Revisit Moving Songwriters Hall Of Fame Induction Moments From John Prine, Tom Petty, Cat Stevens, Missy Elliott, Neil Diamond, Lady Gaga And More

Justin Timberlake performs at the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony (photo credit: Estelle Massry Photography)

It was one year ago this week the illustrious John Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed upon him by his fellow songwriters and industry peers. It was a long overdue moment, and bittersweet as well, as the ‘singing mailman’ would pass away less than a year later due to Covid-19 complications.

The annual Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony was scheduled for this week but has been postponed to June 2021, with Mariah Carey, Steve Miller, The Isley Brothers, Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox and more joining the exclusive group. The induction is, as nearly all the honorees acknowledge, the highlight of their songwriting careers, and many of the speeches are filled with vivid recollections, poignant stories and emotional performances.

In lieu of our annual recap of the event, American Songwriter revisits some of the moving highlights from recent induction ceremonies.

2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony

John Prine at the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame (Photo credit: Estelle Massry Photography)

John Prine: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”

John Prine: “I always dug the lyrics to songs. I used to buy Country Song Roundup and Hit Parader and I’d see all the songwriter’s names and publishers and it was such a thrill for me. When I first started learning other people’s songs, I had trouble learning their lyrics, or remembering them. So I started making my own lyrics up. And bang! That was my beginning as a songwriter.”

John Prine: “I love songwriting. I love to paint myself into a corner and have to rhyme my way out of it. And when I co-write, I always try to pick out a really good restaurant, so if things ain’t happening in the first 30 minutes, just go: ‘Hey man, let’s go get some lunch.’”

Bonnie Raitt (on Prine, calling him “our own Mark Twain, our Woody, our Will Rogers): “The best songwriters and poets can get you to see something that may have been right there in front of you the whole time and you just never noticed. John can fit so much meaning and insight into such deceptively simple lines and leave a heart-wrenching moment of hilarity, empathy or hard-fought truth into such beautiful stories and characters, then wrap them all up in melodies as comfortable as slipping into your favorite pair of jeans. What a gift!”

Cat Stevens: “Most of my songs are about the journey. As a young man my first search was for wealth and success. But then I was dragged underground after the first battle with fame and the Faustian demands of the music business. I was hospitalized with a thing called TB. But that was a great opening for me, a great chance, and that’s when my real journey started. And that journey was to do a search for meaning. So that kind of defined, I think, my main contribution to being a songwriter.”

Cat Stevens: “My biggest fear was not finding the answers to my, or our, limited mortality. We are creatures, unlike animals, who have to live with the knowledge of our own mortality. And that presents great questions about what’s beyond, what’s over the rainbow. And that gave me courage to seek, and to go places perhaps other people have never gone.”

Cat Stevens performs at the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony (Photo credit: Estelle Massry Photography)

Cat Stevens: “Songwriting is amazing. When you are inspired you become something of a medium, which enables people to come together and share these stories and these feelings that reveal the highest peaks and the lowest cracks in our humanity. I’m really grateful to the power above us all for allowing me to travel such a distance to find the doorway and to understand the purpose of that road. I was even allowed to come back through that door and write some more songs so I could sing and shake the hands of those people and those hearts to whom my songs spoke to.”

Justin Timberlake: “You’re doing therapy with somebody you just met. If you did that on the subway they would say ‘that bitch is crazy!’”

Justin Timberlake: “There’s always that one line in the song where you’re like ‘if we could just get that one line that leads into the chorus.’ You bond over that shared level of tenacity. And then every time you hear that song later on, you get to remember the moment you had that breakthrough. When people hear it for the first time, they just hear it. But you get to go back and have all those memories.”

Jack Tempchin: “When I was a small kid in San Diego, I walked around the block whistling every song I could think of. Then I got a bicycle and I went up to the music store and bought a harmonica and worked out every song I could think of. Instead of playing outside, I sat in a chair and read books. Then I became Midnight Jack, staying out all night with the music people, the last guy to leave the party, always looking for the next song. But when your future becomes your present, like right now, sometimes it can totally rewrite your past. And all the whistling, harmonica playing, book reading and crazy nightlife seem like they’re okay now, like they were steps on the path to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.”

Jack Tempchin (speaking with American Songwriter on writing Slow Dancing (Swaying To The Music): “I was in a bar and I noticed that nobody got on the dance floor until they played a slow song because people wanted to get close to each other. So I thought there should be a song called ‘Slow Dancing.’ And about that time, I met a girl and I was falling in love and I somehow felt like I captured the moments. And she’s still with me and we’ve been married for 46 years. I feel like it’s probably one of my best songs. Because every time I sing it, it all feels right.”

Missy Elliott at the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony (Photo credit: Estelle Massry Photography)

Missy Elliott: “Even with all the work that I’ve done, I don’t know. I’m assuming it’s just God. I don’t know why I’m here. I want to say one thing to the writers, to the upcoming writers, ‘Do not give up.’ We all go through writer’s block. Sometimes you just have to walk away from a record and come back to it. But don’t give up. Because I’m standing here- and this is big for hip-hop too.”

Dallas Austin: “I was seven or eight years old when a melody hit me so hard that I had to learn how to play it. The song was ‘Soft and Wet’ by Prince. When I learned he played every instrument on the album I had to write Warner Brothers asking if the songs I sent to them on a cassette tape could be considered. They wrote back saying ‘Nope!’ They do not accept unsolicited material. No music deal for the eight-year old Dallas. But because someone on the other side of the Prince Warner Brothers album responded, even if it was a ‘no,’ I knew that all I had to do was keep on trying until somebody said ‘yes.’”

2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony

Alan Jackson: “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.”

Bill Anderson (Photo by Estelle Massry/Coucou Photography. Used by permission)

Bill Anderson (acknowledging the impact God has had on his career): “I held the pencil but He wrote the songs. And I firmly believe that.”

Jermaine Dupri: “This is it. It don’t get no bigger than this room!”

Neil Diamond (on his retirement): “I’m a little bored so I think I’ll have to go out and do some shows. Music is my passion.”

Neil Diamond (Photo by Estelle Massry/Coucou Photography. Used by permission)

Allee Willis (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.”

Allee Willis at the 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards (photo credit: Estelle Massry/Coucou Photography; used by permission)

Allee Willis (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.”

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.”

2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony

Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds: “Songwriting is like a religious experience. You don’t choose it. It chooses you. It’s a calling.” It’s amazing 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.”

Alan Menken: “When I see the list of honorees before me it’s inconceivable to me that I am receiving this award.”

2016 Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony

Tom Petty: “I love writing songs. I still make records. If you’re in a position to encourage young rock and rollers to follow their dreams like I had mine, please do it. We always had one thing in the back of our minds. This music, this art, is just this much more important than money. These songwriters we’re honoring tonight knew that. They cared about the art of the song.”

Lionel Richie: “I got in this business because of an amazing group called the Commodores. We did an audition for these two men (presenters Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff) and they gave us the launch that we needed, even though the answer was ‘no.’ Early in our career, the Commodores could copy Kool and the Gang better than Kool and the Gang. These two pulled us aside and said ‘that’s great fellas. What do you sound like?’ The bell went off! That was the beginning of a journey.“

Lionel Richie: “I asked Marvin (Gaye) what school he went to for music and he said ‘little brother what are you talking about? God is going to talk to you, and He is talking to you. You make sure you hum it and put it down and that’s all you need.’ I’m from the academic world, where there must be a logical reason why you know what you know. He told me you don’t have to know or be taught. You just have to feel it.”

Elvis Costello: “This award means all the world to me because I am probably the least commercially successful songwriter to have ever been inducted. I am, if nothing else, persistent. It was my original intention to be a songwriter in the background. I have to be grateful to all the music publishers who sent back my demo tapes because it forced me out of my bedroom and made me raise my most argumentative voice and stand up for my own songs. The next thing I knew I was on a three-bill ticket in Chicago opening up for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”

2015 Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony

Toby Keith: “The first thing I was asked when I came into town was ‘Do you have a publisher?’ I said no and they told me I had to get affiliated. So I went to BMI and they said ‘who are you?’ I said I don’t know. They told me I was supposed to get affiliated. I’m here!”

Toby Keith: “Songs are the blood life of any artists. There are many awards shows out there for artists. None of that means anything to me more than this award tonight.”

Lady Gaga: “When I was thirteen years old my mom received mail from the Songwriters Hall of Fame about a songwriter’s group where you could meet other songwriters. I joined and I used to go and play my songs in a roomful of songwriters who were mostly older than me. I was the little lowly young kid with the bad songs. It was an extremely important moment for me because I realized there were people who cared that I wrote music. Not a lot of people do care. But the ones who do are breathing life into the future of music.”

Van Morrison: I usually let the songs speak for themselves. The hits come and go. The performance money hopefully goes on and helps you through the mean and lean streaks. But you still have to keep at it. Thanks to Michael for coming all the way from Vancouver for this. He told me he would do anything for me. So I said “will you put two of my songs, my new ones, on your next recording. He said yes! So, the name of the game is… hustle!”

Bobby Braddock (on “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” made famous by Tammy Wynette): “I was writing a song called I L.O.V.E Y.O.U. and I was stuck. And I got the idea of parents spelling out the ugliness of their divorce in front of their four-year old child.” He jokingly added, “I think it’s a song that shows country music people knew how to spell!”

Bobby Braddock (on “He Stopped Loving Her Today”): “I thought both Curly Putman (his co-writer) and I had better songs. I didn’t think it was great until producer Billy Sherrill played it for me and I knew it was something special. George’s performance and Billy’s production elevated it to a different step. Billy wanted a recitation part, which it didn’t originally have. So Curly and I wrote that part a day or two before George recorded it. We got it in just at the last minute.”

Zac Brown (on songwriting): “At first I was writing songs as therapy, writing sad songs. And then I realized I wanted to write music that I wanted to listen to. I was 19 or 20 when I realized I could look out in a bar and see people having a really good time. The music was translating. People were taking it in, and I realized the power of a song. And that’s what we’re chasing everyday, trying to make every one count.”

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