Hard times for the music industry means fun times for Capitol Hill. Rarely does a month go by without a chance for music-loving lawmakers to be serenaded by virtuosos with a plea — performers craving radio royalties, recording artists seeking help in the fight against illegal downloading, and so on.
Tuesday night’s musical charm offensive came from the songwriters. No particular agenda outlined at the ASCAP Foundation’s concert at the Library of Congress, which drew the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz — just a celebration, said ASCAP prez Paul Williams (“Evergreen” composer, Little Enos in “Smokey and the Bandit”), of “the strong bond between those who write the songs and those who write the laws.”
The latter seemed awfully giddy about hanging out with the former. Sen. Rand Paul was asked to introduce fellow Kentuckian Jackie DeShannon. “They told me she wrote ‘Bette Davis Eyes,’ and I said, ‘I’m there,’ Paul said fondly. “Going to high school in the ’80s, we loved that song!”
“I’m just in awe tonight,” gushed Saxby Chambliss, midway through the show, as he introduced a trio of Carrie Underwood hitmakers.
“This is more fun than we’re entitled to have inside the Beltway,” sighed Sen. John Cornyn as he introduced constituent Lyle Lovett.
Yes, Lyle! The Texas singer-songwriter was the unofficial headliner of the night, teeing up his “If I Had a Boat” with a story about boyhood dreams of writing songs, which “didn’t seem like a real job to anybody in Klein, Texas.” (Unspoken message: It is a real job, for Americans trying to make a living, and don’t you forget it, Congress.)
But the scene-stealer was, like most of the performers, a behind-the-scenes guy: Hal David, of “Alfie” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” fame, who sang his own “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” in a surprisingly strong voice, just weeks from turning 90.
Noted: It’s hard to get a Hill audience to clap along. Even after-hours pianist Lamar Alexander resisted picking up DeShannon’s “come on, everybody!” beat.
Also noted: Songwriters have a hard time articulating how the magic happens. The stories shared on stage were just a little vague. Sinatra’s “That’s Life” was apparently born out of the moment writer Dean Kay got his draft number, and Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” — something about sitting around a living room trying to write a song, and then they just got it.
A guy who looked kind of like Peter Orszag, right down to the wire-rim specs, explain how he and his songwriting partner had labored over a tune with a sweet image about making it through the wilderness, until I found you. Finally, he said, they found a star who would record it — but that night, it was the Orszag-looking guy, the songwriter Tom Kelly, who sang it for us, in a keen falsetto, moving his gray-suited shoulders to the beat:
Like a virgin — hey! Touched for the very first time!
“It’s a fairly filthy song,” he laughed. “We wouldn’t have been able to sing it for Congress in 1984.”
Bonus: Of course Kelly could sing “Like A Virgin” — he’s the one who sang it first. SongwriterUniverse.com interviewed Kelly and writing parter Billy Steinberg about how the song came to be... and they’ve got the original demo sung by Kelly before it was presented to Madonna.
Extra Added Bonus: Rand Paul does not lie — “Bette Davis Eyes” is a fairly awesome song.