With a mix of intimacy, celebrity, heartfelt speeches and one-of-a-kind performances, the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame gala in New York has become a must-attend event for the biggest artists, composers and executives in the music business.
While celebrations like the Grammy Awards and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony now are televised from arenas, the 49th class of the Songwriters Hall of Fame will be feted during a private dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York on June 14.
It’s an event that draws headlines even when honorees can’t make it. JAY-Z, the first hip-hop songwriter recognized by the hall in June 2017, was unable to attend as his wife, Beyoncé, awaited the birth of their twins. But he was inducted via video -- by former President Barack Obama.
This year, Neil Diamond will be the 2018 recipient of the Johnny Mercer Award, named for the “Moon River” tunesmith who co-founded the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1969 with music publishers Abe Olman and Howie Richmond. Sara Bareilles will receive the Hal David Starlight Award, which is given to a rising young songwriter. Lucian Grainge, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group, who began his career helping to pitch songs for a music publisher in London nearly 40 years ago, will receive the Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award.
Ahead of this year’s event, nine of the hall’s honorees reflected on the craft of songwriting.
“City Lights” Recorded by:Ray Price Chart peak: No. 1 (13 weeks), Hot Country Songs; Oct. 20, 1958 (the week the chart debuted in Billboard)
“I was on the top of the Hotel Andrew Jackson in the ‘big’ city of Commerce, Ga., 19 years old and working as a disc jockey at the local radio station there. I wrote the date down on the little envelope I wrote the lyrics on -- Aug. 27, 1957. It was a clear night, and I was looking up at a sky full of stars and down at what lights there were in Commerce. And it just came to me. I wrote the entire song that night. When I went to record it myself, it was the B-side. I had a little rockabilly song called ‘No Song to Sing’ on the A-side, and I had a lot more faith in that than ‘City Lights.’ But it turned out a little different. I recorded it for a little label out of San Antonio called TMT Records, and I sent my record to Nashville. There was a man named Charlie Lamb, and he had a music publication called The Music Reporter. I was hoping he would review ‘No Song to Sing.’ And Charlie Lamb, bless his heart, listened to both sides of the record, and he took it to Chet Atkins, who was producing artists at RCA. Chet recorded ‘City Lights’ with a young artist named Dave Rich. Ray Price heard Dave Rich’s record of it on the local radio station in Nashville, and that’s how it fell into his hands. Some stars had to align for all these things to happen like they did.”
“Love Song” Recorded by: Sara Bareilles Chart peak: No. 4, Billboard Hot 100; No. 1 (three weeks), Mainstream Top 40; April 12, 2008
“I was trying to make my first record for Epic Records and had been vaguely told to keep writing and waiting for the green light to go into the studio. It was increasingly frustrating. I was listening to the radio, and I sort of caught myself red-handed trying to bite off the ideas that were already existing there. And I was really furious with myself that I had fallen into the trap of trying to re-create something instead of following my own intuition. I said a little prayer -- [seeking] what my songwriter self needed to say and [not worry] what the label would like. And, truly, it was like a magic moment when the song tumbled out. The song wrote itself as quickly as I’d ever written anything. My A&R rep called and said, ‘This is incredible.’ I thought he was joking. It turned out to be this wonderful return to myself but also ticking the box of what they needed. Then I got the green light to move on and make the record.”
“Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)” Recorded by: Neil Diamond Chart peak: No. 4, Billboard Hot 100; Aug. 16, 1969
“That song was like a lucky gift. I needed it desperately in my career. I was about to go hungry. I had a new baby. There were all kinds of things that were counting on this record, and I just had an hour to do it. It was in Memphis, Tenn. We had rented space, and in those days, you used to record three songs in three hours, and I only had two songs. I had to write one more song. It was the day before the session, and that beautiful girl came to me and I was a happy guy. You never know with a song; I never knew with ‘Sweet Caroline’ it would become such a beloved song. So much of creativity is filling in empty space, and that’s what I was doing. I had a space on my dance card, and that sweet girl came in and she saved me from a fate worse than death -- which would’ve been working as a civilian somewhere.”
STEVE DORFF (Co-Writer)
“I Cross My Heart” Recorded by:George Strait Chart peak: No. 1 (two weeks), Hot Country Songs; Dec. 5, 1992
“I played that song for everyone I knew for eight years, and everyone looked at me and went, ‘Eh, not one of your best.’ And then George finally [sang] it, and we had this monster hit. So you just never know. You have to have a great song, but more important, it has to be the right marriage between the artist and the song. I’ve had songs recorded by many artists that weren't hits, and then all of a sudden, the right artist does it. We did this song for the movie Pure Country. There were people who didn't like the song or didn't think it was country enough or was George Strait enough. For an artist like George, who is this incredible country singer, ‘I Cross My Heart’ had some pretty different chord structures and didn't really fit that genre; it was a stretch for him. But because it was so outside the box at the time for him, that’s what made it such a big hit. It has become this wedding song. I can’t tell you how many people write me and say, ‘We got married with this song.’”
JERMAINE DUPRI (Co-Writer)
“Confessions Part II” Recorded by:Usher Chart peak: No. 1 (two weeks), Billboard Hot 100; July 24, 2004
“When we did [the album title track], ‘Confessions,’ it’s a guy feeling bad about himself, about what he had been doing to the girl, so he just came out and told her. Then Usher was like, ‘You can’t stop right there. There’s a part two to this story.’ And as soon as Usher said, ‘There’s a part two,’ my brain clicked, and every word of ‘Confessions Part II’ flew out of my mouth. I just had to put it in the right words that would make it Usher’s story. It took about an hour, and the process was me saying the lyrics to him. I stopped writing lyrics down on paper after me and JAY-Z did ‘Money Ain’t a Thang.’ He didn't write one thing down in the studio. He said, ‘I wrote it, I just didn't write it on paper.’ I had never seen this done before, and then I started realizing ... it might be easier that way than writing it down because we all memorize the songs that we really love.”
“Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” Recorded by: Alan Jackson Chart peak: No. 1 (five weeks), Hot Country Songs; Dec. 29, 2001
“After 9/11, I didn't think I would want to write a song about it. But it was the middle of October , and I agreed to play for a concert in my hometown, a fundraiser for a home for underprivileged children. We flew back to Nashville and I went to bed, and somewhere in the middle of the night, I woke up and that song was lying there. The chorus came out, then the melody, and the lyrics started pouring out. And the next morning, I started writing all the verses. All the things I wrote about were from footage on television and interviews with people about how they were dealing with it. We debuted it on the [Country Music Association] Awards in late October. I am still amazed about how that song has held on. It’s a song about faith and hope and love.”
JAMES “JT” TAYLOR (Co-Writer)
“Celebration” Recorded by: Kool & The Gang Chart peak: No. 1 (two weeks), Billboard Hot 100; Feb. 7, 1981
“First of all, we have to go back to ‘Ladies Night’ [the 1979 Kool & The Gang single co-written by George Brown with the lyric], ‘Come on, let’s all celebrate.’ A year after is when we came up with ‘Celebration.’ We were celebrating the resurrection of the band [after a commercial lull], and Ronald [Bell] came up with these really cool keyboard parts. Working with [Eumir] Deodato, the producer, the song came together. We would get home after [tour dates], and we’d go right back to the studio. And we did this ‘Yahoo!’ thing, just in the moment. I mean, how many black guys do you hear saying ‘Yahoo?’ But it ended up becoming one of the signatures of the song. If you think about that song, it has so many hooks. The horn line is a hook, the piano, and of course the vocal hooks. But we had no idea it was going to become a world anthem.”
ALLEE WILLIS (Co-Writer)
“September” Recorded by: Earth, Wind & Fire Chart peak: No. 1, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; Jan. 13, 1979; No. 8, Billboard Hot 100; Feb. 10, 1979
“Earth, Wind & Fire was my favorite group in the world, and [I was approached about] writing for a couple of groups [EWF’s] Verdine [White] was producing. He said, ‘I’m going to tell my brother about you.’ A couple of nights later, the phone rang, and it was Maurice White and it was an amazing conversation. He said, ‘Do you want to write the next Earth, Wind & Fire album with me?’ I went to the studio, and we started working on ‘September’ the very first day. What rhymes with ‘September’? ‘Remember’! Every day, someone comes up to me and says, ‘My birthday is the 21st of September,’ ‘My wedding’s the 21st of September.’ I have to break everyone’s heart and tell them it had no significance at all. We just sang every single date of the month, and the 21st just felt the best.”
MELLENCAMP: ‘SONGS PICK ME’
As a songwriter, John Mellencamp is credited with 22 top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. As an inspiration, he recently can take credit for one more -- Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (And You Were Diane),” which reached No. 11 on the May 26 Country Airplay chart. Owen’s hit is an homage to Mellencamp’s tale of small-town romance, “Jack and Diane,” which topped the Hot 100 for four weeks in the fall of 1982.
Mellencamp, who will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by Nora Guthrie, the daughter of Woody Guthrie, tells Billboard: “If you write about the smallest common denominators of life, they will always be relevant.”
Still living in his native Indiana, Mellencamp has often focused on economic, racial and social injustice in his music. But he says his songs emerge more from deliberation than inspiration. “I am open and do not try to direct the topic or the spirit of any song I write. I do not pick what I write about,” he says. “It picks me. I’ve never sat down to write a song about struggle or happiness or love. I only write what is sent to me.”