“Unbelievable!” “Inconceivable!” “Awesome!” Songwriters are usually pretty skilled and savvy at coming up with clever phrases when crafting songs. But when your lyrics, melody and dedication to your art reward you with an induction into the elite company of your heroes, it’s understandable that you may be at a loss for words. Such was the case for nearly all of the songwriters honored at the 2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, held last night at NYC’s Marriott Marquis.
This year’s inductees include smooth R&B songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Motown founder and songwriter Berry Gordy, Atlanta-based producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Chicago band members Robert Lamm & James Pankow, Swedish pop wizard Max Martin, and hip-hop titan Shawn “Jay Z” Carter. Special awards were given to composer Alan Menken (the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award), Ed Sheeran (the Hal David Starlight Award for young talent), Pitbull (the first-ever Global Ambassador Award) and music publisher Caroline Bienstock (the Abe Oleman Publisher Award).
Shawn “Jay Z” Carter was a no-show due to the imminent birth of twins with his wife Beyonce. In a surprise video appearance, though, former President Barack Obama congratulated him on his induction and for being the first hip-hop artist inducted to the Hall. “I’m pretty sure I’m still the only President to listen to Jay Z’s music in the Oval Office. Nobody who met us as younger men would have expected us to be where we are today.” Jay Z’s devotion to family wasn’t limited to staying close at home, as his mother, grandmother and extended family were in the audience enjoying the festivities. Warner Chappell Music Publishing CEO Jon Platt accepted the award for Carter. “If Jay would have been here tonight, he would have wanted to sit right between both of you (mother and grandmother) because you are two of the most important people in his life.” Platt also commented Jay “understands how important it is that he’s becoming the first rap artist to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And he also knows that so many came before him that didn’t get this opportunity and didn’t receive this honor. You see, when it comes to the industry’s biggest honors, the hip-hop community has a very long history of being told “You’re not songwriters,” “You’re not quite there yet,” “It’s not your time yet.” Well, to all the songwriters and artists from our community and our generation, Jay would want you to know that this induction is a signal that your time has come and your time is now. “
It may seem odd that music legend Berry Gordy isn’t already in the Hall. In fact, he is, for his publishing acumen, a lifetime achievement award, and a pioneer award. But this year’s induction, for his songwriting prowess, was the one that meant the most to him. In a long and humorous speech, Gordy, whose short list of hits include Jackie Wilson’s “Reet Petite,” Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” detailed how every time he was told he was being honored in prior years he would say “it’s for my songwriting, right” only to be told it was for his other skills. “It’s about time!” he exclaimed. “Most people think I got this award many years ago but that’s not the case. Songwriting is my first love and protecting that love was the motivation for everything else I did.”
Jon Bon Jovi kicked off the evening’s festivities and paid tribute to Max Martin with a stripped down piano/acoustic guitar/violin performance of his 2000 hit “It’s My Life” co-written with Martin. Martin, who interestingly began his career as a metal singer before venturing into pop songwriting and production, marveled at the fact that one of his childhood heroes was inducting him. “That’s unbelievable!”
Hal David Starlight recipient Ed Sheeran took to the stage accompanied only with his acoustic guitar and sang “Castle On The Hill” off his current release Divide. Longtime friend and songwriting cohort Benny Blanco, who previously received the award in 2013, spoke of Sheeran’s dedication and strong work ethic. “This guy works harder than anyone I’ve ever known in the music. Hands down.” A humble Sheeran thanked those who voted for him, adding “the happiest moments in my life are when I’m writing songs.”
In accepting his award, Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds marveled at the power of music. “Songwriting is like a religious experience. You don’t choose it. It chooses you. It’s a calling.” It’s amazing, he said, “that I, Kenny Edmonds, this little black kid from Indianapolis, Indiana, wrote a song and somebody in Kansas is singing the words to it right now.” Johnny Gill, formerly of New Edition, nearly stole the show with a passionate and energetic performance of Babyface’s “My, My, My.” The segment, complete with a false ending, climaxed with Gill running into the audience amid swooning women fanning themselves and the performer.
Usher performed a medley of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s hit songs. “They believe in dreams and developing songwriters,” he said. The duo then joined the house band and performed two songs “Human” and “Sensitivity.” Jazz chantreuse Cassandra Wilson performed a sultry version of “Fever” in honor of music publisher Caroline Bienstock.
Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Robert Lamm and James Pankow were feted by Pat Monahan of Train, who sang “Just You ‘N Me” before turning it over to Lamm, who had the audience singing along to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” On the red carpet before the event Lamm discussed his band’s longevity and success. “After fifty years we’re still selling out arenas. I think our music clicks with people of all generations. That’s the barometer I have.”
Alan Menken, whose primary work is in the visual field as a film score composer and has won multiple Academy, Grammy and Tony Awards, received the 2017 Johnny Mercer Award from friend and actress Whoopi Goldberg. “When I see the list of honorees before me it’s inconceivable to me that I am receiving this award.” Menken then took to the piano and ran through a small sampling of memorable numbers, including selections from Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Little Shop of Horrors and more.
Pitbull received the Global Ambassador Award and brought a message of unity through music. The international and worldwide recording artist recounted his Cuban background and the struggles his parents had leaving the country and settling in Miami. “To put me in this room is priceless. It’s a true fairytale. Let’s take music and create our own freedom.”