Elliott, in tears, gets inducted
Justin Timberlake stops in mid-sentence. “Aw man, y’all didn’t tell me Bette Midler was gonna be right here in the front! Now I’m nervous – first y’all make me follow Patti LaBelle, now this?” Yep. Justin Timberlake – arguably the most talented song and dance man working today, but honored tonight for his songwriting – was nervous.
So it goes at the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a diverse blockbuster roster of inductees, honorees and luminaries paying tribute. In addition to Timberlake, the evening’s honorees were Missy Elliott, Yusuf (a.k.a. Cat Stevens), Halsey, John Prine, Tom T. Hall, Atlanta hip-hop maven Dallas Austin, Carole Bayer Sager, legendary publisher Martin Bandier and Eagles collaborator Jack Tempchin; performers and presenters included Jack Antonoff, Sara Bareilles, Benny Blanco, Clive Davis, Jermaine Dupri, Jason Isbell, Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Timbaland, and Nile Rodgers. (Midler was there as a guest of Sager.) Pressure? What pressure?
Also, Elliott drew the night’s biggest “Oooh!”s when she got a tribute video from Michelle Obama, and for veterans of the show, one of the night’s biggest surprises came when its CEO and longtime leader – and godmother – Linda Moran not only received an award honoring her service to the organization, the publicity-shy PR exec actually came onstage to accept it (it didn’t hurt that her three grandsons accompanied her onstage).
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves on a five-odd-hour-long night when there was a lot to get ahead of. As we say every year, the SHOF is a combination awards show and family reunion – while it has the structure of a traditional awards show it has none of its trappings. Inductees are recognized not for their popularity or their physical appearance or abilities or instrumental prowess: It’s purely on the basis of the one thing (er, except money) without which the music industry would not exist – the song itself. At this event, performers are both less self-conscious – it’s not televised or open to the general public – and a hell of a lot more self-conscious: What’s more nerve-wracking than performing in front of a packed room of peers and insiders?
Yet as always, everyone stepped up. The evening kicked off with a bang as Austin was inducted by fellow Atlanta R&B pioneer Jermaine Dupri, who had the audience dancing with a tight DJ set that included Austin hits like three TLC’s “Creep”, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)”, Monica’s “Like This and Like That”, Madonna’s “Secret”, and Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly”. Austin thanked a long list of friends and collaborators and singled out Dupri: “We built Atlanta on our backs, track by track,” he said.
Next up was Lukas Nelson – Willie’s singer-songwriter son – who inducted Eagles collaborator Jack Tempchin with a smooth version of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (he was great, but Jeff Bridges as the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” would have been amazing), followed by Tempchin leading the band into another early Eagles smash, “Already Gone”.
Legendary music publisher Martin Bandier – former head of Sony/ATV, EMI and SBK – was presented with the Visionary Leadership Award by two of his biggest contemporary signees, Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff. The pair teamed up for an acoustic version of Bareilles’ “Brave” – she played piano while Antonoff plucked on a guitar – but their chemistry became clearer when they started speaking. They joked about Bandier’s former cigar habit – as they tried to spot him in the audience, Antonoff said, “Follow the cigar smoke!” – and Bareilles said he was “one of the first people I met in this industry who told me I could do anything I set my mind to,” which Antonoff echoed by saying, “people who will give someone a shot before it makes sense to are everything – he cared about my songs.” Bandier, who stepped down as chief of Sony/ATV earlier this year, gave a wistful speech, saying “I’ve been away from the business for two months and I miss things like this” – but concluded, characteristically, with a plug for Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” film, which he and Sony/ATV worked on extensively. “Don’t miss it!,” he cracked, “Sony/ATV could use the money.”
Dave Matthews took the stage to induct Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) with a moving rendition of “Father and Son”. He too spoke of nerves, drawing laughs by saying, “This is the kind of evening that makes me want to throw up on myself, but I didn’t ask details because I’m such a fan of the man who wrote that song.” He said upon hearing Yusuf’s music when he was young, “I felt like it was possible to be a songwriter.” Yusuf then took the stage and played a newer song, “Roadsinger”, and gave a heady speech about his life and career, ranging from his recovery from two near-death experiences to his conversion to Islam, saying, “Most of my songs were about the journey, the search for meaning. Songwriting is such an amazing thing, it enables you to draw on all of life’s possibilities.”
Hitmaker Benny Blanco took to the stage to honor his close friend Halsey with the Hal David Starlight Award, which is presented to young songwriters who are making a significant impact in the music industry with their original songs. He spoke of her drive and her talent – “We’ll be in the studio and I’ll go the bathroom and come back five minutes later and she’s written the entire song” – and said she’s “superhuman in everything she does.”
Halsey, who also spoke of being nervous, made some characteristically revealing and vulnerable comments about how the character Halsey is “tall and confident and brave, the best version of myself – but before I can be my best I have to be my worst: A 24-year-old girl from New Jersey named Ashley Frangipane, who’s nervous, self-critical and terrified. And that’s exactly why I invented Halsey: Ashley doesn’t get awards like this.” (RTRS)
By Jem Aswad