But for the audience, what’s special is the often one-of-a-kind pairings on display. In recent years Lady Gaga sang “What's Up” to Linda Perry, Stevie Nicks sang “The Rose” to Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris did Eric Clapton’s heartbreaking hit "Tears in Heaven" for the song's co-writer Will Jennings, Stephen Colbert delivered a hilarious homage to Toby Keith and sang his "As Good As I Once Was" (in character) and Billy Joel and Garth Brooks performed a duet in matching black cowboy hats.
And this evening kicked off with Marcus Mumford inducting Elvis Costello (suitable because the two worked together on the recent New Basement Tapes album of Bob Dylan re-imaginings). “I’m going to do a quick bit of stand-up,” said before leading the house band into Costello’s “Pump It Up.”
“I’ve normally got three handsome boys with me," he said, "but I’m here for Elvis Costello, my hero and I’m proud to say my friend. He should get them to build an extension [to the Songwriters Hall] because he’s got so many great songs. But [that song has] so many chords it’s a nightmare!”
Costello called himself “the least commercially successful songwriter you have ever inducted” and wondered “how in the world did I end up with my photo next to Marvin Gaye” in the event’s program book. He thanked Linda Ronstadt and her producer/manager Peter Asher for recording “Alison” in 1978, generating royalties that “kept the gas in my tour bus” as he made his case before audiences across the United States. He also recalled being third on a bill for a club show with Petty in Chicago, and hiding behind a plastic plant with Rodgers on the stage of a Dutch music TV show. He concluded by thanking his wife, singer Diana Krall -- “I will never be a good enough songwriter to tell her how much I love her” – before picking up his blue Fender to perform “Alison.”
Next up, Jussie Smollett, star of Empire and a Columbia Records artist, performed Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On,” saying it and “Inner City Blues” are “as relevant today” as ever. Gaye’s wife Janis accepted the award, saying “I am so overwhelmed by the love in this room” and singling out ASCAP’s John Titta as “a dream to work with and organize everything for us” and songwriters Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, without whom “there wouldn’t have been 'Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.'”
She recalled meeting Gaye when she was just 17. “I was able to watch him write his songs. To watch him create and to watch his process was something truly unique -- and sometimes irritating, honestly. He had this very unique way of creating.
“I share my memories with my children over and over again,” she concluded. “Marvin was so special and it makes me thing of what Whoopie Goldberg said recently: Marvin is with us. His spirit is so strong, to this very day.”
Next up, Rachel Platten took the stage, with a quiet piano accompaniment, to begin Chip Taylor’s “Angel In The Morning” (a hit in both the late 1960s and early ‘80s), the full band rising to back her commanding vocal on the chorus. The song is strikingly at odds with the one Taylor is best known for writing, the libidinal rock classic “Wild Thing.”
He was inducted by his brother, actor Jon Voight. “We didn’t have a musician anywhere in our family so he set the precedent. I remember when Chip was 12 years old -- and we were a little pack of wolves -- he presented us with a song. ‘Faded blue, that’s the kind of feeling, honey, I’ve got for you...’ Woah! This was from a 12-year-old boy.
“My father had a different reaction. He clapped his hands together and said, ‘Boys, this is a goldmine.’
“[Chip] sat me in front of a radio and tried to get me to listen to Elvis Presley. And he showed me Johnny Cash. And it wasn’t too long after that, maybe a decade, people were taking their siblings and putting them in front of a radio and saying listen to this song: ‘Wild Thing.’”
Taking the stage, Taylor said, “My given name is James Wesley Voight. I changed my name to be a rock and roll star -- that did not work! My thing is that I was a country music fanatic -- and I was from Yonkers, New York.” He recalled his big break coming from legendary country guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, then head of RCA Nashville, who wrote a note to his publisher: “It’s very hard to believe [Taylor] is from New York. And I want to hear every song he writes.’
He continued, “Elvis Costello set a high standard tonight in taking about Diana. Now what the hell am I going to do? To my wife Joan, all I can say is: I’m trying!”
He then called three young women to the stage -- his grandchildren -- to sing “Wild Thing” with the band.
Next, the B-52s honored Sire Records founder and 60-plus-year music industry veteran Seymour Stein (who signed artists ranging from the Ramones to Madonna to the Smiths) by performing “Love Shack.”
Stein delivered a speech that raced through his career, recalling his start at Billboard magazine as a teenager through his years working for Syd Nathan at King Records in Cincinnati and fast-forwarding to Sire, which he founded with producer Richard Gottehrer in the 1960s.
“My whole life in music has been about the songs,” he said, and recalled the first time he heard the Ramones, the Talking Heads, the Undertones, the Echo & the Bunnymen, the Pretenders, Depeche Mode, and Madonna. (He told plenty of anecdotes, but most of them are in the documentary video commemorating his being honored with Billboard’s Icon award in 2012.)
“The song is everything for me,” he concluded. “It’s where the music business begins and ends. “
The evening’s speeches had already been very funny, but late night host James Corden raised the bar with his induction address for Hal David Starlight Award winner Nick Jonas. (The award is given to writers who are "at an apex in their careers and are making a significant impact in the music industry"; previous winners include Drake, Taylor Swift and Alicia Keys.)
“It’s such a pleasure to be here at the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame,” he began. “It’s like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for people who couldn’t get laid.”
He was serious, however, when he called Jonas “one of the nicest and most talented men I’ve ever met.” Jonas, true to form, was the image of modesty, saying twice that “I don’t deserve this at all” and graciously thanking his family, his business team, David Massey (who signed him to Epic many years ago and is currently his label boss), his publisher, Universal's Evan Lamberg and David Gray, and not least Elvis Costello, “one of my biggest heroes,” who he recalled once giving him the advice to “keep writing -- write every day, and make sure it comes from here [the heart].” He then apparently did just that by performing “Jealous.”
Richie, receiving the Johnny Mercer award (for "writer or writers already inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and judged by the Nominating Committee as having established a history of outstanding creative works"), was inducted by two heroes of his, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who wrote and produced dozens of hits on their Philadelphia International label (including “Love Train,” “Love Is the Message,” “Expressway to Your Heart”). An extremely glamorous Jennifer Hudson, with short hair and a black dress, performed a soaring, soulful version of the ballad “Still” that Richie later said she “had to” record.
Richie began his acceptance speech by thanking Gamble and Huff -- for rejecting him early in his career. “There was a young group called the Commodores,” he said. “And we did an audition for these two gentlemen way back when, and they gave us the launch that we needed, even though the answer was no. See, we copied everybody -- we could sound just like Kool and the Gang, everybody. And they said, ‘That’s great, fellas -- what do you sound like?’ Bing -- the bell went off. I want to thank these two master songwriters -- I could not have been here until you said no.”
He also paid tribute to his early years working at Motown. “Where better could I study than Motown university? Professor Smokey Robinson and professor Marvin Gaye were down the hall. Around the corner were Nick [Ashford] and Val [Simpson].”
And he remembered the career-changing advice he received from Gaye. He asked the legend for guidance, and Gaye said, “’Little brother -- let me tell you the best note you’ll ever hit in your life. [Sings breathy melody.] ‘Can they hear you breathing? That means you’re whispering in their ear.’
“And from that point on,” Richie said, “I decided I’m writing love songs.” He then sat down at the piano and played his 1984 hit “Hello.”
Next, a black-clad Byrds cofounder Roger McGuinn, brandishing his signature Rickenbacker 12-string, sang a slowed-down version of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” -- which he recorded in 1976, long before its author became a star -- in a quavering voice that, while lacking the rush of the original, highlighted the desperate yearning of the song.
McGuinn recalled touring with Petty in the 1970s and writing with him. “He doesn’t just write songs,” McGuinn said. “He goes up and grabs them -- he flies up to the great wide open and catches and idea and freefalls back to earth.”
Petty delivered his brief acceptance speech in a slow, deadpan drawl; words fail to convey just how funny he was.
“I’m sorta the rock and roll white trash section of the show,” he said. “Writing a song for a rock band -- you’d better bring a really good song, because they don’t take it well if it’s not. Many times I’ve gone back to the drawing board.
“If no one ever wrote another song, we’d be fine,” he said, bringing peals of laughter from the audience. “There’s plenty of songs.
“But I still do it. I love it, it’s a gift. Everybody can do it but everybody can’t do it good.”
He then took the unusual step of playing two new songs acoustically with his group Mudcrutch -- the Heartbreakers precursor, featuring that band’s guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, which Petty reformed several years ago. While it was an unexpected move at this classics-focused event, it was an interesting statement in itself: Petty was looking both forward and backward, and showing that no matter how many songs he has behind him, he’s still moving ahead.
Finally, Sister Sledge did the honors for Nile Rodgers, who was inducted along with his musical partner in Chic, Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996. Collectively and separately, the two also worked with Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Robert Palmer, the B-52s, Rod Stewart and, recently for Rodgers, Daft Punk.
The sisters recalled performing in South Africa and being told by Nelson Mandela how “We Are Family” had “great meaning for his country.”
Edwards’ two sons accepted the award for him, and one said, “This is a roomful of people that make timeless music. I work in the music industry and the songs today are fast food. It’s nice to bask in home-cooked meals.”
Rodgers spoke at length about his 26-year-long relationship with Edwards -- “We were so different, but when we played music together we were like one person” -- and told a long story about the night “I’m Coming Out,” their 1980 hit for Diana Ross, came about.
“I was out partying at a club. I was in the bathroom and on either side were six guys that were Diana Ross male impersonators. I thought, ‘Wow, you guys just gave me the greatest idea in the world! I’m gonna write a song called “I’m Coming Out”! So I called Bernard, he was home asleep, and I said ‘Nard! Write this down! “I’m coming out”!’ ‘What you wanna do that for?’ ‘Because I’ve just been to a Fellini movie that’s life real life -- six dudes dressed like Diana Ross. If we do a song called “I’m Coming Out,” to the gay community it’s gonna be like James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”! And Bernard said, ‘Huh?’ But the next day I played him the song and he was like, ‘Oh, I dig that!’”
The evening then wrapped with Rodgers’ inimitable funk guitar leading the house band through “Le Freak,” and finally joined by the Sisters for a rousing “We Are Family” -- which, for both the performers and the room, was a perfect and symbolic finale.