Although it was created 17 years before the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame has never gotten the attention from the entertainment media and the public that it deserves.
Part of the problem is that the Songwriters Foundation has never gotten the funding to build a permanent home in a city (it now occupies a wing in LA’s Grammy Museum) the way Cleveland stepped up for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. It’s a shame because New York, with its rich music publishing and theatrical history, would be a natural fit to pay tribute to the greatest tunesmiths of all time.
One advantage that the Songwriters Hall of Fame has over its rock ’n’ roll counterpart is that it can honor composers from various musical genres. At the 43rd annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, held June 14 at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan, nearly every form of popular music was represented.
The evening opened with Bob Seger, already a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, commemorating being honored by the SHOF with a performance of a relatively minor hit for him, “Turn the Page.” It would have been easy for him to sing any of his big hits, such as “Night Moves,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Hollywood Nights” and the like, but “Turn the Page,” with its lyrics that strip away the perceived glamor of the road life of a rock musician, was clearly autobiographical and downright personal for him.
Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot still tours around the world at age 73, and though his voice has frayed a bit from his 1970s hit-making days, he still sounds great. It’s not shocking that the snooty and arbitrary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has ignored Lightfoot — it is surprising, however, that it has taken this long for the Songwriters Hall executive committee to honor this great storyteller, whose works include “The Early Morning Rain,” “Rainy Day People,” “Beautiful,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Carefree Highway,” and “Sundown,” which was performed on this night by blues rocker Steve Miller.
Although it wasn’t his biggest hit, “If You Could Read My Mind,” with its irresistible string section and acoustic guitar interludes, punctuated by Gordon’s ruminations over the regrets of a failed relationship, was the record that put him on the map. Lightfoot performed the song with all of the freshness and enthusiasm that he did back in 1971.
Don Schlitz is not a household name for most pop music fans — and no, he is not related to the family that made Schlitz Beer. He is, however, highly respected in Nashville, and understandably so. Among the songs in his portfolio are hits for Randy Travis (“Forever and Ever, Amen” and “On the Other Hand”), the late Keith Whitley (“When You Say Nothing at All”) and Alabama (“Forty Hour Week”).
In terms of recognition, those aforementioned songs pale in comparison to “The Gambler,” a gigantic 1978 hit for Kenny Rogers, who sang it again on this night. Interestingly when I met Schlitz on a Manhattan street years ago he told me that he knew nothing about poker or any kind of card games. Indeed, a close listen to the lyrics show that the poker terminology is merely a metaphor for the vicissitudes of life.
Just as Rogers came to show appreciation to the composer who gave him one of his signature hits, so did Marvin Lee Aday, better known to most as Meat Loaf, come to honor Jim Steinman, the man behind his multi-platinum 1977 “Bat Out of Hell” album. In his speech for Steinman, Meat Loaf talked about how his songs were all mini-plays and the lyrics were often tongue-in-cheek. “Fortunately our fans were in on the joke,” he said.
Phil Rizzuto, the late Yankees broadcaster, always claimed that he wasn’t in on the humor when he recorded his bit for that album’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” — the teen anthem that had a ballplayer trying to steal bases, including home, as a metaphor for a passionate evening. “He could go all the way!” the Scooter says in the song. But I have a feeling that Rizzuto was protesting with a wink of the eye.
Steinman grew up in Hewlett, just a little ways over the city line in Nassau County, and his over-the-top bombastic production made him rock’s answer to the German classical composer Richard Wagner. While he is most identified with Meat Loaf, Steinman also composed hits for Celine Dion (“It’s All Coming Back to Me”), Barry Manilow (“Read ’Em and Weep”), Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and Air Supply (“Making Love Out of Nothing at All”).
Broadway was not forgotten at the SHOF event, as the composing tandem of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the Welsh pop singer) were honored for their contributions to musical theater. They’re responsible for the longest running play in showbiz history, “The Fantasticks.” Cheyenne Jackson, one of the hottest actors working in New York today, sang “Try to Remember,” whose lyric of “without the hurt, the heart is hollow,” is for my money one of the best one-line philosophical observations ever put into a song. Jackson did not put the passion into it that the late Jerry Orbach or the Brothers Four, who had a pop hit with it, did, but he got the job done.