A couple of years ago, I made inquiries to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Could Luther Vandross be inducted? The answer was no, he was dead. SHOF had an unspoken rule about no posthumous awards. So if you croaked before the membership approved you, there was no chance of membership.
But today the SHOF announced they’re inducting Jerry Garcia and Willie Dixon. These men are most sincerely dead. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Lame, the SHOF is starting to run out of potential honorees. Living songwriters with great catalogs don’t exist anymore.
This year, after years of being on the ballot, Cyndi Lauper and Linda Perry are getting in. I can remember meetings of the SHOF nominating committee when those names, though some of us pressed for them, got no traction. But now, with fewer candidates left, the last few are dribbling in.
Still not in the SHOF are Elvis Costello, which is tragic, and Pete Townshend. Don’t ask me why. Like the Rock Hall, the SHOF is very political. Music publishers make up the nominating committee, and they campaign for the writers who’ve made them money. The Grateful Dead remains very popular, so Garcia gets in with his still living partner Robert Hunter. Willie Dixon was a seminal blues man. So they make sense. But for years they were rejected because they were not breathing.
The reality is that starting around 1985, “songwriter” became a different animal. Sampling and “interpolation” became prevalent. Committees wrote songs. Producers threw in beats. Puff Daddy reworked Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” as “I’ll Be Watching You” and suddenly that was songwriting. But you can’t give it awards.
There are some songwriters still with unique catalogs. John Legend, Rob Thomas, Alicia Keys, John Mayer come to mind– although Mayer has nicked many Curtis Mayfield songs. Alicia has sampled quite a few songs, like the Moments’ “Love on a Two Way Street” for “Empire State of Mind.” But she’s written quite a few of her own, including “If I Ain’t Got You.” So she, and the aforementioned, will be eligible around 2020. Soon we’re going publishers agitating for awards for people like Max Martin and other “factory” writers whose impersonal pop product is spread around the highest bidder. Hal David, the now deceased and revered leader of the SHOF for years, will be rolling in his grave.
The reality, though, is tough. Now that the SHOF has given up the death rule, Vandross should slide in next year without question. Otherwise, the annual nominating meeting in September will be the same as ever. I was there for several years when the same names from the prior year were passed around for consideration. But the list has gotten much smaller, with almost no additions. There’s also a problem with older acts like Led Zeppelin– now being sued for allegedly stealing “Stairway to Heaven” from Spirit’s Randy California; and Madonna, who suggests melodies to writers who flesh out her work.
So congrats to Willie Dixon and Jerry Garcia. They’ve broken through a barrier. I think we’ll be seeing more of that.