Music boss urges open ears as songwriters enter Hall of Fame

Kool & The Gang perform onstage during the Songwriters Hall of Fame 49th Annual Induction and Awards Dinner in New York

New York (AFP) – Sara Bareilles, John Mellencamp and Kool and the Gang on Thursday entered the Songwriters Hall of Fame as top music executive Lucian Grainge urged the industry to keep its ears open to new sounds.

In its 49th year, the Songwriters Hall of Fame recognizes the composers behind the hits and, true to the profession’s profile, stays lower-key than major awards shows with a dinner in a New York hotel ballroom rather than a televised gala.

Neil Diamond, the songwriter by trade who became an arena-packing pop singer in his own right, was honored with a prize to mark lifetime achievement by a composer who has already been inducted.

Returning to stage despite his announcement in January that he was retiring from touring due to Parkinson’s disease, the 77-year-old New York native showed no signs of illness on his rousing take on his classic “Sweet Caroline,” the audience joyfully singing along the “ba ba ba” of the chorus.

– ‘Beautiful experience’ –

Grainge, the chairman and chief executive officer of the world’s largest label group Universal, was presented an award as a long-time “hitmaker.”

Befitting the status of one of the most powerful people in the music industry, Grainge was welcomed with previously unannounced appearances by two of Universal’s top stars — Ariana Grande, who sang her hit “Be Alright” to a jazzy piano, and The Weeknd, who flew in from Paris to briefly introduce his label boss.

Grainge, whose father ran a record store in London, spoke of his lifelong passion for music and how he spent a third of his career in the songwriting business, sometimes thrashing out tunes with composers over a solitary piano or guitar.

“It’s an incredible and beautiful experience and so much purer than playing a recording back in the studio, because there’s no hiding behind production or EQ (equalizers) or fabulous instrumentation,” he said.

Grainge said that an excessive knowledge of music can become a hindrance and that his favorite songs were ones to which he could whistle, urging the audience to “keep our minds wide open and keep listening to new ideas.”

He noted that the music establishment was initially hostile to punk bands such as The Clash and Sex Pistols in the 1970s and hip-hop pioneers including Public Enemy and Run-DMC a decade later.

“For those of you who think that much of the music produced today lacks melody or composition, I would encourage you to keep listening,” he said.

– Lighting ‘a fire’ for songwriting –

Bareilles, the soulish pop singer-songwriter who penned the music and lyrics to the Broadway musical “Waitress,” recalled how early in her career she was told that she only possessed a voice but not composing skills.

“It lit such a fire in me because I didn’t know until that moment how passionate and protective I was about the storytelling,” she said.

Bareilles said that great songwriters can be “conduits for the rest of the world, for all those people who don’t get to understand themselves in an emotional way sometimes.”

Mellencamp, the guitar-strumming Indiana chronicler of small-town America, was presented his award by folk legend Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora Guthrie, who described Mellencamp as an heir to her father and his quest to give voice to common people.

Kool and the Gang, who recently marked a half century, brought the audience to its feet with the funk greats’ “Celebration” after a call to songwriters to “carry on the search for that unplayed melody.”

Jermaine Dupri became the second hip-hop songwriter to be inducted after Jay-Z last year. Dupri took to his feet as he rallied through the 1992 smash hit “Jump” by Kris Kross, the rap duo formed when Dupri spotted them at an Atlanta shopping mall.

Other songwriters inducted into the Hall of Fame were Allee Willis, whose songs include hits by Earth, Wind and Fire and the theme to television show “Friends,” and three mostly associated with country music: Bill Anderson, Steve Dorff and Alan Jackson.