Grammys: Foundation Benefit Concert 'Celebrated Song Not Celebrity'

6:39 PM PST 01/24/2014 by Chris Willman
Paul A. Hebert/Invision/AP
Skylar Grey

While not the "sexiest" party on the block, Thursday's "A Song is Born" event attracted plenty of music star power, including Kris Kristofferson, Gavin Degraw, Valerie Simpson and Skylar Grey.

Some of the songwriters being feted at the annual Grammy Foundation benefit concert Thursday were quick to acknowledge that theirs was not necessarily the sexiest Grammy party of the week. "We’re here tonight to celebrate song and not celebrity," said Mike Reid, co-author of the Bonnie Raitt classic "I Can’t Make You Love Me," adding, "as evidenced by the fact that these lovely people have no idea who we are."

Reid may have underestimated just how much that Raitt-cum-Idol perennial made him and writing partner Allen Shamblin into household names, at least among the kind of L.A. households that'll buy tickets to a pre-Grammy event with a title like "A Song is Born." In any case, as much as the Wilshire Ebell show focused on mostly behind-the-scenes tunesmiths like Jeff Barry, Paul Williams, Jimmy Webb, and Dan Wilson, it also showcased highly recognizable performer-writers with a roster that included Kris Kristofferson, Gavin Degraw, Valerie Simpson, Skylar Grey, Steve Cropper, the Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik, the Civil Wars’ Joy Williams, and Raitt herself. 

As the "A Song is Born" show stretched almost two hours past its scheduled closing time -- with nary a complain or walkout in sight -- the phenomenal succession of classic songs gave rise to the thought that this is what the Grammys might be if the Grammys were produced for the small contingent of people who actually love music.

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Some of the writers told funny stories about the obstacles that nearly got in the way of their biggest hits. Jeff Barry, the Brill Building co-architect behind dozens of girl-group and/or Phil Spector classics, sang the Grammy song of the year he wrote for Olivia Newton-John, "I Honestly Love You," and said that the original recording's lack of a rhythm section wasn't an artistic choice so much as the record company hating it too much to fund a full production.

Similarly, Jimmy Webb said the record company issuing the Fifth Dimension’s "Up, Up, and Away" detested the tune, partly because they "they thought it was about drugs. It was just an ironic moment in history, because of all the songs that were on radio that week, "Up Up and Away" was the only song that was not about drugs."

Reid and Shamblin told the hilarious tale of the origins of "I Can’t Make You Love Me." They’d read a newspaper article in the now-defunct Nashville Banner about a homeless man living under a bridge whose wife had picked him up to take him to the courthouse for a divorce; "You know, you just can't make a woman love you if she don’t," the man fatefully told the reporter. Said Reid, "I remember thinking, it's about a guy living in a refrigerator box under a bridge -- that’s got to be a country song. Ricky Skaggs and Ricky Van Shelton were having big hits at the time, so we figured we’d write an (up)tempo," he explained, launching into a rollicking bluegrass arrangement of the tune that thankfully went unrecorded before they realized it was a sexy, tragic ballad.

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Behind-the-scenes or not, some of the writers being honored evidenced a slightly cocky side. Introducing "New Kid in Town," which the Eagles have been playing all week across town at the Forum, JD Souther (most recently a visible face to Nashville viewers) warned, or promised, "It's not gonna be exactly the same as theirs… It might be better." 

The newer generations of writers had their own eureka-moment tales to tell. Dan Wilson spoke of getting together with Adele to write "Someone Like You." "She told me a really sad story about a horrible breakup she had gone through," he recalled. "And I told her I was really sorry but inside I was thinking, 'We’re gonna write a really good song.'"

The youngest generation of writers on hand focused on success stories. Gavin Degraw said his first hit, "I Don’t Want to Be," was written by an angry young man, "but it doesn’t mean anything angry to me anymore. What it means is the song that paid off my college loan." The Goo Goo Dolls’ Rzeznik sang "Iris" with DeGraw and Grey but seemed slightly conflicted by its place of primacy in his catalog. "Sometimes I feel like this is the only song I’ve ever written,” Rzennik said. “You’re grateful, but you think, Could you just listen to one other friggin’ song?"

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Dressed in an unusually-slinky-for-the-evening gown, Grey added that she sometimes feels the same way about "Love the Way You Lie," the hit she wrote for Rihanna. But she hasn't had to play it long enough to resent it. She spoke of living in a remote cabin in Oregon where her only source of income was editing eroticism, and being at a breaking point right before writing "Lie." "I said, ‘I have to find a way to make a living in music.' I was so over editing porn."

The almost four-hour concert saved the soul for last. After Raitt sang "Nick of Time" -- laughing about how much she thought she knew about the subject of aging when she wrote it at 40 -- Cropper brought Degraw back on and did a mini-set of ‘60s soul hits he co-wrote, including “In the Midnight Hour” and "Dock of the Bay," before the enraptured 1,200 assembled decamped next door to another hall at the Wilshire Ebell for a late supper, just a couple of hours closer to the midnight hour than expected.

Twitter: @chriswillman

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