Timberlake at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in 2018.
Timberlake at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in 2018.
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Justin Timberlake, Halsey, Missy Elliott & More Share Stories Behind Their Biggest Hits

Nearly 50 years ago, Billboard toasted the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s first dinner and induction ceremony, held March 8, 1971, at the New York Hilton, in a series of four black-and-white photographs that set the event’s tone for years to come: Johnny Mercer proudly held his trophy aloft; Eubie Blake entertained at the piano; Kris Kristofferson took the stage as a presenter; and Frank Sinatra gave an award to Richard Rodgers.

The SHOF was in fact founded two years earlier, in 1969, the vision of Mercer and music publishers Abe Olman and Howie Richmond, who created an organization devoted to the craft of songwriting that continues to shape the global music business. “ ‘It all begins with a song’ is not just a cliché,” says SHOF president/CEO Linda Moran. “Songwriting is the heart and soul of the creative process.”

On June 13, the organization will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York and fete this year’s class of inductees, who include artists Missy Elliott, Yusuf (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens), Tom T. Hall and John Prine, as well as songwriters Jack Tempchin (Eagles, George Jones, Emmylou Harris) and Dallas Austin (TLC, Gwen Stefani, P!nk). Former Sony/ATV Music Publishing chairman/CEO Martin Bandier will receive the Visionary Leadership Award, while Halsey will take home the Hal David Starlight Award, named in honor of the late SHOF chairman Hal David for his support of young songwriters. Singer-actor Justin Timberlake will also be honored with the Contemporary Icon Award, credited to his “iconic status in pop culture,” while the organization’s highest honor -- the Johnny Mercer Award -- will be presented to songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, previously inducted in 1987.

Across five decades, the Songwriters Hall of Fame has recognized some 400-plus inductees, including composers across every genre as well as the music publishing executives who helped propel their hits to the mainstream. Under Moran’s tutelage, the SHOF has bolstered its educational platforms to nurture the next generation of talent with scholarships and courses, such as its SHOF Master Sessions held at New York University’s Steinhardt and the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. For the SHOF’s upcoming 50th edition, Billboard invited veteran music executives to recall their favorite memories from past ceremonies. And ahead of this year’s gala, the class of 2019 honorees and inductees look back at the making of their biggest hits.

DALLAS AUSTIN, “Cool”
Recorded by: Gwen Stefani
Chart peak: No. 10, Mainstream Top 40; Sept. 3, 2005

“I wrote that song for TLC when me and [TLC member] Chilli broke up, but I didn’t want to record it with them. It was very obvious who it was about and what it was, and it was hard. I finally said, ‘I’m not going to do this with you guys, let’s find another song.’ A year or so later I ran into Gwen, who had done [a breakup song] like that with No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak.’ I remember thinking, ‘How’s she doing that song with Tony [Kanal] in the group?’ I played ‘Cool’ for her and she said, ‘I love this song -- this is just like me and Tony’s situation.’ ”

CAROLE BAYER SAGER, “That’s What Friends Are For”
Recorded by: Dionne & Friends
Chart peak: No. 1 (four weeks), Billboard Hot 100; Jan. 18, 1986

“We were at the studio, and Dionne [Warwick] and Stevie [Wonder] put their vocals on. My dear friend Elizabeth Taylor also came down, so it flashed through my mind that we should put a couple more people on it to make it an anthem for AIDS. We put Gladys Knight on -- she was incredible -- and then we needed one more voice to hammer it home. We picked Luther Vandross, who was amazing, but Clive Davis said he didn’t have quite enough power, so he called Elton John, who said, ‘If this isn’t a No. 1, I’m leaving the business.’ Fortunately, it was, and we gave a large sum of money to amfAR at the time.”

MISSY ELLIOTT, “Work It" 
Recorded by: Missy Elliott
Chart peak: No. 1 (five weeks), Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; Nov. 23, 2002

“Tim [Timbaland, producer] and I would get on each other’s nerves. We’re like brother and sister. I begged him to go to some mom-and-pop stores to get some breakbeats, because we had a block; he finally caught this vibe. When I heard the worm sound, I jumped up, like, ‘That’s it!’ I was in another room because I never record in front of anyone, and he kept saying, ‘Nah, that ain’t it!’ I’m pissed. By the fifth time, he said, ‘Yes! That’s it!’ He thought we was done, but I got him back on the So Addictive album. I said, ‘Nope! That ain’t it!’ about three times. Then he did ‘Get Ur Freak On,’ and I said, ‘Yup! That’s it!’ ”

TOM T. HALL, “Harper Valley PTA”
Recorded by: Jeannie C. Riley
Chart peak: No. 1, Hot 100; Sept. 21, 1968

“It’s a true story about my hometown of Olive Hill, Ky., population 1,300. I changed the names to protect the guilty and the innocent. Jeannie C. Riley was the third version of it. I put it down as a demo and sent it to a DJ, whose wife cut it, then [Sun Records president] Shelby Singleton’s wife cut it, and then they called Jeannie. When she recorded it, she said at the end of the song, ‘The day my mama,’ instead of ‘that mama,’ which made it a girl’s song. Nobody even noticed.”

HALSEY, “Without Me" 
Recorded by: Halsey
Chart peak: No. 1 (two weeks), Hot 100; Jan. 12, 2019

“I didn’t know ‘Without Me’ was going to be my first solo No. 1. I put it out on a whim and hoped my fans would take it as an answer to some of the things I was going through on a personal level. I made that song for me, and then when I saw how much it resonated with my fans and beyond … It’s because of the universal theme. Everyone knows what it feels like to be taken advantage of by someone you love. A lot of songs are like, ‘I’m a bad bitch, you don’t know what you’re missing out on.’ But I think there are few that speak from a point of vulnerability and say, ‘You were taking advantage of me, and I would’ve kept letting you because I loved you so much.’ Admitting that naiveté, maybe that’s why it worked so well. It was very honest and very candid.”

JOHN PRINE, “Paradise”
Recorded by: John Prine 
Chart peak: Debut LP John Prine, No. 154 (Billboard 200); March 4, 1972

“My father is from Paradise, Ky., and I used to go there as a kid in the ’50s and ’60s. I got drafted in the Army in the summer of ’66. I remember him telling me that the coal company tore down his hometown and stripped out the whole area. I was just starting to write songs again when I got into the Army. My dad told me he didn’t think what I’d done were ‘real’ songs. I started writing again when I was over in Germany, so I wrote a song about his hometown. I knew if I wrote a country song about him, he’d know I was a songwriter.”

JACK TEMPCHIN, “Peaceful Easy Feeling”
Recorded by: Eagles
Chart peak: No. 22, Hot 100; March 10, 1973

“I had a gig in El Centro, Calif., and there was a folk music place called the Aquarius. I was single, I’d made it big with the waitress -- she was going to take me to her place -- so I told the guys I didn’t need a ride to the place we were staying. But then she left and never came back. So I’m in a strange town and I ended up sleeping on the floor of this coffeehouse, and that’s when I started writing ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling.’ My friend who was really into Zen was always talking about the magic of when you let go. A lot of times that’s when you find it.”

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, “SexyBack”
Recorded by: Justin Timberlake
Chart peak: No. 1 (seven weeks), Hot 100; Nov. 11, 2006

“Timbaland and I went back and forth trading lines, freestyling, but it came about after I had been listening to David Bowie for weeks. I wanted something with that same unapologetic feeling as ‘Rebel Rebel’ -- that feeling of being completely comfortable with yourself. After the song came out I was walking around New York City when I crossed paths with a UPS delivery guy who shouted, ‘Hey, JT! I’m bringing sexy back!’ He was wearing the uniform and everything. In that moment he felt that way, and that was awesome. I wanted anyone to be able to say those words.”

YUSUF (CAT STEVENS), “Wild World" 
Recorded by: Yusuf (Cat Stevens) 
Chart peak: No. 11, Hot 100; April 10, 1971

“ ‘Wild World’ was really my parting song with my girlfriend, [actress] Patti D’Arbanville. Because I’d had such an experience of almost falling off the planet [from tuberculosis], I knew there were a lot of dangers out there. So it was kind of me talking to myself about the career I was about to embark on, and also talking to her about her career and what she was going on to then do. We’d basically split at that point, and that was the ode to our parting. It’s very much too, I’d think, a song for a mother watching [her] kids walk out the door.”

 
 

 

‘Avid Songwriter Champion'

Publishing stalwart Martin Bandier will receive this year’s Visionary Leadership Award

Martin Bandier, who exited his post as chairman/CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing in April after 12 years, will take home the Visionary Leadership Award on June 13. The accolade spotlights a member of the SHOF’s board of directors who has made a significant contribution to its mission. With the tribute, Bandier joins just three prior honorees: SHOF chairman emeritus Hal David, former BMI CEO Del Bryant and former ASCAP chief John A. Lofrumento.

Bandier’s 50 years in the publishing sector, which include leading SBK Entertainment and EMI Music Publishing, dovetail with the event’s own 50th anniversary this year. At Sony/ATV, the dealmaking titan grew the company into the publishing giant it is today. (Clients include The Beatles, Lady Gaga, Carole King and Taylor Swift.) “I helped make music publishing sexy,” Bandier, 77, told Billboard in March. The honor caps a victory lap of a year,  which included receiving the Icon Award -- previously given to Paul Simon and Dolly Parton -- at BMI’s Pop Awards in May and his annual pilgrimage to the Bandier Program at Syracuse University, where he teased his next operation, Bandier Ventures, in a year-end Q&A with the program’s graduating class.

“We have long benefited from Marty’s advice, guidance and wisdom,” says SHOF president/CEO Linda Moran of the “avid songwriters’ champion” who always encourages the organization to “raise the bar.”    -- NICK WILLIAMS 

This article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Billboard.


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