Break up to make up: If last night's 44th annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards ceremony had a theme, it wasn't just the glories of merging melodies and lyrics. From Aerosmith and Foreigner to Billy Joel and Elton John, another recurring riff was the durable but sometimes fractious relationships of musical collaborators.
The inductees at the black-tie ceremony, held at New York's Marriott Marquis, spanned several generations – and several styles – of pop songwriting. Sting presented John and Bernie Taupin with the prestigious Johnny Mercer Award for lifetime achievement. Inducted into the hall of fame for the first time were Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith; Mick Jones and Lou Gramm of Foreigner; JD Souther, who wrote or co-wrote a good chunk of the Seventies SoCal songbook ("New Kid in Town," "Faithless Love," "Best of My Love"); Holly Knight, the queen of Eighties female empowerment rocker ("Love Is a Battlefield," "The Warrior") and Tony Hatch (whose "Downtown," "Don't Sleep in the Subway" "Call Me" defined an entire era of Sixties British pop).
Benny Blanco, who's co-written and produced hits for Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Maroon 5, was handed the Hal David Starlight Award for rising talent. Two recently deceased giants long associated with the hall of fame – lyricist Hal David and producer Phil Ramone – were memorialized by Paul Williams and Billy Joel, respectively.
As is tradition at the ceremony, special guests performed the inductees' songs. Backed by the house band, Sting (who said John and Taupin's John Lennon tribute "Empty Garden" was "one of the most beautiful and haunting songs of all time") showed off a more gravelly voice on "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting." Patty Smyth revived her Scandal hit "The Warrior," while Wiz Khalifa sang-rapped his collaboration with Blanco, "Work Hard, Play Hard." Nickelback's Chad Kroeger and Ryan Peake rocked Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion," and Alison Krauss caressed Souther's "Faithless Love." Jordin Sparks offered a stirring take on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which was given the Towering Song award.
Yet the evening's reconciliations – or hints of ones, anyway – were equally memorable. Accepting their award from Kroeger and Peake, Tyler and Perry made only veiled references to their shaky relationship over the past few years. Perry spoke about the process of transforming riffs into songs, and an unusually low-key Tyler said he was "grateful to be accepted" by the classic songwriters in the room. The two seemed to go out of their way to avoid any remotely contentious comments, instead letting music – a performance of "Walk This Way" with the house band – make the point about their lasting collaboration.
Before the evening began, many in the crowd were buzzing about whether John and Joel would publicly acknowledge their back-and-forth comments in the press (especially recent interviews in Rolling Stone and The New York Times) over Joel's supposed drinking problem. Accepting his Mercer Award, John first talked about his and Taupin 46-year partnership and cracked, "We've never had a fight – not about songs, anyway. Maybe about what I was wearing." He also called Taupin "one of the loves of my life."
Before he returned to his seat, John added, "Mr. Joel – I haven't seen you tonight, but I love you dearly."
Taking the podium afterward to introduce Jones and Gramm, Joel asked the crowd, "Is Elton still here, by the way?" To chuckles, he added, "We're OK. Call me. It's the same phone number."
Joel then sang snippets of Foreigner hits by way of introducing another estranged couple, Gramm and Jones. Gramm, who left Foreigner 10 years ago and battled a brain tumor before that, has been openly critical of Jones' decision to continue touring with Foreigner and a new lead singer. Standing beside his former partner at the podium, though, Gramm acknowledged Jones as "my buddy here." With the house band, the two men then performed "Juke Box Hero" and "I Want to Know What Love Is" (the latter with Anthony Morgan's Inspirational Choir of Harlem). Between the power of the choir and the sight of the two men sharing a stage together once again, the latter performance easily became one of the evening's high points. Returning to the podium for his MC duties, Hall of Fame chairman Jimmy Webb enthused that it was "a totally emotional experience."
Beyond the hints of drama, the evening offered up its usual slew of amusing anecdotes and comments by inductees and presenters alike. The funkiest dresser of the night, in his wide-brimmed hat and bolo tie, Blanco cracked, "They picked the wrong person. I'm in a room with people I should probably be serving food to."
Hatch recalled playing Petula Clark the barest bones of "Downtown" – a verse melody and just the word "downtown" – and how Clark seized on it and told him to finish it so they could record it (which they soon did, live in the studio in one day).
Inducting Souther, producer Peter Asher recalled how Souther, James Taylor and Waddy Wachtel wrote "Her Town Too" about the breakup of Asher's marriage. Asher confirmed that the details in the lyric ("She gets the house and the garden / He gets the boys in the band") were true. "What a shitty deal this is," Asher joked about that settlement, before acknowledging how much he loved the song.
And in a lengthy speech introducing his friend and colleague Berry Gordy (who won the 2013 Pioneer award), Smokey Robinson talked about watching a recent interview with two young African-American baseball players (for the Dodgers, no less) who admitted they had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. Robinson asked the crowd to say "Berry Gordy" out loud, which it did, before he added, "I want you to pass that name down to your kids and to your grandkids. Berry Gordy was the Jackie Robinson of music."
After accepting his award, Gordy introduced what he called his "new family," members of the cast of the Broadway show Motown: The Musical, who ended the night with a medley of the label's biggest hits.
Together by the side of the stage, Gordy and Robinson watched with proud-father smiles – no drama, but enduring, for-the-ages songwriting.