NEW YORK – “This is the top of the line,” Lionel Richie said Thursday night, as he held the Songwriters Hall of Fame lifetime achievement award. “I’m going to have to say that this is the best night of my entire life as a songwriter.”
It was a stunning wrap to the best entertainment-world acceptance speech I’ve ever heard. And it came from Richie, for whom, I confess, I never felt the love. In the super-funk era of the Commodores, he was the soft cheese. In the ‘80s, while he blasted up the charts with “Endless Love” and “Say You, Say Me,” I was listening to the Clash, Thin Lizzy and Elvis Costello. But when I heard his speech, I wanted to rewind the tape and give “Hello” another try.
First, a bit about the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction. Why is it so much better than every other award show? First, it’s not televised. That means no preening for the camera, no shtick, no political speeches, no get-off-the-stage music.
“Nobody is going to cut you off here,” Paul Williams, a 2001 inductee, told me proudly.
In a ballroom in the Times Square Marriott, the nonprofit (one paid employee) Hall of Fame organization gathered to induct Chic co-leaders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Marvin Gaye and Chip Taylor. Special awards went to Nick Jonas, Seymour Stein and Richie.
I’d never been to these awards, but as soon as they started, I realized they were different. Costello, as if whispering to a friend, revealed that there are 20 songs he has written with Burt Bacharach that he’s yet to record or even publish. Oh, and just this week he got a copy of a newly discovered demo he wrote with Paul McCartney in the late ‘80s.
I’d seen actor Jon Voight wandering through the hotel lobby and wondered why. He cleared that up by appearing onstage to introduce Chip Taylor. Turns out Taylor’s birth name is James Wesley Voight. Yes, the man who wrote “Wild Thing” and the gigolo in “Midnight Cowboy” are brothers.
There was only a brief reminder that this was an awards show. James Corden, the late-night TV host, showed up to introduce Jonas. He used his brief time to make fun of the B-52s, who had just performed. He made fun of them for either being too old or not having any new, popular songs. It seemed mean for no reason.
But wait, back to Chip Taylor. He revealed a third Voight brother, Barry, who is a brilliant geologist who just happened to discover how to forecast a volcanic eruption. It’s true. See. And then, if that wasn’t enough, Taylor picked up his guitar and performed “Wild Thing” with his three granddaughters, Riley, Kate and Sammy. Try that at the Grammys.
Other top-notch performances: Jennifer Hudson’s take on Richie’s Commodores ballad “Still.” Byrds legend Roger McGuinn on Petty’s “American Girl.” Costello playing his early hit “Alison.” Rodgers, who emanates cool, eternal youth and joy, picked up his guitar to blast through “Le Freak” and, with Sister Sledge (yes!), “We Are Family.”
By the way, did you know Rodgers wrote “I’m Coming Out” after running into six men dressed like Diana Ross in the men’s room of a transvestite bar? If you were sitting there Thursday night, now you do.
Stein is in his 70s and uses a cane. But his stories move like Usain Bolt. He talked about signing the Ramones, Talking Heads, Pretenders, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure, Barenaked Ladies (“goofy-looking but I loved their songs”), the Smiths and Madonna – and how that final deal had to be consummated in a hospital room as he battled endocarditis. Why not wait until he was discharged? “I didn’t want to risk losing her.”
Nick Jonas kept his remarks short and graciously said twice that he didn’t deserve the special recognition award he received. There’s no reason to slag on him. Petty told the crowd he was “the rock-and-roll white trash section of the show” and, noting the mass of talent assembled, said that “if no one ever wrote another song, we’d be fine.”
Petty was technically the closer, but since you weren’t there, I’ll finish with Lionel Richie. Because he was the best thing about an already great night.
Richie jumped to the podium clearly thrilled by the vibe of the room. This is the man who has won Grammys, an Oscar and sold more than 100 million records. This night, he said, was “over the top.”
He praised Hudson.
“She had me crying on my own song. That’s a damn shame.”
He talked about “Wild Thing.”
“Who knew the Voight family was a group of geniuses?”
He called over Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the legendary Philly soul production team and the evening’s co-chairmen, to reference the “master class” they taught by auditioning the Commodores – and rejecting them.
“We copied everybody. We could play Kool and the Gang better than Kool and the Gang. We could do everything. And they pulled us over to the side and said, ‘That’s great, fellas. What do you sound like?’ Bing. The bell went off.”
He talked about going to “Motown University,” where Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye offered advice.
Then he explained how he got to be the guy who wrote ballads for the Commodores.
“There are six guys in the band. Every guy brings 10 songs that should be the album. No one wrote a ballad. I got one song on the album. The funny thing about it, every song was the hit. And then it was labeled Lionel Ritchie is the balladeer. Well, no, I can write some fast songs. I just can’t make it work with these guys over here.”
By now, of course, at a typical awards show, Richie would be long gone from the stage. Not tonight. He told a story of leaving the Commodores in 1982.
“I get a phone call from Sammy Cahn, and Sammy said, ‘Me and Hank Mancini want to meet you. We want to ask you a few questions,’ ” says Richie. “And so I went to breakfast with them and we finished breakfast and we sat and they said, ‘Okay, let’s get down to business. We have one question to ask you.’ ”
“ ‘Are you Jewish? Because no black guy writes like that.’ ”
We were now nearly nine minutes into his speech. He would get up, after, and perform “Hello” on the piano and you couldn’t do anything but cheer. And as I contemplated why this awards show was so unlike any other – no TV – I considered something Richie had said as soon as he took the stage.
“If ever there was a show that should be on television,” he said, “this evening should be on television.”
It was the only thing he was wrong about all night.