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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Reveals Class of 2023: Willie Nelson, Kate Bush, Missy Elliott, Sheryl Crow, Rage Against the Machine and More

Variety logo Variety 5/3/2023 Chris Willman
© Provided by Variety

Willie Nelson just got an only slightly late 90th birthday present: an impending induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The country music legend was one of seven music figures announced Wednesday morning as having been voted into the hall, along with Kate Bush, Rage Against the Machine, Missy Elliott, Sheryl Crow, George Michael and the Spinners.

There are six more inductees beyond that list, with the distinction of being selected by a select Hall of Fame committee to join the seven performers who were voted in via general balloting. These are singer Chaka Khan, instrumentalist-producer Al Kooper and lyricist Bernie Taupin, all in the “musical excellence” category; pioneering rock guitarist Link Wray and hip-hop originator DJ Kool Herc in the “musical influence” division; and “Soul Train” TV host Don Cornelius as the recipient of the annual Ahmet Ertegun Award.

These 13 honorees will be celebrated in an induction ceremony and concert to take place Nov. 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. A media partner is expected to be named soon, since the hall’s contract with HBO has expired.

For anyone keeping score of the artists who don’t make it in, the seven nominees on the general ballot who missed the cut with voters this go-round (surely the hall would prefer no one call them “snubs”) are A Tribe Called Quest, Iron Maiden, Joy Division/New Order, Cyndi Lauper, Soundgarden, the White Stripes and Warren Zevon.

Nelson and Bush are especially topical picks, both having been in the news cycle in the last year. Nelson’s headlines came just this past weekend, as he celebrated turning 90 on Saturday with a two-night all-star birthday salute at the Hollywood Bowl. Although Bush has refrained from being in the public eye for years, her name was on music lovers’ lips for months as a sync placement on the TV series “Stranger Things” resulted in “Running Up That Hill” become a major resurgent hit.

“She’s been nominated many times, so the nominating committee was very happy that the general ballot voted Kate in this year,” John Sykes, chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, tells Variety. “Sometimes it takes a major moment like Willie’s 90th birthday or, in the case of Kate Bush, music being played in ‘Stranger Things’ to shine a light on them for a lot of younger people who didn’t know who she was in 1985; they probably weren’t even born yet.”

Nelson represents the further breaking of a logjam that seemingly kept classic country artists from getting in, as busted up by Dolly Parton last year. (Presumably Nelson will not be trying to reject his nomination this year, as Parton briefly did in the previous cycle.)

“It’s long overdue,” says Sykes. “And I think Dolly Parton getting inducted last year opened up the eyes of a lot of our voters to understand that country is a part of rock ‘n’ roll right next to gospel and rhythm and blues. I think that also shined a light on the incredible contributions that Willie’s made in, what, 98 records that he’s made over the years. So it was great to see him get so many votes from the body of 1200 voters. Now, remember, Hank Williams, Brenda Lee, Johnny Cash, they’re all in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but there was I think a long dearth of country artists that contributed to rock ‘n’ roll that had gone unnoticed before we’ve seen two iconic country artists get recognized in the last two years.”

The selection of three women among the seven 2023 inductees may help further assuage concerns that the hall has been too slow in electing female artists, as charged by Courtney Love in a much-disseminated column. Last year’s class of 2022 was the first in which a majority of nominees, four out of seven, were either women or female-fronted bands.

“We should always focus on it; it should always be better,” Sykes says of a move toward greater gender parity. “I’m proud of the progress we’re making, having gone from about 15% up through late 2018 to women now being 25% of the inductees. So we’re making great strides. We can always do better, but we’re on the road to recognizing all the artists of all genders and all races that have been really impacted rock ‘n’ roll.”

Diversity is certainly a buzzword for this year’s crop, especially when it comes to genre, as probably only Crow and Rage count as traditional “rockers” on the list. The others get in some representation for the realms of country (Nelson), hip-hop (Elliott), pop (Michael), soul (the Spinners) and alternative rock (Bush).

Elliott is the only artist in this crop to have made it into the hall in her first year of eligibility, being 25 years out from her first commercial recording. But Crow and Michael joined Elliott in scoring with voters in their first appearances on the ballot.

Notes Sykes, “Missy Elliott got in first ballot, just like Eminem got in first ballot last year and Jay-Z the year before. So if there’s a throughline we’re seeing, it shows the power of hip-hop music culture now, as if we didn’t know it already, as far as how quickly these artists are being recognized on the first ballot.”

The winner of the “try, try again” award would have to be Rage Against the Machine, finally landing a plaque in the hall via the band’s fifth time on the ballot. Close behind in that return-trip tally, though, are Bush and the Spinners, who got in on their fourth time as nominees.

Sykes doesn’t make any apologies for the hall skewing more toward ’90s artists as the years progress.

“I think the fact that that artists like Rage Against the Machine and a completely different-sounding artist, Sheryl Crow, got inducted is because we’ve added many younger voters to the general voting body,” says the exec, who chairs the hall on a volunteer basis, apart from his day job as president of iHeart. “A mission I had coming in was to update the voting body to reflect the artists that are now eligible. And that means looking at voters who are in their 30s and 40s who grew up with these artists that put out records 25 years ago, because it’s just vital, in order for this institution to remain relevant, that we have to induct the artists that really reflected the music that was changing America and the world 25 years ago. It’s our job at the foundation to constantly update the voting body as well as the nominating committee to both understand and support the great artists that have come in 25 years ago. Otherwise, we’ll put ourselves out of business, because we’ll just be caught too deep in the past. But it’s hard to believe 1998 was 25 years ago — it seems like it was yesterday.”

You do see, however, some of the more truly veteran artists — figures who might stand a ghost of a chance with the 1200 voting members, much less the public that takes part in the “fan vote” — getting in through a less visible, or competitive, route. The six inductees who are getting in via the non-voted route are an eclectic bunch, including the lesser known DJ Kool Herc, whose contributions at the very headwaters of hip-hop make him an appropriate selection during a 50th anniversary year for the genre; a true cult hero of early rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly legend Link Wray; and Al Kooper, the Bob Dylan sideman and Blood, Sweat & Tears founder.

Also among this group is Khan, who had previously been nominated seven times — three as a solo artist and four as the singer for Rufus — without ever prevailing. Was this a matter of a committee just saying “OK, enough!” to the general voting membership constantly passing on her nominations and getting her in through a side door?

“That’s exactly what it’s about,” Sykes responds. “Because if someone’s been nominated so many times, but there’s a disconnect between the nominating committee and the general ballot, after it’s been five or six times, then we realize that there’s such a strong belief in them by the nominating committee that we can honor them. And if you look at those artists who’ve gotten in, they’ve had some of the most powerful moments in the induction ceremony, from LL Cool J to to Judas Priest — and I’m sure this year Chaka Khan will give an incredible performance.”

For those non-ballot categories, Sykes says, “We do have a special committee made up of seven artists and music experts who decide our awards for music excellence and musical influence. And those artists inducted in those categories have the same size plaque on the wall of the hall in Cleveland as all the other artists. They’re all treated equal. They’ve all had an impact on music, whether they’re performers, songwriter, producers — the inductees are all treated the same. That is as eclectic a group of people as they come and all also deserving.

“Especially ‘musical influence’ gives us a chance to shine a light on someone like DJ Kuk, who most of the people in the general body would never know. So that’s where we have a smaller group of experts, artists included, like Tom Morello, Darryl McDaniels and Steven Van Zandt, who are part of that process because of their deep knowledge of music, not only as fans, but as artists.”

Sykes is particularly pleased about Don Cornelius getting the Ahmet Ertegun Award, rectifying what he sees as “one of kind of the biggest oversights in the last, I think, 15 or 20 years. I think he’s long overdue to be recognized for his contribution. He brought Black music not only into the homes of fans of R&B, but of a lot of white households who didn’t even have an R&B radio station in their town, and here they discovered Parliament/Funkadelic, the O’Jays and some of the greatest artists in music. So Don will be recognized this year for his incredible contributions.”

The full 2023 list of the 38th annual inductees:

Performer Category

  • Kate Bush
  • Sheryl Crow
  • Missy Elliott
  • George Michael
  • Willie Nelson
  • Rage Against the Machine
  • The Spinners

Musical Influence Award

  • DJ Kool Herc
  • Link Wray

Musical Excellence Award

  • Chaka Khan
  • Al Kooper
  • Bernie Taupin

Ahmet Ertegun Award

  • Don Cornelius
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