Fox 411: Charles Remembered at Songwriters Dinner

Ray Charles

Charles' Memory Casts Spell Over A-List Night

Last night's Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner, a star-studded affair that you'll get to see on the Bravo channel next month, was a magical night because of Ray Charles .

His passing, which some of the guests and honorees didn't even know about as the evening began, gave the event an unexpected glow of reverence.

"It's an incredibly bittersweet night," Stevie Wonder said, his voice quavering as he accepted the Johnny Mercer Lifetime Achievement Award with an emotional speech in which he cited Ray Charles and described songwriting as "life's heaven on earth."

But it was also a night when the performances were exactly right and standing ovations followed each one.

Former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald told me he'd performed with Ray Charles only two months ago when they recorded together for Charles's last album, a CD of duets.

"We did a Carole King song, 'Hey Girl,'" said McDonald. "Ray loved that song. My earliest and fondest memories are being too small to see over the dashboard of my dad's car as he would crank Ray Charles on the radio — 'Born to Lose,' 'I Can't Stop Loving You' and 'What I'd Say.'"

Every honoree but one managed to get to New York for his award, including Wonder, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Neil Sedaka, Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas, Motown producers Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield and the transcendent folk star Don McLean .

Only capricious R&B legend Al Green ditched the show with no warning, staying home in Memphis.

But the Songwriters proved to be a resilient bunch: they had Macy Gray sing one of his songs and let Cedric the Entertainer mimic him in good fun. It was the most recent award Green has received but failed to accept, and most likely the last that will be offered. But that's another story.

The big surprise of the night was the first performance by country superstar Garth Brooks in two years. Brooks came with girlfriend Trisha Yearwood and delivered two emotional Don McLean numbers — "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)" and "Castles in the Air" — that were breathtaking even to the very objective observer.

McLean himself then stepped forward and brought the audience to their feet with 800 formally attired guests singing along to "American Pie."

(By contrast, McLean told me the strangest version he'd ever heard of the latter song was an unreleased one by rapper Coolio . "I don't know what happened to it," he said with a chuckle. "But it did have the word mother-----er in it.")

There were plenty of other unexpectedly grand moments, too, including Roberta Flack — announcing that she'd recently lost 56 pounds — leading the all-star band of musicians and singers through her hit "Killing Me Softly" as a tribute to songwriter Charles Fox; Regis Philbin introducing Brill Building legend Sedaka, who then played his powerful anthem "The Hungry Years"; and Stevie himself dueting with India.Arie on a jazzy version of his 30-year-old "Visions."

Hall and Oates — still noted as the best-selling duo of the rock era — brought their outstanding band and gave the audience "She's Gone" after Brian McKnight performed "Sara Smile."

You'll be interested to know that Hall still has a flourishing mane of blond hair that Farrah Fawcett would kill for, while Oates has used his royalties for an extreme makeover that would make Michael Jackson proud.

The duo did bring along Hall's former love and songwriting partner Sara Allen, whom Hall generously credited — along with Allen's deceased sister — for creating many of the duo's hits.

The night wasn't without its political moments, though. Declaring himself a "loudmouth," electronic pop star Moby, introducing award recipient music publisher Les Bider, wasn't about to waste an opportunity to speak out.

"As we ostensibly live in a democracy, I urge you to vote. But please don't vote for George Bush," he said. "He's a nitwit."

When Bider took the stage he said jokingly to Moby: "Thank you for making sure this won't be on cable."

And there was more, with McDonald performing "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" as a tribute to Whitfield and Strong, Johnny Lang whipping through Wonder's "Living for the City" like a superstar, and Bill Cosby — sporting sunglasses — lavishing praise on Stevie.

The only cringe-inducing part of the show was "Will and Grace" star Eric McCormack singing off-key not once but twice on Sedaka's "Laughter in the Rain."

He started, stopped, and began again, to no avail, easily beating Mary J. Blige 's off-kilter version of "What I Did for Love" from the Tony Awards this past Sunday for the week's biggest live disaster.

Luckily, producer Phil Ramone — who did such an exceptional job assembling a rich, textured sound for the evening-told me he could "fix" McCormack's blunder with some editing. Let's hope so!

What makes the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony so much better than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show?

I think it's because the group's leader, Linda Moran , who draws no salary, puts together a show of inclusion — rock, pop, country and R&B — that features actual talent and a real respect for the craft of songwriting. There's no sense that backstage wrangling or campaigning has brought odd choices to the final outcome.

You could certainly feel it in the room last night at the Marriott Marquis, and the emotions echoed what used to be the same kind of shows previously put on by The Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Pioneer Awards — a real sense of gratitude for lifelong accomplishment not only from the honorees but from the performers.