When Dolly Parton learned she was going to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, her first reaction was to tell her supporters not to vote for her since she saw herself as strictly a country artist. But when she walked onstage near the end of the induction ceremony Saturday night at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, after witnessing an incredible evening of music by artists as diverse as Eminem, Judas Priest, Lionel Richie, and Duran Duran, a beaming Parton had a very different take on the situation.
“I’m a rock star now!” she said. “Back when they said they were going to induct me into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I didn’t really think that I’d done enough to deserve that. I didn’t understand at the time. But this is a very, very special night for me.”
It was also a very special night for the roughly 7,000 people in the audience since, in a break from Hall of Fame tradition, the names of most presenters and guest performers weren’t announced ahead of time. This led to audible gasps when Bruce Springsteen, Dr. Dre, Steven Tyler, Pink, The Edge, Alice Cooper, Brandi Carlile, Olivia Rodrigo, and Ed Sheeran came out. Not all of them create music that fits a very narrow definition of “rock and roll,” but the Hall of Fame has proven for years that this music is about so much more than just loud drums, guitars, and bass. “Rock and roll is not a color,” Richie said during his speech. “It is a feeling. It’s a vibe.”
The vibe started when Robert Downey Jr. — looking like a cross between Michael Keaton and The Office‘s Creed Bratton — came on to induct Duran Duran. “I adore this band,” he said. “They’ve grown and changed and aged out of one mode and embraced the next. High among the many surreal moments I’ve witnessed in my life shall remain my 50th birthday party. They played a short set and, I shit you not, halfway through ‘Rio,’ the wife of a prominent Hollywood director tore off her bra and tossed it onto the stage.”
The theater was packed with hardcore Duranies, and they’d been promised a reunion with former guitarists Andy Taylor and Warren Cuccurullo ever since the band learned they were getting inducted back in May. Tragically, just as the group took the stage, Andy Taylor posted a letter revealing he was battling stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer and wouldn’t be at the show. Cuccurullo was also MIA for reasons that weren’t explained.
Duran Duran soldiered on without them and banged through a medley of “Girls on Film” and “Hungry Like The Wolf” before finishing off their mini-set with a moving “Ordinary World.” “Music nourished us and gave us identities,” bassist John Taylor said during his speech. “We would not be here without the influence of the Beatles, David Bowie and Mick Ronson, T-Rex, the Sex Pistols and the Clash… Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith…These and so many others were all at one time parents, mentors, and spirit guides. Without them and their music, we might never have found each other.”
Janet Jackson came out next to induct her longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “I feel like we broke through the music industry together,” she said. “They taught me so much, and I learned their lessons well. When I went to work on what became Control in their hometown of Minneapolis, there was pressure. We felt like we were kids in a sandbox…We talked and laughed so much that sometimes it didn’t even feel like we were making a record.”
The Eighties theme continued with the induction of Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo by Sheryl Crow, who began her speech by holding up the duo’s 1980 IndieLand cover. “I was 18 when this IndieLand magazine came out,” she said. “I had just graduated high school in my little town of Kennett, Missouri. I headed off to college to study classical piano and voice, but what I really wanted to be was Pat Benatar.”
Benatar may be just one year shy of her 70th birthday, but she looks about 20 years younger. Her voice was also in stunning form for a set that included “All Fired Up,” “Love is a Battlefield,” and “Heartbreaker.” She’s had to wait a long time for this night, and she was passed over on many prior ballots. “First, I want to say that all is forgiven,” she said when it was her turn at the podium. “I want to thank all our fans for graciously joining us on this 43-year journey. It has been an incredible ride.”
Judas Priest are another act that have been waiting a very long time to get inducted. And since the voters appear biased towards heavy metal acts, the Hall of Fame backdoored them this year by giving them the Musical Excellence Award. But it was a distinction without any difference at the ceremony. They took the stage with estranged guitarist K.K. Downing, who left the band in 2011, Seventies drummer Les Binks, and guitarist Glenn Tipton, who has been sidelined from their recent tours due to health issues. It was glorious to watch the band make peace and rip through “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” “Breaking The Law,” and “Living After Midnight” with members past and present.
“I’m the gay guy in the band,” said frontman Rob Halford. “We call ourselves the heavy metal community, which is all-inclusive, no matter what your sexual identity is, what you look like, or what you believe in or don’t believe in. Everybody’s welcome.”
There were 14 acts brought into the Hall of Fame this year, a steep rise from the six they inducted back in 2016. That meant they had to take some shortcuts to avoid a ten-hour ceremony, so Sylvia Robinson, Harry Belafonte, and Elizabeth Cotten were all welcome in via quick video packages.
Carly Simon was originally supposed to be in the house, but her sisters Joanna and Lucy died of cancer just one day apart from each other in late October. Sara Bareilles delivered her induction speech and then led the house band through Simon’s 1977 James Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better.” Word came out a few days earlier that Olivia Rodrigo was going to sing “You’re So Vain” as a duet with Alanis Morissette, but Morissette must have been at an undisclosed location somewhere besides Warren Cuccurullo. Rodrigo is no stranger to bitter breakup singers, and she absolutely crushed it on her own.
Bruce Springsteen has been close with Intesrcope founder Jimmy Iovine since the Born To Run sessions back in 1975, and he came out to present him with the Ahmet Ertegun Award. “Jimmy is brave and smart,” said Springsteen. “He turned his relationship with the great Dr. Dre into one of the greatest and most valuable partnerships in the music business. He trusted Dre’s vision and he recognized the power of hip-hop and its ability to conquer the culture.”
Most people in the audience probably only vaguely knew the name of attorney Allen Grubman, but video testimonials by Bono, Sting, Springsteen, and Mariah Carey about his tireless advocacy on behalf of artists showed why he’s the first lawyer to ever enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was inducted by his longtime friend John Mellencamp. “Everyone knows in this room knows that the music business is full of colorful people,” he said. “But I’m not talking about the bat-eating, shit-talking, funny haircuts, or any silly things someone might do to get the audience’s attention. I’m venturing behind the scenes tonight. I’m talking about a very special person in the business who isn’t afraid to tell the truth, often in an offensive and profane way.”
Near the end of his speech, Mellencamp pivoted to address antisemitism in the entertainment industry. He didn’t mention Kanye West or Kyrie Irving — the two men who have made headlines as of late for spreading hate speech — by name, but it was clear he was responding to their recent statements about Jews. “I’m an artist and a gentile whose life has been enriched greatly by my friendship and association with countless Jewish people,” he said. “I cannot tell you how fuckin’ important it is to speak out if you’re an artist against antisemitism and all forms of bigotry and hatred…We’re all human beings. I don’t give a fuck if you’re Jewish, Black, tooty-fruity, I don’t care.”
We don’t know exactly what he meant by tooty-fruity, but Lenny Kravitz is those two other things. He was there to induct Lionel Richie. “He has remained that down-home brotha from Tuskegee, Alabama,” Kravitz said. “The man doesn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. Lionel also happens to be the funniest person I’ve ever met. I never laugh as hard as I do when I’m with him. It’s the kind of laugh that comes from the soul. When Lionel shows up, everyone gets happy.”
Richie proved that by kicking off his set with “Hello,” bringing out Dave Grohl for the Commodores classic “Easy,” and then wrapping up with a euphoric “All Night Long” that had everyone in the theater singing “Tam bo li de say de moi ya/Hey Jambo Jumbo.”
The party continued when Eurythmics, who have been almost completely inactive these past two decades besides the very occasional one-off, reformed to deliver blistering renditions of “Would I Lie To You?,” “Missionary Man,” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” They were introduced by U2’s The Edge. He spoke about their long, difficult road that eventually lead them to record “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” “It was passed over a single because RCA didn’t think it had a chorus,” he said. “The track got so much radio play that it eventually was released, aided by one of the most iconic music videos of the whole MTV era. And it was a smash hit all over the world. Their sweet dreams finally met reality.”
As the night began winding down, Dr. Dre appeared on the stage to induct Eminem. He explained that he signed him back in the Nineties even though many of his associates didn’t want a white rapper on the label. “He was able to hold a mirror up to white America while also expressing pain through poverty,” he said. “Eminem brought hip-hop to Middle America and offered kids who looked like him a way to connect to it. Hip-hop wasn’t just for Black kids in desperate inner-city circumstances anymore.”
Eminem began his set with a little bit of “My Name Is” before kicking into a ferocious “Rap God.” Steven Tyler then appeared out of seemingly nowhere to deliver a live sample of “Dream On” for “Sing for the Moment,” a move that echoed Aerosmith’s 1986 “Walk This Way” collaboration with Run DMC. Just as the crowd was coming down from that high of the shock of seeing Tyler, Ed Sheeran walked out to sing the “Dido” parts on “Stan” and join in on guitar. Em closed out with “Forever” and “Not Afraid.”
When he walked to the side of the stage to deliver his speech, he seemed genuinely moved, even if he couldn’t avoid cracking a joke about a very serious time in his life. “I almost died from an overdose in 2007,” he said before telling his daughter Hailie to cover her ears. “Because drugs were fuckin’ delicious. I thought we had a good thing going, but I had to go and fuck it all up.”
He also noted that he’s one of a handful of rappers in the Hall of Fame, and he devoted a majority of his speech to reading a long list of his rap heroes in alphabetical order that included everyone from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Biz Markie to 2 Live Crew, Tupac Shakur, the Notorious BIG, the Roots, and the Beastie Boys. Some of them have been inducted, but the vast majority of them are not. It was a very gracious move to give them all a moment in the hopes they’ll one day join him in the Hall of Fame.
They wisely saved Dolly Parton until the very end. Pink and Brandi Carlile sang “Coat of Many Colors,” and Zac Brown and Sheryl Crow duetted on “9 to 5,” giving Parton enough time to put on a snazzy Elvis-like jumpsuit she wore to deliver a brand new rock song written just for the occasion. “Here I am on the stage, you all know my name,” she sang. “With many country accolades, and country is in my veins/But since I head the big beat/I ain’t never been the same/Because they’ve done put me in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
She then called out many performers of the night — including Simon Le Bon, Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart, Pink, Brandi Carlile, Pat Benatar, and Rob Halford — to join her on “Jolene.” At one point, the Judas Priest frontman put his arm around Dolly as they gleefully locked voices on the chorus. Where else but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would such a beautiful thing even be possible?
It was well past midnight by this point, and it truly seemed like the end as most of the artists walked off the stage. But then Bruce Springsteen came out with John Mellencamp to send everyone home with a medley of Jerry Lee Lewis songs as a tribute to The Killer. They were backed by members of the Zac Brown Band and E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan.
Jerry Lee Lewis was the last survivor of the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1986. Back then, nobody could have imagined the institution still going strong 36 years down the line. They certainly wouldn’t have foreseen the day that Dolly Parton and Judas Priest would be accepted on the same night. But the Hall of Fame has come a long way over the years. If they keep ushering in exciting and diverse classes like this one, it could easily last another four decades and beyond.