Prior to the show, shock rocker Alice Cooper mingled with the funky George Clinton, while LL Cool J and Kid Rock shared a word. Then John Mellencamp sauntered in with Meg Ryan in tow. Yes, this star-studded affair lived up to its billing.
Things started out with a bang when Green Day, whose singer Billie Joe Armstrong inducted Guns N’ Roses, kicked the evening off with an energetic version of the punk band’s “Letterbomb.” A snarling Armstrong let the audience members know this wasn’t a typical evening. He yelled, “Everybody get off your a– This is rock ’n’ roll. Tonight this is not a party. This is a celebration.”
To be fair, there was plenty of partying going on with celebrating as Cleveland once again, for at least a night, was the epicenter of the entertainment world. Even though the crowd, 6,000 strong packed into the upper deck of Public Hall, was more subdued than three years ago when then-inductee Metallica and its rowdy fans rocked the venue, this audience was filled with attitude and swagger.
Rock Hall President/CEO Terry Stewart thanked the audience, “We’re so happy to have you guys here tonight, and we’re so blessed to have a room like this in Cleveland where we can do this.” However, a few seconds later he berated the crowd for booing his acknowledgement of Gov. John Kasich and the state’s support of the Rock Hall. Oh, well, rock ’n’ roll in bed with the establishment hasn’t always been well accepted.
The first induction of the evening belonged to Texas bluesman Freddie King, who died in 1976. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill did the honors. “Freddie taught us what it was like to play as a group,” Hill said. “He could give you a look and you knew exactly where to take the music.”
Added Gibbons, “Years later ZZ Top enjoyed playing many shows with Freddie.”
King’s daughter Wanda accepted the award. “This is such a proud moment for the King Family. He was a great musician and a great songwriter. I remember going to the shows at 14. I met Stevie Ray Vaughan who was 14. He told my dad, ‘How can I play the blues like you?’ My dad said, ‘Man, you have to feel the blues.’ ”
Hill and Gibbons, joined with guitarists Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa, ripped through King classics “Hideaway” and “Going Down.”
Next a bespectacled Mellencamp humorously inducted ’60s sunshine artist Donovan into the Rock Hall. “I bought my first Donovan record in 1965,” he said. “I was in the seventh grade. I wasn’t just listening to Donavan. I was living Donovan, which means I was stealing (stuff) from Donovan. Other artists call that being inspired.”
Said Donovan, “Thank you, John. That was quite an introduction. It’s a singular honor, and I’m very pleased to accept this.” He then spoke a poem he wrote for the honor before performing the folky “Catch the Wind,” the blues-heavy “Sunshine Superman” and the rocking “Season of the Witch.” The latter track included Mellencamp.
To induct Laura Nyro, singer-actress Bette Midler came out and said, “Hello, Cleveland.” As for the influential singer-songwriter, she said, “I heard that sexy mama voice. I said where the hell did this come from?” By the end of her long tribute, Midler was teary eyed and empowered to induct her friend, who died at the age of 49.
In attendance to accept the award for his mother was Nyro’s son, Gil Bianchini, who said, “Through her lyrics she spoke of challenges and adversities, and also joys and happiness.” This was followed by a magical performance of “Stoney End” by contemporary artist Sara Bareilles.
The show then hit a nice stride with Carole King inducting music industry legend Don Kirshner. This was followed by David Letterman’s musical director Paul Shaffer, dressed as Kirshner, introducing Darlene Love, who performed the ’60s classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
Garage rock enthusiast and E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, who got the audience’s attention by saying, “I love Cleveland but you just can’t find a place to park,” introduced The Small Faces and The Faces into the Rock Hall. Singer Rod Stewart, a former member of the bands, wasn’t in attendance. The Beastie Boys, Guns N’ Roses and The Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted later in the evening.