The Songwriters Hall of Fame is the Grammys of the publishing industry, the place where legendary songwriters and executives are honored and the titans of the industry mingle. Hey, there's Marty Bandier! Paul Williams! Willard Adritz! Ed Christman! And wow that guy looks just like … actually that is John McEnroe. Huh? (Oh right, he's married to ex-Scandal singer Patty Smyth, who performed at last year's ceremony.)
All kidding aside, the event is like none other: There are awards and speeches and honors and recognition and reminisces and occasional tears, but the magic comes from the abiding respect for the songs and songwriters reflected in the performances. The Hall's choices of singers to honor the songs is impeccable, and the performances you hear at the annual ceremony — this year's was the 45th — are often once-in-a-lifetime. Stevie Nicks singing "The Rose" to Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris doing "Tears in Heaven" for the song's co-writer Will Jennings, and Billy Joel and Garth Brooks performing a duet in matching black cowboy hats are just three highlights from the past three years.
Thursday night's ceremony faced a daunting challenge that tactfully was not revealed to the crowd until near the show's end: the top inductee, the Kinks' Ray Davies, was unable to attend due to the recent death of his sister Joyce. But he delivered a gracious speech via video, noting the "ups and downs" of his career — "as anyone who's seen a Kinks concert can attest" — and thanked "my friend Jon Bon Jovi," who'd just given a warm and very funny induction speech.
Let's Twist Again: Chubby Checker (left) and Jon Bon Jovi (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
In it, Bon Jovi recalled how excited his band was to perform the Kinks classic "Celluloid Heroes" in London several years ago with the notoriously awkward Davies, who arrived wearing a shabby raincoat and a hat (which he did not remove), and clutching a plastic bag that did not leave his hand until he went onstage — "And I still wonder what was in that bag"; Davies left after the performance with barely a word. Bon Jovi spoke movingly of Davies' songs, "which people can relate to, whether they're a factory worker in Birmingham or a teenager in New Jersey."
After the video, Bon Jovi, clad in a classy black suit with a silver tie, performed a reverent medley of "Celluloid Heroes," "You Really Got Me," "Low Budget" and "All Day and All of the Night."
Yet strong as that was, most would probably agree that the evening's crowning performance came from Miguel in tribute to Philadelphia International founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, whose more than 3,500 songs over 50 years include the Supremes' "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now," the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" and the song Miguel performed, Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones."
Unlike most SHOF performers, Miguel — clad all in black, wearing a shiny collarless jacket and a bandana around his head — took some liberties with the song, playing with the melody, leading the band in a start-stop sequence, and finishing by showing off his formidable range, lofting way up into falsetto — he could, and someday should, make a stunning covers album.
Miguel goes Philly International in his tribute to Gamble & Huff (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
In his acceptance speech, Gamble spoke about what an honor this award was, adding that it was just as thrilling as being inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame before saying with a laugh, "What's next, an Oscar?"
The rest of the evening, as usual, went off without a hitch.
Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds, winner of the Hal David Starlight Award (for rising songwriters), spoke about how he's played every song he's ever written for his father and how that relationship has carried over to his own two-year-old daughter, who sings "Radioactive" for him. Reynolds then performed the song solo, accompanying himself on piano and revealing details obscured by the recorded version's booming production.
The other inductees — Donovan, Graham Gouldman, Mark James and Jim Weatherly — all got their moments in the sun. Donovan performed "Catch the Wind" as a duet with Rosanne Cash (who sang stunningly) before being joined by the house band for his first hit, the psychedelic classic "Sunshine Superman." Gouldman — a cofounder of 10CC and author of '60s hits for the Hollies, Yardbirds and Herman's Hermits — was honored by Great Big World's Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino with a soaring "I'm Not in Love" before performing a stellar version of his hit for the Hollies, "Bus Stop." Martina McBride sang "Suspicious Minds" — James' biggest hit for Elvis — before he did a medley of "Always on My Mind," "Hooked on a Feeling" and others; *American Idol*'s Candice Glover sang the Gladys Knight hit "Midnight Train to Georgia" for Weatherly; he took the mic for "Neither One of Us."
Other performances during the evening included 81-year-old Chita Rivera doing a medley of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "Boy Like That" and "America," clad in a bright red dress and busting out some smooth dance moves; 14-year-old prodigy Jackie Evancho singing a glacially paced version of Towering Song winner "Over the Rainbow," savoring every syllable; Chubby Checker, looking and moving more like a man half his 72 years, performing "Let's Twist Again"; and Aloe Blacc opening the show with "Wake Me Up."
Del Bryant, who is stepping down as BMI's president after nearly 43 years with the organization, was honored with the Visionary Leadership Award (only the second executive, after Hal David, to receive it) by his longtime friend Rosanne Cash. The two go back decades, since her father (Johnny Cash) was good friends with his parents (legendary Nashville songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant). She sang her father's "I Still Miss Someone" and choked up during her induction speech; Bryant said the ceremony was extra special "because our fathers were friends." ASCAP was also honored for its centennial this year, with a medley of some of its most-performed songs from the ace house band.
He's Got the Beats: Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Beats and newly minted Apple employee. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
Newly minted Apple employee Jimmy Iovine introduced Howie Richmond Hitmaker honoree Doug Morris, who's been CEO of all three major record groups but started out as a singer and songwriter ("Sweet Talkin' Guy"). Iovine described Morris, who helped launch Interscope and later brought the label from Warner to Universal, as a "father figure" and the "greatest friend a guy could have." Morris spoke about the "thrill of hearing your song on the radio and the pain of watching it flame out" before introducing a new artist, RCA singer Cam, who sang a lovely country song called "Burning House."
The mood of the evening and the event was poignantly reflected by Gamble, who briefly paused during his speech and said, "It's a wonderful life. … [All of this] reminds me of how powerful music is. That's why these songs last so long: they help people make it through the day."