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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Two legendary African-American female artists give soul to RockHall induction show

The first of too many audience reaction shots were of Jon Bon Jovi and his inductor Howard Stern when the three-hour edit of the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, taped at the Cleveland Public Auditorium April 14, premiered Saturday night on HBO.

Obviously, Bon Jovi would be the night’s closer, its opener being The Killers singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” both a tribute to the beloved late 2002 inductee and a concession that the next three hours might not live up to him. That Killers’ lead singer Brandon Flowers had to demand that the staid music business suits on the floor stand up to pay rock ‘n’ roll respect to Petty was hardly a good sign.

Still, this RockHall induction, whatever the debatable merits of its inductees, offered first-rate performances--and two invaluable historical lessons.

The Cars was the first inductee, and lead guitarist Elliot Easton delivered one of the best acceptances of the night, rightly giving props to a Boston radio DJ who played the band’s demo so much that it was noticed in the radio tradepapers and prompted New York A&R execs to come to Boston.

Easton notably also thanked his mother, who he said was on par with Rosemary Clooney and Judy Garland as a vocalist but gave up her potential in raising him. Keyboardist Greg Hawkes likewise thanked his father for forcing him to sign up for another year of piano lessons in 1964 in exchange for tickets to see The Beatles--”a pretty good deal” to this day. And frontman Ric Ocasek thanked his “wheelchaired grandmother” for making him sing at age five and later buying him a guitar.

The Cars’ sounded great on hits including “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “You Might Think,” and in fact, all the inductees were excellent in performance, though Dire Straits did not participate due to the absence of its guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler. The Moody Blues, aided by added musicians, recaptured the 1960s magic of “Nights in White Satin” and “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band),” and Justin Hayward merits special mention for humbly stating that Nina Simone “showed us all how it should be done.”

Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, both long deceased, provided the night’s heart and soul--and indisputable historical significance. Questions of whether they qualify as “rock ‘n’ roll” aside, they most definitely could rock, and were without doubt hugely influential--and in their posthumous RockHall inductions, indeed transcendent.

Gospel guitarist Tharpe, technically inducted in the “Early Influences” category, rocked big-time, as was certified in an informative induction video bio and by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard’s performance of “That’s All” (with instrumental assist by guitarist Felicia Collins). Simone also had a church music background, and classical music training such that in her induction video she defined her music as “black classical music” that while known as jazz, was really a combination of gospel, pop love songs and political songs—all qualifying as “black-oriented music.”

Whatever. No artist in the much maligned RockHall is more important than Tharpe, and Simone—whose quotes in her bio provided timely inspiration beyond rock: “At this crucial time in our lives, when every day is a matter of survival, I don't think you can help but be involved,” she said. “We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped anymore.”

An emotional Mary J. Blige inducted Simone by her honorary title “The High Priestess of Soul,” invoking the slain Medgar Evers and the four African-Americans killed in the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing in citing Simone’s Civil Rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam” as a manifestation of her power. Audra Day, backed by The Roots, gave contemporary meaning to Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” while Lauryn Hill’s version of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” followed by a topical hip-hop embellishment of the self-empowering “Ain’t Got No (I Got Life)” demonstrated her timeless stature.

No surprise that stadium act Bon Jovi’s induction was saved for last. As namesake frontman Jon Bon Jovi stated in the induction video, “One thing I did have was laser beam focus—there was nothing to distract me.” He also knew how to apply his credo “Don’t bore us—get to the chorus!” in the monster hits he and his band performed post-induction—though he also had to command everyone to get out of their seats.

Like Easton, Bon Jovi was wise to thank radio, especially his raunch-heavy inductor Howard Stern, an early and devoted supporter. He also credited his late guitar teacher for showing him “the magic of a song” and admonishing him to practice—for which his initials remain forever carved in Bon Jovi‘s guitar as a reminder. It was a long, smart speech, not without rancor over what he has long considered a slight at being denied induction, but in the end grateful.

And speaking of induction slights—as virtually every rock ‘n’ roll fan does regarding the RockHall—Steven Van Zandt announced what seems to be a workaround: a new “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles” category as “a recognition of the excellence of the singles that shaped rock ‘n’ roll, kind of a RockHall jukebox with records by artists not in the RockHall--which is not to say these artists will never be in the RockHall, but just that they are not in the RockHall at this moment.”

For the record, the first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles are “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, “Rumble” by Link Wray and his Ray Men, Chubby Checker‘s ”The Twist,” “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum and Steppenwolf‘s “Born to Be Wild.”

The late Link Wray, incidentally, was on the ballot for induction this year, but came up short. So did Steppenwolf last year.



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