Rock 'n' roll's newest immortals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- Awards shows are usually stuffy, star-studded events at which everything said sounds as if it came straight off the TelePrompTer. They're predictable, monotonous and stupifyingly dull.

Fortunately, the 10th Annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Dinner is nothing like an awards show.

Sure, speeches are made and statues change hands, but where that's usually the end of awards shows, that's only the beginning for the Hall of Fame. For one thing, most of the inductees and many of the inductors come ready to play -- meaning that this year's crowd got to hear first-rate performances by everyone from the Allman Brothers Band to Al Green (on his own and with Willie Nelson) to Neil Young, who played first with Crazy Horse and then with members of Pearl Jam.

But there's also a sense of community that doesn't usually come across in the made-for-TV spectaculars. Where else are you likely to see Bruce Springsteen chatting with Mariah Carey, or Ohio governor George Voinovich sitting next to Isaac Hayes, or Phil Spector just mingling?

For that matter, where else would you see the surviving members of Led Zeppelin -- Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones -- rocking out with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry? Seeing that quintet (with Jason Bonham on drums) rip through a medley of Yardbirds oldies was amazing enough, but then they followed it up with an even hotter blues medley that ended with a steaming "Baby, Please Don't Go." And as if that weren't enough, Page, Plant and Jones came back out to do a rip-snorting run through "When the Levee Breaks" with Neil Young (this time featuring Michael Lee on drums).

Of course, the biggest stars were the evening's honorees: The Allman Brothers Band, Al Green, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Martha and the Vandellas, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Billboard publisher Paul Ackerman, and early vocal group the Orioles.

Yet for all the stars on hand, the Hall of Fame is really about fans -- some of whom happen to be stars themselves. "Hey, Dion!" called Robert Plant during the dinner, grabbing Dion DiMucci for an enthusiastic chat. On the other side of the hall, Paul Shaffer, whose CBS Orchestra served as the banquet's house band, waited patiently to be introduced to Deborah Chessler, who managed the Orioles and wrote their first hit, "It's Too Soon to Know."

"I read about you in the history books," said Shaffer. "It was an education. You were important!"

Unfortunately, the weather almost upstaged a few of the inductees, as fog-bound airports played havoc with flights into New York. Jokes Martha Reeves, as she and the Vandellas were being inducted, "We owe half our day to TWA."

Al Green, who almost didn't make it in from Memphis due to the weather, was the first inductee. After offering a spirited, crowd-rousing rendition of "Take Me to the River," Natalie Cole was brought out to handle the induction. "It's such an honor to be on the same stage as this man," she said. "In my opinion, Al didn't sing -- he sang . . . Al's voice, it bobs, it weaves, it floats, it sneaks up on you and stings."

Green was delightfully modest accepting the award, at one point wondering how best he should deal with the honor. "I guess I'll just keep on keeping on, how about that?" was his conclusion.

Two of the evening's honored acts had Baltimore roots. First were the Orioles, whose recordings in the late '40s and early '50s were a major influence on R&B; and doo-wop.

Seymour Stein, who founded Sire records, introduced the Orioles by talking about doo-wop. "Doo-wop was the music I fell in love to," he said, and rattled off the names of more than a dozen great groups. But for him, the Orioles were something special. "They were so ahead of their time," Stein said. "They were covering pop songs, and charting on the pop charts."

Deborah Chessler did the actual inducting. "Over the years, a lot has been written about the Orioles," she said, then cut to the most salient point: "They were a great group."

Chessler then introduced Johnny Reed, the Orioles' bass and only surviving member. "I have only one thing to say: Thank you," said Reed. "It's very sad that the other fellows can't be here, but they're here in spirit." He added that he hadn't seen Chessler in 41 years, and expressed his happiness to accept the Hall of Fame statuette. "I want to thank you, all of you," he said, "for this wonderful -- what do you call it, Oscar?" Much laughter followed.

Frank Zappa was the other Baltimore native on the program, and was inducted by a sweat-suited Lou Reed. "It's very rare to have known someone who affected the world in a positive way," he said. "Frank Zappa was such a person, and of the many regrets I have in life, not knowing him better is one of them . . . Frank was a force for reason and honesty in a business deficient in these areas." Moon Zappa accepted the award with a mixture of tears and wit. She was hardly at a loss for words, though, referring to the Republican resurgence by cracking, "I'm really glad he wasn't around to see that," and adding that the award "really belongs to his fans."

Perhaps the evening's most anticipated induction was that of Led Zeppelin -- in part because the band's influence and popularity remain so large, but also because of what some thought was ill feelings over John Paul Jones' not being asked to participate in the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant "Unledded" project.

But not only were all three up there on the dias, they even joked about the situation -- albeit in typically dry fashion. After Plant joked that, as far as the legends surrounding Zep are concerned, "after 1968, I can't remember very much at all," Jones dryly added that it was no wonder that Plant was unable to remember his phone number.

Earlier in the evening, Melissa Etheridge inducted Janis Joplin. Etheridge started with a stirring, acoustic rendition of "Piece of my Heart," and followed it with an even more impassioned speech about what Joplin meant then, and means now.

"She was the only goddess in a sea of rock gods," she said. "Janis was the '60s. She was the sound, the look . . . To her fans, she was the passion and the power of love and freedom. "I wish I could thank her . . . I wish I could say to her now, 'Welcome to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.' "

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