Some artists — your Rolling Stones, your Bruce Springsteen, etc. — waltz right into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the first year they become eligible (twenty-five years after their first recording). Everybody else takes a number and waits it out in a virtual green room, hoping to get picked in the draft somewhere down the line. Last night at the sixteenth annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, it was catch-up time. Every one of the night’s inductees became eligible at least two years ago.
Two of the evening’s honorees — Michael Jackson and Paul Simon — joined the Hall of Fame’s elite cast (Lennon, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, David Crosby, Paul McCartney) of multiple inductees, having previously been inducted as part of the Jackson 5 and Simon and Garfunkel, respectively. Aerosmith, Queen, and recent Grammy “Album of the Year” winners Steely Dan were allowed in after only two or three years past their due date. But had Solomon Burke, the Flamingos, sidemen James Burton and Johnnie Johnson or the family of the late Ritchie Valens all shown up sporting “About Fucking Time” T-shirts (like the one Paul McCartney’s daughter Stella did when her father was inducted two years ago), few in attendance would have argued with them.
Certainly not Keith Richards, who proudly inducted Burton and Johnson directly following Queen’s opening performance. “‘Sidemen’ . . . I guess they chose me because I am one,” said the Rolling Stone guitarist in his cheerfully off-the-cuff speech, going on to proclaim Burton (guitarist for Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons, to name a few) and Johnson (piano player/co-songwriter for Chuck Berry) “the most incredible sidemen of all time.” Johnson, who is currently locked in a lawsuit with Berry seeking proper songwriting credit and royalties, in turn gave thanks to Richards for dragging him out of obscurity. “In 1986 when Keith Richards found me, I was driving a bus,” he said. “I’m living proof that you should never give up your hope and never give up your dreams . . . This is the proudest moment of my life.”
Solomon Burke, dubbed “The King of Rock and Soul” by disc jockey Rockin’ Robin in 1964, was inducted by “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige. Burke looked the royal part — resplendent in a fur-trimmed cape over a long, crimson jacket — and sounded it with a growling performance of his 1962 R&B and pop hit “Cry to Me.” His royal bloodline is in good shape as well, as he closed his speech by giving thanks to “my twenty-one children, my fifty-eight grandchildren and my seven great-grandchildren.”
After being introduced by Moby, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker gave the night’s next performance (“Black Friday”), but conveyed their true subversive spirit with a characteristically wry induction speech. “Thank you very much,” said Becker. “We’re persuaded it’s a great honor to be here tonight.” Queen, who had earlier kicked off the evening’s festivities by performing “We Will Rock You” and “Tie Your Mother Down” (the former sung by guitarist Brian May, the latter featuring their inductors Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters), were less cynical in their thank-yous. Bassist John Deacon was unable to attend due to illness, and Queen’s late vocalist Freddie Mercury was represented by his tiny elderly mother, Jer Bulsara.
Dressed in a crème-colored jacket, black T-shirt and his now customary red baseball cap, Paul Simon delivered two of the evening’s strongest performances with “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Graceland.” He was then inducted by Latin singer (and Capeman star) Marc Anthony, who got one of the night’s bigger laughs by saying, “Frankly I’m thrilled just to see Paul tonight, because after we did Capeman, we were put into separate witness protection programs.” Simon himself was in good humor, even including his erstwhile partner Art Garfunkel in his long list of thank-yous. “I regret the ending of our friendship, but I hope one day before we die, we will make peace with each other.” Simon waited for the applause to die down, then delivered the punch line: “No rush.”
After Frankie Valli of Four Seasons fame inducted Fifties’ doo-wop legends the Flamingos (who performed their signature song, “I Only Have Eyes for You”), modern day vocal group ‘N Sync (minus Joey Fatone, detained in Florida) took the stage to induct Michael Jackson. “He’s bad, he’s dangerous, and if you think we’re going to let him stop because we’ve had enough, as they say so often in this city, ‘Fagetaboutit,'” enthused Justin Timberlake. Jackson himself was more subdued, hobbling onstage with a cane and a cast on his foot. “There won’t be any moonwalking tonight,” he apologized, “because I broke my foot dancing — I fell down the stairs in California.” He then thanked his family, Diana Ross, Berry Gordy and Tommy Motola, but when he braved the press room for a photo op with ‘N Sync, reporters were sternly warned in advance not to even think about asking him any questions.
Meanwhile, back in the ballroom, Ricky Martin inducted the late Ritchie Valens and performed a quick medley of “Come On Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba” with a horn section and lots of hip shaking, but nowhere near the competence level demonstrated in the past by noted Valens admirers Los Lobos. Significantly more engaging were presenters Bono, whose induction speech for non-performer Chris Blackwell (founder of Island Records) echoed the hyperbolic eloquence of his memorable Bruce Springsteen tribute at the fourteenth annual induction ceremony two years ago, and Kid Rock, who capped his Aerosmith speech with an a cappella rap. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler remarked soon after of his induction, “I wonder if this will put an end to, ‘Hey, aren’t you Mick Jagger?'” The Boston quintet then delivered an exceptionally funky version of “Sweet Emotion” (complete with Kid Rock scratching at a turntable deck) and their current single “Jaded,” which segued abruptly before the first chorus into “Train Kept a Rollin’.”
It was well past the midnight hour by the time the requisite all-star jam rolled along. It opened on a mellow note with Paul Simon singing “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” with harmony help from Marc Anthony and Rolling Stone publisher/Hall of Fame vice-chairman Jann Wenner. Brian May then contributed a stinging but tasteful guitar solo to Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” after which Bono, Mary J. Blige and Melissa Etheridge paid tribute to Island Records by singing Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” The jam didn’t fully gather steam, however, until the subsequent instrumental, rockabilly rave-up with guitar solos by Keith Richards, James Burton, Joe Perry, May and jam-session staple Robbie Robertson. By the time Solomon Burke returned to lead a rousing free-for-all to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” everyone in the room was feeling the love — right down to the audience members who King invited onstage to sing along.