SZA, Steely Dan, R.E.M., Trey Anastasio, Carrie Underwood and Many More Light up 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony

The Songwriters Hall of Fame, which staged its annual awards ceremony on Thursday night, is an institution and an event unlike any other in the music industry, even though many of its elements are hardly unique and many things about it have barely changed over decades, and possibly since it launched in 1969. Indeed, we say many of the same things about the ceremony in an article very similar to this one every year — it’s a combination of an awards show, a family reunion and a trade event that is invite-only yet features a mind-blowing array of Grammy-level, once-in-a-lifetime  performances and tributes, always held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York’s Times Square.

Yet every year features a wildly diverse and drastically different lineup of honorees and performers, which over the years have spanned from global icons like Neil Diamond, Drake, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Van Morrison, Eurythmics, John Prine, Leon Russell and Elvis Costello to people you’ve probably barely heard of, even though you probably know a dozen of their songs — and all are treated equally in the eyes and ears of the Hall and the tight-knit songwriting and publishing community that attends every year.

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On this night, one can see Lady Gaga singing Four Non-Blondes’ hit “What’s Up” to Linda Perry; Stevie Nicks belting “The Rose” to Bette Midler; Emmylou Harris performing Eric Clapton’s heartbreaking hit “Tears in Heaven” for the song’s co-writer Will Jennings; Joe Walsh performing ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” (and saying, “I always wanted to be in ELO — now I have”), and in 2011, the evening ended with Billy Joel and Garth Brooks duetting at the piano in matching Stetson hats.

Every year, honorees who have won multiple Grammy and other awards say this award means the most to them, because a recognition from their peers of the art and craft that is the very foundation of all music: songwriting, a message that is more important than ever as the industry continues to find new and brazen ways to avoid paying the creators of that foundation.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 13: Trey Anastasio performs onstage during the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala at New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 13, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images  for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
Phish’s Trey Anastasio (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)

That standard was continued in fine fashion on Thursday night at the ceremony honoring the SHOF class of 2024: R.E.M., Steely Dan, SZA, producer Timbaland and songwriters Hillary Lindsey, Diane Warren and the late Cindy Walker.

This event is probably the only one on earth that could feature performances from R.E.M., SZA (pictured above with hit producer and SHOF president Nile Rodgers), Carrie Underwood, Andra Day, Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Keith Urban, El Debarge and Jason Isbell, but a similar statement could be made every year.

However, a couple of things were very different this year. For one, the tightly-run show — which often approaches (and sometimes even passes) the five-hour mark due to packed lineups and speeches that can hit the double-digit-minute mark — was done before 11 p.m. for the first time in anyone’s memory. And second but far more significant, longtime SHOF CEO Linda Moran, who was appointed to the role in 2001 and whose industry career reaches back to the 1960s, wasn’t there, for the only reason that could have kept her away: At the top of the show, Board member Evan Lamberg of Universal Music Publishing gently told the audience that Moran wasn’t there because she’s battling leukemia. Yet he quickly countered the gasps in the room by saying that she’s receiving the best possible care and treatment is moving in a good direction. He then led the crowd in a quick video greeting to her (she was watching via livestream), before moving on to the show.

The evening’s music kicked off in characteristically far-reaching fashion with the tribute to songwriter Dean Pitchford, as the high school-aged winners of the Hall’s 2024 Abe Olman Scholarship sang his hit for Irene Cara from the film “Fame,” followed by R&B singer Deniece Williams delivering a stellar version of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” followed by Kevin Bacon, with his brother Michael on guitar, singing “Footloose,” complete with some fleet footwork from Kevin, who starred in the film some 40 years ago. Pitchford delivered a gracious acceptance speech before singing a medley of his other songs, finishing with “Once Before I Go.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 13: Kevin Bacon, of The Bacon Brothers, performs onstage during the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala at New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 13, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images  for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
Kevin Bacon (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)

A dramatic musical shift followed as Phish singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio took the stage to honor Steely Dan — Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker — playing a sleek medley of “Kid Charlamagne” and “Reeling in the Years,” remarkably channeling Fagen’s voice on the former and showing some dazzling guitar work on both.

Veteran power manager Irving Azoff took the stage to induct his longtime clients, telling an amusing story about how the group, which stubbornly refused to tour during their 1970s commercial peak, asked him one day to schedule a concert. Azoff excitedly booked a show, which quickly sold out, and then asked the group when he could follow with more dates. “‘Oh, we have no intention of touring,’ he recalled them saying. ‘We just wanted to see how big we are,’” and promptly canceled the date. Fagen followed with a brief and gracious thank you.

In another musical shift, Nile Rodgers — Chic co-founder, hit producer and SHOF president — next took the stage to honor SZA with the Hal David Starlight Award for promising young songwriters. While he had trouble with the teleprompter — “I should have worn my old-lady glasses!,” he laughed — he said that, like many of her generation, SZA grew up “never believing that musical genres should be separated, and called her “our Starlight starchild.”

In a characteristically effusive acceptance speech, SZA noted that her parents were in the audience and said, “Out of all the awards, I feel like this means the most — it validates my entire career.” Accompanied by a guitarist, she then delivered an acoustic version of her 2023 hit single, “Snooze.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 13: Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban speak onstage during the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala at New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 13, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images  for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)
Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame)

Next up was Carrie Underwood, who used every bit of her formidable vocal power to honor songwriter Hillary Lindsey, writer of one of her biggest hits, “Jesus Take the Wheel.” Lindsey — no mean singer herself — gave a warm acceptance speech before picking up a vintage Gibson acoustic guitar to deliver a medley of two of her other hits, inviting Keith Urban to the stage to duet with her on his Lindsey-cowritten 2016 hit, “Blue Ain’t Your Color.”

The crowd roared as Missy Elliott took the stage to induct her longtime friend and collaborator, hit producer Timbaland (Tomothy Mosely) — the pair, who met as high school students in Virginia, soared into the public consciousness in 1996 by cowriting and coproducing Aaliyah’s “One in a Million” album and haven’t dipped since. She recalled seeing his “big hands on this little keyboard, and I was amazed that he could make songs with [the keyboard’s] weird dog and cat sounds and handclap noises.” She also recalled Moseley’s father, a long-haul truck driver, telling the pair to stop making so much noise “with your boobiddy bop-bop” because he had to rest up for a drive.

“That boobiddy bop-bop is now in the Songwriters Hall of Fame,” she concluded with a laugh.

Moseley gave the evening’s only long acceptance speech before leading the ace house band through a fast-paced, mostly instrumental medley of around a dozen of his hits — complete with a conductor’s wand — including “Big Pimpin’,” “Pony,” “Get Your Freak On,” “Drunk in Love,” “Promiscuous,” and “Suit & Tie,” concluding with Justin Timberlake’s 2006 smash “SexyBack.”

Country star Jason Isbell then took the stage to honor R.E.M. — singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry — with a rapid-fire version of their 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Calling them “my friends and my heroes,” he spoke of their vast influence on him and many others as a young musician. He presented all four members with their trophies and then stepped aside as Stipe gave a heartfelt acceptance speech on behalf of the entire group, which then moved center stage to perform their 1991 hit “Losing My Religion.” (Read Variety’s full recap of R.E.M.’s speech and performance here.)

The evening concluded with a stellar performance of Diane Warren’s Oscar-nominated hit “Stand Up for Something,” followed by hit songwriter and ASCAP President Paul Williams inducting “my pal.” Warren has written dozens of hits in such a familiar style that they’re arguably more hers than the artists who performed them: “Unbreak My Heart” (Toni Braxton), If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” (Chicago), “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith), “How Do I Live” (LeAnn Rimes) and so many others.

Warren grew emotional during her characteristically humorous and idiosyncratic speech, thanking her mother “for being the first of many I proved wrong” but then tearing up as she thought of her watching from heaven, her father “for being the first of many I proved right,” Clive Davis, who she called one of her greatest champions, and all of the artists “who make my songs sound a hell of a lot better than I do.”

The evening concluded with El Debarge taking the stage for a show-closing version of Warren’s hit “Rhythm of the Night” — which the audience, pleasantly surprised by the early hour, slowly filtered out into.

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