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COMMENTARY : Why It's a Rock(y) Hall of Fame : With Cleveland's showcase opening next weekend, this is an excellent time to rethink the criteria for admission.

August 27, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic and a member of the Hall of Fame's nominating committee

There will be more stars than you can count onstage during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum concert next weekend at Cleveland Stadium. The lineup for the show, which celebrates the opening of the $92-million facility in downtown Cleveland, ranges from Chuck Berry, Little Richard and other Hall of Fame members to such guaranteed future inductees as Bruce Springsteen and Prince.

Hall of Fame directors can feel justly proud of their 10-year effort to build the museum. With its 150,000 square feet of fascinating exhibits and invaluable educational opportunities, the museum is the cornerstone in a campaign to showcase rock 'n' roll music as powerful cultural force and valuable art form.

But the directors' work isn't over.

They now need to refocus attention on their most important duty: making sure the right artists are inducted each year. At present, too many marginal artists are being honored. Of the 79 recording artists voted into the Hall of Fame during the past 10 years, a third clearly have questionable credentials. While most are appealing, even creditable figures, they simply lack the originality and impact of the essential musicians of the rock era.

Or do you think Ricky Nelson and the Four Seasons are in a class with Elvis Presley and the Jimi Hendrix Experience?

Or that the Platters and Duane Eddy should be treated as equals with Bob Dylan and the Beatles?

At the same time, some towering artists--including Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Leonard Cohen--have been snubbed, often repeatedly.

Unless something is done to correct matters, the Grammys may end up as only the second most embarrassing awards ritual of the recording industry.

The problem with the Hall of Fame selection process involves both quantity and quality. The issue of too many artists being inducted can be easily addressed: The Hall of Fame directors should immediately revise rules that now encourage the induction of seven new members a year. This number wouldn't be an issue if there were seven essential candidates a year, but there aren't--and there haven't been since the first year of voting.

The second matter is more difficult: The only way Hall of Fame voters can more accurately pinpoint the truly great rock artists is to define more carefully the criteria for choosing inductees. The standard should be excellence, not merely an accumulation of hits or--worst of all--careless voter nostalgia.

Quantity: One reason Hall of Fame directors began electing seven artists a year was to make sure the annual induction dinners had flash--to guarantee, if you will, enough industry excitement at the annual affairs to make them a must. The fear, apparently, was that the dinners wouldn't be glamorous enough if there were only one or two inductees a year. This was a valid consideration, perhaps, in the early days of the Hall of Fame, when industry support was essential if the project was going to become a reality.

The more-the-merrier policy should now be discarded because it does a disservice to the truly great artists. In an industry that all too often measures artists chiefly by the number of records sold, the Hall of Fame is a chance to salute those artists whose work truly mattered--artists whose vision and craft reshaped the boundaries of the music and inspired those who followed. These are, in the simplest of grade-school terms, the A artists.

What glory does the Hall of Fame offer to the best artists, and what inspiration does it serve to young musicians, when the door is opened too wide? Low standards corrupt the whole process.

At present, we are seeing B- and, in some case, C-level artists inducted.

The Hall of Fame is sufficiently established by now that the issue of a glamorous dinner should no longer color the voting process. Besides, you could guarantee plenty of star power through a new induction dinner category: an honor roll of landmark singles or albums.

This way artists could be saluted for invaluable contributions to rock history without having to be falsely praised as being equal to the music's most vital figures. A score of current inductees could have been more appropriately saluted in this manner: Bill Haley, for instance, for "Rock Around the Clock" or Carl Perkins for "Blue Suede Shoes" or Martha & the Vandellas for "Dancing in the Street" or the Platters for "My Prayer."

Quality: It is scandalous that reggae great Bob Marley was passed over for three years before being inducted last year and that songwriting master Mitchell was not inducted when she first became eligible in 1993. The suspicion is that Mitchell--along with Cohen, whose confessional style is cited as an influence by scores of today's most admired young artists--are considered more "folk" artists than rock artists.

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