A critic once said the Hilltop High alum's voice sounded like it had been "soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car." Waits, 61, has used that voice to grind out tales of seedy dives and broken souls for decades – and to crack some memorable deadpan one-liners. To wit: "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
Several of Waits' Hall of Fame predecessors have recorded his work, including Bruce Springsteen ("Jersey Girl"), the Ramones ("I Don't Want to Grow Up"), Rod Stewart ("Downtown Train") and Johnny Cash ("Down There By the Train"). Neil Young, who played with Waits during a four-song induction-ceremony set, said on Monday that Waits is "indescribable" and "I'm here to describe him."
Waits noted that his rock hall trophy was heavy and wondered if he could have a keychain version "that I can keep with me in case I hear somebody say, 'Pete, take the cuffs off him. He's a Hall of Famer.' "
Waits kept the crowd laughing at the Waldor-Astoria with his gruff wit. The Village Voice quoted some of Waits' gems, including:
- "They say that I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with," he said, "and they say that like it's a bad thing"
- "Any day on this side of the dirt is a great day"
- "The only thing I can compare this to, was when I was given the key to the city of El Paso"
- "Thank you very much, this has been very encouraging"
Waits first played in the R&B group the System in the '60s. making the rounds on the San Diego music scene. His 1973 debut album, Closing Time, wasn't a success until other well-known artists covered his songs, including the Eagles and Springsteen. Waits' music mixed jazz, blues, rock, folk and country, creating a distinct sound uniquely his. Experimenting with instrumentation and utilizing heavy orchestral sounds, Waits also dabbled in spoken word, mostly heard at his live shows.
Waits is perhaps best known for the album The Heart of Saturday Night, which features the songs "New Coat of Paint," "Diamonds on My Windshield," "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" and, of course, "San Diego Serenade."
Also inducted on Monday night were Hit machine Neil Diamond and Dr. John, the New Orleans jazz, zydeco and boogie-woogie music artist. Alice Cooper, the band, were honored for their contributions to shock-rock. Pop artist Darlene Love, Art Rupe and Jac Holzman round out the inductees.
Pianist Leon Russell was the first recipient of the Award for Musical Excellence (formerly the Sideman Award), which recognized his songwriting and piano-playing talent. Russell collaborated with Elton John on the album The Union and the track "If It Wasn't for Bad."