Every successful songwriter has a voice, a tonal center within that speaks to the world through music. It can be a whisper or loud and boisterous. It can be celebratory or tender and sentimental. It can tackle life’s difficult moments. But it can never be silenced by tragedy or hard times. The inductees and honorees at the 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards- Neil Diamond, John Mellencamp, Jermaine Dupri, Steve Dorff, Allee Willis, Bill Anderson, Alan Jackson and Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell, George Brown & James “JT” Taylor of Kool & The Gang, Sara Bareilles- have weathered life’s ups and downs through the years and reflected all of these emotions and more in their performances and speeches at last night’s festivities held at NYC’s Marriott Marquis.
Upon receiving the Johnny Mercer Award, the highest award of the evening and the third time he has received recognition from the Hall, Neil Diamond decided to let the music speak for itself, leading the crowd in an extended sing-along of “Sweet Caroline.” Diamond, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was in great form, showing no signs of the disease getting the best of him. He sprightly worked the entire stage and made the oft-covered and often-maligned song sound fresh and contemporary. On the red carpet prior to the event, he addressed his retirement: “I’m a little bored so I think I’ll have to go out and do some shows. Music is my passion.”
Actor Stephen Dorff inducted his father Steve Dorff with the comment “Once a songwriter in the shadows. Not anymore dad!” The elder Dorff was overcome with emotion as he reflected on the loss of his other son and fellow songwriter Andrew Dorff who passed away in 2016 at age 40. “He always told me I was his favorite songwriter,” he said, pausing as he caught himself in the moment. “And that one day I would be here accepting this highest honor.” Acknowledging his vocal limitations – “all you have to do is hear my voice and you’ll know why I’m never heard on the radio.” – Dorff nevertheless delivered one of the evenings most tear-inducing and moving performances with “Through The Years,” his not-perfect voice perfectly emoting the opening lines ‘I can’t remember when you weren’t there.’
Producer Keith Stegall paid tribute to his friend and longtime partner Alan Jackson. “Whether he was singing for one person or a million people, the only thing he ever really wanted to do was be a country music singer. Alan, you have written some of the greatest country music songs ever, the kind of work that George Jones, George Strait or Hank Williams would all be proud of. Songs that are traditional and more important, simple and true.”
Jackson, a self-proclaimed “singer of simple songs” riffed on how he pitched Clive Davis a song for Whitney Houston, which included some ordinary life moment observations only to have Davis tell him “Alan, I’ll be honest. I don’t think Whitney has seen a washing machine in fifteen years!” He turned introspective as well. “I’ve never had any agenda about writing or preaching. Most songs are about love or lost love, or drinking and having a party, or getting over a sad time. I’ve written about all of that. That’s what I like music to be. Most people I know are just trying to work, make a living, raise children and have a good time and enjoy life. Sometimes their lives are hard and they just want something that makes them feel good or gets them through a hard time. I try to write stuff that has affected me in my life and connects with my fans. Music is a relief at times.” Jackson appropriately ended his time on stage with a healing version of “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” a post-9/11 anthem.
John Mellencamp spoke of the urgency of living in the moment with a tale about his 98-year old grandmother seeing visions and getting ready to take both her and ‘Buddy’ (her nickname for him) back home to the Lord. “I’m not ready grandma. Buddy has more sinnin’ he plans on doing!” “Buddy,” she said, “you’re going to find out that life is short, even in its longest days.’ Those lyrics come from 2008’s “Longest Days” which he performed in a stark, somber setting, accompanied by longtime guitarist Andy York, who deftly maneuvered through the lyric with a simple droning bass tone. Mellencamp paired this song with his early classic “Jack and Diane,” with its simultaneously triumphant and fatalistic sing-along “oh yeah, life goes on/long after the thrill of living is gone.”
Country legend Bill Anderson, who earned the nickname ‘Whisperin’ Bill’ was anything but quiet. Clearly ecstatic to be in New York and inducted by his friend Steve Wariner, who performed “Tips of My Fingers,” Anderson’s speech was peppered with sage advice about lyric writing and country pearls of wisdom. Anderson concluded with an acknowledgment of the impact God has had on his career. “I held the pencil but He wrote the songs. And I firmly believe that.”
Jermaine Dupri was both taken aback and humbled by the significance of the award. “This is it. It don’t get no bigger than this room!” Kool and the Gang may be most known for their party hits “Celebration” (which they performed), “Get Down On It” and “Ladies Night” but they also cited their jazz background and the importance of seminal records by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others in shaping their career.
Sara Bareilles was recognized with the Hal David Starlight Award for promising younger songwriters and performed “She Used To Be Mine,” an emotional song from her musical Waitress, which touched on reconciling the past. In addition, record executive Sir Lucian Grainge was presented with the Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award.
There was, of course, plenty of star power to ensure headlines and viral social media at this year’s Awards, including Usher, The Weeknd, Jason Mraz, Hamilton actor Brandon Victor Dixon, Fantasia and surprise appearances by Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey. But the true heart and soul of the evening resides in the musical voices of the inductees.
On the red carpet before the awards, American Songwriter chatted with a few of the honorees:
Allee Willis (September, Boogie Wonderland, Neutron Dance and I’ll Be There For You (Theme from Friends) on funky riffs and her Detroit musical upbringing.
Yes I do have funky riffs! It’s mostly from growing up in Detroit. I worshipped Motown and if you were a kid growing up in Detroit you really felt like it was your label. I loved hearing all the punk stuff like the Stooges but that was after me and I was kind of black through and through.
On writing September with Earth Wind & Fire.
It was the very first song I wrote with Maurice White. It was within five minutes of meeting each other. When I walked in, the band was working on the intro and I thought ‘please let this be the one they want me to work on!’ It was the happiest sounding thing I had ever heard. He knew it wanted it named September but that was all he knew. And it was the third song in a trilogy that he and Al McKay had already started. The first was “Sing A Song,” the second was “Best Of My Love” which the Emotions wound up recording. And if this was going to be the third song it had to beat them and take it into the stratosphere.
On writing “I’ll Be There For You” (Theme from Friends)
I wanted to get out of a publishing deal! I owed a seventh of a song and the publisher told me about a TV show that no one thought would be a hit that needed a theme. ‘Write this song and you’ll be out of your deal’ they said. I only did it so I could get out of writing songs because I was obsessed with the Internet, which I got into heavily in 1991. I was prototyping a social network back in 1992. I was packing it all in and didn’t want to work in linear, non-interactive stuff anymore.
Steve Dorff on writing “Through The Years”
It was a song Marty Panzer and I wrote. I always tell people we wrote in about 15 minutes and the reason I know that is because I called in to my wife and asked her how long it would be until dinner was ready. Marty handed me the lyric and I immediately started hearing what I thought was the song and we sat down at the piano and wrote it. Now, what it takes to get someone to hear it, record it and get it on the radio took about three and a half years.
On pitching songs
It’s always hard. Artists have their own team and writers. I live miracle to miracle. Fortunately I’ve had a bunch of miracles. You gotta pick yourself up and dust yourself off about 150 times a week in this business.
On working with George Strait
Pure Country was the catalyst for my George Strait collaborations. I had the song “I Cross My Heart” which was already eight years old at the time, passed over by just about everybody who heard it. I played it for George because the director of Pure Country loved the song. George was lukewarm on it until we recorded it and the rest took care of itself.
Jason Mraz on songwriting:
I challenge myself to write a song a week. That way, songs are constantly flowing. I belong to a Song of the Week club. I’ve been part of it since 2006 and it’s a group of songwriters that hold you to integrity to sit down and make a date with yourself and write that song. The song “Lucky” and my We Steal Things release came from those sessions. But every song doesn’t have to be great. What happens is you keep your pencil sharpened and your instrument in tune. That way you’re ready when the muse taps you on the shoulder and says “I have an urgent message for you.” The practice of songwriting is important so you catch the good ones.