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25 Years Ago: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Overshadowed by Gulf War

Ebet Roberts, Getty Images
Ebet Roberts, Getty Images

Under ordinary circumstances, the only wars fans need to worry about during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony are the ones between former bandmates forced onto the same stage for the first time in many years. But on Jan. 16, 1991, events in the outside world overshadowed any feuds or awards behind the podium.

Held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the Rock Hall’s sixth annual induction ceremony took place at a time when the Hall still hadn’t broken ground on its eventual physical location — but that didn’t stop attendees from celebrating a fresh batch of inductees that included LaVern Baker, the Byrds, John Lee Hooker, the Impressions, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Reed, Ike and Tina Turner, and Howlin’ Wolf. What did cast a pall over the evening, however, was a declaration issued by President George Bush, informing Americans that the nation’s military forces had entered into armed conflict in Iraq and Kuwait.

Pinning blame for the violence on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who stood accused of invading his nation’s “small and helpless neighbor” Kuwait, Bush assured American citizens that his orders to engage in hostilities only occurred after “months of constant and virtually endless diplomatic activity on the part of the United Nations, the United States, and many, many other countries.” Touting a coalition of other leaders, Bush continued, “Now the 28 countries with forces in the Gulf area have exhausted all reasonable efforts to reach a peaceful resolution, have no choice but to drive Saddam from Kuwait by force. We will not fail.”

Regardless of whether those assembled at the ceremony agreed with Bush’s reasons for going to war, the knowledge that it was unfolding half a world a way added an undeniably somber edge to the evening. Rock Hall foundation member Jann Wenner was moved to recite a passage from Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance,” helping set the tone for a ceremony that found a number of artists speaking out against Bush’s call to arms. “I think music will often articulate in the best way the feelings of the general public,” mused Elektra president Bob Krasnow. “I personally don’t remember hearing a pro-war song.”

Given everything that was happening in the Middle East, it’s perhaps fitting that the 1991 ceremony included a Byrds reunion. For the first time since 1973 — and after decades of internal strife — the five original members of the band stood together onstage to accept their honor and deliver a set list that included their classics “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” — and “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” their reworking of a Pete Seeger song that served as a poignant plea for nonviolence during the Vietnam era.

The Gulf War would go on to have an impact on a number of artists over the next several months, with some acts — like Styx and Rod Stewart — seeing their then-current singles rise after being retrofitted as soldiers’ anthems. An all-star cast of singers united to perform the morale-boosting Red Cross benefit single “Voices That Care,” which arrived in March — roughly a month before the U.S. airstrikes dubbed Operation Desert Storm were called to a halt.

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