Although it has never been televised, nor does it draw the level of public interest and controversy that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame does, the Songwriters Hall of Fame actually predates it as it was created in 1969. It’s also the Hall of Fame favored by rock stars as evidenced from their speeches over the years. While there were no country music composers recognized this time around, there was certainly diversity.
Elvis Costello was the first artist to be inducted. Marcus Mumford, the guitarist and lead vocalist of the popular contemporary band, Mumford & Son performed Costello’s “Pump It Up.” Costello went to the podium and joked that he was the least commercially successful songwriter to ever be elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He also apologized to Linda Ronstadt for making snide comments when she recorded “Alison” in 1978 and admitted that the royalties that he received from her album sales helped fund his first American tour.
Tom Petty joked that he had to write good songs because if they weren’t of sufficient quality he would hear it from his bandmates in the Heartbreakers. Petty was inducted by one of his heroes, Byrds guitarist extra ordinaire Roger McGuinn, who performed a rousing rendition of “American Girl.”
Lionel Richie, who already was enshrined in the Hall, received its highest honor, the Johnny Mercer Award. Just as Tom Petty had to write with the Heartbreakers in mind, so did Richie for the Commodores in the mid to late 1970s before he embarked on a solo career in 1981. “I could write uptempo songs for them but they couldn’t sing them so I stuck with the ballads,” he told the audience at the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Before he performed a superb verison of one of his best-known ballads, “Hello,” Richie poked fun at the memorable but somewhat cheesy video that was made for it that received a lot of play on MTV in its early days.
The least known inductee of the evening was Chip Taylor whose best known hits include the Hollies’ “I Can’t Let Go,” Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts’ “Angel Of The Morning,” and the Troggs’ garage classic, “Wild Thing.” Taylor’s real name is James Wesley Voight and his brother is actor Jon Voight who gave Chip’s induction speech. The audience laughed when Jon stated,“We did not have any musical history in our family so I don’t where Wes’s talent comes from!”
Before the ceremony I asked Chip about comedian Bill Minkin’s 1967 spoof of “Wild Thing” in which he imitated Robert F. Kennedy signing the tune with his strong Massachusetts accent. He used the pseudonym “Senator Bobby.” Chip Taylor smiled at the recollection. “I was a producer on that record,” he answered proudly. He acknowledged that RFK’s assassination just around a year afterwards ended radio airplay of that recording forever.
Nile Rogers and his longtime collaborator, the late Bernard Edwards, were honored as well. The two were the key members of the very successful disco band, Chic. I spoke with Nile on the red carpet and he grinned when I told him that my favorite Chic tune was the catchy theme from the 1982 film about single people, “Soup For One.” Nile quickly retorted, “It’s a shame that the movie wasn’t very good.” He’s right; it was a stinker.
The legendary Philadelphia producing and composing tandem of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff took over the chairmanship of the Songwriters Hall of Fame from 1960s hit-making songwriter Jimmy Webb last year. Kenny was more than happy to chat with me when I mentioned that one of the first songs that I could ever recall hearing was the Sapphires’ “Who Do You Love?” that was co-written by him. The song got to #26 on the Billboard singles chart in early 1964 before being consigned to oblivion by Beatles mania. It did get a respectable amount of play however on radio stations in the Northeast, particularly of course, in Philadelphia. “That record still sounds great today!” Gamble beamed.
It has become traditional for a record company executive to be honored and this year Sire Records president Seymour Stein was the designee. He quickly reeled off the names of his successful acts over the years that included the Climax Blues Band, Soft Cell, the Smiths, the Pretenders, Depeche Mode, the Cure, and a quartet from Forest Hills. “The Ramones came into my office and played 18 songs in 20 minutes. I knew that I had to sign them on the spot!” he told the audience.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame is a wing in the Grammy Museum which is part of the LA Live complex in downtown Los Angeles. The Grammys are operated by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences whose president is Bayside native Neil Portnow. I asked Neil if there was any possibility that the Grammy Awards might return to New York in the foreseeable future. “I can see it happening. We’ve spoken to New York officials about it,” he replied.