Rock 'n' roll finally got some respect the new-fashioned way. It celebrated itself.
Tonight, close to a thousand music industry professionals attended a $1,000-a-plate black-tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, as 10 rock 'n' roll pioneers -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, James Brown, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley -- were inducted into the brand-new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Cooke, Holly and Presley were honored posthumously, and Little Richard is recovering from injuries suffered in an automobile accident. The other six all showed up.
"This is something that is long, long overdue," said Rolling Stone Editor and Publisher Jann Wenner, who is also vice president of the Hall of Fame Foundation. "People are finally recognizing the fact that the music form known as rock 'n' roll has become an integral part of 20th-century American history."
Ahmet Ertegun, chairman of Atlantic Records and founder and president of the Hall of Fame Foundation, hailed the success of rock 'n' roll as "the triumph of the native subcultures of America over the establishment."
With rock 'n' roll entering its fourth decade, it certainly seemed time for a hall of fame, but as Phil Everly pointed out at a reception before the ceremonies, "everybody had to grow up to get into a position to say this is what should be done. We now have as heads of record companies people who were the real music men in the early days of rock 'n' roll. Now we're seeing the real fruits of everybody's labor."
"Way back then they said we were corrupting the youth of America," mused Lewis at the reception. "Of course, I was marrying them." Lewis, dressed up in his pink tuxedo, looked healthy despite a recent hospital stay. "I'm back up to 165 pounds," he beamed, "my fighting weight." Later, posing for photos with Fats Domino and James Brown, Lewis was singing under his breath: "I can't pay the groceries, and I can't pay the bills, but I always drive a Cadillac, and I probably always will."
Like Lewis, Domino was sporting several diamond rings, and like many of the other inductees, he seemed to take his induction matter-of-factly. "I never thought about it," he said. "It didn't make me no difference. I sold a lot of records and I took the music to the people who bought the records and I was very happy with everything that went down. But," he added, "this has made it much better."
Chuck Berry said he had never thought about his music's longevity. But "now, I look back and say, how wonderful!"
And James Brown, back on the charts with "Living in America" from "Rocky IV," conceded, "It seems like I've been around a long time. Hey, I'm here and I thank God I'm here. Thank God the people still want me. Thank you for having me in your life so long."
After all those thanks, Brown offered to donate himself as a museum artifact: "AYYOWWW. I feel GOOOOOOD!"
Ray Charles echoed the sentiments of others when he said he didn't mind waiting for such an honor. "You have to keep in mind that we are a very young country and in some things we're way ahead of people and in others we are behind and we have to catch up. You need a person with a vision, an idea, a force to make things come about because they're not just going to happen on their own. We're getting there, it just took a little while, just like we got a holiday for Martin Luther King. That's America."
When the ceremony began, Paul Shaffer and his band played an overture made up of hits by all the inductees and even led the crowd in a chorus of "Hail, hail, rock 'n' roll" and "Long live rock 'n' roll." The singing was uninspired, but the sentiment was genuine.
Among the celebrity presenters were Rolling Stone Keith Richards ("It's very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry because I lifted every lick he every played"), Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Hank Williams Jr., Neil Young and Quincy Jones, who as a 14-year-old played in a combo with a 16-year-old Ray Charles.
Elvis Presley was inducted by Sean and Julian Lennon, sons of slain Beatle John Lennon.
Those honored tonight were chosen from a list of 40 nominees sent out early last year to some 250 historians and industry professionals by the Hall of Fame Foundation nominating committee. The lone criterion was that nominees had to have been active before 1959, a 25-year-window that is much longer than in sports halls of fame. In next year's balloting, those active before 1961 will be eligible.
The location for the Hall of Fame is yet to be decided. Ertegun said the board would make a choice in the next month or so, but that the telephone vote in USA Today, in which Cleveland emerged the runaway winner, would not be the deciding factor. "That just gives you an idea of how intense the people of Cleveland are. Every city has reason to have it, and we're going to hear everybody out." The decision will hinge on financial commitment and accessibility, as well as enthusiasm.
Funds raised at tonight's dinner will provide seed money for the museum. Bob Krasnow, president of Elektra Records, said that once a city is chosen, he envisions a threefold presence: a museum containing musical artifacts; a comprehensive audio-visual library; and a theater and recording studio with closed-circuit television capability.
Maria Elena Holly, widow of Buddy, accepted his award. "The way Buddy felt about his music and what he put into it, it had to happen," she said. "He was very dedicated, and I'm sure he would still have been in it."
In fact, all seven living honorees are still in it. The Everly Brothers, who reunited in 1983 after feuding for a decade, just released a new album this week. Little Richard will be on the road again after his recuperation. Domino, Lewis, Berry and Charles still tour, as does Brown, who helped usher in Washington's New Year.
Phil Everly recalled that 25 years ago, "everybody always used to ask us what we were going to do when this was over." He still doesn't have an answer.