These days, it’s not often that you hear music people waxing poetic about the business. But the love was flowing on Thursday, June 7, at the Marriott Marquis, where the Songwriters Hall of Fame held its annual dinner and induction ceremony.
Maybe it was all the old-time music publishers working the room and calling each other “babe” without any trace of irony. Maybe everyone there felt a debt of gratitude to the industry that has made them rich and sustained them over the years. Maybe it was just that a good melody can still bring people together—singers, songwriters, producers, music publishers—to try and make a buck and move the people. All legendary Caribbean composer Irving Burgie had to do during his acceptance speech was sing the first line of “Jamaica Farewell,” and the whole room joined in.
Singer Ron Dante was on hand to support publisher Don Kirshner, who received an award named for ragtime songwriter Abe Oleman. Mr. Dante was just another 16-year-old kid with a dream when he walked into Mr. Kirshner’s office in the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway almost 60 years ago with a song called “Hey, Baby.”
“Don supported me for three years while I got my feet wet,” Mr. Dante said. “I’ll never forget that.”
A few years later Mr. Kirshner, who had just been fired as the manager of the Monkees, made Mr. Dante the lead singer of his newly concocted group, the Archies. Their hit song “Sugar, Sugar” went on to sell six million records.
Since then, Mr. Dante has sung in thousands of commercials. Remember the McDonald’s jingle, “You Deserve a Break Today”? That’s Mr. Dante. Last summer’s ubiquitous Yoplait commercial with the reworked version of “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”? That’s him, too. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Dante is not a fan of the latest McDonald’s number. “I hate to say it, but ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ is a pretty weak melody compared to the old melodies,” he said. “Those songs they used to write for the great Coca-Cola or Pepsi spots, they were great songs with great melodies.” All right, Mr. Dante, so where has the melody gone? “Melody went south to Nashville and it’s living and thriving in country music,” he said.
Mr. Dante was not alone in mourning the decline of melody. A wistful attitude was struck by many members of the older generation, who owed their careers to lyricism. In the current climate of pop songwriting, melody and harmony have lost out to rhythm. And the role of the songwriter has been diminished, supplanted by the producer and engineer.
Beneath the stage before the awards began, BMG Label Group chairman and C.E.O. Clive Davis held court. One by one, members of the songwriting establishment dropped by to pay their respects. Singer Tony Orlando gave Mr. Davis an enthusiastic hug and whispered something in his ear. What did he say? “I just thanked him for breathing a second life into me when I needed it most,” Mr. Orlando said with feeling.
A few tables over, Michael Masser waited to be received into the Hall of Fame. Mr. Masser is famous for writing the songs “Touch Me in the Morning,” “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” and “Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You,” among others. He came of age in the 70’s, when unabashed, emotional pop songwriting was the order of the day. Like his songs, Mr. Masser gets straight to the point. “When you write a song you don’t ask if it’s good or not, or if it’s gonna sell,” he said. Mr. Masser was wearing large red-tinted sunglasses and his blond hair in a bowl cut. “When you write a song, you ask whether you’ve reached deep inside your heart and whether it’s honest,” he said. “And if you strike a good chord, you stop traffic on the highway, and everyone has a beautiful moment.” Mr. Masser paused for dramatic effect and looked his interlocutor directly in the eyes. “When you’re writing a song, you have to know two things,” he said. “You have to know who you are and you have to think about other people.”
The new generation was not so forthcoming. Born-again Christian rapper Kanye West, who was charged with introducing R&B singer John Legend, showed up an hour late, with a large entourage in tow, and left early to attend his 30th birthday party at the Louis Vuitton store. English soulstress Joss Stone flitted around the room, escorted by a menacing bouncer in a pinstripe suit.