On Jan. 23, 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then only three years old, inducted its inaugural class during a star-studded ceremony in New York City.
Among the recipients were some of rock’s founders: Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke and Jerry Lee Lewis. Though it was the first of its kind with no precedent to follow, it turned out to be an electric evening of live performances and emotional speeches from fellow musicians, who noted the massive influence of these first inductees.
“Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen — you’re about to find out how you get inducted,” said Keith Richards while introducing Chuck Berry, whose impact on the Rolling Stones guitarist couldn’t have been greater. “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry,” he said, “because I lifted every lick he ever played.”
The list moved in alphabetical order, making Berry the first ever person inducted into the hall. The rock icon duck-walked across the stage in his signature style to accept the award.
“May I take a few minutes to set a record straight?” Berry said at the podium, his arm around Richards. “This guy came into the Palladium with a cap turned down over his head, jumped on the piano […] and he sat down and started playing some dynamite boogie, and it was so loud. And I looked over, not knowing who he was, and I said, ‘Hey, get that guy offstage!'”
Though he hadn’t recognized Richards that evening at the Palladium in 1972, Berry shared the stage with him once more in 1986 with the all-star jam of “Reelin’ and Rockin.'”
The lineup of musical royalty continued through the evening, with many more announcers mentioning their gratitude to those who paved the road before them, including Billy Joel for Fats Domino, Steve Winwood for James Brown, Neil Young for the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams Jr. for Jerry Lee Lewis. Three inductees were awarded posthumously: Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
“Elvis was a thing. Whatever people say, he was it,” Julian Lennon read aloud from a bit his late father, John Lennon, had written about Presley. He stood with his younger half-brother, Sean, as they spoke on behalf of their dad. “I was not competing against Elvis. Tock happened to be the media I was born into. It was the one — that’s all. Those people who picked up brush paint brushes like Van Gogh probably wanted to be Renoir or whomever went before him. I wanted to be Elvis.”
Along with the musicians, several special categories recognized other crucial members of the rock community, among them Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, early blues figure Robert Johnson, Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond and disc jockey Alan Freed, whom many attribute to coining the original phrase “rock ‘n’ roll.”
“All of my heroes are being honored tonight, with the exception of some people whose names I’d also like to call,” said Roberta Flack, confidently highlighting the lack of women being recognized at the event. “Tina Turner, Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker, Janis Joplin. Maybe next year will be the year for women.”
The Rock Hall’s first female recognition would, indeed, come the following year, with Aretha Franklin inducted on Jan. 3, 1987. But in 1986, Flack continued her induction of Little Richard, who died in 2020, by summing up the importance of the evening at large.
“As a musician, we all do our best to make music,” she said, “and some of us try a little harder. We want to make a contribution. […] [G]ood music lasts forever and ever.”