NEW YORK -- The Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner is pretty much the do of the year for the music publishing industry, and in addition to virtually everyone who’s anyone in the executive side of that world, there’s always a jaw-dropping array of legendary talent in the house, from superstars (Elton John, Sting, Billy Joel, Smokey Robinson, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, to name just a few) to legendary but less-universally recognized songwriters (Bernie Taupin, John David Souther, Paul Williams, Tony Hatch). The show is usually a tour de force of tributes and inspired pairings, and last night wasted no time: the evening kicked off with Sting knocking out an ass-kicking version of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Saturday Night Is Alright For Fighting" – and things rarely lagged from there.
Bernie Taupin (left) and Elton John accept the Mercer Award. (Getty/SHOF)
Talking about their nearly 50-year-long partnership -- which earned the pair the organization's prestigious Johnny Mercer Award -- at the event, Taupin said he always wanted to tell stories, even before he’d met Elton John. But because he did, he worked with someone who made his songs multi-generational. "Without him I may have ended up telling stories," he said. "But I'm not sure anyone would be listening."
John followed Taupin with an amusing speech containing the immortal line, "When you write a song, its yours for about five seconds, until some moron gets ahold of it and changes it." He and Billy Joel also reconciled onstage from comments John made in a recent Rolling Stone interview, where he called his friend lazy and not serious about sobriety.
"I didn't see you tonight Mr. Joel, but I want to see you," said John.
Petula Clark and Tony Hatch (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
Inductee Tony Hatch (“Downtown,” “Joanna,” “I Know a Place”) played a medley of his hits that culminated with the singer who made many of them famous: Petula Clark, who joined him onstage for a spot-on version of "Downtown."
In accepting his place in the SHOF, Hatch noted that the song's title, "Downtown," is a "quintessential" American expression and that he wrote the song a few blocks from where the show was being staged, at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
He pointed out that initially Clark’s label, Pye Records, wasn't sure they wanted to release “Downtown” until Warner Bros. then-chief Joe Smith indicated that he wanted it, which spurred Pye to release it and the "rest is history."
Next up was Holly Knight (Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” Heart’s “Never,” Aerosmith’s “Rag Doll”), whose segment kicked off with Scandal’s Patty Smyth tearing up the Knight-composed "The Warrior."
Wiz Khalifa, Benny Blanco and Rob Thomas. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
While the show, by nature, is largely based on what we’ll call more heritage talent, there’s always a younger person honored – with the Hal David Starlight Awards – and a left-field performer. This year it was Dr. Luke protégé Benny Blanco (Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and multiple collaborations with Luke), who gave an amusing speech about the craft of songwriting, capping by saying, "Songwriting is like a drug, and I will smoke it until the day I die."
Songwriter/ASCAP president Paul Williams (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainbow Connection”) remembered Hal David as a warrior for songwriters. SHOF-er Billy Joel commented that while he knew David was a great lyricist, he didn't know how good until he worked with Burt Bacharach, David's longtime songwriting partner, and his rather vague and elliptical methods of collaboration.
In introducing the next inductees -- Mick Jones and Lou Gramm of Foreigner -- Joel, who sang snippets of the band’s hits during his introduction, showed his understanding of craft by pointing out that the duo wrote a worldwide hit called "I Want to Know What Love Is" "with the less-expected emphasis on the word “is” rather than “love” – “and it worked."
During his acceptance speech, Jones thanked Atlantic Records for promoting the band to the top of the heap. "They believed in us and we didn't let them down," he said.
The songwriting partners, backed by the house band, did killer versions of "Jukebox Hero," and "I Want to Know What Love Is," with the Anthony Morgan's Inspirational Choir of Harlem helping them near the end to take the song to a whole other level. But most impressive of all was Gramm’s voice – he spent many years recovering from a devastating 1997 brain tumor, but his voice is now nearly as strong as ever, navigating the two challenging songs with ease and grace.
(L-R) Mick Jones, Jimmy Webb, Berry Gordy; Natalie Cole, Smokey Robinson, Jordin Sparks, Tony Hatch, Patty Smyth, Martin Bandier and Shelea Frazier attend the Songwriters Hall of Fame 44th Annual Induction and Awards Dinner at the New York Marriott Marquis on June 13, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
Next up, President Bill Clinton, via video, lauded the power of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which won the Towering Song award and was accepted by Cooke’s granddaughter. The SHOF also took the time to remember producer Phil Ramone, who died earlier this year.
Producer Peter Asher then lauded songwriter J.D. Souther, a longtime Eagles collaborator and, recently, an actor in the hit series “Nashville,” where he plays (naturally enough) a music publisher. He said Souther’s work shows an appreciation for the simplicity of Chuck Berry songs and the complexity of Nelson Riddle arrangements, and he singled out Souther’s bridge on the song “Faithless Love” as one of the great bridges he’d ever heard. Then Alison Krauss sang a crystal-clear version of the song, which was a hit for Glen Campbell and was also recorded by Linda Ronstadt and Souther himself. In accepting his induction, Souther joked by telling the room he would begin his speech using the three most terrifying words that can be heard at an award ceremony, "I'll be brief." Talking about his career, he noted in 1984 that he stopped away from it for 20 years because he "didn't understand MTV." But since his hiatus has ended, he said, "All I know how to do is keep trying to get better."
Apparently in a show of Aerosmith unity, Nickleback's Chad Kroeger and Ryan Peake rocked the group’s "Sweet Emotion," even though it was written by Steven Tyler (who was inducted last night) and bassist Tom Hamilton (who was not), instead of guitarist Joe Perry (who was). Tyler noted that its great to be appreciated for "this stuff we pull out of the air." Before the duo unleashed "Walk This Way," backed by the house band, they noted that for all the awards they ever got, "this is the one" that really matters, because it is bestowed upon them by their songwriting peers, a sentiment echoed earlier in the evening by Elton John as well.
Berry Gordy (left) and Smokey Robinson (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
The evening began a long draw to a close when Smokey Robinson talked -- and talked -- about the impact that Berry Gordy, who was presented with the organization's Pioneer Award, had upon him, the Motown family, America and the world.
He remembered when he first met Gordy, the Motown founder pointed out that he had about five songs crammed into every one song, and encouraged him to sharpen up his writing so the song would have one story with a beginning and an ending. And even if the song fades out before it ends, Gordy taught him to make sure the listener had enough information so that they could form their own ending, Robinson added.
To the successful songwriters in the room, he warned them not to get to full of themselves, because "there is a kid somewhere just around the corner who will write you under the table." Robinson likened Gordy to Jackie Robinson's whose number 42 has been retired by baseball and he said, "If it was up to me to retire a number in honor of Gordy, then his number would be No. 1."
He then sang a brief snatch of a new song he composed about Gordy, singing, "Did you know that when you dreamed, you would make so many others' dreams come true."
In accepting the award, Gordy said that when he started out, he "wanted to make music, make some money and get some girls --and not necessarily in that order." He said, Motown and its artist helped "bring a sea change to this world."
The show closed with a medley of performance from the stars of "Motown the Musical," the Broadway musical, with a battery of timeless songs that made for a perfect end to a long but satisfying night.