In the men’s room of New York's Marriott Marquis hotel just before the start of the 46th annual Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, one man said, “Anyone know any jokes?” Another replied, “I got a check from Pandora for $1.89 -- for six million plays.”
He was joking, or at least exaggerating, but only just: Few have borne the brunt of the music industry’s shrinking revenue more than songwriters. And while this evening is the apex of each year for the songwriting community, a longed-for accolade for so many superstars -- both Toby Keith and Nate Reuss said that all their other awards pale in comparison to an SHOF award -- and it was, as always, a joyful and honoring event, songwriters getting their due was a frequent theme of many of the onstage comments.
For this event is the great equalizer for songwriters: You meet someone briefly and not realize who they are, and suddenly it’ll dawn on you, “That was Bobby Braddock, he wrote ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ and ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’" and two hours later, there’s Jennifer Nettles onstage speaking about him in awestruck tones before singing one of his songs.
The show, which takes months to organize, features performers and songwriters paying tribute to each other, and while the standards are always high, each year is guaranteed to have at least one jaw-dropping moment, and usually a couple. The highlights this year? Stephen Colbert making a surprise appearance to induct Toby Keith, and Lady Gaga and Linda Perry inducting each other and performing each other’s songs, and Zac Brown paying tribute to Grateful Dead songwriters Robert Hunter (who was present) and the late Jerry Garcia.
The evening’s performances opened with one of the more unexpected tributes in recent SHOF history: blues legend Willie Dixon being inducted by powerhouse soul singer Ledisi and, er, Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora. Backed by the always-stellar house band, they tore through a medley of "I Just Want to Make Love to You"/"Hoochie Koochie Man" /"Spoonful" / "Wang Dang Doodle." Ledisi killed it; Sambora did better than you might expect. A spoken tribute from Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin followed, spiked with the bombastic, if apt, words that often bedeck his lyrics: “Willie was an absolute titan, a colossus of composition, an architect who wrote the blueprint for a thousand fledgling bands… I think of Willie as the Shakespeare of the blues” (you get the idea). The award was graciously accepted by Dixon’s daughter Jacqueline, who said, “My dad was such a humble man that I don’t think he ever would have imagined being recognized by the best of the best in the industry.”
Next up, Carly Rae Jepsen inducted “my personal hero” Cyndi Lauper with a breathy and respectful take on “Time After Time,” nailing the high notes on the chorus despite not having Lauper’s firepower (few do). Lauper performed "Hatful of Stars," finishing by tossing her glitter-filled hat out into the crowd.
Opening her acceptance speech with a comically nasal “Wow,” a tearful Lauper thanked many people from her 30-plus year career, concluding by saying, “I still can’t believe that I can make a living making music. People always say,” she adopted a granny tone, “That’s very nice, what do you do for a living?”
To anyone at all familiar with the longstanding and fierce rivalry between ASCAP and BMI, the sight of the former’s president/chairman Paul Williams and the latter’s CEO Michael O’Neill approaching the stage together was comically incongruous, and not just because they’re easily a foot apart in height, but also because they were there to honor recently retired ASCAP CEO John LoFrumento, who’d held the post for 33 years. O’Neill opened by joking “I was so excited when they asked me to honor J-Lo -- whoops, different J-Lo!” before elegantly praising LoFrumento’s work “not just for ASCAP writers but for all songwriters.”
Ne-Yo -- whom Williams singled out as someone “who always says yes when we ask him to join us in Washington and speak to Congress,” came up and did an energetic version of “Make Me Better,” clad in a designer t-shirt, blue jacket and black porkpie hat.
“Where’s my buddy John?,” he said, greeting LoFrumento with a big hug.
During LoFrumento’s gracious acceptance speech, it was slightly distracting to see Lady Gaga walk up to the sound-engineer’s platform at the back of the hall and speak with him, but that was nothing compared to what came next: Stephen Colbert, clad in a black Stetson hat and a denim jacket with a fake-fur collar, performing Toby Keith’s “As Good As I Once Was” and then inducting him with a hilarious speech recalling Keith's first appearance on his show.
"My favorite part was of the night was, as the Big Dog was leaving out the stage door and I was going to the rewrite room -- this was very early on in my show and he didn't know what he was in for, I guess -- he turned around to me and he said, 'Hey man, you do a great job … whatever the f--- it is you do.'
"I was sincerely, deeply moved by that comment, so much so that my executive producer -- this is true -- had it stitched on a pillow for me for Christmas," he said, holding up said pillow.
Keith’s long and touching acceptance speech highlighted one of the night’s themes: “We used to make good money doing this,” he said. “That royalty money might change [a songwriter’s] life and protect his family.”
“This award tonight is the only thing I’ve ever wanted … it’s the only award that I would show in my house.”
He then played a song dedicated to his grandmother, nicknamed Clancy, who ran the bar where he first played with a band.
Next up, Lady Gaga, clad in a red velvet jacket, patterned stockings, halter top, round sparkly sunglasses and clompy boots, paid tribute to Linda Perry with a deliriously over-the-top version of Perry’s first hit, “What’s Up?,” the 1992 song she recorded with her band Four Non-Blondes. Gaga seemed in danger of damaging her voice, emoting hard on the verses and the soaring chorus.
“I can personally say it was my dream to someday be like Linda Perry,” Gaga said. “Four Non Blondes was the first album my father ever gave me. He said ‘this is what the kids at the office are into,’ and I thought my dad was cool … The song that I just sang changed my life. Now, I say ‘isn’t that what a fucking hit song is about?’”
Perry said, “It’s a humbling and amazing journey when you write a song in your bedroom, and you’ve got no money, and you’re trying to write a song based on where you’re at right at this moment. My roommate came out from having sex with her girlfriend and said ‘What was that? Bring it to rehearsal!’ And that song was ‘What’s Up.’ And now one of the biggest recording artists just sang it. It’ll never get old to hear a song that I wrote on the radio, or to hear what someone experienced what they heard a song I wrote… And you will be hearing a song about how I’m feeling right now.”
She then sat at the piano and performed “Beautiful,” her 2001 hit for Christina Aguilera, her voice as strong as ever, the solo setting bringing forth the song’s strong resemblance to Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
The Towering Song award is given to a different classic each year, and this year’s was Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong. The version played tonight by Dr. John was a New Orleans’ed-up take that was monstrously funky in that was only the Doctor can deliver. He moved slowly to the piano, aided by two feather and bangle-bedecked canes, laying down a driving groove that made the song forget its introspective mood and party, embellishing the end with a jazzy, soulful piano solo. It was probably the night’s best musical performance.
The Starlight Award goes to the best up-and-coming songwriter, and tonight’s honoree was Nate Reuss of Fun. Hit songwriter Benny Blanco introduced him by telling a story about the first time he heard Reuss. “I remember sitting in [former Elektra Records chief] John Janick’s office, and you know when you hear one of those songs that’s so f---in’ good you just get mad? That’s how I felt.”
Reuss gave a slightly awkward speech, concluding by saying, “This basically means more to me than any award I’ve ever received… people like me as a singer they don’t like me as talker, so I’m gonna do what I do best.” He then bounded up to the mic and burst loudly into "Great Big Storm" from his new LP, Grand Romantic.
Next up, Jennifer Nettles paid tribute to country songwriting great Bobby Braddock -- the only writer to have a country No. 1 in five consecutive decades -- performing a show-stopping version of his George Jones hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” that she “remembers hearing as a little girl in my great grandfather’s El Camino,” describing the song’s sad subject matter by saying “What we do so well [in country music] is take broken things and make beautiful mosaics out of them.” Braddock, interestingly, talked about being influenced by not just Hank Williams but also Ray Charles and the Beatles, and then played the song that he said got him saddled with the status of “starting bro-country”: the rap song “I Wanna Talk About Me.”
Zac Brown inducted the Grateful Dead songwriting duo of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter with a jaunty take on “Casey Jones,” and then ceded the stage to Hunter, who gave a slightly spacey speech in which he said things like “A song cannot emerge in any time but its own” and “It can take a lifetime to grasp that or an instant, whichever is longer.” He was joined by Garcia’s daughter Trixie.
Hunter, the Grateful Dead’s “non-performing member,” then accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for a version of “Ripple,” the crowd clapping along.
Linda Perry came back and sat at the piano for a slow, somber take of Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” then introduced Tony Bennett, seemingly fully recovered from the ailment that led him to cancel a London show with Gaga earlier this month. He gave a brief introduction -- “I’m here to introduce my wonderful friend, the one and only Lady Gaga!” and then stood motionless waiting for her to take the stage. “… Will somebody tell her that she just got an award?” She gradually made her way through the tables to the stage, clad this time in a black-and-white striped suit, giving a long and gracious speech.
“I thought I would know what to say when I got up here, but I didn’t realize how much it would affect me hearing Linda sing my song,” she said. “It was something out of a childhood dream or a fantasy, because what I was thinking when I was sitting there and my mom was handing me napkins: ‘If they only knew how many bad songs I wrote before that one.’
She concluded by saying, “I’ve had some ups and downs and in-betweens, but you’ve chosen to honor me for the only thing that I know I have, which is my heartbeat: that I write songs.”
Finally, Michael Buble came out to honor Van Morrison with a version of “Moondance” with an Atlantic City-style treatment that was heavy on fingersnapping and schmaltz. But things improved when Morrison himself came out.
Clad in a dark suit, green shirt and tinted glasses, he said:
“I don’t have a very longwinded speech; I like to let the songs speak for themselves. Hits come and go but performance money hopefully goes on (laughter) and helps you through the lean and mean times. But you still have to keep at it, because you don’t always have it. But I wanna thank Michael for coming all the way from Vancouver to be here and do this job. He said, can he do anything for me? I said, ‘Can you put two of my songs, my new ones, on your next recording?’ He said yes! So the name of the game is: hustle.”
The pair then performed a rocked up version of “Real Gone,” but Van’s words made a perfect end to the evening.