I've been visiting with people I haven't seen all year," Bonnie Raitt reported from the 14th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards on March 15. "So it's kind of like an intense wedding." Or like the highest-wattage concert of the year, where Elton John sang with Lauryn Hill and Eric Clapton jammed with Bette Midler. For the 1,500 guests, the gala at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel—during which Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and seven others joined the 150-plus stars enshrined in Cleveland's Hall of Fame and Museum—was as memorable as any Top 40 hit.

Even some of those taking part had a hard time believing their luck. "I'm from frickin' Levittown," marveled Long Island, N.Y.-bred honoree Joel, 49. "This is not supposed to happen to people like me!" U2's Bono told PEOPLE he was awed to introduce Springsteen, 49: "I heard his records when I was 14 years old, and I still feel 14 years old when I hear him."

Despite the good vibes, the evening had its somber moments. Tributes were heartfelt for inductees Dusty Springfield and Charles Brown, both of whom died recently, and for Curtis Mayfield, 56, who couldn't attend because of poor health. And the event marked Paul McCartney's first public performance since the death of his wife, Linda, last April. "It's brilliant-stroke-sad, because I would like my baby to share this with me," he said.

Once the speeches ended, the music kicked in. Springsteen and his old E Street Band played three vintage tunes, including "The Promised Land": and Clapton, Midler, Hill, Robbie Robertson, D'Angelo and the honored Staple Singers crowded the stage for an impromptu jam session. Finally, McCartney led everyone in a rousing rendition of the Beatles' "Let It Be." "It's late," the visibly moved and weary Sir Paul, 56, declared after the last strains died away after midnight. "It's time to go home."

Julie K.L. Dam
Sue Miller and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Sue Miller,
  • Joseph V. Tirella.