London in the mid-1970s when she was a waitress, noting that all of their albums were written and recorded in three weeks, and saying “there’s nobody else in the world I could have done this with.” Lennox enthused over the simple fact that a group of people could gather in a room after the events of the past two years: “Isn’t this fabulous? I feel like it’s a miracle that we’re here tonight,” she said.
They then took the stage for an acoustic take on their 1983 smash “Here Comes the Rain Again” — the song that proved they were career artists — that featured some absolutely stunning freestyled vocalizing from Lennox at the end.
It was a tough act to follow, but arguably the most powerful person in the music industry — Universal Music Group Chairman-CEO Lucian Grainge, who began his career as a publisher — did so while inducting the chair and CEO of Universal publishing, Jody Gerson, for decades one of the most respected executives in the industry. “It takes confidence and vision and a great deal of chutzpah to take a big bet on a young writer, as Jody has, not once, but time and time again,” he said, before taking a shot at certain unnamed entities in the business. “These days, when so many people are falsely wrapping themselves in the cloak of ‘songwriter advocacy,” it’s important to remember that Jody has been a songwriter advocate for literally decades.”
After a big hug, she said “Are you kidding me?” and recalled her early days, growing up in Philadelphia and watching legendary artists, including many Philadelphia International artists produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, perform at her father’s nightclub. “I am honored to work with so many legends,” she said. “True music publishers’ investment in songwriters comes not just financially, but in relationships that endure in the good time and in the bad. And I am here this evening receiving this honor because of you, the songwriters.”
Next up, Rita Wilson presented her friend, Paul Williams — president of ASCAP and one of the top songwriters of the 1970s and ‘80s, who’s written hits and collaborated with everyone from the Carpenters to Daft Punk to the Muppets — with the Hall’s most prestigious honor, the Johnny Mercer award. There was even a video homage delivered by Kermit the Frog, who said of the famously height-challenged Williams, “He has a very special relationship with Muppets — he understands Muppets, true, because he’s only a little taller than us.”
After a performance of “Rainbow Connection” by Ingrid Michaelson and a pair of songs sung by Williams collaborator Gustavo Santaolalla, Williams delivered a deeply impassioned yet often hilarious acceptance speech, showing his famous sense of humor by saying, “Songwriters can be shy about pitching their songs, but publishers are shameless. I’ve heard my songs pitched during shivas and when brides were walking down the aisle.”
But the climax of this brilliant songwriter’s emotional speech came at the end, when he recalled the time he briefly met the man for whom his award was named, over 50 years ago. Williams had attained some success at the time but was in awe of Mercer and intimated, so the meeting amounted to just a few words and a wave. Williams, a longstanding and active recovery advocate, spoke of how his retelling of the incident became more and more exaggerated and flattering toward himself over the years. But he made amends by saying to Mercer, who died in 1976, “I wanted so much to be loved by you that I lied about it.”
The unexpected figure of then Ronan Farrow took the stage to induct his friend Rick Nowels, a songwriter who is hardly a household name but has written songs like “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” “You Get What You Give” and many others for Stevie Nicks, Madonna, Lana Del Rey and many others. Nowels played an acoustic medley of his songs accompanied by singer Violet Skies and a keyboardist.
Next, Smokey Robinson inducted legendary Motown songwriter and A&R executive William “Mickey” Stevenson, who not only co-write classics like “Dancing in the Street,” “It Takes Two,” “Pride and Joy,” “Devil With the Blue Dress on” and many others, but assembled the company’s legendary house band, the Funk Brothers, and recruited many of its top songwriters. Stevenson recalled his first meeting with Motown founder Berry Gordy, which he’d hoped would lead to a record deal. He sang several of his songs to the legendary executive, who replied, “Your songs are great but your voice is for shit! I want you to be my A&R man.” After some discussion about what that might entail, Stevenson asked, “Then could I sign myself as a singer?” Gordy replied, “I can’t help you with that.”
However, he was philosophical about the way things turned out — “It’s a gift from God to located talented people and help pull their gifts out of them” — and then finally got his moment, singing “Dancing in the Street” accompanied by the house band.
Another unexpected figure took the stage next: actor Bryan Cranston to induct his friend, Steve Miller. He spoke first of how whistling and humming in scenes on “Malcolm in the Middle” brought him an unexpected windfall of royalties, and then noted that when Miller visited the show, the cast was abuzz in ways they were not with top politicians and actors.
Miller then spoke of his astonishing background — the son of a professional singer and a doctor who dabbled as a recording engineer, the great Les Paul was his godfather (yes, a musician so influential the iconic guitar was named after him) and taught him to play guitar when he was 5, formed his first band with his friend Boz Scaggs at the age of 12, and around the same time was taught how to play behind his head by the legendary T Bone Walker. He then launched into a long, psychedelic version of “Fly Like an Eagle” with an effects-laden guitar solo.
The fastest induction occurred next: Fabolous read a brief speech honoring Lil Nas X with the Hal David Starlight Awards — for up-and-coming songwriters — and then Nas, now sporting a long blonde perm that covers much of his face, joked about his “quarter-life crisis with my hair” before summing up his career to date by saying, “Somehow I keep doing things, and they keep working.”
Next up, Leslie Odom Jr. inducted the Isley Brothers by singing their ‘70s hit “Work to Do” before ceding the stage to two of the brothers and a niece. The group is nowhere near as renowned as their hits, which span from the late 1950s through the ‘80s and include “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” “It’s Your Thing” “That Lady,” “Between the Sheets” (which they later played as a medley), and more. Ernie Isley noted with no small amount of pride that the Beatles covered two of their songs, a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix was in the band and lived at their house, and their music has been sampled nearly a thousand times, including by Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G.
As the evening approached the three-hour mark, legendary songwriter-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis introduced the Neptunes: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, who created such hits as Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U,” Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” “Lemon,” by their own group N.E.R.D. featuring Rihanna and many more. The pair, who met in middle school, bowed to Jam and Lewis as they took the stage and then comically jockeyed for who would speak first. They gave heartfelt thanks to their families — Williams said to Hugo, “Thanks to your parents for allowing us to make so much noise when your mom had to work the next day” and told him “You’re as brilliant as you were when I first met you at 12 years old.” Williams then delivered a lengthy thank-you list that included dozens of people from the industry, including Teddy Riley “for giving us our start,” his manager Ron Lafitte, Sony publishing chief Jon Platt “who taught us to think outside of the box,” Gerson and former Sony and EMI publishing CEO Marty Bandier: “You’d look old conventions in the face and say ‘Yes, let’s make a change.’” He also thanked Warner Chappell publishing and Ron Perry, formerly of Songs publishing, for “helping me to get my publishing back.”
The pair then ceded the stage for a tribute medley by Jon Batiste, whose singing voice is similar to Williams’ and delivered some unusual piano interpretations of segments of their songs, and Usher, including “Hollaback Girl,” “Frontin’” and “Lemon.”
Finally, at the midnight hour, Questlove took the stage to induct Mariah Carey — read about the induction and her remarkable speech here — before Liamani Segura, Wayna Morris and Yolanda Adams performed a medley of her hits “Fantasy,” “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “Heartbreaker,” “We Belong Together,” “Hero,” “One Sweet Day,” “Make it Happen” and “Fly Like a Bird.”
All are excellent singers, but it’s safe to say that 13-year-old Segura, who rose to fame via YouTube, stole the show. A singer of remarkable poise, timing, subtlety and power for any age, it seems very likely that Ariana Grande-level success may not be far away.
And at 12:30 a.m., as the evening ended, an announcer thanked the attendees and acknowledged the moment by saying, “We sure hope to see you here next year.”