When it comes to star power, few music industry events can match the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame gala in New York.
Held in a more intimate setting than the Grammys — the June 18 event takes place once again in a ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis — the induction dinner will nonetheless feature a guest list on par with the Recording Academy awards show. The attendees will gather to celebrate the core of creativity that drives the music business: the craft of songwriting.
At this year’s event:
• Van Morrison will receive the organization’s Johnny Mercer Award, named for the “Moon River” tunesmith who co-founded the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1969 with music publishers Abe Olman and Howie Richmond.
• Lady Gaga will be honored with the inaugural Contemporary Icon Award.
• Nate Ruess of Fun. will be presented with the Hal David Starlight Award, an honor given to a rising young songwriter and named for the late lyricist who was known for his hitmaking partnership with Burt Bacharach and his longtime chairmanship of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
• John LoFrumento, the recently retired CEO of ASCAP, will be honored with the Visionary Leadership Award.
• The hall of fame will welcome its 2015 class of inductees: country hitmaker Bobby Braddock, late blues icon Willie Dixon, songwriting partners Robert Hunter and the late Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, country star Toby Keith, ’80s pop chart-topper Cyndi Lauper and Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes, who has written hits for Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Gwen Stefani, James Blunt, Dixie Chicks and others.
The evening’s lineup of performers and presenters includes Tony Bennett, Benny Blanco, Zac Brown, Michael Buble, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ledisi, Ne-Yo, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, Bernie Taupin and Paul Williams.
Ahead of the gala, five of the inductees offered stories behind the hits they’ve written or recorded:
“I Want to Talk About Me”
Recorded by Toby Keith
Chart peak No. 1, Hot Country Songs, November 2001
“I happened to have this friend — she’s normally a very good conversationalist, but her assistant had gotten fired, so she had a double load of work. Whenever I talked to her, that was all she was talking about. It felt like the conversation was one-sided. So that gave me the idea to write the song. I sang it for her over the phone and she didn’t say much. But the next day she called me and said, ‘Was that song about me?’ And I said, ‘That’s right.’ I took the song [originally written for Blake Shelton] to producer James Stroud and he did it with Toby.”
After the song went to No. 1 for Keith, says Braddock, “Blake would not let me forget that.”
“Should’ve Been a Cowboy”
Chart peak No. 1, Hot Country Songs, June 1993
“Harold Shedd had signed me to Mercury Records and he said, ‘Don’t quit writing on me just because you have a record deal.’ So, I was on a pheasant-hunting trip with about 20 other dudes. We all went into this bar after the hunt, still in our hunting clothes. There was a highway patrolman with us named John. He decided to ask this cowgirl to dance. We said, ‘She’s dressed for the night and you’re in fatigues — you’ve been in the field all day.’ She shoots him down. Five minutes later, a cowboy cruises up and takes her right out on the dance floor. And I’m like, ‘John, you should’ve been a cowboy!’ Back in my hotel room, the guy I was rooming with was going to crash, so I took my guitar into the bathroom and shut the door. Twenty minutes later, I came out with the song, ready to record. It ended up being my first single.”
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
Written by Robert Hazard
Chart peak No. 2, Billboard Hot 100, March 1984
“‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is a great song. It’s a [call] for all girls of all colors who can and should have a joyful experience. Every human being has that right to find their joy and have their fun. It wasn’t ‘girls just want to have sex,’ it was ‘girls just want to have fun.’ And that, to me, was something worth working really hard on. I sang ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ in so many keys, I sang ‘All Through the Night’ in so many keys, I sang ‘Money Changes Everything’ in so many keys. And then [‘Girls’] wound up in F sharp, and everyone was like, ‘It can’t be in F sharp. How are you going to play it?’ For that time and that moment, the key, message and feeling of fun came together. [In the studio], I even asked Rob [Hazard] to play a sound that reminded me of a radio commercial that aired during the summer when I was growing up [in New York], for Raceway Park — [it was a place like] the Rockaways or Coney Island, where people would go to have fun.”
Recorded by Christina Aguilera
Chart peak No. 2, Billboard Hot 100, February 2002
“The song meant something different than when Christina took it. It was darker — it was like, ‘I am not [beautiful].’ I don’t write lyrics down; they just show up with the song. Everything shows up together as if it was prewritten and I’m just pushing ‘play.’ The words ‘I am beautiful’ came out and I stopped — I took my hands off the piano and I thought, ‘What? I can’t say that! I don’t believe that at all.’ And I was like, ‘Just go with it, Linda.’ Then when Christina came to my house, she said, ‘I’m nervous. Can you play me a song to break the ice? I’d love to hear you sing.’ Because I just wrote ‘Beautiful’ and finalized the lyrics, I sang that to her. When I was done, she said, ‘Can you demo that for me and write out the lyrics? Because I want that.’ I thought, ‘No, no, no. This is my song. You can’t sing this song — you are beautiful. I wrote it for me.’ The next day, Christina came in and started singing it, and I saw her vulnerability because, at the very beginning, she looked at her friend [who was there] and whispered, ‘Don’t look at me.’ I knew then that the song was hers. It’s about inner beauty. She made it a hit because of the way she approached it.”
Recorded by Fun.
Chart peak No. 4, Adult Top 40, April 2013
“I knew I wanted [Fun.’s Some Nights album] to involve New York, so I rented an apartment in the Bowery, in Chinatown, one summer. We’d just gotten signed to a major label and I was starting to feel a little bit of pressure. But I didn’t end up writing very much — I just ended up getting day drunk and watching Lost. One night there was a storm, and since I was smoking cigarettes at the time, I went out into the middle of it. I was like, ‘If you’re going to get me, come get me.’ And right then I started writing ‘Carry On.’ I had been writing about a friend who was -dealing with alcoholism, as well as some of the rough situations in my life — relationship problems and dealing with mortality. I was sitting there in the middle of this storm and it’s not knocking me over — so I’ve got nothing to do but carry on. It was money well spent to be in that apartment for two months and have written that one song. It was a magical thing. That’s why, toward the end of it, I talk about the sun coming out. You can weather the storm and eventually the sun will come — that’s the whole ‘Carry On’ theme.”