NEW YORK Eric Clapton let his guitar do the talking Monday night as he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for an unprecedented third time.
Instead of offering a long-winded speech, the soft-spoken British blues guitarist told the crowd of well-dressed rockers and industry movers, "For me, it's about the music. I'm the messenger, and I carry the message."
With that, the rocker who was previously inducted with the '60s rock bands Cream and the Yardbirds and was now being honored for three decades of solo work closed his eyes and performed an emotive rendition of his hit song "Tears in Heaven," followed by a searing version of the blues standard "Further on Up the Road" (RealAudio excerpt).
The 15th annual ceremony, at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, also included the induction of '70s rock and soul stars the Lovin' Spoonful; James Taylor; and Earth, Wind & Fire; and bluesy singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Joining them were '50s doo-wop group the Moonglows, late jazz singer Billie Holiday and late pop crooner and pianist Nat King Cole.
(For more about the inductions and the ceremony, click here.)
"Rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, ballads, slow fox trots," noted ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who delivered the speech inducting Taylor. "You can't really call it one thing. [The term] 'rock 'n' roll' is too slim for what's going on tonight."
The event ended at 1 a.m., following the traditional all-star jam, which featured former Band member Robbie Robertson, Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian, Taylor, R&B singer Natalie Cole (daughter of Nat King Cole) and rocker Melissa Etheridge.
Robertson, himself a hall of fame member, inducted Clapton by listing his various nicknames, including "EC, alias God, alias Slow Hand Clapton," and then joined him on guitar for "Further on Up the Road."
Clapton, who was clean-shaven and wore a black suit, yellow tie and wire-rimmed glasses, was the night's only honoree from the blazing electric-guitar tradition that dominated rock in the '60s and early '70s.
It was one of the most diverse class of inductees in the rock hall's history.
"The term 'rock 'n' roll' hadn't even been coined yet" when the Moonglows were at their peak, veteran singer/songwriter Paul Simon, who inducted the vocal group, said.
But "back in 1955," Simon said, "I knew something magical was happening. ... Life isn't perfect, [but], to me, 'Sincerely' (RealAudio excerpt) by the Moonglows is perfect."
The Moonglows, led by Harvey Fuqua, then performed the song in a style that married the smooth vocalizing of Nat King Cole with hints of the early rhythm & blues that prefigured rock.
Raitting The Brown Dynasty
Summing up a wide range of influences with a single last name, Raitt thanked "the Brown Dynasty: [soul/blues singer] Ruth, [bluesman] Charles, [king of soul] James and [folk-rocker] Jackson [Browne]."
Rock singer/songwriter Etheridge, who inducted Raitt, said, "In the court of rock 'n' roll, she doesn't want to be a queen. She is a soldier."
"That I did not have to get a regular job in all this time is blessing enough," said Raitt, who made her name in the 1970s with her distinctive vocals and slide-guitar style but didn't find major commercial success until her Grammy-winning 1989 album Nick of Time. She performed her hit take on John Hiatt's country-tinged "Thing Called Love" with Etheridge, who was dressed in leather pants and a tight orange top, and then slipped backstage to watch Clapton's performance on a monitor, like a true fan.
Performing together for the first time in decades, the Lovin' Spoonful's original lineup Sebastian, Zal Yanovsky, Steve Boone and Joe Butler chose to play their softer hits, "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Do You Believe in Magic."
They had a long string of hits in a three-year career that encompassed catchy ballads, driving rock and jug music. Rootsy rocker John Mellencamp, inducting the Spoonful, spit out a piece of gum before telling the crowd, "The summer of '66 [I was] in eighth grade, discovering my freedom. The song on the radio was [the Spoonful's] 'Summer in the City.' They played that song all summer long, and I thought, 'F--- yeah!' [It was] the footnote to my brain, my heart, my soul. ... I'd never been to New York City. There I was, in a town of 4,000, and I related to every word that guy sang."
Spoonful drummer Joe Butler told the assembled rock insiders, "I always wanted to be accepted and be one of you."
Elements Of Soul-Funk
In a meeting of the brash new and the brassy old, risqué rapper Lil' Kim inducted soul-funk group Earth, Wind & Fire.
"I might be young," Lil' Kim said, sporting a towering head of blonde hair offset by a daring hot-pink-and-black polka-dot dress. "But I grooved to Earth, Wind & Fire. These men make music that brings people together."
The group, led by singers Maurice White and Philip Bailey, scored a number of funk, soul and disco hits in the '70s, including "Boogie Wonderland" and "Shining Star." They performed "Shining Star," following their induction, causing several people in the audience to jump from their seats and boogie.
One of the emotional highlights of the evening came when cathartic rocker Patti Smith inducted Arista Records President Clive Davis, who this year oversaw the unexpected, Grammy-winning return of Santana. Davis was inducted in the nonperformer category.
The always intense Smith, wearing a baggy black suit and loosened tie, was close to tears during the induction. The singer credited the longtime executive with teaching her all about the music business, as well as giving her the invaluable advice, "Loosen up."
Clive Davis Still Rising
Davis, whose triumphant year was tempered by a battle with Arista's parent company, BMG, over reports of its attempts to force his retirement, was serenaded by Smith with a raucous version of the singer's anthemic call to arms "People Have the Power" (RealAudio excerpt).
"You have risen and are still rising," Smith who is eligible for the hall of fame next year said to Davis.
Whitney Houston, who was scheduled to induct Davis with Smith, was a no-show.
Alluding backstage to recent rumors that he would be ousted at Arista, Davis said, "This is the best year, professionally, in my life. The heat, the passion, goes on. I'm looking forward to the future. I hope each of you at the end of your contracts have as many options as I have."
For the first time, a number of rock 'n' roll side musicians were inducted. Mike Stoller, of the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, inducted saxophonist King Curtis, Elvis Presley guitarist Scotty Moore, Motown bassist James Jamerson, R&B drummer Earl Palmer and session drummer Hal Blaine, who performed on a number of Beach Boys records.
The night-ending jam session was a fitting mish-mash of disparate parts. Soul siren Natalie Cole jiggled her hips to the oft-covered "Route 66," a song her father introduced a half-century ago with his King Cole Trio. Taylor led Raitt, Etheridge, Sebastian and Clapton through "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)." Clapton ended the evening by taking lead on blues pioneer Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago."
An edited version of the induction ceremony is scheduled to be broadcast at 9 p.m. EST and PST Wednesday (March 8) on VH1, with additional airings Saturday and Sunday. (SonicNet's parent company, Viacom, also owns VH1.)
(An earlier version of this story was published at 4:18 a.m. EST Tuesday, March 7, 2000.)