In hours befitting rock legends, U2's induction came after midnight. They rewarded a gussied-up crowd at the Waldorf Astoria by performing four songs, joined by Bruce Springsteen on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
Springsteen recalled going with the Who's Pete Townshend to check out the competition when U2 was performing in a London club, seeing a lead singer who "single-handedly pioneered the Irish mullet."
But he described how U2's four parts equaled a much greater whole, and said it was the only band of the last 20 years where he knew all four members' names.
"This was a band that wanted to lay claim to this world and the next one, too," Springsteen said.
Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. are quickly selling out arenas for a fall concert tour, making U2 one of those rare acts still at the forefront of the music scene at the time of its induction. U2 hasn't lost its creative edge since forming as teenagers, starting with rock anthems like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," exploring American roots music, performing introspective ballads like "One" and reaching the top with "Beautiful Day."
Springsteen poked fun at Bono, "jeans designer, soon-to-be world bank operator, just plain operator, seller of the Brooklyn bridge ... soon to be the mastermind of the Bono burger franchise."
"One of the best and most endearingly naked messianic complexes in rock 'n' roll," Springsteen said. "It takes one to know one."
Retorted Bono: "Born in the USA, my ass. That man was born on the north side of Dublin."
The normally quiet guitarist, The Edge, talked about how difficult it is to stay original and avoiding lapsing into self-parody over a long career. The moments of magic that rock 'n' roll can create are worth the effort, and the oddities of the lifestyle.
"When it is great, it is amazing," he said. "It changes your life."
The O'Jays are best known for their work with Philly soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but the gospel-styled singers are actually from Canton, Ohio. "Back Stabbers" was a big hit in 1972, with "Love Train" and "For the Love of Money" other well-known songs.
After film clips showed them in wild tuxes during the 1970s, the quartet wore simple black suits to perform a medley including each of those songs. They were inducted by singer Justin Timberlake.
"Anyone who's ever written, produced or performed something soulful stands in the shadows of these giants," Timberlake said.
Percy Sledge's voice has been the inimitable backdrop to countless romantic encounters. The Southern soul singer is best known for the 1966 hit "When a Man Loves a Woman."
Singer Rod Stewart called it "one of the best performances I've ever heard and I'm sure you've ever heard."
The Pretenders come from the same rock generation as U2. Ohio native Chrissie Hynde has been a tough but tender role model for women, singing "Brass in Pocket," "Precious" and "Back on the Chain Gang."
The band formed after Hynde moved to London to be part of its fertile music scene. She's soldiered on, with drummer Martin Chambers, after guitarists James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon died as drug casualties.
"They went through all the heartache that rock 'n' roll is built on - they lost two band members and they never gave up," said Neil Young, who inducted the band and sat in for a ferocious performance of "My City Was Gone."
Hynde told the audience she knows the Pretenders have sounded like a tribute band for the past 20 years. "We are a tribute band," she said. "We're paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we would not have been here."
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of rock 'n' roll, the hall brought Bo Diddley in to perform the Bo Diddley beat with fellow guitarists Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson.
Now a stooped old man, Jerry Lee Lewis moved slowly to the stage to perform "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." But he still managed to kick over his stool and sit on the piano keys.
Guy dominated the Chicago blues guitar scene, and he was ushered into the hall by some pretty decent guitar players themselves - Clapton and B.B. King.
Clapton recalled seeing Guy perform as a teenager in England. "He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people," he said. "My course was set and he was my pilot."
And, said the future lead of rock hall inductees Cream, it got him thinking a trio wasn't a bad format.
"I'm just out of words. I just want to play for you tonight," Guy said, before performing a blood-curdling version of "Damn Right I Got the Blues," then apologizing for playing too loud. King and Clapton flanked him for "Let Me Love You Baby."
The dinner offered a clash of celebrity cultures: Mariah Carey breezing in, offering a brief kiss to ex-husband Tommy Mottola, Richard Gere sharing a laugh with King, The Edge checking his Blackberry during the O'Jays' performance.
Highlights of the induction ceremony will be televised Saturday on VH1, which along with CBS, is a unit of Viacom.
Frank Barsalona, credited with creating the first big rock 'n' roll booking agency, and Sire Records founder Seymour Stein were inducted in the nonperformer category. Barsalona was inducted by rocker Steve Van Zandt, dressed in the guise of Silvio Dante, his character from "The Sopranos," the HBO mafia family series.
Musicians, industry professionals and journalists vote on the inductees. Hall of fame members are permanently enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is in Cleveland.
By David Bauder