The folks at the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) knew better than to bore the crowd of 1,400 with a bunch of dry speeches and long presentations. After all, they knew that everyone really came last night to see the Four Tops.

But still. There was some business to be done. The RIAA didn't just invite 1,400 people -- including heads of all the major record labels -- to the Washington Hilton to dine on filet mignon with bearnaise and tarte tatin and swing to the Four Tops for the heck of it.

The purpose of the 18th Annual Cultural Award Dinner was to thank People for the American Way for supporting the RIAA's effort to block state legislation to restrict the sale of recordings containing "obscene" lyrics. This year the RIAA, an association made up of 55 record companies, in conjunction with interest groups such as People for the American Way, has successfully lobbied against such legislation -- in Louisiana, for example.

"Once the government got involved, criminalizing the sale of albums and putting clerks in jail, it became a First Amendment issue," said People for the American Way President Arthur Kropp. "We believe that there is a cultural evil going on here -- that's not our term; that's the right wing's term. It's Moral Majoritism. ... We need to send a message saying that we're right on this. We need to fight censorship. I'd much rather have the industry work it out than politicians who smell opportunity."

The RIAA invited politicians to the dinner -- Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown, Sens. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), Connie Morella (R-Md.), Mervyn Dymally (D-Calif.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), to name a few -- but most didn't show up due to a string of late votes.

"That happens about 50 percent of the time," said Joe Canzeri, former Reagan aide and last night's party planner.

Some of the pols drifted in at about 10 -- an hour after the award presentation was to begin. Forty-five minutes after the Four Tops were supposed to start their set.

Suddenly, the lights went dim. The guests quieted down.

"There'll be two quick speeches," promised RIAA Vice President Patricia Heimers. "Two quick speeches and that's it." She knew how to please a crowd.

RIAA President Jay Berman gave a brief-but-fun welcoming address. Actually, he had three introductions and couldn't decide which one to use.

He started out with the traditional "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen." That got a pleasant applause.

Choice number two, the rock concert greeting: "Hello out there, D.C.!" he yelled into the mike, as brash as Madonna. "How ya doin' out there tonight?" They cheered like a Capital Centre crowd.

Choice number three, the rapper greeting:

"I'm J.B. Welcome to D.C.," he chanted. "We're gonna take you back for a little of the sound out of our musical lost and found."

They loved this.

After a jiffy presentation to Kropp of a sterling silver compact disc from Tiffany (which has to be sent back because the engraving wasn't quite right) and Kropp's equally short but passionate acceptance speech on the importance of freedom of expression, it was time for that rediscovery of the musical lost and found.

The Four Tops may be a little gray in the temple and a little thick in the waist, but they still have the sequined jackets, the luscious harmonies and those smooth moves from the Motown days.

"Let's have a party," yelled out Four Top Levi Stubbs, as the quartet broke into "Baby I Need Your Lovin'." And the guests danced in their seats and sang so loudly they could be heard in the hotel lobby above.

"They're a great act," said Berman, "and with an audience like this, you need a great act."