Midweek Music Moment: The Grammy Awards

On May 25, 1957, five men, including Quincy Jones, got together at the Brown Derby restaurant in L.A. The founded an organization called the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Less than two years later, the organization gave out its its first awards for excellence in music, called the Grammy Award.

The Grammy Awards are a big name item. But they are perceived by many — myself included — as suffering a major problem. Although the awards are voted on and given by “the music industry,” they often fail to reflect what’s really happening in music. Here’s a few cases in point from the music revolution of the 1960s:

  • Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” grabbed the public when it was released in 1965. Not only did “A Taste of Honey” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass win the statuette for Record of the Year in 1966, Dylan wasn’t even nominated. In fact, Dylan didn’t win a Grammy until “Gotta Serve Somebody” won Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male in 1979 (although he was included in the artists when The Concert for Bangla Desh won Album of the Year in 1973).
  • Although Sgt. Pepper won Album of the Year in 1968, “Up, Up and Away” by the Fifth Dimension won Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Group Performance.
  • Despite the commercial and critical success of LPs like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. Bruce Springsteen’s first Grammy was for Best Rock Vocal Performance (Male) in 1984 for “Dancing in the Dark.”
  • 1967’s award for Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Recording went to the New Vaudeville Band for “Winchester Cathedral.” The other nominees? “Eleanor Rigby,” “Good Vibrations,” “Last Train To Clarksville,” “Cherish” and “Monday Monday.”
  • Not only are Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Doors among the artists never to win a Grammy, the only one of the first 20 albums in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time to win Album of the Year is Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
  • The Best New Artist award can produce interesting results. Consider this string in the 1970s: Starland Vocal Band, 1977; Debby Boone, 1978; A Taste of Honey, 1979. But who could ever forget Milli Vanilli, whose award was revoked nine months after it was presented in 1990r.

Some of the problems of the 1960s were avoided by increasing the number of categories. In fact, they’ve grown from less than two dozen in 1959 to more than 100 currently. Yet growth does not necessarily equal quality. For example, in 2002 Dylan’s Love and Theft won Best Contemporary Folk Album while U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind won Best Rock Album. What beat them for Album of the Year? The Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

Still, even the Grammys can’t get it all wrong all the time. For example, the Beatles won Best New Artist in 1965 while Stevie Wonder rightfully won Album of the Year in 1974 (Innervisions), 1975 (Fulfillingness’ First Finale) and 1977 (Songs in the Key of Life). Similarly, in the jazz field the Grammys have been far more consistent with the award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album going to such top notch performers as Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Chick Corea and Phil Woods.

Fortunately, while a Grammy Award may boost a record’s or an artist’s sales, the ultimate determination of the staying power and importance of music still rests in the ears of the individual listener.

…there’s no way for you to avoid the fact that nobody [in the music industry] cares about the music, only the profits.

Frank Zappa, Express, March 1985

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