“There is a time in every musician’s life, and for that matter, in every music lover’s life, when we are so open and attuned to the world around us that we are able to feel music for the first time with the intensity of a divine hand,” Paul Simon said in his remarks about the Moonglows, the first act inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Monday night. Simon’s speech established the tone for the evening’s celebration. The fifteenth annual induction ceremony took a decidedly humble turn from years past. It was an evening in which the artists present did more than acknowledge their roots and influences, they stripped away the layers of their respective musical personalities revealing the personal stamps of their predecessors, tracing the branches of the musical tree back to its pre-WWII roots.
That’s not to say the evening lacked some genuine rockin’ chills and thrills. Three-time inductee, Eric Clapton found the perfect foil for his smooth blues-lines in presenter Robbie Robertson’s angular chops on “Further On Up the Road,” the Moonglows wooed with their delicate a capella harmonies on “Ten Commandments of Love”, and Earth, Wind and Fire raised the roof with “Shining Star” at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Monday night.
Following Simon’s introduction of the Moonglows into the Hall, Lil’ Kim took the podium and inducted Earth, Wind and Fire by way of the declaration that, “in this lifetime, there’s music you like, and then music that you need.” While Parkinson’s disease-stricken leader Maurice White isn’t the stage dynamo he once was, the band set off some of the evening’s biggest fireworks as they played together publicly for the first time in almost twenty years.
A T-shirt-and-tux-clad John Mellencamp puffed a cigarette while he recalled the first time he heard the Lovin’ Spoonful, as a fourteen-year-old, motorcycle-riding, girl-chasing brat in the summer of 1966. “That summer was great for me and the soundtrack played on the radio was ‘Summer in the City,'” he said. “It played over and over again. I never got tired of hearing it. Poetic and beautiful in its course. Sexy and poignant in every breath that the singer sang. The song I assumed was written about New York City. I’d never been to New York City, but here I was in a town of 4,000 people and I related to every word that guy sang.” Mellencamp sang the chorus before adding a “Fuck, yeah.”
But the ceremony’s punkest moment wasn’t John Mellencamp’s underdressed and ciggie-drenched presentation. It was something more simple and sublime: rock & roll aging gracefully, as James Taylor thanked his fiancTe and referred to her as “snookums,” quite possibly the first and last time the term will ever be used in any rock & roll event.
The evening’s festivities focused on and reveled in rock & roll’s status as a musical mutt, more about the subtleties of this bastardized music form than any punk-like inkling to rock the boat. Paul McCartney captured the agenda best in his induction speech for James Taylor: “I’m just very honored to induct him into the rhythm and blues, rock & roll, ballad jazz, slow foxtrot awards here tonight. And you know you gotta do all those categories, because we all know you can’t really call it one thing. Rock & roll is really too slim a scope for what’s going on tonight.”
The new Sidemen portion of the program was particularly keen in observing the diverse aspects that make a great rock & roll moment. A number of accomplished musicians were given the chance to step from behind the shadow of the legends they supported and stake a claim to those musical touches that they created. Hal Blaine’s rolling thumper of a drum intro on the Beach Boys “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” King Curtis’ chatty sax on “Charlie Brown,” James Jamerson’s definitive bass lines on “My Girl” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Earle Palmer’s breakneck drumming on “Good Golly Miss Molly” and Scotty Moore’s ringing guitar solo on “Heartbreak Hotel” are the notes, solos, intros, lines, and embellishments that have defined rock & roll over the course of its history. Moore and Palmer were on hand to receive their awards while Jamerson and Blaine were represented by family.
Arista honcho Clive Davis, who’s already enjoyed plenty of accolades this year for his involvement in Santana’s comeback smash, continued his winning run with his induction by Patti Smith. “This is by far the best year of my life, professionally,” he said.
In stark contrast to Mellencamp’s shabby-chic was Ray Charles’ smashing gold tux coat with gold lamT shirt, worn as he posthumously inducted Nat King Cole. Diana Ross followed with an induction of the late Billie Holiday and a rich take on “God Bless the Child.”
The clocks then jumped forward to the Seventies. Melissa Etheridge offered up a wide-eyed, lengthy summation of Bonnie Raitt’s career, claiming “she’s not the queen [of rock & roll], she doesn’t want to be the queen. She is a soldier. She is in the trenches, alone in a man’s world breaking ground.” Raitt accepted before tearing through “Thing Called Love” with Etheridge and “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” with Bruce Hornsby on piano.
Then Robertson took the stage. “I’ve been asked tonight to induct Eric alias Derek and the Dominoes alias EC alias God alias Slowhand Clapton and all his personas into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” he began his speech. “That’s a whole lot of music, and that’s a whole lot of blues.”
“I don’t want to say much,” Clapton said before thanking his daughter and girlfriend (both in attendance) and the bluesmen he “worshipped” as a youth. “Love and music is all you need,” he said concluding his brief speech. “If I may, I’ll just go over there and play the rest of the time.” Clapton then offered up two distinctly blues shades with “Tears in Heaven” followed by the guitar-driven return to The Last Waltz with “Further On Up the Road.”
Taylor was the evening’s final inductee, introduced by surprise presenter Paul McCartney. “I’m very grateful for this,” Taylor said hoisting his statuette and joking, “I only hope one of these never falls in the hands of someone desperate enough to use it.” Following spirited takes on “Mexico” and “Fire and Rain,” the evening’s honorees took to the stage for a six-song jam initiated by Natalie Cole leading a swinging, bluesy “Route 66.” With “How Sweet It Is,” “Long Tall Sally,” “I Shot the Sherriff,” “Love and Happiness,” and “Sweet Home Chicago” the latest inductees pushed the music well past the midnight hour and logged the obligatory bow before heading to Cleveland.
When all was said and done, the honors landed in the proper laps, even those that weren’t present. From the jazzy soul of Cole and Holiday to the updated blues of Raitt and Clapton, from the careful vocal craft of the Moonglows to the soul-funk of EWF, and from the jug-band tinged tunes of the Lovin’ Spoonful to James Taylor’s modern folk, one of rock and roll’s greatest attributes is its diamond-like nature; a multi-faceted result of an intense combustion of basic elements. As it should have been, this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was a gem rather than a rawk.