Ne-Yo poses with Swizz Beatz after accepting his Hal David Starlight Award. (Photo: Getty/Larry Busacca)
Now, incredibly, in its 43rd year, the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony is roughly the publishing world's equivalent of the Grammys, but its untelevised, below-the-public-radar status means that the people being honored clearly feel that they're speaking to peers, colleagues and friends more than the public.
Indeed, Bette Midler, who received the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony on Thursday night, joked, "This thing has been going on for 43 years, and this is the first time I was ever invited? I'm kind of annoyed!" She continued about how much she enjoyed the event before adding, "And there's no TV cameras -- those f---ers!"
(Actually, the event was filmed, but for legal reasons only 45-second clips can be posted.)
(L-R): Bette Midler, Emmylou Harri, and Stevie Nicks take in the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony. (Photo: Getty/Theo Wargo)
Along with Midler's award, Bob Seger, Gordon Lightfoot, "Gambler" songwriter Don Schlitz (who has also written hits for Randy Travis, the Judds, Mary Chapin Carpenter and others), Jim Steinman (Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell album, among other hits) and "Fantasticks" writers Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Other special awards went to Rondor Music president Lance Freed (Abe Olman Publisher Award), Woody Guthrie (Pioneer Award), Ben E. King, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (Towering Song for "Stand by Me"; Towering Performance for King) and Ne-Yo, who was honored with this year's Hal David Starlight Award (inducted by Swizz Beatz), intended for young artists.
Still, the comparative intimacy doesn't take away from the gravity of the event, the firepower of the people in the audience -- rather than listing names, let's just say that if a meteor had hit the Marriott Marquis on Thursday night, 95% of the upper echelon of the American music-publishing business would be gone -- or the quality of the performances. Amid hours of acceptance speeches, anecdotes and comedy, the real magic of the show occurs, of course, in the meticulously programmed music. While you get plenty of people performing their best-known hits (Seger opened the show with "Turn the Page," Kenny Rogers sang "The Gambler"), you also get superstars performing songs they've never performed publicly before, and the inspired matches of classic songs with often-unexpected singers is what usually creates the evening's magic.
Throughout the night, we heard Stevie Nicks singing "The Rose" for Bette Midler with reverence and respect; Steve Miller singing "Sundown" for Gordon Lightfoot, his cheerful voice bringing buoyancy to the songwriter's usually dark tone; Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson fame) taking to the piano for Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight"; Emmylou Harris doing a lovely version of "Tears in Heaven"; Take 6 singing a peppy take on "Stand by Me" before wisely clearing the way for Ben E. King; and "American Idol" vet Constantine Maroulis, who starred in "Rock of Ages" on Broadway, bringing just the right amount of metallic bombast to a medley of Meat Loaf's "I Would Do Anything for Love" and "Bat Out of Hell" before he was joined by Meat Loaf himself.
True to form, Meat Loaf did not half-ass his performance in the least, not only belting out the song but coming at the band and audience as it ended, bug-eyed, going "COME ON! COME ON!" Rather comically, he had both a large cross necklace and his reading glasses around his neck as he performed. He poked fun at himself for that in a long speech inducting Steinman, whom he compared to Samuel Beckett and said, "We're in Vulcan mind-meld artistically" before concluding tearfully, "I can never repay him."
Former American Idol contestant Constantine Maroulis performs on stage with Meat Loaf. (Photo: Getty/Larry Busacca)
After the medley, Steinman cracked, "They shortened the song so much I felt like I was watching an episode of "Glee'" and noted, "I learned to write theatrically and that was the great breakthough." He memorably concluded his speech (and echoed the title of his 1983 hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart") by saying, "A great song became an erection of the heart."
Of course, the name on many people's lips this night was Frances Preston, the longtime BMI chief who passed away the day before.
She was mentioned by many people but her longtime colleague, BMI's Del Bryant, delivered a touching speech that he tearfully concluded, "She was a queen, and long did she reign." Emmylou Harris' performance of "Tears in Heaven" continued the mood beautifully.
Also often mentioned was SHOF co-founder Howie Richmond, who passed away last month.
A&M Records/Rondor Music co-founder Jerry Moss gave a long speech inducting longtime Rondor head Lance Freed, who he recalled hiring as a teenaged office boy before selecting him to take over Rondor. Freed spoke lovingly of his father, pioneering DJ Alan Freed, recalling how he'd play stacks of records for Lance and his sister, usually throwing them across the room after a few bars. But occasionally he'd play one two or three times and look at them and say, "That one's going on the radio tomorrow night."
Bob Seger poses with Valerie Simpson at the ceremony. (Photo: Getty/Larry Busacca)
In accepting his award, Ne-Yo said, "Bette Midler just told me I'm for real -- that's just about all I need." Later in his speech, he thanked the organization for the honor but said, "I have so far to go -- I mean, the guy who wrote 'The Gambler' was just up here!" he concluded with a performance of his hit "So Sick."
The evening ended with Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora accepting the Pioneer Award on his behalf, and in a long speech she cleverly interwove the titles of dozens of his songs. The night ended with Take 6 singing "This Land Is Your Land," with a lead vocal by newcomer L.P., whose soaring voice did some astonishing acrobatics on the familiar melody.
A new singer strutting her stuff on a decades-old song made for a fitting conclusion to the evening.
(L-R): Jed Leiber, son of legendary songwriter Jerry Leiber; Ben E. King; and Mike Stoller. (Photo: Getty/Larry Busacca)