It was one of the great nights in rock & roll history. As 1,200 selected guests clapped, cheered and even danced atop their tables, three generations of rock legends took to the stage to praise their peers, celebrate their music and, at the end, join together in an all-stops-out jam session. The lineup was a virtual who’s who of classic rock: Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Beck, Elton John, the Beach Boys, Neil Young, Billy Joel, John Fogerty and Dave Edmunds, among many others.
But apart from the sheer star wattage, the real magic in the air at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s third-annual induction dinner — held on January 20th at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel — was the palpable sense of what Pete Seeger, one of the evening’s inductors, called “the long, long chain” of American music. “I love it,” said John Fogerty, pointing to a nearby chair. “I mean, Little Richard is sitting right there.”
Most of the crowd was seated by the time Elton John made his way into the ballroom, accompanied by his wife, Renate, and his longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin. John jauntily made his way toward the table in the center of the room, where he and his party were to join George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Unfortunately, Harrison had already invited Bob Dylan to join him at the table, leaving no room for Taupin. Taking offense, the jet-lagged John stormed out of the room and headed back to his Waldorf suite, leaving Starr’s wife, Barbara Bach, to explain: “I think he’s had some sort of disagreement with George.”
Across the room, the squabble was noted by Mick Jagger, who had not only the dubious honor of being seated at a table overrun by Little Richard’s unusually large retinue but the misfortune of being situated near a serving area, where he was constant prey to the jostlings of waiters bearing big silver platters of sausages and mashed potatoes. Jagger unobtrusively made his way out of the room to the elevator and headed for Elton John’s suite.
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The ceremonies got under way with a fanfare by Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band, the house band for the night; they romped through a medley of music associated with the evening’s inductees.
Next, the masters of ceremonies — Atlantic Records chairman Ahmet Ertegun and Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner — took the stage. Ertegun first introduced the noted architect I.M. Pei and displayed a slide of Pei’s preliminary design for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building, to be built in Cleveland, Ohio; he proceeded to set the generous tone for the evening with his introduction of the first inductee, Berry Gordy Jr., the founder of Motown Records. Ertegun spoke of his reaction to the great early Motown records, saying, “It was the only music I couldn’t copy.” He continued by reading a telegram addressed to Gordy: Congratulations. You deserve it. You are the father of fine music. Love always, Your son, Michael Jackson. Finally, describing Gordy as “the record man of our time,” Ertegun brought on the reclusive Motown mastermind himself.
Gordy, all smiles, seemed genuinely moved. “My life has been an embarrassment of riches,” he said. “Every day for thirty years, I’ve had the luxury of doing what I love to do. Tonight, I’m being honored for it. . . . Thank God for rock & roll.”
The late Huddie Ledbetter — the great Leadbelly — was next in line to be honored. Ertegun recalled seeing Leadbelly perform at an antifascist benefit concert in the early Forties. Then, to induct Leadbelly, Ertegun brought on the singer, folklorist and longtime social activist Pete Seeger. Seeger was not wearing a tuxedo, but he struck the strongest political chord of the night. He started off by softly reciting a few lines from a poem by García Lorca (“All our art is but water, drawn from the well of the people”) and then built to a fiery peroration. “If we realize that we are but links in a long, long chain,” Seeger said, “then, by God, there will be links to come. And the people who’d wipe the human race off the map with their goddamn atom bombs and their goddamn toxic chemicals will be fooled. Because love and music are gonna bring us together!”
Tiny Robinson, Leadbelly’s niece, accepted his award. “I don’t know if this was one of Leadbelly’s dreams,” she said, “but I’m so glad it came true.”
The induction of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly’s former concert partner, followed. Neil Young, the inductor, began his speech by reflecting on how torn he had been in his youth. He wanted to be a rock star. But, Young said, “I wanted to be that other guy, too — to have a guitar and sing a few songs about things that I really felt inside myself, things I saw going on around me.” And singer-songwriters, he discovered, “all seemed to go back and start with Woody Guthrie.”
Woody’s award was accepted by his son Arlo Guthrie. “You could figure a lot of things in this world,” Arlo said, “but this isn’t one of them. I think if my dad was alive today, this is the one place he wouldn’t be. I understand that. . . . [But] his spirit is still around, still writing, still singing. And I think this is why I had to come anyhow, to say thank you.”
Things lightened up a bit when Jeff Beck ambled onstage to introduce one of his guitar heroes, Les Paul. “I’m terrible at speeches,” Beck said. “But I guess I’ve copied more licks off of Les than anybody else. I showed him the speech I was gonna read out, and he said, ‘That’s worse than a United Airlines meal.’ So I didn’t bother.”
Les Paul quickly appeared and proved equally modest. A pioneer of studio overdubbing, tape echo and guitar design, Paul would allow only that “I have been credited with inventing a few things … that you guys are using out there. About the most I can say is ‘Have a lot of fun with my toys.'”
Meanwhile, up in Elton John’s suite, John and Jagger were yukking it up over old times when they were joined by an extremely merry Ringo Starr, who finally managed to disperse John’s ire over the earlier seating snafu. Jagger and Starr ushered the singer back down to the ballroom just in time for John to induct the Beach Boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Beach Boys “made me love America so much more because they existed,” John said. “They are, for me, what America is — a very, very wonderful place to be.” With his brother Carl, his cousin Mike Love and rhythm guitarist Al Jardine huddled close, Brian Wilson donned glasses and began to read from a loosely written but obviously heartfelt speech. He talked about the summer weekend twenty-seven years before when he and Love had written an innocuous little song called “Surfin’.” Then he added poignantly, “All of us in this room — all of us — have the privilege of making music that helps and heals. To make music that makes people happier, stronger and kinder. Don’t forget, music is God’s voice. Love and mercy to everyone.”
After Carl’s brief salute to his late brother, Dennis, the band struck up a riff from “Good Vibrations,” and the Beach Boys moved to the front of the stage to pose for pictures. But Mike Love had no intention of relinquishing the spotlight so readily. Taking his turn at the microphone, Love said a few words about the importance of harmony in life and music, and then said, “It’s sad that there are other people who aren’t here tonight … people like Paul McCartney, who couldn’t be here because he’s in a lawsuit with Ringo and Yoko. That’s what he sent a telegram [sic] to some high-priced attorney in this room, you know? Now, that’s a bummer. The Beach Boys have their own interstacine [sic] or whatever-you-call-it squabbles. But that’s a bummer when Ms. Ross can’t make it, you know?”
Love went on to execute a complicated transition, noting first that he didn’t care if a lot of people present thought he was crazy, and then that the United States composed only six percent of the world’s population — which, he announced, “is why I came here tonight with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad!” He punched a fist up in the air.
Love then resumed his baiting of other musicians. “I’d like to see some people kick out the jams,” he said. “I challenge the Boss to get up onstage and jam. I wanna see Billy Joel, see if he can still tickle the ivories. Lemme see!” Then, apparently confusing his British rock stars, he said, “I know Mick Jagger won’t be here tonight!” (Jagger’s seat was approximately twenty feet away.) “He’s gonna have to stay in England. He’s always been chickenshit to get on a stage with the Beach Boys!”
At that moment, the Shaffer band cranked the “Good Vibrations” riff back up to maximum volume, forcing Love to at last leave the podium. Carl Wilson approached Ahmet Ertegun, who was standing at stage left, and asked, “Is our career over?” Elton John suddenly dashed back out onstage and shouted, “Thank fuck he didn’t mention me!” Ertegun, taking control of the microphone, said, “Well, that’s rock & roll.”
In the wake of such mania, Billy Joel’s appearance onstage to induct the Drifters seemed a marvel of sophisticated, genuine sentiment. Joel told of his days as a gang member back in Levittown, New York, and how the great music of the Drifters changed all of his friends’ lives. “They gave us the word,” Joel said. “And the word was this: Don’t just stay in the house and stare at the ceilin’. Go up on the roof and look at the stars.”
The award honored Ben E. King, Johnny Moore, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher and Charlie Thomas, as well as deceased members Rudy Lewis and Clyde McPhatter. The surviving members accepted their awards graciously, despite the divisive legal maneuverings that continue to embroil them.
Bruce Springsteen, dressed in a silk suit and a bolo tie, gave an eloquent appreciation of the next inductee, Bob Dylan. Dylan’s early work, he said, was so great that his latter-day songs have gone “unappreciated for having to stand in that shadow.”
“Anyone who came along today with an album like Empire Burlesque or a song as good as ‘Every Grain of Sand,'” Springsteen said, “they’d be callin’ him the new Bob Dylan.
Springsteen spoke of seeing an interview with Dylan on the Rolling Stone twentieth-anniversary TV special a few months earlier. “He was in a real cranky mood, it seemed like,” he said. “He was kinda bitchin’ and moanin’ about how his fans don’t know him. They come up to him on the street and treat him like a long-lost brother or somethin’. And speakin’ as a fan, I guess when I was fifteen and I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ I heard a guy like I’ve never heard before or since. A guy that had the guts to take on the whole world and made me feel like I had ’em, too.
“And maybe some people mistook that voice to be sayin’ somehow that you were gonna do the job for ’em. And as we know, as we grow older, there isn’t anybody out there that can do that job for anybody else. So, I’m just here tonight to say thanks. To say that I wouldn’t be here without you. To say that there is not a soul in this room who does not owe you their thanks. And to steal a line from one of your songs, whether you like it or not, ‘You was the brother that I never had.'”
After waiting at the mike for his standing ovation to subside, Dylan simply said, “Thanks, Bruce.” He then expressed his admiration for Little Richard and for folklorist Alan Lomax, who was also in the audience. “And,” he said in conclusion, “I wanna thank Mike Love . . . for not mentioning me. . . . And, uh, peace, love and harmony is greatly important indeed, but so is forgiveness, and we gotta have that, too.”
Little Richard’s speech to induct the Supremes proved to be the most enjoyable performance of the whole shebang. “I love the Supremes so much,” Richard said, ” ’cause they remind me of myself. They dress like me. Diana Ross been dressin’ like me for years. You all know that! And they also do my holler: whoo! You know I started that. I am the first one said whoo! Everybody else was sayin’ wuh! I was sayin’ whoo! Shut up!”
Mary Wilson and Lisa Chapman, the late Florence Ballard’s youngest daughter, accepted the award for the group. Wilson looked terrific, slinking onstage in a skintight sheath slit up to an inspiring height along one leg. She made a gracious reference to Diana Ross’s absence, pointing out that “Diane” (as Wilson always calls her) recently had a child and that since she had received “so many, many accolades in life and so much success,” perhaps she had seen fit to content herself “with a personal achievement more than a public achievement” at this time in her life. Then Chapman thanked the hall of fame for honoring her mother.
From that point on, the night took on a magical tone. Mick Jagger strolled up onstage, totally relaxed and charming, and proceeded to introduce the Beatles. His speech was a small revelation: never before had Jagger seemed so guilelessly appealing. He reminisced about the first scuffling gigs the Rolling Stones played in the very early Sixties.
“We were doin’ Chuck Berry songs and blues and things,” Jagger said, “and we thought that we were totally unique animals. And then we heard there was a group from Liverpool” — his mock sneer was affectionate — “and they had long hair, scruffy clothes. But they had a record contract. And they had a record on the charts, with a bluesy harmonica on it, called ‘Love Me Do.’ When I heard the combination of all these things, I was almost sick.”
Jagger then recalled his initial encounter with the Beatles. “We were playin’ a little club in Richmond,” he said, “and suddenly there they were, right in front of me — the Fab Four. John, Paul, George and Ringo. The four-headed monster. They never went anywhere alone at this point. And they had on these beautiful, long black leather trench coats. I could really die for one of those. And I thought, ‘Even if I have to learn to write songs, I’m gonna get this.’
“We went through some pretty strange times,” Jagger said in conclusion. “We had sort of a lot of rivalry in those early years and a little bit of friction. But we always ended up friends, and I’d like to think we still are. ‘Cause they were some of the greatest times of our lives.”
And with that, George Harrison and Ringo Starr appeared, in the company of John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and his two sons, Julian and Sean. Ringo, the first to speak, had obviously progressed beyond mere merriment to a place of deep drollery. “I did have this speech written here,” Starr said, “and in 1922, when I wrote it, I could see it. So we’ll just rip that up. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I love it — when they used to call us a pop group. . . . Anyway, there were four of us in that band, and there just seems to be George and I, Yoko, Sean and Julian here. It’s growin’, you know, every day.”
Harrison was even drier. “I don’t have much to say,” he said, ” ’cause I’m the quiet Beatle. It is unfortunate Paul’s not here, ’cause he was the one who had the speech in his pocket. Anyway, we all know why John can’t be here, and I’m sure he would be. And it’s hard, really, to stand here supposedly representin’ the Beatles. Uh, it’s what’s left, I’m afraid. But we all loved him so much. And we all love Paul very much. And, uh, it’s certainly wonderful to be here and certainly a thrill.”
In a statement distributed by his publicist shortly before the dinner, McCartney explained his absence: “I was keen to go [to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony] and pick up my award, but after twenty years the Beatles still have some business differences which I had hoped would have been settled by now. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, so I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them [George Harrison and Ringo Starr] at a fake reunion.”
The business differences McCartney referred to involve a royalty dispute among the former Beatles. “The difference between this one and all of the other Beatle cases is that it’s not all four Beatles suing, but it’s three of them suing Paul,” Yoko Ono explained later. Filed in December 1984 by Ono (representing the estate of John Lennon), Harrison and Starr, the suit focuses on the fact that McCartney receives a higher royalty on the group’s recordings than the other Beatles.
After Harrison’s speech, all further comment seemed almost anticlimactic: Ono’s brief acceptance for Lennon (“He would have been here, you know. He would have come”); Julian’s short salute to the Beatles enduring influence; even young Sean’s witty disclaimer (“I’m pretty proud to be up here today for doing nothing”).
Harrison made a point of thanking the longtime Beatles associates who were present. “During the years of the Beatles,” he said, “there was probably about 500 fifth Beatles. But there was actually only really 2 fifth Beatles — if there can be such a thing — and they were Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall.”
With the induction ceremonies over, all that remained was to corral all the stars up onstage and try to get some sparks flying. Although the structure of this customary conclusion to the hall-of-fame ceremony would remain loose, a certain amount of planning had been done in advance.
“We never did this in the previous two years,” said Shaffer afterward. “But this year, there were so many opportunities that we thought we’d better have a few ideas, because it would be silly to blow it if nobody could think of anything to play.”
So during the dinner, Shaffer approached Billy Joel, who asked for access to a Hammond B-3 organ and agreed to sing “I Saw Her Standing There.” Next, Shaffer went to Neil Young. “He said maybe he’d sing something of his own,” Shaffer said, “but he ended up very happy just playing guitar for everybody else. Then I spoke to Ringo. I said, ‘Would you participate in the jam?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. There’ll be real musicians up there.’ But he ended up playing drums anyway.”
Next to fall into line were Dylan (“Anything you want,” he told Shaffer) and Springsteen, who offered to pitch in on “Like a Rolling Stone” if Dylan agreed to do it. “So then, between me and Bill Graham, we made a sort of tentative list,” Shaffer said. “And in our back pocket, we knew we were going to do ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ last.”
The opening number, a stab at “Twist and Shout,” was wobbly. The first high point occurred when George Harrison gently nudged Bob Dylan into the lyrics of “All Along the Watchtower” — a bit of a problem, since Shaffer’s core band was pounding out the three-chord Jimi Hendrix arrangement while Dylan stuck with the two chords around which he’d written the song twenty years ago. (Les Paul didn’t seem to care. He took off on one of those skittering solos that have become his trademark, prompting gasps from most of the other guitarists in his vicinity.)
Billy Joel kicked things up to another level when he took charge and tore into the Paul McCartney lead on “I Saw Her Standing There,” with Jagger and Harrison contributing hilarious, head-waggling choruses. Springsteen jumped in to sing the bridge and then duetted with Jagger while Beck’s screaming lead lines circled all around them.
Ben E. King and Julian Lennon teamed up on one of John Lennon’s favorite oldies, “Stand by Me,” with guitar power provided by Dave Edmunds. Then, following an Elton John assault on “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Hound Dog” and the Beach Boys’ rough rendition of “Barbara Ann” (“Mike Love, redeem yourself!” Shaffer shouted), John Fogerty was called forth to sing “Long Tall Sally” — but changed his mind.
“I wanted to do it with Little Richard,” Fogerty announced, “but he’s left. So I’ll just do one of my own tunes, if it’s okay.” And with that, he led the sprawling ensemble into a riveting version of “Born on the Bayou.” Springsteen — clearly thrilled — weighed in on harmonies, Neil Young went nuts on guitar behind them, and Nile Rodgers matched Fogerty’s classic riff lick for lick.
“That was the most fun for me,” said Rodgers. “I knew that one would sound perfect, ’cause I’ve been practicing that part since I was a kid.”
From there, it was a short step up to what was planned as the evening’s musical peak: a long, thundering version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” with Jagger and Springsteen flanking Dylan and roaring in on the choruses for a mightily massed “How does it feel?”
“It was just a fabulous moment,” said Shaffer. “The guitar section was ridiculous — George Harrison, Jeff Beck and everybody. I didn’t think you could top it.”
Shaffer was ready to call it a night — in fact, he did. But then, out of the blue, Beck lit into the anthemic opening guitar line of “Satisfaction.” Jagger turned away from the audience, took off his jacket, and suddenly nobody was going anywhere.
“I guess Jeff knew that Jagger hadn’t really had a chance to shine yet,” Shaffer said. “I looked at Jagger’s face, and he just loved it when he heard those opening notes. He just automatically took center stage and went to work.
“It was really a stroke of genius on the part of Jeff Beck. When I had approached Jeff before the show, he showed me his finger, which he’d jammed in a door or something — the nail was right off the picking finger of his right hand. He sort of tried to make an excuse, but then he said that maybe if he got drunk enough, he might play. And he turned out to be one of the most valuable players.”
“Satisfaction” was indeed an inspiration. Even amid such stellar company, Jagger took control of the stage as if by natural right. Probably only Springsteen could have stood with him, and when he did, the song became a study in charisma. Nose to nose and eyeball to eyeball on a single microphone, they shouted out the chorus for all it was worth. Then, as if by instinct, each began lowering his voice to a hoarse croak, the one bobbing and weaving playfully against the other, building the tension, slowly bringing the volume back up and finally exploding for the finale. The applause rose in waves toward the stage, and soaring above it, the perfect concluding touch, was a brief quote by Beck of the guitar intro to the Stones’ classic “Paint It Black.”
“It was a beautiful reunion,” Little Richard said later. “Bob Dylan said it was a beautiful evening. Bruce said the same thing. Mick said it seemed like old times.”
And Richard’s own final verdict?
“I don’t think it’s gonna get no bigger than that,” he said.