Jackson Browne inducted folk legend Joan Baez at the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Browne and Baez have crossed paths multiple times over the years, with Baez having covered and interpreted songs by Browne on her own albums. Last year, the folk legends performed on stage for Baez’s 75th birthday celebration at New York’s Beacon Theater.
After Browne gave a deeply personal speech about Baez, tracing her involvement in his own musical upbringing, he spoke with Rolling Stone about the importance of the ceremony. He remembers when the Rock Hall was just an intimate affair at the Waldorf Astoria in New York and personally finding inspiration and new insights with each new class.
What it was like to induct Joan?
First, she’s been so instructive in my life and such an influence and such an example. But how do you encapsulate all that she’s done? I mean, I realized I couldn’t even begin to enumerate the places she’s been and the issues and the struggles that she’s embraced. It’s not enough to say that she’s been an advocate of nonviolence her whole life. But it’s helpful to know that. But it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of all that she’s done.
And it led me into listening to all of her music, and that’s been an incredible experience because she really has an effect on the songs that she sings. I mean, she worked with the guys from Muscle Shoals. She worked with the guys in the Wrecking Crew. She’s got a song that she wrote. This was back twenty years ago or something, but it’s about a gay friend whose life she really examines with such intimacy. It’s an amazing song. It’s called “The Alter Boy and the Thief.” It was arranged by Wilton Felder. And played by Joe Sample.
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She had a tour in the mid-Seventies where the rhythm section was Jim Gordon and James Jamerson. Can you imagine that?
I didn’t realize that. I didn’t get to see her play with Jim Gordon, but I got to see her play with Earl Palmer. She always played with great players. And I always loved her singing in her lower register. Something very sexy about it. But when I began listening to these really early records of her singing in this really beautiful falsetto, the thing that occurred to me is that her timing is so great. That she’s got this tremendous command over the rhythm or the song while she’s sort of free floating over it. Vocally, she’s got this gracefully flowing cadence while underneath there’s this precise guitar playing and strumming or finger picking. And a dynamic sense of drama.
Do you think this an overdue recognition in the Hall of Fame?
Oh, absolutely. Everybody who goes in many years after they’re eligible has got to feel like … Well, I don’t know if I’ll be inducted or not or you just think, Oh, probably not.
But, the thing is, and I think it’s got to be said each time someone comes in after having waited many years while they’re eligible that it’s long overdue, but … to me, it’s just the way it is. There’s some people go in right away, like, say Tom Petty. Or Pearl Jam, you know. A show like this needs a current star. You have to have somebody put in there who’s like really going to make it a show. And the thing is, the Hall of Fame didn’t used to be a show. When it was at the Waldorf, they didn’t put on much of a show. They didn’t try to and it wasn’t being televised.
The first time I ever heard about, I heard, “You gotta see this. It’s really amazing cause it’s really intimate. It’s little. The only people there are people that are musicians and their families, but there’s no real audience. It’s all musicians and record men, and they’ll honor some” – first time I went, I heard this guy. I think his name was Sam Bass and our guy that signed James Brown. And his amazing stories. Imagine having like somebody get up there now who is like an A&R guy talk for like twenty minutes about his life. You discover James Brown and go back to New York and have the publisher he worked for say, “What, this is a song? Please, please, please, please, where is the melody?” You know like, and him trying to explain to this old publisher, what was happening in this new music.
What do you think of this bigger presentation?
Well, you have to do it because you see what happened, the first time I saw it presented on TV, and I’d been there once. I think I came once when the Birds were inducted.
What are your favorite memories of the Hall of Fame?
Well, my favorite memory is Little Steven inducting the Rascals. And when I say that, I mean I’m back on the subject of whether or not it should be televised. Of course it should be televised. All of this should be shared with people.
What made that a special moment for you? Are they a meaningful band to you?
No, no, no. I love their hits like everybody else, you know. But no, it was the time that Steven took to explain what they meant to him. To me, Steve Van Zandt is a big deal. I sang one of his songs, his record, Voice of America was one of the most important records, to me. He’s just a master. And plus, I think that induction speech landed him a part on The Sopranos. I mean, I think that’s when David Chase looked at it and went, “That’s our guy. That’s the guy.”
I interviewed David Chase about that, and he confirmed that.
If that had happened in the Waldorf without the cameras rolling then, that wouldn’t happen. I watched that standing in the hallway of my studio while I was making a record. Just took a break long enough to watch parts of the Hall of Fame which was being broadcast. It wasn’t on any big network. So, yes. It most certainly should be made into a show. It’s always got wonderful new information. I really wanted to see [the] Tupac [performance], and I didn’t know Snoop Dogg was going to induct him. But it was really heartfelt and really powerful. Snoop is full of surprises. Did you know he did that cameo in Pitch Perfect 2. Did you see that?
I did not see Pitch Perfect 2.
You have to see it! He’s in there. In the studio session.