Songwriters Hall inducts Chicago stars, Motown founder

James Pankow, left, and Robert Lamm of Chicago attended the Hall of Fame ceremony, but old bandmate Peter Cetera did not, as the acrimony between him and the group remains, 32 years after he left.

While the induction ceremonies for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have lost some steam over the years in terms of interest, the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which is held in New York every June, keeps gaining momentum.

A key reason that interest has been trending upward for the Songwriters Hall of Fame is because it honors composers from all parts of the musical spectrum as was once again evidenced in the Class of 2017, inducted June 15.

The rock/jazz band Chicago has been going strong for nearly 50 years thanks to its tight brass sound, stellar vocals and talented composers in its history, such as Peter Cetera, Robert Lamm and James Pankow.

All three were supposed to be honored at the Marriott Marquis that night but the bitterness between Cetera and the remaining members of the group has not lessened in the 32 years since he left to pursue a solo career, which has been fairly successful. He refused to attend but Lamm and Pankow did.

“Harry Truman” was a Top 40 hit for Chicago in the spring of 1975 that was penned by Lamm. Like a lot of Americans at the time, he was livid at how Richard Nixon, who had resigned the presidency months earlier, both abused power and lied to the American people. Truman, our 33rd president, known for his plain-speaking candor, had died three years earlier.

I asked Lamm on the red carpet preceding the event if he and his Chicago bandmates would be dusting off “Harry Truman” for concerts in light of recent political events in our nation.

“It’s funny that you should ask that because we have started performing it again and the audience seems to love it,” he said.

Berry Gordy is best known, of course, for being the founder of Motown Records, which launched the careers of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and countless others.

Before he founded Motown, Gordy was a songwriter who worked by day on the automobile assembly lines in Detroit. Among the pre-Motown hits that he wrote or co-wrote were Jackie Wilson’s “To Be Loved” and Marv Johnson’s “You Got What It Takes.” The royalties from those Top 40 hits provided the seed money for Motown.

Gordy has received numerous awards in past Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremonies but Ironically most of them were in the lifetime achievement category and none were for his songwriting talents, a fact that gnawed at him. In his acceptance speech which was peppered with good-natured jabs at the SHOF finally correcting its oversight and acknowledging his composing talents, Berry Gordy made it clear that he always considered himself first and foremost a songwriter.

I joked with Berry on the red carpet that his “Money (That’s What I Want),” which was a big hit in 1960 for Barrett Strong and would later be covered by the Beatles and — in tongue-firmly-in-cheek style — by British band the Flying Lizards in 1979, was a favorite of the Trump administration. Gordy laughed heartily and shook my hand.

It is hard to be considered underrated when you are inducted into any hall of fame, but a good case can be made that the Minneapolis songwriting and production team of James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis fall into that category. They are best known for producing Janet Jackson’s catchy 1980s hits. The singer/actor Usher reminded us of that when he performed “Let’s Wait Awhile” before making his tribute speech. Harris and Lewis then performed “Human,” which was a huge hit for the British new wave group the Human League in 1986. It’s a shame they did not mention one of my favorite ’80s R&B groups who had hits with their tunes, the S.O.S. Band.

The Songwriters Hall always bestows the Hal David Starlight Award to a young composer who has achieved some notable success. Ed Sheeran, who hails from England and has become a fixture on the pop charts, was this year’s recipient.

I asked him if he is still able to live a normal life and go places without fear of being mobbed. “I have come up with ways of doing that but I wouldn’t try to do that here in Times Square,” Sheeran said. “There are too many British tourists here!” he said with a smile.

Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter became the first hip-hop inductee in the organization’s history. He couldn’t attend in person because his wife, Beyonce, was about to give birth, but President Obama prepared a filmed induction speech. The 44th POTUS joked that he was the first president to play hip-hop music in the Oval Office and that he felt confident he remains the only one.

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