For the esteemed songwriters selected to join the 51st class of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022, the wait is finally over.
Mariah Carey; Annie Lennox & Dave Stewart of Eurythmics; The Isley Brothers; Steve Miller; Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo of The Neptunes; Rick Nowels, who’s penned songs for artists including Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, John Legend and Belinda Carlisle; and William “Mickey” Stevenson, Berry Gordy’s Motown A&R chief whose writing credits include hits for Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and Martha & the Vandellas, will be feted in person at a gala Thursday (June 16) at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York.
This week’s event, originally scheduled for June 2020, will also see three honorees take the stage to accept special SHOF designations. Composer, singer, songwriter and ASCAP president Paul Williams will receive the Johnny Mercer Award, joining past recipients of the organization’s highest honor including Neil Diamond, Elton John & Bernie Taupin and Dolly Parton. The Abe Olman Publisher Award will be bestowed on Universal Music Publishing chairman/CEO Jody Gerson. And Lil Nas X will receive the Hal David Starlight Award, which was established to honor songwriters who are at an apex in their careers. The Sony Music Publishing writer follows previous Hal David honorees including Drake, Taylor Swift, Halsey and Ed Sheeran.
With a reputation for being one of the most highly sought-after tickets in the industry, the Songwriters Hall of Fame bucked the trend of the past pandemic-saturated years of award shows pivoting to a virtual format. The organization’s president and CEO, Linda Moran, told Billboard there was just no way to capture the magic of the room online.
“The gala’s finally happening after three years. It has had an intense and staggering effect on me and has left me feeling completely overwhelmed and amplified even more so, knowing that the gala is expected to be the catharsis for the songwriting and music publishing communities after life with COVID,” Moran says.
Despite logistical challenges spurred by the pandemic, the organization has powered ahead with various educational and interactive platforms. One such activation, the Songwriters Experience, a traveling museum in partnership with the Grammy Museum that celebrates the legacy of the SHOF, opened June 14 at the City University of New York (CUNY). Jimmy Jam, Toby Keith, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, Carole Bayer Sager and Diane Warren are among the featured songwriters.
As is tradition, Billboard caught up with many of this year’s honorees, who shared the stories behind some of their biggest hits. The following excerpts are from those conversations.
ANNIE LENNOX & DAVE STEWART, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
Recorded by: Eurythmics
Chart peak: No. 1, Billboard Hot 100, Sept. 3, 1983
Lennox: “Every time I think of making ‘Sweet Dreams’ I get a visual picture of working at the top, almost like we were inside the roof, of a picture framing factory near Camden market. It was a really good space for us because at that time it wasn’t so common for people to be recording in their bedrooms or small spaces. We recorded it on an 8-track, and it kind of confounds the rules of what makes a hit record. I love the simplicity of the recording. The fact is, on that day I was feeling very despondent and was thinking that I probably was going to have to go back to Scotland and face the fact that we couldn’t get a foothold into our dream. Our humor is based on a lot of irony. And so that line, ‘Sweet dreams are made of this,’ was a statement. It was negative, it was a comment on how we’d tried everything and nothing was good enough. It’s this kind of dystopian anthemic statement but at the same time, if someone wants to interpret it any way they like, if it’s a celebration, that’s fine. ‘Who am I to disagree,’ you see?”
Stewart: “Dance music was mainly based around the back beat, but ‘Sweet Dreams’ starts with a big boom. That first beat was actually the magic of a mistake. I was trying to operate this machine that we’d gotten, it was a prototype and it had this way you could tune the drum down, so I tuned it all the way down to the lowest it would go, and it just exploded and did that ‘Breumm’ on its own. I nearly had a heart attack. And then the bass drum with it, and I thought, ‘Oh this is actually sort of amazing.’ Annie leapt off of the floor because it was very loud and shocking, and within minutes she was playing the keyboard and within minutes after that she was singing. It was one of the fastest things we ever recorded. Within 15 or 20 minutes we had the shape of everything went down. And Annie’s lyrics just kept coming out.”
STEVE MILLER, “The Joker”
Recorded by: The Steve Miller Band
Chart peak: No. 1, Billboard Hot 100, Jan. 12, 1974
“The way it usually worked for me is I would develop the music first and then start trying different lyrics. ‘The Joker’ was a piece of music I had, and I used to play it on the acoustic guitar all the time, and it slowly grew. I got the bridge for it from another song. I work on a lot of music at the same time, that is my method. When ‘The Joker’ finally came together I was at a party out in Novato, Calif., and it was late at night and—this is true and I can’t believe I was doing this—it was a beautiful night out and I had a GTO convertible and I was sitting on the hood. I was leaning back against the windshield, looking up at the sky, playing the guitar when ‘I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker’ came into my head. And that was the moment when the song all came into focus. We went into the studio and recorded it pretty soon after that. It was just one of a bunch of songs I recorded; I didn’t know it was going to be a hit. I went out to do a 60-city tour, and when I started the tour I was kind of mad at my record company because I was hitting a lot of cities where they didn’t have our records in stores. This was the end of my contract with Capitol and they hadn’t said anything about renewing so I didn’t really know what my future was. When we left town I didn’t have any idea if I was still in business or not. It was a real crossroads in my life. We started the tour in Florida and played 60 cities coming back to San Francisco. By the time I got back three months later it was the No. 1 song in the country, and it was my first hit single. [Capitol] had been saying maybe ‘The Joker’ is a single and I was saying, don’t worry about singles, just get the album out to stores so we can sell albums. I was wrong, they were right, and here we are.”
RICK NOWELS, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”
Recorded by: Belinda Carlisle
Chart peak: No. 1, Billboard Hot 100, Dec. 5, 1987
“When I moved down to Los Angeles from San Francisco, Stevie Nicks heard a song of mine, ‘I Can’t Wait,’ that she wanted to record. It was my first credit. After that, Danny Goldberg and Ron Stone, who were Belinda’s managers, gave me a meeting with Belinda and she hired me to produce her next album, her second solo album after she left The Go-Go’s. They assumed because I had a hit with Stevie Nicks, I knew how to write a hit for Belinda. But the truth is I had never tried writing for anybody else in my life. I’d only written for my own bands. It was a tall order, and there was no A&R involvement. So I called my friend Ellen Shipley in New York and said please come out to California, we need to write this for Belinda. The bar was pretty high. She had ‘Mad About You’ and [with the Go-Go’s] ‘We Got the Beat’ and ‘Our Lips Are Sealed.’ So I had to write a hit song as good as those songs. Ellen and I went to my little 16-track studio and in the first week we wrote ‘Heaven Is A Place on Earth.’ Belinda loved it, and I put some others together for the album. I basically A&R’d the whole album. We went into the studio and we cut the song with a live band. After working on it I realized I didn’t make the verses strong enough, so Ellen and I quietly went back and rewrote the song. It can be tricky, but when Belinda heard it she liked it. After we finished it, I remember we were mixing the record and Irving Azoff, who was the head of MCA at the time, came by the studio and he said, ‘That’s a No. 1 song.’ So after all that hard work to have him say that was like, Wow. And then indeed it became a No. 1 song all around the globe.”
WILLIAM “MICKEY” STEVENSON, “Dancing in the Street”
Recorded by: Martha & The Vandellas
Chart peak: No. 2 (two weeks), Billboard Hot 100, Oct. 17, 1964.
“It was late at night and it was me, Ivy Jo [Hunter] and Marvin [Gaye]—the three of us are working in the studio writing ‘Dancing in the Street.’ The point was this song had to have a light feeling to it. And the artist I had in mind was Kim Weston, but she was a powerful singer. Marvin said, ‘What you going to do man?’ I said, ‘We’ll get my assistant to come down and do a demo. She’s been trying to get a recording deal and I can kill two birds with one stone. She can sing in the studio and I can get the demo.’ Martha was my assistant. I was auditioning up to 30 people every week looking for singers, writers, musicians—and Martha would show up constantly for singing. She was very patient, but we had enough girls on [Motown] and I wasn’t really interested. But she kept auditioning, and she got to know my secretary very well. One day I came back to my office and Martha was on my phone taking messages. And they came out great. I thought about it. I knew my girl was leaving and I said, ‘I think this is a plan, I’m sure my secretary let you in here for this purpose to show me you knew what you were doing.’ So I told her, ‘I won’t sign you as an artist but I need a secretary right away.’ I told her I work very late at night, and she said, ‘I leave when you leave.’ So she was there at 1 o’clock in the morning. We gave her the lyrics and she went on the mic. Ivy Jo had promised he wouldn’t cut his hair until he had a top 10 record. When she finished the song he said, ‘I can go get a haircut now.’ We knew right away Martha was the one. Marvin said, ‘You’ve got a problem. What are you going to do about Kim Weston?,’ who was my girlfriend at the time. I said, ‘You have to understand, this is my job. This is what I do.’ And sure enough, Kim gave me a hard time and was very upset with me. But Martha had the sound. I knew it was a hit. When God gives you that kind of gift, you’ve got to go for it.”
PAUL WILLIAMS, “Evergreen (Love Song From A Star Is Born)”
Recorded by: Barbra Streisand
Chart peak: No. 1 (three weeks), Billboard Hot 100, March 5, 1977
“In 1976 I was being fitted for a tuxedo at my house for what may have been the first time in my life, and my wife came in and said, ‘You have a call. It’s Barbra Streisand.’ We had never met or talked before. She had recorded a couple of my songs—’I Never Had It So Good’ and ‘I Won’t Last a Day Without You’—and she knew I wrote ‘You and Me Against the World’ with Kenny Ascher, a big hit with Helen Reddy. She said she was doing a remake of A Star Is Born with Kris Kristofferson, and there’s a scene in the movie where after he has died she finds a song he had written. And she wondered about me writing the song for the movie. That’s not what I heard. What I heard was, ‘We’d like you to work on all the songs for A Star Is Born.’ They sent me the script and I wrote down all these precise notes about where songs would go. None of which was invited into the conversation. We met up at her home in Malibu, and she and Jon Peters said, ‘We didn’t ask you for any of this.’ [But] at that first meeting Barbra picks up a guitar, which she’s just learning to play. This is something she hasn’t done before, played somebody a melody she’s written. She’s so talented, but there’s something wonderfully vulnerable when you’re showing someone a melody for the first time, sharing something you’ve created. There was a freshness, there was an innocence. And it’s gorgeous. And I said, ‘This is your love theme right there.’ So I started writing. When it was finally time for her to record it, I was at a private airport getting ready to go on tour with Olivia Newton-John for a few weeks, but I called Barbra and said, ‘You know what, the first line doesn’t sing very well… Love, fresh as the morning air. Morning is a closed sound, and easy chair just fit better. Love, soft as an easy chair.’ It just laid in there much better for the first line, so we changed it. I thought they’ll probably laugh at us for starting the song with a line about a chair, but I think it sings better.”