It was nearly 1:00 a.m. and Neil Diamond’s three-song set at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony was over, but the singer was simply having too much fun to stop. He had just wrapped up a joyous sing-along rendition of “Sweet Caroline” by running into the crowd and having Robbie Robertson and Bruce Springsteen sing a bit of the chorus into the mic (“keep practicing and you’ll go places!” he joked to Springsteen) when he stood on the chair in the center of the floor and made a seemingly spontaneous decision.
“What am I doing out here?” he said, turning to bandleader Paul Shaffer. “Hey Paul, can we do it one more time just to get me the heck out of here?” Diamond then proceeded to sing the entirety of “Sweet Caroline” again, and somehow it was even more euphoric the second time around.
About 15 minutes later, as the tipsy black-tie crowd at the Waldorf-Astoria looked like they were ready to collapse, Shaffer called Diamond, Alice Cooper, Bette Midler, Elton John and Darlene Love back to the stage as Leon Russell played the opening notes to Love’s Wall of Sound classic “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron” – just as he did on the original 48 years ago. Standing side-by-side, the unlikely duo of Cooper and Diamond traded off lines with everybody on the stage. It was the perfect way to end the long, amazing evening.
Such unexpected collaborations are the greatest thing about the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year’s class – Alice Cooper, Darlene Love, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Tom Waits and Leon Russell – seem to have very little in common. It’s to the credit of the organizers that they constructed a show that highlighted the threads between them, while staging an incredibly fun concert. It was the 27th ceremony, and this time around the night was arranged very differently than in the past. Most of the speeches were at the beginning of the night, while the second half was basically one long concert.
The show began with John Legend inducting New Orleans piano legend Dr. John. “No other place has shaped our music and captured our imagination than the Crescent City,” Legend said. “For more than 50 years the singer, musician, producer, songwriter and all-around instigator Dr. John has served as as leading local ambassador to New Orleans and it’s incomparably funky musical gumbo.”
Wearing a purple suit and a fedora, Dr. John seemed overjoyed by the kind words. “I feel like I’m blessed to be singing,” he said. “To be breathing. Music is something and there ain’t nothing like it. I don’t care what you do with your life … Everybody in my life was a blessing to me.”
After Dr. John stepped offstage the Ahmet Ertegun Award was presented to Specialty Records founder Art Rupe by Lloyd Price, and to Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman by Doors drummer John Densmore. The 93-year-old Rupe sent a letter saying he couldn’t make it, but Holzman (looking spry at 79) showed up and gave a moving speech about the importance of music in his long life. “It’s been a long, magical road,” he said. “And the road beckons still.”
Midler then took the stage to induct her longtime friend Love. “She has been robbed of royalties,” Midler said, referring to Love’s legal battles with Phil Spector. “But she is without bitterness…She’s also one of the greatest voices in the history of rock and roll.”
Looking radiant in a black dress, Love seemed to be holding back tears as she walked to the podium. “This year, in July, I will turn 70 years old,” she said. “This is the best gift that I could ever had. I have given over 50 years of my life and talent to the music industry. I am so thankful for the genius of Phil Spector for his recognition of my talent to be the main voice of his Wall of Sound.”
Things then took a dramatic shift when Rob Zombie stepped up to induct Cooper. “They were the most rock-star destroying band of all-time,” he said. “They took everything to a new level … They were more than a band. They were more like a murderous gang of drag queens. Their mission was to destroy the hippie dream of peace, love and understanding.”
When he finished, the original Alice Cooper band – minus the late Glen Buxton – ripped into a ferocious version of “I’m Eighteen.” Many in the buttoned-up crowd didn’t quite know what to make of the aggressive performance (much like the Stooges last year). Undeterred, the band carried on with “Under My Wheels” and “School’s Out” with Rob Zombie guesting.
By the end Cooper was covered in fake blood, and when he walked up to the podium somebody handed him a large snake to put around his neck. It goes without saying that the Rock Hall induction ceremony had never seen anything quite like this. “We’ve always been a hard rock band,” Cooper said. “We just decorated it a bit differently.”
After a 15-minute intermission Young inducted Waits. “I didn’t bring my teleprompter or my notes and I don’t have any real thoughts,” Young joked. “I will say that this next man is indescribable and I’m here to describe him. In the scope of things this man is a great singer, actor, magician, spirit guide, changeling and performer for you.”
Waits’ speech was his typical brand of hysterical dead-pan jokes. “This is very heavy,” he said as he held the statuette. “I just want to know if there’s a key-chain version of this so I can take it with me, just in case I hear someone say, ‘Pete, take the cuffs off. He’s a Hall of Famer’ … They say I have no hits and I’m difficult to work with. They say that like it’s a bad thing.”
Russell received the first-ever Recording Excellence Award, which used to be the Sideman category. Elton John – who recorded the acclaimed LP The Union with Russell last year – gave the speech. “In the past year he’s given me some of the most incredible musical moments of my life,” John said. “He’s an American legend. An American icon.”
Russell – who has been battling health problems for years – walked onstage slowly with the help of a cane and delivered a brief but highly emotional speech. “About a year ago Elton found me in a ditch by the side of the highway of life,” he said. “He took me up to the high space with big audiences and treated me like a king. All I can say is, ‘Bless your heart.'”
The mood lightened when Simon took the stage to induct his fellow early-Sixties Brill Building songwriter Diamond – who had just flown in all the way from Australia to make the ceremony. “He was known as the Jewish Elvis Presley,” Simon said. “In fact, in many synagogues across the country Elvis was considered a bogus Neil Diamond.”
Simon continued: “He had his first hit in 1966 with ‘Cherry Cherry.’ 1991 was 25 years after the release of his first single and he was eligible to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is 20 years later. My question is: what took so long? I’ll give you my theory. Six words: ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.’ A real beautiful love song sung with one of the great voices of the 20th century, Barbra Streisand. Unfortunately, she isn’t rock & roll and I don’t think they allow that DNA even close to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Maybe he was jet-lagged or maybe he’d had a few drinks or maybe he was just screwing around, but Diamond gave a wonderful, rambly speech that got many of the biggest laughs of the night. “I didn’t write a speech,” he said. “I just got off tour from Australia. I did a show two days ago. I got on a plane, commercial, yesterday and I’ve been flying my ass for for 25 hours. I got in this morning and I have no idea where we are. What are we doing here? What the heck is going on here? I love all of you, even though you didn’t vote for me. I don’t give a shit. I still would sing that song with Barbra. She’s the greatest, and guess what? She doesn’t give a shit either.”
At this point the ceremony became a concert, beginning with Waits – who played with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and guitarist Marc Ribot. He began with stunning versions of “Make It Rain” and “Rain Dogs” before sitting down at a piano for “House Where Nobody Lives.” It seemed like that was it, but then Neil Young came out to play “Get Behind The Mule” with him. Young didn’t sing a note, opting to play acoustic guitar outside of the spotlight.
For the rest of the evening Paul Shaffer’s longtime band played with the acts, first backing Dr. John on “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night” with Legend joining in on an piano. Russell and surprise guest John Mayer came out next to perform “Delta Lady” and “Song For You.” Springsteen had been sitting in the audience all night, but he finally took the stage to play guitar during Darlene Love’s three-song set. He took some solos during “Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah,” but strummed quietly along with the large band during the Spector classics “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” and “He’s a Rebel,” which Love sang as a duet with Midler. Love originally sang these songs 50 years ago, but her voice has retained practically all of its power. The short set was absolutely spellbinding.
Diamond got the tired audience on their feet for “Cherry Cherry,” which he followed up with a powerful version of “I Am, I Said.” “Sweet Caroline” was inevitable, but you could feel waves of euphoria through the air as he sang it. After the second run-through of the song the stage filled with pianos so that John, Russell and Dr. John could accompany Lloyd Price on his 1959 hit “Stagger Lee.”
The clock was inching towards 1:30 a.m. and the crowd was starting to thin, but those who stayed saw the unforgettable alliance of Cooper, Diamond, Love, John and Midler on “Da Doo Ron Ron.” It was the kind of moment only possible at these ceremonies. “That’s it from the greats of rock & roll,” Shaffer said as the stage emptied. “We’ll see you next year.”
It’s hard to imagine what they could do to top this event – but it will be the first year Guns N’ Roses are eligible.
Related: Video Interviews With Inductees, Guests and Performers