The Library of Congress Celebrates Ten Legendary Songwriters
Ray Parker Jr. performed “Ghostbusters” and Berlin’s Terri Nunn sang “Take My Breath Away” in an all-star event Tuesday.
Shakespeare once wrote that music might be the food of love, but ’80s pop star
Terri Nunn of the band Berlin describes it
slightly differently. “Music was originally created by man to get laid,”
she told an audience
of congressmen, musicians, and journalists at the Library of
Congress last night, most of whom looked a little surprised at
this revelation. “And it works.”
Nunn, resplendent in a backless gold lamé dress, was part of an all-star show celebrating ten great songwriters, hosted by the library and the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Each artist donated original sheet music, photos, manuscripts, and other material to the library’s archives. The evening’s host was Oscar-, Grammy-, and Golden Globe-winning songwriter Paul Williams, who also serves as president and chairman of ASCAP. Williams introduced his first song by recalling how he was asked to compose a song for a bank commercial, which he did, believing it was a song no one would want to record until “an angel sang it.” That particular song? “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a 1970 record that went on to help the Carpenters become household names.
There were a few surprises at the event. For one, the representatives seemed to be in a universally jovial mood, proving music’s indisputable power to bring people together. “No matter which side of the aisle you sit on, in the House or in the Senate, [this is] one of our favorite evenings,” said Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who was there to introduce Stephen Bishop. Bishop, who’s composed music for Eric Clapton and Barbra Streisand, among others, played two songs: “On and On” and “Separate Lives,” a hit for Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin that garnered Bishop an Oscar nomination in 1985.
Bishop was followed by folk singer Melanie, who was introduced by a jocular Representative Joe Crowley of New York. Crowley made a few cracks about the subtext behind Melanie’s hit, “Brand New Key,” saying when he was a kid growing up in Queens, he was so naive that he actually thought it was a song about roller skates. Accompanied by her children, and sporting a beaded caftan, Melanie proved how powerful her voice still is, performing “Look What They’ve Done to My Song” as well as the song that first made her famous at Woodstock in 1969: “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).”
Michigan representative John Conyers introduced Ray Parker Jr., a legend from Motown who took to the stage wearing a jeweled American flag T-shirt. Despite a lengthy and illustrious career as an R&B and funk performer, Parker will forever be best-known for the 1984 Ghostbusters theme song, which he declared to be his “most innocent record.” Although it was originally composed in two days as a one-minute accompaniment to the movie, the song became such a hit that Parker recorded a full-length version, which reached number one in 50 countries and, he said, helped send his kids to college. A glint in his eye, Parker said something about how Washington makes him think about running for office, and judging by how infectious his performance was, the idea might have caused a degree of concern for an audience member or two.
The most surprising performance of the evening came from
Irving Burgie, a.k.a. Lord Burgess. The 88-year-old, whose album of songs for Harry Belafonte,
Calypso, became the first record in history to sell
more than a million copies, had to be helped onstage, but once there, he
he’s still a very nimble dancer. In a pristine purple suit and
tie, Burgie shook his hips vigorously while performing “The
Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” receiving a
standing ovation from the audience.
Burgie was followed by
Tom Whitlock, composer of multiple film anthems, including Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” from
Top Gun. Whitlock roped in Nunn to perform the song, and midway through she left the stage to walk into the audience, causing a few
members of Congress,
Nancy Pelosi included, to crane their heads to look at her. Even more surprising was the revelation following Nunn’s performance that
the disco anthem “I Will Survive” was actually written by
Dino Fekaris, a white man from Pittsburgh. Fekaris performed the first few lines himself in a gravelly baritone, before passing the torch
to the evening’s stellar backing vocalists:
Sheila Slappy, and
The evening’s most contemporary songwriter was Chris Stapleton, the man behind the number one Josh Turner hit “Your Man”; he performed that song and another of his hits, “If It Hadn’t Been For Love,” which pop superstar Adele included on European versions of her album, 21. After Stapleton left, Wicked and Godspell composer Steven Schwartz sang two hits from the two Broadway musicals: “For Good,” and “Day by Day.”
Georgia representative John Lewis appeared to introduce the final performer. “I love music,” Lewis said, “but I sing solo. So low no one can hear me sing.” Lewis welcomed his friend, Valerie Simpson, who with her late husband, Nick Ashford made up of the most dynamic songwriting duos of the 20th century. Although now in her sixties, Simpson gave a stirring rendition of the couple’s greatest hit, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” but not before comparing the audience to what Maya Angelou would call “you high-up muckety mucks.” At the end of the show, all the songwriters and performers joined her onstage, proving the truth behind what Representative Tim Murphy said earlier in the evening: “When the Library of Congress throws a party for Article 1, Section 8.8 of the Constitution, it’s incredible.”