The night kicked off with the induction of the Philadelphia songwriting and producing team of Gamble and Huff. Patti LaBelle set the performance bar high, opening the show with a rousing rendition of their “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” – eliciting the first of many standing ovations to come during the course of the evening.
It’s hard to believe this is the same women who strutted around in ridiculous get-ups singing “Voulez vous couchez avec moi?” a few years back. Ms. LaBelle is the embodiment of class these days. She looked amazing and sounded even better. So the night was off to a good start.
Creedence Clearwater Revival great John Fogerty inducted surf guitar icons The Ventures, describing how every kid of his era with a guitar tried to imitate them. When the group launched into the Hawaii 5-O theme, the crowd gave a nostalgic cheer. Among the hundreds looking on and enjoying it all were Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan with their oldest son, Sam, as well as Ed Burns and Christy Turlington.
Lou Reed took the podium to induct Leonard Cohen, but it was often hard to hear him with all the dishes clattering and folks at the fringe of the ballroom chatting it up as if there was nothing going on worth listening to. Very annoying.
Still, when Cohen accepted his award, the room pretty much quieted down and listened while he made his comments and then recited “The Tower of Song” in its entirety.
Damien Rice performed a simple and moving rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with just his voice and an acoustic guitar. It was beautiful and the crowd loved it.
During set changes, Hall of Fame founders Jann Wenner and Seymour Stein circulated and chatted it up with the likes of Ron Perelman, Graydon Carter, and Mica Ertegun, widow of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.
The energy in the room totally shifted when Justin Timberlake arrived to induct Madonna. He’s clearly gotten to know The Material Girl well, as he and Timbaland recently spent months in London co-producing a new album for her. The innuendo-laden intro turned off some, but for the most part, JT endeared himself with the crowd.
Madge returned the favor with plenty of bleepable words and anecdotes of her own when accepting her award, making sure to acknowledge all the people who said she was talentless and would never make it.
She thanked the naysayers for making her work harder to become successful. Rather surprisingly, Mrs. Ritchie attended this rather monumental event in her life sans hubby and children. Her ever-present publicist, Liz Rosenberg, assured reporters that all was well on the marriage and family front, however.
Madonna’s choice of fellow Detroit native Iggy Pop to perform in her stead was typically bold and unconventional. (There was no explanation as to WHY she did not sing, though a couple of women were heard to joke that maybe “the stitches are still in”… M is looking VERY refreshed these days!) Few in the crowd seemed taken with Iggy and many appeared to ignore him.
Billy Joel gave a wholly hysterical speech inducting his pal John Mellencamp. Who knew these guys were friends? Billy told many a funny tale on “the little bastard” and painted him as the contentious conscience of the heartland that he is.
Mellencamp’s stunning model wife, Elaine Irwin, looking oh-so-glam in a glittering dress took it all in with a smile, as did Joel’s lovely young missus, Katie Lee. Mellencamp’s acceptance speech was as cantankerous as one would expect.
But when Mellencamp and band broke into “Little Pink Houses”, the crowd finally got to their feet and started dancing.
Sadly, the best, most heartfelt speech of the night was given to an emptying room. Tom Hanks gave a fantastic tribute to England’s Dave Clark Five, but the hour was growing late and people left before and during his presentation.
Too bad for those who left. Hanks’ longtime friend and co-star Meg Ryan was held rapt, as were those of us left in the room, as he told what it was like to escape from the circumstances of a difficult childhood by tuning into his transistor radio and experiencing the JOY of the music of the Dave Clark Five.
It was a rousing and touching nod to a band not often given its due as the only group the Beatles ever feared. Because two of the members died in the last year, a band consisting of Joan Jett, John Fogerty, Mellencamp and his band, with able backing from the Paul Shaffer and the house band, closed down the night with joyful versions of “Bits and Pieces” and “Glad All Over”.
Too bad this event drags on too long year after year (because of TV broadcast requirements) and instead of going out with a bang, it now tails off into a sad whimper. Hard on the band which gets inducted last!
Next year the dinner moves to Cleveland to the actual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a special event… but then it will presumably head back to ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, where for just a few days each March, the Grande old Dame of Hotels will rock again.