Most songwriters, even successful ones, toil alone or with a single collaborator. To call them unsung would be oxymoronic, but with a few exceptions they remain unknown to the lovers of their music. You think Barry Manilow wrote "I Write The Songs"? Think again: that tune was penned by former Beach Boy Bruce Johnston.
When Olympian songwriter Johnny Mercer joined music publishing legends Abe Olman and Howie Richmond to found the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1969, it wasn't much more than a noble idea: To recognize the tunesmiths and lyricists who "write the songs that make the whole world sing."
I attended the group's first induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan in 1970, when I was a college student and my dad, Carl Sigman, was among its first members. (Carl always said he got in only because Mercer, his friend and mentor, owed him one: Back in the 1930s, my dad secured Johnny, who was not nearly as gifted at baseball as he was at songwriting, a spot on a hot Brooklyn sandlot team.)
SHOF grew steadily over the years, inducting new members, throwing awards dinners and doing good works. But despite the mighty efforts of its long-time chairman, the great lyricist Hal David, and its board, the organization remained brick-and-mortar-challenged.
Now SHOF finally has a permanent home. Last week, three-nights of fabulous music and festivities at the Clive Davis Theater marked the opening of the Songwriters Hall of Fame Gallery at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles,
On opening night, Hall of Famers Hal David, ASCAP president Paul Williams, Lamont Dozier, Mac Davis and Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson performed some of their classics, including, respectively, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," "We've Only Just Begun," "I Can't Help Myself," "In The Ghetto" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." When Lamont lost his place on "Stop! In the Name Of Love" and Hal did the same on "This Guy's In Love With You," the audience happily filled in the blanks. And to keep things contemporary, Davis sang a song he wrote with Rivers Cuomo for the most recent Weezer album.
Night two was a mesmerizing evening with Jimmy Webb, one of the best American songwriters of the past half century. Webb played such masterworks as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston," the hat-trick immortalized by Glen Campbell, and answered questions posed by Paul Grein, veteran journalist and pop music encyclopedia.
Webb offered a fascinating description of the contrast between his early lyric writing (when words poured out fast and freely) and the challenge a mature writer faces marrying his knowledge of the songwriter's craft (rhymes, song structure and such) with the abandon of those younger days. Acknowledging that he's "a little bit constrained by what I've learned," he advises other writers to "tell the story you want to tell," and to hell with prohibitions against perfect rhymes.
Webb then brought down the house with -- you guessed it -- "MacArthur Park," the heroic 7-minute-plus opus whose Richard Harris recording was a worldwide charttopper in 1968. Webb sang his heart out while his astonishing piano work resonated like a full orchestra. After "MacArthur Park," there are no encores.
Night three was by all accounts a masterful Master Class with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, writers of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," "On Broadway" and many other songs that have become part of the DNA of several generations.
Among the SHOF Gallery's highlights are video clips from past awards dinners and info on all its inductees and honorees. Suggestion for the future: An exhibit featuring "The Ones That Got Away." It would showcase recordings of killer songs that, but for a twist of fate, would have become smashes. Such an exhibit might include my favorite Jimmy Webb sleeper, "Cryin' In My Sleep."
And next time SHOF distributes a brochure with examples of its illustrious membership, they ought to include such truly immortal members as, say, Berlin, Porter, Gershwin, Sondheim, Willie Nelson and Smokey Robinson along with Albert Hammond and Desmond Child. I mean, I like "It Never Rains In Southern California" and "Poison" as much as the next guy. But still...
Aspiring songwriters take note: The SHOF Gallery's interactive songwriting kiosks allow visitors to try their own hand at composing and lyric writing. It's well worth a trip. Who knows what might come of it, as the world awaits the next Mercer, Webb or Sondheim?
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