The annual Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony is always a remarkable evening. It's an unusual combination of low-key attitude and high-wattage starpower; at its core, the event is a trade-awards show like ones in the advertising or appliance industries -- except, of course, some of the songwriters being honored are among the biggest stars in the world, while others, like most humans, have probably never been mobbed by fans in their lives.
Thus, at this event, egos are truly checked at the door. There's a collegial air that you rarely find at music-industry events, because the people on the stage feel that they're among peers, equals, colleagues, business associates, people who understand them; that they're speaking to and singing for -- and speaking for and singing to -- each other. Despite the event's long history, the 42nd Annual Induction Ceremony on Thursday night was truly one for the ages -- and not just because it ended with Garth Brooks and Billy Joel singing a duet in matching black cowboy hats.
Amid many articulate, emotional and often tearful acceptance speeches and dedications -- these are songwriters, after all -- the stellar musical moments came so fast and furious that only a tally, or Billboard editor Danyel Smith's Twitter feed, can do them justice. Chrissie Hynde, who flew in from London just for the event, tore up "I'll Stand by You" for inductees/collaborators Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," "Whitney Houston's "So Emotional," and Madonna's "Like a Virgin," the latter of which they performed with Kelly singing in a hilarious but spot-on falsetto). Dwight Yoakam honored white-maned Leon Russell by singing "Superstar"; Russell sang "A Song for You" and dedicated his award to the people who built his hearing aid and also build them for hearing-challenged children.
Boz Scaggs honored New Orleans legend and featured "Treme" artist Allen Toussaint (Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine") with "What Do You Want the Girl to Do" -- the cameras wisely focused often on Toussaint's hands as he played piano in his masterful rollicking style.
Drake, who received the Hal David Starlight Award (essentially a new-artist award), was introduced by none other than Janet Jackson/Mary J. Blige producer Jimmy Jam, who tipped his hat to Drake for bringing melody back into hip-hop, talked of how his 14-year-old son had made him into a huge fan, and said he'd specifically requested to introduce the rapper tonight. Drake dedicated the award to his mother, whom he said was facing life-threatening surgery a year ago but now she was in the audience, "looking like Barbra Streisand"; he also thanked Alicia Keys for giving him his first placement. He began a mixtape-only track called "The Calm" as a spoken-word piece, then performed the song with the band. In a nifty transition, another Drake -- songwriter Ervin, recipient of the Towering Song Award - was honored by Dominic Chianese, a.k.a. Uncle Junior of "The Sopranos," who sang a lovely rendition of the towering song in question, "It Was a Very Good Year."
John Bettis, who has written songs for Michael Jackson, George Strait, Celine Dion, Madonna and many others, was honored by Skylar Grey, who did a lovely dulcimer-driven version of Jackson's "Human Nature." Bettis then went on to perform a solid version of "Top of the World," one of many hits he wrote for the Carpenters. Trisha Yearwood did a stunning medley of Hal David/Burt Bacharach songs, including "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" and "What the World Needs Now." (David, SHOF President and CEO for a decade, received the Visionary Leadership Award.)
Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Walking in the Rain," "We Gotta Get Out of this Place," "Here You Come Again"), who have been married for decades, gave touching speeches that were largely dedicated to each other; Weil said that receiving an award named after her idol, Johnny Mercer (for their "history of outstanding creative works"), was one of the highlights of her life, along with the day she met Mann and the birth of their daughter. They were musically honored by Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) and Bill Medley (of the Righteous Brothers), who gave a comical, apparently unplanned dedication that evoked visions of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, albeit 40 years later. They then rose the roof with a stirringly soulful performance of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
Chaka Khan won the Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award (essentially an interpreter's award) and got a churchy introduction from songwriting great Valerie Simpson, who wrote many a Motown hit with husband Nik Ashford (not to mention "I'm Every Woman," which Chaka performed).
And finally, Garth Brooks -- one of the most successful artists in history -- was honored by Billy Joel -- ditto -- who spoke of their 20-year friendship and of Joel seeing Brooks perform for the first time during the 1980s, and how he'd never known that country could rock so hard. Brooks made many nods to his influences and collaborators, and wept openly as he thanked his wife, Trisha Yearwood. Brooks and Joel -- the latter sporting a black cowboy hat just like Brooks' as he sat behind the piano -- performed "Shameless," Brooks' 1991 Joel-penned hit. And with that, the evening came to an end. One of the show's headset-bedecked staffers was beaming at the end of the night, and was overheard enthusing, "That was a GOOD one!"