The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame celebrated its twentieth anniversary — and the fiftieth anniversary of rock itself — Monday night in a ceremony that peaked with Bruce Springsteen inducting U2 and Neil Young ushering in the Pretenders. Justin Timberlake welcomed the O’Jays into the Hall, B.B. King and Eric Clapton joined forces to pay tribute to fellow bluesman Buddy Guy, and Rod Stewart inducted soul singer Percy Sledge.
“They’re both a step forward and direct descendants of bands who thought they could shake up the world,” Springsteen said of U2. “This was a band that wanted to lay claim to this world and the next one, too.”
“Born in the U.S.A., my ass,” U2’s Bono said as he took the stage. “That man was born on the north side of Dublin.” U2 then closed the ceremony with a four-song set, including “Until the End of the World,” with Bono wandering through the high-powered crowd, spraying champagne and singing to the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones. They then moved into “Pride (In the Name of Love),” with Bono adding a few lines from Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.”
Springsteen joined them to trade vocals on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and the band finished with a supercharged “Vertigo.” “Uno, dos, tres, catorce — that translates as one, two, three, fourteen,” Springsteen said of that song’s opening count-off. “That is the correct math for a rock & roll band — it has to be more than the sum of its parts.”
Neil Young offered high praise for New Wave rockers the Pretenders, explaining that he and Crazy Horse mined the band’s debut album for ideas in the early Eighties. “They went through all the heartache that rock & roll is built on. They lost two key members and they never gave up,” said Young, referring to the deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon. Frontwoman Chrissie Hynde and the band’s current lineup — which includes founding drummer Martin Chambers — then blasted through fierce, punked-up versions of “Message of Love,” “My City Was Gone” (with Young adding squalling lead guitar) and “Precious.”
Timberlake seemed in awe of Philly Soul legends the O’Jays: “Anyone who’s ever written, produced or performed something soulful stands in the shadows of these giants,” he said. “Few musical messengers ever delivered the word as powerfully or soulfully.” O’Jays leader Eddie Levert rejoiced in his group’s entrance into the Hall. “To be mentioned in the same breath as B.B. King and people like U2 and the Beatles, this is a great honor,” he said. “Now I’m one of them.”
After a brief speech by Rod Stewart, Percy Sledge — best known for 1966’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” — took the stage and reminisced about his childhood days picking cotton in Alabama. He said that his boss once told him, “Perce, that voice coming out of your throat, the whole world is gonna hear it one day.” Then he performed a full-throated rendition of his greatest hit — which he dedicated to his wife, Rosa.
Earlier in the evening, Little Steven Van Zandt took on his Silvio Dante persona from The Sopranos — complete with wig and silent companion James Gandolfini — to welcome the first of the evening’s non-performing inductees, concert industry innovator Frank Barsalona. “He’s the godfather of rock & roll — and we don’t use that term lightly,” Van Zandt said. Ice-T, along with Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, did the honors for Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein. Quipped Stein, “It feels like my bar mitzvah.”
Clapton, who once famously called Guy the greatest living guitar player, kept the praise coming on Monday, saying that the veteran Chicago axeman’s playing still reduces him to a “helplessly ecstatic teenager.” King said of Guy, “I never was as handsome as he is.” He added of his famous guitar, “I think Lucille liked him better.” Before playing his latter-day trademark tune “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,” and jamming with Clapton and King on the blues standard “Let Me Love You Baby,” Guy used his speech to make a case for his music’s universality: “If you don’t think you have had the blues, just keep living.”