When a trim, healthy-looking Brian Wilson strolled onto the stage of the grand ballroom at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, the black-tie crowd at the second annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner snapped to attention. The reclusive Beach Boys founder was hardly shy or tongue-tied: he proceeded to bring on songwriters Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber — the very first of 22 all-time greats honored —– singing a line from a hit they produced and co-wrote for the Drifters. “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway,” Wilson wailed in his familiar falsetto, setting the tone for an evening of celebration.
First, historical debts were paid to three ground breaking nonperformers: Leonard Chess, the cofounder of Chess Records; Ahmet Ertegun, the cofounder and chairman of Atlantic Records; and Ertegun’s longtime partner Jerry Wexler, who produced classics by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. These men were cited for giving early rock, R&B and blues a home at their independent labels when the rest of the recording world wasn’t interested. As Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner put it in his introduction, “Rock & roll might not have thrived, might not have even survived, if it weren’t for these pioneers.”
Seymour Stein, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation and of Sire Records, took the stage to acknowledge the roots of rock in other styles of music. He inducted three forefathers whose influence was crucial: country great Hank Williams, jump-blues singer and sax man Louis Jordan and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. T-Bone’s daughter Bernita Moss seemed relieved when she accepted the award for her late father. “Upon the completion of the hall-of-fame museum,” she said, “my dad’s guitar will be sent to be on display there. For 11 years now I have wondered what we were going to do about getting his guitar out of the closet!… So many people tried to steal it we had to hide it!”
Charter hall-of-fame member Chuck Berry wore a glittering tux to do the honors for Bill Haley, the first of 15 artists inducted into the hall this year. Fifteen-year-old Pedro Haley, decked out in his United States Marine Corps Junior ROTC dress uniform, accepted the award for his late father. “I don’t think my dad knew he was inventing rock & roll,” Pedro said before the ceremony. “He was just playing what he liked!”
The late R&B belter Big Joe Turner didn’t always sing about things he liked, according to songwriter Doc Pomus, who came up to induct his former collaborator. “Joe would call me every week or so and say, ‘Cuz, I’m in a world of trouble,'” said Pomus. “And I would say, ‘If you weren’t in a world of trouble, what would you have to sing about?’ Now, can you imagine what a world of trouble we’d all be in if we didn’t have a Joe Turner?”
Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters — another great who turned trouble and pain into beautiful music — was inducted by one of his foremost disciples, Paul Butterfield. Recalling the guidance and inspiration Waters had offered him as a struggling young harmonica player on the Chicago scene, Butterfield presented the award to the late musician’s wife, Marva Morganfield, and their daughter Rosiland.
Then Carl Perkins walked to the podium — in blue suede shoes, no less — and collected his trophy from his former producer, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. “What a thrill it is,” Perkins said, “for a sharecropper’s son to be in this beautiful building.”
Throughout the ceremonies, inductees were introduced by vintage video clips of their performances. Even after Bo Diddley and his rectangular guitar had faded from the big screen, the crowd wouldn’t stop clapping along to the snaking rhythms that are his signature. Bo was inducted by all three members of ZZ Top, who definitely gave credit where credit was due. “He even taught us to put fur on our guitars and drums,” said Dusty Hill. “I didn’t realize until I saw the video that he always had pretty girls with him also,” added Frank Beard.
B.B. King, the original guitar hero, was welcomed into the hall of fame by Sting. “We’re here to celebrate another great King,” said the British rocker, referring to the recent national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Appropriately enough, the next inductee was Clyde McPhatter, an accomplished singer of both gospel and rock. Ben E. King, McPhatter’s successor as lead vocalist of the Drifters, presented the award to the artist’s widow, Lena McPhatter.
Before inducting the late Rick Nelson, John Fogerty summarized the career of the oft-misunderstood singer in very personal terms: “He wrote the lines to ‘Garden Party,’ a couple of which were ‘If memories are all I sing/I’d rather drive a truck’ – which I still firmly believe.” Accepting Nelson’s award was a striking blond trio — Rick’s daughter Tracy and his twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew.
On a lighter note, the Coasters — inducted by industry pioneer Lester Sill — mugged up a storm in the spirit of their hits “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak.”
Eddie Cochran’s mother, Alice Cochran, came to receive her son’s award on the arm of Foreigner’s Mick Jones. While inducting the coauthor of “Summertime Blues,” Jones pointed out Cochran’s massive influence on the entire Sixties generation of British rockers. “He meant a tremendous deal to rock & roll in England,” said Jones with a sly smile. “Know wot I mean, Mum?”
“I love Jackie Wilson,” declared Peter Wolf, before launching into a hilarious tale about going to see the late soul crooner at the Apollo in the early Sixties. He then presented the trophy to Wilson’s widow, Harlean Wilson, and their son John — who also had some memories to share. “Right now I’m 23,” he said, “but I remember being four or five and watching my father onstage at the Apollo. He was bad! I mean that!”
Marvin Gaye was inducted by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the husband-and-wife team who composed some of his biggest hits. But before introducing Marvin’s first wife, Anna Gordy, and their son Marvin Gaye III, Ashford had a confession to make. “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said, “and on many occasions I tried to sing like Marvin did singing our songs.”
Bruce Springsteen followed with a confession of his own. “I wanted to sing like Roy Orbison,” Bruce said while inducting the Texas-born crooner. “His voice was unearthly. He had the ability, like all great rock & rollers, to sound like he dropped in from another planet. And yet he did stuff that went right to the heart of how you were living every day. That’s how he opened up your vision and made a little town in New Jersey sound as big as all of his records… I’ll always remember what he means to me — and what he meant to me when I was young and afraid of love.”
Orbison was floored by the Boss’s eloquence. “I spent 30 years tryin’ to be cool,” he said flatly, “and now I’m nervous and have to go back to the restroom!”
Keith Richards seemed a mite fidgety himself, nearly tearing off his tuxedo while inducting Aretha Franklin. When Keith mentioned that Lady Soul was “the first lady to be inducted into this hall of fame,” the crowd roared its approval. The Reverend Cecil Franklin accepted his sister’s award and performed an impromptu victory dance with Richards.
Daryl Hall and John Oates couldn’t be blamed for seeming a bit choked up. After all, they were inducting one of their role models — Smokey Robinson. Once the guests had serenaded Smokey with a couple of verses of “Ooh Baby Baby,” Motown’s premier singer-songwriter offered his thanks. “To receive such an honor as this,” said Smokey, “in what I feel, or hope, is only the midstream of my life … is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me.”
Then the assembled legends — along with some future hall-of-famers — descended on the stage for a little honest work, with the able assistance of Paul Shaffer. Sting and Daryl Hall shared a piano bench; a couple of Coasters harmonized with Leiber and Stoller; Paul Butterfield blew tough, bluesy harp; and Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Carl Perkins and Mick Jones all played guitar. B.B. King shook a pair of maracas until someone thoughtfully handed him an axe. Bo led a joyous version of “Bo Diddley” (of course!), and B.B. tossed off some tart solos that added an extra kick to Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”
The hits just kept coming. Smokey took the mike for “Going to a Go-Go.” Keith Richards and Chuck Berry slid into a dueling duck-walk routine during “Roll Over Beethoven.” Springsteen and Ben E. King traded elegant vocal lines on “Stand by Me,” and Bruce joined voices with Roy Orbison for a chilling version of “Oh, Pretty Woman” — perhaps the highlight of a stellar evening. Then John Fogerty’s barreling version of “In the Midnight Hour” drove the sweaty all-star jam all the way home.
Earlier in the evening, Carl Perkins had joked with fans and reporters: “I keep waitin’ for someone to put a broom in my hand and say, ‘Clean up the place. That’s what you’re here for.'” Before the night was over, there was absolutely no question what Perkins — and the rest of the new inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — were here for.