Justin Timberlake stops in mid-sentence. “Aw man, y’all didn’t tell me Bette Midler was gonna be right here in the front! Now I’m nervous — first y’all make me follow Patti LaBelle, now this?” Yep. Justin Timberlake — arguably the most talented song and dance man working today, but honored tonight for his songwriting — was nervous.
So it goes at the annual Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, which celebrated its 50th anniversary Thursday night with a diverse blockbuster roster of inductees, honorees and luminaries paying tribute. In addition to Timberlake, the evening’s honorees were Missy Elliott, Yusuf (a.k.a. Cat Stevens), Halsey, John Prine, Tom T. Hall, Atlanta hip-hop maven Dallas Austin, Carole Bayer Sager, legendary publisher Martin Bandier and Eagles collaborator Jack Tempchin; performers and presenters included Jack Antonoff, Sara Bareilles, Benny Blanco, Clive Davis, Jermaine Dupri, Jason Isbell, Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Timbaland, and Nile Rodgers. (Midler was there as a guest of Sager.) Pressure? What pressure?
Also, Elliott drew the night’s biggest “Oooh!”s when she got a tribute video from Michelle Obama, and for veterans of the show, one of the night’s biggest surprises came when its CEO and longtime leader — and godmother — Linda Moran not only received an award honoring her service to the organization, the publicity-shy PR exec actually came onstage to accept it (it didn’t hurt that her three grandsons accompanied her onstage).
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves on a five-odd-hour-long night when there was a lot to get ahead of. As we say every year, the SHOF is a combination awards show and family reunion — while it has the structure of a traditional awards show it has none of its trappings. Inductees are recognized not for their popularity or their physical appearance or abilities or instrumental prowess: It’s purely on the basis of the one thing (er, except money) without which the music industry would not exist— the song itself. At this event, performers are both less self-conscious — it’s not televised or open to the general public — and a hell of a lot more self-conscious: What’s more nerve-wracking than performing in front of a packed room of peers and insiders?
Yet as always, everyone stepped up. The evening kicked off with a bang as Austin was inducted by fellow Atlanta R&B pioneer Jermaine Dupri, who had the audience dancing with a tight DJ set that included Austin hits like three TLC’s “Creep,” Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” Monica’s “Like This and Like That,” Madonna’s “Secret,” and Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly.” Austin thanked a long list of friends and collaborators and singled out Dupri: “We built Atlanta on our backs, track by track,” he said.
Next up was Lukas Nelson — Willie’s singer-songwriter son — who inducted Eagles collaborator Jack Tempchin with a smooth version of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (he was great, but Jeff Bridges as the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” would have been amazing), followed by Tempchin leading the band into another early Eagles smash, “Already Gone.”
Legendary music publisher Martin Bandier — former head of Sony/ATV, EMI and SBK — was presented with the Visionary Leadership Award by two of his biggest contemporary signees, Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff. The pair teamed up for an acoustic version of Bareilles’ “Brave” — she played piano while Antonoff plucked on a guitar — but their chemistry became clearer when they started speaking. They joked about Bandier’s former cigar habit — as they tried to spot him in the audience, Antonoff said, “Follow the cigar smoke!” — and Bareilles said he was “one of the first people I met in this industry who told me I could do anything I set my mind to,” which Antonoff echoed by saying, “people who will give someone a shot before it makes sense to are everything — he cared about my songs.” Bandier, who stepped down as chief of Sony/ATV earlier this year, gave a wistful speech, saying “I’ve been away from the business for two months and I miss things like this” — but concluded, characteristically, with a plug for Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” film, which he and Sony/ATV worked on extensively. “Don’t miss it!,” he cracked, “Sony/ATV could use the money.”
Dave Matthews took the stage to induct Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) with a moving rendition of “Father and Son.” He too spoke of nerves, drawing laughs by saying, “This is the kind of evening that makes me want to throw up on myself, but I didn’t ask details because I’m such a fan of the man who wrote that song.” He said upon hearing Yusuf’s music when he was young, “I felt like it was possible to be a songwriter.” Yusuf then took the stage and played a newer song, “Roadsinger,” and gave a heady speech about his life and career, ranging from his recovery from two near-death experiences to his conversaion to Islam, saying, “Most of my songs were about the journey, the search for meaning. Songwriting is such an amazing thing, it enables you to draw on all of life’s possibilities.”
Hitmaker Benny Blanco took to the stage to honor his close friend Halsey with the Hal David Starlight Award, which is presented to young songwriters who are making a significant impact in the music industry with their original songs. He spoke of her drive and her talent — “We’ll be in the studio and I’ll go the bathroom and come back five minutes later and she’s written the entire song” — and said she’s “superhuman in everything she does.”
Halsey, who also spoke of being nervous, made some characteristically revealing and vulnerable comments about how the character Halsey is “tall and confident and brave, the best version of myself — but before I can be my best I have to be my worst: A 24-year-old girl from New Jersey named Ashley Frangipane, who’s nervous, self-critical and terrified. And that’s exactly why I invented Halsey: Ashely doesn’t get awards like this.”
She concluded by saying, “I want to thank every single person who ever made me feel small, because it put me in a corner and made me write every f—ing song. Now, I’m going to shut and sing for you,” and performed “Without Me” accompanied by guitarist Arianna Powell.
Next up was a kind of extension of the John Prine tribute concert that took place in New York on Wednesday night, as Prine and Bonnie Raitt took the stage as they had the night before, but this time they played “Angel From Montomery,” a song that’s become as associated with her as it is with him. She recalled hearing about him early in her career, and spoke of how the best songwriters “help you to see what’s right in front of you, and then wrap it all up in melodies as comfortable as your favorite pair of jeans.” Prine thanked Raitt for her years of friendship, and said when he’d started off as a performer, “I couldn’t remember the lyrics so I made up my own, and bang — that was my beginning as a songwriter.” He concluded by saying, “There’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.” After he and Raitt performed, she left the stage and he sang “Hello in There” solo.
The crowd roared as the next inductee, Missy Elliott, was announced — and gasped when Queen Latifah announced a “special video,” and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s face appeared on the screen. “Missy shows us that your voice is more than just the words you say, it’s about where they come from – it’s about owning your truth,” Obama said in part.
Then Elliott received tribute in song from fast-rising labelmate Lizzo — who Latifah said “knows a little something about getting your freak on” — and longtime collaborator Da Brat for “Sock It to Me” — and Lizzo literally wore her fandom with the song’s chorus written in silver sparkle on her shirt. . (Sadly Elliott, one of the most explosive live performers in the business, did not do a song.)
Latifah — who also spoke of being nervous — talked about Elliott’s skills as a producer/songwriter as well as her importance as an artist. “She makes every person she works with better,” she said. “She changed the way we look at hip-hop music, and she brought hip-hop and R&B together in a way that hip-hop would never bee the same again. To me, there is no one greater — and she can do it in reverse!,” a joking nod to Elliott’s hit “Work It.”
The stellar house band played the loop from “Get Ur Freak on” as Elliott took the stage with a huge smile on her face and a notebook in her hand. “Y’all know I’m old school — I came up here with a notebook!,” she laughed. She thanked her mother and longtime collaborator Timbaland, spoke of feeling “grateful and humble to be up here with so many geniuses in this room — I didn’t think being on the side of my grandmother’s house, singing about roaches, would lead me to this podium!” She spoke of finding inspiration in unusual places and recalled hearing singer Monica “talking in the studio about how she was gonna fight some girl and I was like, ‘Oooh,’” and mimed writing it down. She wept at the end of her speech: “To the up-and-coming writers: Don’t give up, because I’m standing here.”
In another musical-genre pivot, Jason Isbell then honored country legend Tom T. Hall with an acoustic version of “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken).” Writer Peter Cooper inducted Hall, who at 83 was unable to attend the ceremony and accepted the award via video message — he jokingly referenced the song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” to explain his absence. He read a poem called “Inanimate Love” and concluded by saying, “I’m humbled by it all, and out of time … [long pause] … almost literally!” he laughed.
Clive Davis then awarded Carol Bayer Sager with the hall’s highest honor, the Johnny Mercer Award. She spoke of becoming a songwriter as a high school student — with the Mindbenders’ 1966 hit “Groovy Kind of Love” and her many collaborators, ranging from former husband Burt Bacharach to Kanye West on his “Ghost Town.” She was then joined by Patti LaBelle, Jonas Myrin, Desmond Child and Jordan Smith for her hit “That’s What Friends Are for.”
As the show entered its fifth hour, Justin Timberlake was presented with the Contemporary Icon Award by longtime collaborator Timbaland, who spoke of having two of his best friends in the house (JT and Elliott), and listed some of Timberlake’s songwriting achievements: “’Sexyback,’ ‘Cry Me a River,’ even ‘Dick in a Box’ from ‘Saturday Night Live,’” he laughed. “It’s a reminder not to take it all too serious — it’s just life.”
After a big bro-hug and silly dance at the podium with Timbaland, JT launched into a long and pause-filled acceptance speech that ranged from recalling his mother’s love for classic rock and driving around Memphis as a kid blasting the songs from their car, to learning how to sing in church: “Church is the best place to learn, because even if you go up there and sh– the bed, everyone says ‘Amen!’” He then spoke of his amazement upon first hearing Missy Elliott’s “Supa Dupa Fly” album — singing and beatboxing a characteristic Elliott sound — and saying “This is something I’ve never heard!”
He then closed out the night with a long medley that started off with an atmospheric version of “New York, New York” and segued into several of his hits including, “My Love,” “Cry Me A River,” “Say Something,” “What Goes Around,” “Mirrors,” and “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” before being joined by Timbaland for the closer, “SexyBack.”
Much as we hate to save the ace house band’s shout-out for the end of the article — led by Rob Mathes, they killed it on every song — it is a testament to their talents that after nearly five hours onstage, they nailed a rhythmically challenging and ultra-precise song like “SexyBack” with ease.
And with that, near the stroke of midnight, the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s half-century show came to a close.