Golden Years: Honoring the Early Influences

If you follow the online rants that pop up like mushrooms after rain on any article about or by the RRHOF, it’s fun to see how the name of the place is such a lightning rod for the rock police. “It’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not the Pop/Rap Crap/Any Music Hall of Fame!!!” Usually some intellectual soul will mention the idea that the actual “rock and roll” era is long over, supplanted—sometime between 1965 and 1967, and to some as early as 1959—by the more artistically mature and self-aware genre of “rock,” so no act breaking after that development fits the term anyway.

This is a roundabout way of saying that rock’s formative years were a finite and relatively short period, prompting the question of how well the HOF has covered them, especially now that 90s acts are knocking on the door.  The answer?   Since 2000, there have only been three Early Influence inductees. As of right now, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Lonnie Donegan and the Marvelettes are just some of the names not yet inducted.

Tom Lane recently revisited this topic and makes some good points. It’s previously been suggested that the committee have a guaranteed pick on the ballot; creating a voting Veterans Committee similar to those used by sports halls would achieve this and work to get around a voting committee that’s not conversant with the names and whose members often have their own agenda. It’s an idea whose time has definitely come.

Dividing these acts into chronological categories also makes sense, and there are models for how they can work on a ballot. The always-meticulous Country Music Hall of Fame divides its annual ballot into the “Modern Era” and “Veterans Era,” eligible 20 and 40 years after achieving “national prominence,” respectively. (The rotating and catchily named “Nonperformers, Songwriters and Recording and/or Touring Musician Active Prior to 1980,”category is worth some study on its own).  Like its predecessor the Veterans Committee, the MLB Eras Committee looks at players passed over by the BBWAA, now divided into four time periods covering the entire history of the game. Each era is covered on a rotating basis with the oldest two periods considered with less frequency. If Saberhagen or Strawberry get plaques in Cooperstown, the Eras Committee will be the ones who put them there.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, those players might have more of a shot at that Hall than some of the early acts do at Cleveland. First, there’s the attitude at the top: Jann Wenner is on record as saying “all the clear, obvious people are in.” No idea how he arrived at this, but there it is. This idea was reinforced in 2015 by the major reshuffling of the NomCom that dismissed at least 16 members (by email) and gutted more than half of the Early Rock and R&B Influences subcommittee in one blow.

Second, although the prevailing age demographic on the voting committee is 60-plus, they don’t know enough about the pre-rock era acts. It’s been denied, but there are indications that the Hall is quietly tinkering with the makeup of the voting committee by adding younger media voices. Whether or not this is true and happening to enough of an extent to change the look of future ballots, the operative word is “younger” with an eye to moving things along even beyond the 80s to the 90s. All of this is likely with an eye to—wait for it— the commercial potential of the induction ceremony and broadcast. Honoring names that the audience knows even less about than the institution doing the honoring isn’t a priority.

It seems that the HOF feels it has moved on, but while keeping the institution relevant and vital is necessary, the task of honoring the performers who paved the way for and created this whole form of music is by no means complete.  The Hall needs to honor its name and mission and get to work putting these names in, and soon.

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