When the pioneering all-female hard rock band the Runaways broke up in early 1979, no one took the prospects of a 20-year-old Joan Jett‘s solo career seriously.
To state the obvious, the industry underestimated her. Thirty-five years and numerous top 40 Hot 100 hits later, Jett is credited as one of the most influential female rockers of all time and is once again up for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
On Thursday night at Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom, Jett was honored as Rocker of the Year at the annual Little Kids Rock charity benefit, which ended up raising $1.5 million to provide free music education (and instruments) to more than 135,000 low-income public school children.
Although it was a desire to give the gift of musical expression to disadvantaged kids that brought the crowd together, it was Jett’s music that ruled the night (although the pre-teens who blazed through an impeccable cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” pre-show deserve special mention).
Jett’s mentors, peers and followers were in attendance at the event to cover her songs and pay homage to her career. Billie Joe Armstrong, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Kathleen Hanna & Ad-Rock, Darlene Love, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, Tommy James, Steven van Zandt (one of the organization’s key supporters) and others performed her songs.
“The people who came out tonight were unbelievable,” Jett tells Billboard, saying it was “surreal” to see artists she grew up loving singing her songs. “I can’t even take it in yet, but in the middle of the night, I’ll be freaking out. It was so beautiful.”
Billie Joe Armstrong joined Jett for a duet on “Don’t Abuse Me,” while Alice Cooper came out to trade verses on his slinkly “Be My Lover,” a song she covered in 1990 that they’d never sang together before Thursday night.
But the highlight of the evening might’ve been when Tommy James and Jett combined forces to sing his “Crimson and Clover,” a major hit for both artists, albeit 14 years apart. “This was the first time we performed the song together,” Jett says. “And actually, we never even met. This was the first time.”
Elsewhere during the night, Cheap Trick tore through “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” a Jett hit that the band says reminds them of their own material. “She stole it from us!” lead singer Robin Zander jokes to Billboard.
“We did a lot of shows with the Runaways in the ’70s,” Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen says. “We’ve known Joanie since she was 15.” Bassist Tom Petersson flips through his phone to show me a vintage pic of himself goofing around with Jett backstage in the ’70, laughing to remember there was a Cheap Trick/Runaways show that featured Tom Petty as the third-billed artist at one point. “We’ve known a lot of people a long while, but it’s more than that with Joan,” Nielsen says. “She’s a special one.”
Darlene Love — the (sometimes uncredited) voice behind some of Phil Spector’s most essential girl group hits — also paid homage to Jett at Hammerstein, belting out a cover of the 1988 hit “Little Liar” with the same wall-shaking energy she displayed in the recent Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
“It’s a wonderful song,” Love tells Billboard prior to the show. “It’s about a girl in love with this guy and she knows he’s a liar but she still loves him. Joan’s songs sound like they were written today.”
As a longtime friend of Steven van Zandt (he’s producing her upcoming album), Love had performed at Little Kids Rock for five years in a row, but was planning on skipping this year — until she found out Jett was involved.
“I didn’t think we’d be able to do this because of my schedule, but when they told me they were honoring Joan, I was like, ‘We’ll find time,'” Love says, adding they’ve known each other for years (Jett’s longtime manager, Kenny Laguna, was once Love’s manager). “So this is a love thing I’m doing tonight.”
The Rock Hall of Famer tells Billboard she’s stayed active in Little Kids Rock because she loves watching the charitable efforts pay off. “You wanna see kids’ eyes light up? One year I went to the school when they brought the box [of instruments] and it was like Christmas,” Love tells Billboard. “Why is it when the government takes away something from schools, they start with the arts like it doesn’t matter. Kids need a release, and that’s what music is.”
“A lot is taken out of school curriculum due to budget cuts,” Cheap Trick’s Nielsen echoes. “But to squash violence, music and the arts always help. Life isn’t just texting people. When you take music out of the school system, it’s not good.”
That being said, Nielsen admits with a smile that he was kicked out of band in seventh grade.
Speaking of badass, Jett’s next move is a clothing line she designed with Hot Topic and Tripp NYC. “It’s pants, jackets, sweater and a shirt,” Jett says. “It’s women’s clothing, but my band wears women’s clothes, so they’ll wear it.”