When some fast-thinking, enterprising record executives got together in the late 1950s to develop their own awards show to pick up for their industry some of the glamour, prestige and, most importantly, free publicity that they saw the Oscar bringing each year to the motion picture field, I'm sure they never dreamed of all the laughs they would bring us in the process.
When the Grammy Awards were initiated in 1958, the record industry was caught in a financial and philosophical struggle between the then emerging rock 'n' roll sounds and the traditional pop tastes of the record industry establishment. The rawer, noisier sounds may have been dominating the sales charts, but the industry would have its revenge when the awards were handed out.
Can you imagine, then, the roars of laughter and ridicule from the rebels in the industry and the teen record audience when, during the first Grammy ceremony, the envelope was opened and the record of the year - in a time when Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly were reshaping pop music - was declared to be Domenico Modugno's "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu". The record, more popularly known as "Volare", was a simply horrendous choice, as unimportant in the musical context of the 1950s as, say, "The Night Chicago Died" was in the 1970. Predictably, Modugno's follow-up - something called "Ciao, Ciao Bambina" - reached only No. 97 on the pop charts and nothing he ever did after that made the charts at all. But things could have been worse. One of the runners-up in 1958 was "The Chipmunk Song."
The gap between the conservative, pop-oriented tastes of the industry establishment and the significant musical styles of the 1950s was just as obvious in the balloting for best country and best rhythm & blues records. In the former category, the Grammy voters, ignoring such eventual country classics as Don Gibson's "Oh Lonesome Me" and Ray Price's "City Lights", gave the award to the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley", a folk-pop record that never even made the national country sales chart. Because it had a guitar and a western theme, however, "Tom Dooley" was considered by the voters as a country record.
In the R & B field, the record of the year nominees included such unlikely candidates as Perez Prado's "Patricia", the Champs' "Tequila" and Harry Belafonte's "Belafonte Sings the Blues", while such truly great R & B artists as Clyde McPhatter, Jackie Wilson and Chuck Berry were passed over.
After that initial disaster, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the body that sponsors the awards, tried desperately to regroup. As organizations are prone to do in the face of problems, NARAS, among other things, increased the number of awards. Sooner or later, the theory goes, you'll satisfy everyone if you give enough awards. The number of Grammys, incidentally, has now grown from the original 26 to a cumbersome 47, a figure more than double the number of Oscars presented each year.
The six new awards in 1959 were designed to cure some of the first-year Grammy complaints. They included a folk category (this conveniently got the Kingston Trio out of the country field, but raised the ire of folk purists who didn't feel the group belonged in their area either) and a Top-40 category (this was, hopefully, designed to recognize some of the younger, teen sounds, but the first-year winner turned out to be Nat Cole).
There were even more snickers and groans during the 1960s when the record-of-the-year awards - in a time when rock music helped trigger, at least temporarily, a socio-cultural revolution in this country - went to such tame, traditional sounds as Henry Mancini's "The Days of Wine and Roses", Herb Alpert's "A Taste of Honey", Frank Sinatra's "strangers in the Night" and the 5th Dimension's "Up, Up and Away". The only "contemporary" winner during the entire decade was Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs Robinson" in 1968.
The problem - even after the Grammy categories were increased and refined - was that NARAS voters simply failed, in their measurement of pop music quality, to reflect the spirit, urgency and sociological impact of pop during the 1960s. The music was measured in what appears to have been the narrowest of possible grounds, almost as if it existed in a social vacuum.
With the lessening sociological ties between music and audience in the 1970s, the creative decline of hard-core rock and most significantly, the televising of the awards ceremonies live, the Grammys, despite the growing pains and embarrassing omissions of the 1960s, has made a dramatic surge forward.
There will most certainly continue to be disagreement over many of the choices. We'll probably see too much emphasis on commercial success (every record-of-the-year winner since 1968, for instance, has been a No. 1 record) and too little emphasis on a record or artist's sociological impact, but the Grammy has captured the public's attention.
There'll be an estimated 65 million people watching on television Saturday when the 17th annual Grammy awards are presented at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2 in Los Angeles). That exposure has to be a healthy thing for the record industry. Thus, those fast-talking enterprising record executives who put the awards program together in the 1950a and the NARAS staff that has tried so conscientiously over the years to upgrade it have gotten the last laugh.
Here's a look at the year's key pop Grammy categories and some personal choices (not predictions):
Record of the Year: Roberta Flack, who won this award in 1972 for "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and in 1973 for "Killing Me Softly With His Song", is trying to become the first artist ever to win the top Grammy three times. She is currently tied with Henry Mancini, Simon & Garfunkel and the 5th Dimension. But her entry this year, "Feel Like Makin' Love", seems to be a definite longshot.
While Flack's record is engaging and coolly professional, it lacks the overall creative spark that is found in three other nominees: Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", Joni Mitchell's "Help Me" and Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis". Of the three, I'd give the nod, by a considerable margin, to Elton John.
While it's easy to be sidetracked by overwhelming strength in a single area (e.g. the emotional insight in the lyrics of "Help Me" or the charm of "midnight"), this award should go to the record with the most strength in a variety of areas: material, vocal, arrangement and production.
Part of John's success and appeal as a record-maker is that each of these elements - thanks to the considerable contributions of lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon - is so well integrated into his music. They have rarely been as well blended as in "Don't Let the Sun." The fifth nominee - Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" - would be one of the worst choices since "Volare."
Album of the Year: While there will certainly be much popular support for Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run" (his most appealing work since the split with the Beatles), Elton John's "Caribou" (a satisfying album, but not his best) and John Denver's "Back Home Again" (a gentle, polished but rather narrow work), this extremely tight race boils down, on artistic grounds, to a choice between Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" and Stevie Wonder's "Fulfillingness' First Finale." Wonder's album is a brilliant, immensely listenable combination of hard and soft musical elements, a work that is every bit as rewarding as his "Innervisions," the Grammy's top album winner last year. The material ranges from the tender, romantic "Too shy to say" to the sassy, raucous "Boogie On, Reggae Woman."
Mitchell's "Court and Spark" is a warmly personal, virtually flawless album that may well contain the most finely honed collection of songs and most realized arrangements in the singer-songwriter's distinguished career. Importantly, she includes both the ups and downs of romance, a balance of the times in which things did work as well as those in which they didn't. I'd vote for "Court and Spark" but it is the closest race of the day.
Song of the Year: with so many fine Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder (among others) choices available, it's a shame the nominations had to center around such essentially traditional, easy listening pop efforts as "Feel Like Makin' Love" (by Eugene McDaniels), "I Honestly Love You" (Jeff Berry and Peter Allen), "The Way We Were" (Marilyn and Alan Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch) and "You and Me Against the World" (Paul Williams and Ken Ascher). True, David Nichtern's "Midnight at the Oasis" is not in that mold, but its success, I suspect, has a lot to do with Maria Muldaur's excellent vocal. If forced to pick, I'd go with "The Way We Were." Grumble, grumble.
Best Female Pop Vocal: Joni Mitchell (for "Court and Spark") with some competition from Cleo Laine (for "Live at Carnegie Hall"). Also nominated: Roberta Flack (for "Feel Like Makin' Love"), Carole King ("Jazzman") and Olivia Newton-John (I honestly Love You").
Best Male Pop Vocal: The NARAS governing body should standardize this category so that only albums or only singles are eligible. As it is, voters can nominate either, thereby setting up uneven comparisons. For instance, Elton John's vocal on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" single is competing against all of Stevie Wonder's vocals on "Fulfillingness' First Finale" album. While one might then give the nod to Wonder on quantity, I take Elton John on the grounds his performance on the record is more arresting than any single work on Wonder's album. Also nominated in a poor runner-up field: Harry Chapin (for "Cat's in the Cradle"), Billy Peston ("Nothing from Nothing") and Dave Loggins ("Please Come to Boston").
Others: Stevie Wonder (best producer), Dionne Warwicke & the Spinners' "Then Came You" (best group or duo vocal), Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City" (best rhythm & Blues song), Merle Haggard's "If We Make It Through December" (best country song).
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