NEW YORK—Sting sang a feisty “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Lou Gramm shared a stage together for the first time in a decade, and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry delivered a spiky “Walk This Way” at the 2013 Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies here Thursday night (14).
Sure, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is great, but many musicians say the hall they really want to join is the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It’s much less glitzy and has no museum (yet) to show off its wares, but to be considered a songwriter in the same company as greats like Bacharach & David, Leiber & Stoller, Bob Dylan, Holland/Dozier/Holland and Jimmy Webb is what many songwriters consider to be a career pinnacle.
That spirit was evident at the ceremony at New York’s Marriott Marquis. In addition to Tyler and Perry and Jones and Gramm, other inductees included songwriters Holly Knight, JD Souther, and Tony Hatch.
“For all the awards we ever got, this is the one,” Tyler said, accepting with Perry by his side. He talked about the process of songwriting, and how Perry’s “licks and leads...would tell me what to sing. It’s been a crazy ride. Music is the strongest drug there is. This [award] is the one that means everything to us.”
Similarly, John and Taupin, who received the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award, an honor given to songwriters previously inducted in the Hall, acknowledged the giants who had come before them, who now sat right in front of them. “To be in the room with Jimmy Webb, he was our idol,” said John. “Smokey Robinson was our idol. To be in the same room fills me with humility, joy and pride. Songwriting takes you around the world. When you write a song, it’s like giving birth to a child.” He also joked that in their 46-year partnership, he and Taupin had never fought. “We may have had an argument about what I was wearing,” he said, “but not about songs...he’s one of the loves of my life.”
In one of the evening’s most humorous speeches, producer/songwriter Benny Blanco received the Hal David Starlight Award, which honors an up-and-coming talent. Blanco inducted by previous recipient Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas, has co-written a slew of hits, including Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” Maroon 5/Christina Aguilera’s “Moves Like Jagger,” Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” and Wiz Khalifa’s “Work Hard, Play Hard,” which Khalifa performed at the ceremony.
“I almost peed in my pants,” said Blanco, as he took the stage, joking that the award was far beyond anything he had ever aspired too. “All my life, I thought I was aiming high for McDonald’s employee of the month award.” He described songwriting as “about being yourself, spilling your guts and hoping no one locks you up for what you said. Songwriting’s a drug and I’m probably going to smoke it until the day I die.” He shook his head, looked around, at the songwriting royalty before him and remarked his incredulity about being “in a room [with people] I should probably be serving food to.”
The highlight of the evening was a reunion between Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Lou Gramm, which turned from slightly awkward at the acceptance podium, after being inducted by Billy Joel, to brotherly as the two performed together for the first time since Gramm left the band in 2003.
They warmed up with a well-received “Jukebox Hero,” but really hit their stride with a moving rendition, backed by a full choir, of “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Gramm, who suffered from a benign brain tumor years ago, sounded startlingly strong and clear, bringing the crowd to its feet during the song and for a long standing ovation.
Other standouts included Alison Krauss, who delivered an angelic, poignant version of Souther’s “Faithless Love,” a tune originally made famous by Linda Ronstadt, and Jordin Sparks’ moving rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which received the Towering Song Award. President Bill Clinton inducted the civil rights tune via video.
For all their songwriting prowess, honoree after honoree tried to explain the unexplainable: the magical, inexplicable alchemy that creates a song. Perhaps Souther said it best when he described songwriting is like “trying to start a car on ice...you have no idea how you did it.”