It was fitting that the 75-year old classic “Over the Rainbow” from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was honored with the Towering Song Award at the 45th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards last night at NYC’s Marriott Marquis. The lyrics speak of hope and a place where “the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” Many successful songwriters are wizards behind the curtain, toiling anonymously while creating towering, impressive bodies of work. So when the curtain is pulled back and the spotlight shines on them for a moment, in a dreamland room filled with their songwriting peers no less- “a land that I heard of”- that hope becomes a real triumphant moment of gratification, which all the songwriting wizards who were honored readily acknowledged.
This year’s Hall of Fame inductees were Ray Davies, Donovan, Graham Gouldman, Mark James and Jim Weatherly. Philly Soul pioneers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (1995 Hall inductees) received the Johnny Mercer Award, the organization’s highest honor. And Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons was presented with the Hal David Starlight Award, given to young songwriters who are making a significant impact in the industry.
In his speech inducting Ray Davies of the Kinks, Jon Bon Jovi recalled the days when he was a young boy and the bond he found with Davies’ lyrics. “His lyrics took on the voice of the common man, with a perfect phrase you could relate to, whether you were a factory worker from Birmingham, England or a teenager growing up in blue-collar New Jersey.” The Kinks “flew under the radar” of some of the more popular British Invasion bands, he noted, but were a seminal influence on the guitar riff rock and punk scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Davies, who could not attend due to the passing of a family member, addressed the crowd in a video speech and acknowledged the importance of American music in his writing. Bon Jovi then performed a small sampling of classic Davies-penned songs, including “Celluloid Heroes,” “You Really Got Me,” “Low Budget” and “All Day and All of the Night.”
Mississippi native Jim Weatherly, who composed “Midnight Train To Georgia,” “Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye) and “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” was grateful for the good fortune his songs have brought him. “I always assumed that I would be a football coach. I started writing at a young age because I could. And I kept writing because I loved it. I never dreamed I would be in this Hall of Fame with all these great writers.”
The songwriter and production team of Gamble and Huff are responsible for creating the Philly Sound, which includes hits like “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “Love Train” and many more. Leon Huff recounted growing up and playing his mother’s records. “I used to look at the back of album covers and want to be in the studios like the pictures showed.” After he met Gamble, the two “went on a creative rampage. And fifty years later we’re still friends.” Gamble added, “after we’d get a good song on tape, we’d fall down laughing and say ‘man, where did that one come from?’ It’s so powerful. These songs last so long because they help people make it through the day.”
Martina McBride took on Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds,” made famous by Elvis Presley. James’ catalog also includes “Always On My Mind“ (recorded by many, including Willie Nelson) and “Hooked On A Feeling” (recorded by BJ Thomas and others). “When Elvis and Willie have Number One hits with your songs you know you are doing something right,” McBride commented.
Donovan’s acceptance speech was a poem he composed which incorporated his song titles and the need to “find ways to make love rhyme.” He performed “Catch The Wind” with Rosanne Cash and “Sunshine Superman.” Gouldman, who has written for The Yardbirds, Herman’s Hermits and his band 10cc, performed his classic “Bus Stop,” a hit for the Hollies.
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds spoke of how music brought him closer to his father and how he is continuing that tradition with his daughter. “Music can bring people together,” he said, before taking to the piano for a ballad rendition of his hit “Radioactive.”
As always, great songs in the hands of great artists bring great performances. In addition to the aforementioned performances, R&B artist Miguel delivered a steamy, soulful rendition of Gamble and Huff’s “Me and Mrs. Jones”; American Idol winner Candice Glover channeled Gladys Knight on Weatherly’s “Midnight Train To Georgia”; teen wunderkind Jackie Evancho interpreted the Harold Arlen/E.Y Harburg Towering Song Award standard “Over the Rainbow”; upcoming artist Cam debuted her song “Burning House”; and the duo A Great Big World honored Gouldman with an emotional version of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love.”
The major publishing rights organizations were also recognized throughout the evening, both by the Hall and many of the honorees. To honor ASCAP’s 100th anniversary, the crack house band swept through a medley of classic rock staples. A stylishly dressed Aloe Blacc sang his hit “Wake Me Up,” which is the most streamed song in Spotify’s history, according to ASCAP president Paul Williams. Broadway veteran Chita Rivera and rock pioneer Chubby Checker each commanded the stage with zest and an infectious high energy that belied their ages. Rivera, clad in a bright red dress, reprised her signature tune “America,” from West Side Story (written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim). An enthusiastic Checker, sharply dressed in a black suit and red shirt, was delighted to be on stage. Always a showman, he was a joy to watch as had the mostly older black-tie audience twisting and dancing back to their younger days with his performance of “Let’s Twist Again.”
Rosanne Cash paid tribute to Del Bryant, her long-time friend and outgoing president of BMI (which is celebrating its 75th anniversary), who was given the Visionary Leadership Award. Accompanied by her husband John Leventhal on piano, Cash gave a moving performance of “I Still Miss Someone,” written by her father Johnny Cash. Bryant, son of famed songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, acknowledged his family and the writers who have become his extended family, before addressing the need to protect the artists’ intellectual property. “The song creator must be recognized and appropriately compensated.”
Industry mogul Doug Morris was honored with the Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award, which recognizes a “star maker” in the industry who has been responsible for a substantial number of hit songs for an extended period. Jimmy Iovine presented Morris with the award. “He’s with you for the good and the bad. You want him on your side.” Morris, a songwriter himself in his early career, felt a kindred spirit with the artists. “I know the thrill of hearing your song on the radio and the pain of watching it fade off the charts.”
Song Hall chairman Jimmy Webb also announced a song competition sponsored by the organization, with the top prize including a publishing contract with Universal Music Publishing and an Epiphone Masterbilt guitar. “This is a real opportunity and it is our hope that the winner of this competition is a future Hall of Famer.”