Lionel Richie, Tom Petty and other top-selling musicians have a message for songwriters who are just starting out — follow your creative instincts.
The artists were honored Thursday night by the Songwriters Hall of Fame at a New York dinner that was full of star performers but, in keeping with the behind-the-scenes role of composers, was lower profile than many other music awards galas with no live television coverage.
The Hall of Fame inducted Petty along with disco titan Nile Rodgers and his late counterpart Bernard Edwards, English literary rocker Elvis Costello, slain soul legend Marvin Gaye and Chip Taylor, who performed his signature 50-year-old song “Wild Thing” with his three granddaughters.
Richie — welcomed by Jennifer Hudson, who sang “Still” from his band the Commodores — received the Hall of Fame’s most prestigious prize, given to recognize achievement by a songwriter who has already been inducted.
“This is the best night of my entire life as a songwriter,” said the 66-year-old Richie, who took to the piano himself to perform his 1984 hit “Hello.”
Despite the runaway success of “Hello,” Richie said he came to resent being classified as a balladeer and chose simply to follow his artistic senses.
“I developed into something that even I did not know who I was,” he said. “All the songs that I created were the songs that they told me would ruin my career.”
Richie said he eventually told music industry figures: “Let’s stay out of the category business and get into the music business.”
Petty, the Florida songwriter behind hits such as “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’,” called on the audience to encourage young rockers “to live out their dreams like I have mine.”
“Because one thing that we always had in the back of our mind was that this music, this art, is just this much more important than money,” he said.
– Quick-footed label chief –
The Songwriters Hall of Fame gave an award for industry star-maker to Seymour Stein, the legendary co-founder of Sire Records who signed a wave of major acts ranging from punk pioneers The Ramones to pop superstar Madonna.
In a rapid-fire speech delivered with his Brooklyn accent, the now 74-year-old Stein raced through some of the highlights of his storied career and also spoke of trusting his gut.
Stein said he would trust the judgment of others such as Daniel Miller, the British producer who founded Mute Records.
One morning in the early 1980s, Stein learned that Miller had signed for the British market an act that would perform that very evening in Basildon, a town east of London.
“I jumped out of bed, grabbed my passport and booked a ticket on the Concorde and had someone meet me and saw and signed that same night Depeche Mode,” he said, referring to the synth pop giants.
Stein faced a similar situation shortly afterward when Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records informed him of another promising British band.
“He told me that their next gig was two days from now. I said, that’s nothing! So I flew right over and signed The Smiths,” he said of the influential arthouse band fronted by the darkly poetic Morrissey.
But Stein said he had some misses. On a visit to London, he did not sign The Teardrop Explodes, the psychedelic rockers led by the experimental musicologist Julian Cope.
“I understand he was disgruntled I didn’t sign him. Looking back, I am too,” he said.
– Respecting cover versions –
Rodgers, who voiced delight at his induction, performed a stripped-down guitar version of Chic’s disco classic “Le Freak.”
He was joined by Sister Sledge for “We Are Family,” the 1978 hit which he and Edwards wrote for the all-female trio after, Rodgers said, he declined to give it to Bette Midler or other established acts.
Costello performed his 1977 song “Alison” and voiced belated appreciation to Linda Ronstandt for her cover version, which he said helped keep him afloat.
“This honor means all the more to me because I am probably the least commercially successful songwriter to have ever been inducted,” he quipped.
He brought an emotional response from many in the room when he thanked his wife, the Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall.
“I will never be a good enough songwriter to tell her how much I love her,” Costello said.