The GRAMMYs® at 50!

There’s an air of unreality about issuing a 7 CD set honoring the 50th Anniversary of The GRAMMY Awards. For one thing, the GRAMMYs award commercial, not artistic merit, though occasionally the two intersect. But more importantly, in an age of iTunes, where you can grab the tunes you want for a buck a piece, there’s something outdated and inefficient about packaging and marketing 16 tunes per category on a CD. What if you only like a few of them? Why be forced to buy all of them? Guess what? You’re not. NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) and Shout! Factory decided to issue these 7 discs anyway.

Before getting to the compilations, here’s a set-up you might enjoy. Back in 1984, when I was still living in Los Angeles, a magazine I was writing for assigned me to cover a GRAMMY-sponsored “listening party” at A&M Records. Because of my disagreeable in-print temperament, the editor, Bud Scoppa, had nicknamed me “The Wrong Man” and delighted in sending me to cover events he knew I would probably hate.

So here’s that story, originally published in Music Connection magazine, winter of 1984.

“Grammies & Goldfish: The Wrong Man Goes to a NARAS Listening Session.”.

“No shrimps,” I muttered to myself. “That’s a bad sign at a record-biz party.” I was at the NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) Grammy Award nominee’s listening party at A&M Studios and there were no shrimps. Just popcorn, Pepperidge Farm “goldfish,” tortilla chips, and some cookies. White jug wine was available for a buck. An event strictly for NARAS members too poor to buy records, so they had to come here to listen, so why waste shrimps on them? This would be a plebian affair, to be sure. So I maintained a low threshold of excitement as I toured the various studios and mixing rooms where one could audition the nominees’ music.

The big room had the “refreshments” and the nominated music in the pop categories. A woman explained that there were so many nominees, there wasn’t time to play whole songs, so they’d be skipping around. A few minutes of that is about as pleasant as having your air supply cut off, so I left to visit the “classical” studio, which was empty except for the hosts. I groused about my distaste for the current state of digital recording. They agreed, but said that Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (not to be confused with the distinguished black cellist Yo Ma Ma---okay that’s an oft-used and infantile joke but I wrote this in 1985 and probably was the first to use it-MF 2008), nominated for “Best Classical Performance—Instrumental Soloist or Soloists” was quite a fine sounding digital recording. They played it for me and they were right!

By the time I left, 20 minutes later, maybe two or three people had visited the room, briefly. The vast majority of attendees probably check off winners in the classical categories like I vote for judges and school board members; If the name sounds good, vote for it! Except for the most popular music categories, it’s safe to say the majority of NARAS members are probably voting blindly.

Some say singers are musicians who have an oral fixation, but it’s probably a coincidence that there are 69 Grammy Awards given out. That’s a lot of categories all right, but there are a number of different kinds of music out there—too bad so much of it is totally misrepresented. The same names appear over and over again. Some people are there out of habit, like Stevie Wonder, whose one syrupy song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” garnered him four nominations. Ridiculous! Some of the categories are so specifically exclusive or inclusive, it’s comedic. “Best Classical Record Recorded on a Tuesday” isn’t a real category, but it’s a possibility.

In an attempt to fulfill my obligation to this magazine, I hurried back to the main room. I dined on some goldfish and did some schmoozing while they continued to play segments of nominated songs. It was hard to hear it over all the other schmoozers.

I ran into my publicity contact from NARAS who gave me some coupons good for a few free drinks (being an important journalist has its advantages). Sipping my wine, I eyed the crowd. More like a P.T.A. meeting than a flashy music crowd, I thought, and, of course, NARAS members are not “biz” executives, the publicist explained to me. In fact, the gist of the eligibility is that you write, perform, or produce music.

I looked for celebrities in the crowd. There were none. I hooked up with Janet Van Ham, the photographer assigned to the story, just in time for her to snap me with soon-to-be celeb (Textone) Carla Olson, who was dressed not to be recognized.

The publicist introduced me to Tom Snow, whose song “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” is part of the nominated Footloose soundtrack. The singer, Deniece Williams, is also up for “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.” I pulled Snow aside and asked him about the significance of the Grammies. “It means recognition by your peers and all the clichés,” he replied, without a trace of sarcasm. “Does winning a Grammy mean the same thing to the record business as an Academy Award does to the film business?” I asked. “I don’t think so. The film business is much more aggressive in their advertising once somebody’s won an Oscar, and they’re in a position to advertise it more visibly. I don’t think the public is as concerned about whether a pop star has been a Grammy winner or not, it’s the music that counts. But you may be lured in to see a film because of an Oscar-winning performance. And, of course, music is free on radio. Films you have to pay for.”

Snow went on to say that having 69 categories does not diminish the significance of winning a Grammy. “If you win your category, you’ve done a damn good job and should feel great,” he said.

Back in the big room, they were playing Huey Lewis & the News’ “Heart of Rock and Roll,” just in case a NARAS member was among the three people nationwide who hadn’t heard it yet.

There was a buzz in the crowd. “Someone” had arrived. A large black man wearing a leather beanie entered the room. It was Andrae Crouch—a familiar name, but he could have been a fullback as easily as a musician, such was my ignorance.

I sauntered over to the video room. Billy Joel was “Live From Long Island,” so I quickly sauntered out again back to the main room where Jeffrey Osborne was about to appear. Janet the photog tells me that some large manager-type woman had threatened her for trying to take some pictures of Osborne. The publicist had assured us we could take all the pictures of Jeffrey Osborne we wanted. I made an editorial decision: We didn’t want any pictures of Jeffrey Osborne.

There was a drawing for two tickets to the Grammy Awards. Legendary producer/engineer Bones Howe won them. He could afford to buy them more easily than a lot of other people there, but it’s that kind of time, I guess.

After the drawing, the crowd thinned considerably. I wondered off to a room marked “Latin, Ethnic and Raggae”[sic]. The engineer said a Placido Domingo song had cleared the room.

Raggae music indeed! Obviously I’m “ragging” a bit here on NARAS, and this “listening party.” But really, looking at the predictable, mundane nominees and the glaring omissions, it’s obvious that this is more a sales-recognition award than one based on artistic merit. Yet, despite heavy metal’s huge sales impact in 1984, there is not one metal song or group nominated. Don’t get me wrong, if I’ve heard one “Hey Baby, I Got a Dick” metal anthem, I’ve heard—and hated—them all. But when dreck like Frankie Goes to Hollywood (The Village People Go to Liverpool) and Corey Hart are nominated for “Best New Artist” and Pia Zadora and Wendy O. Willliams are in the running for anything (and they are), and not one metal act is, something is wrong! The closest it gets is Van Halen’s Who-like “Jump” which, although a great song, is hardly metal.

This situation isn’t new. Back in the Seventies, what’s now “mainstream” rock was treated much like metal is now. Despites its being the economic backbone of the business, you’d be hard-pressed to find legitimate rock & roll rewarded at the Grammies back then. And if an innovative or hard-rock band with an attitude would be allowed to perform at the awards ceremony, the glitzy host and hostess would come back afterward and act like parents watching their adolescent rebelling—even though the rock & rollers were probably the same age as the hosts.

There are some bright spots among the nominees this year, though. Tina Turner’s comback is reflected in six nominations; and a few years ago, I doubt that an album like Prince’s Purple Rain would nominated for “Album of the Year,” even if it had sold 20-million copies instead of just ten.

On the other hand, there’s still Lionel Hampton’s nomination for “Best Rock Instrumental Performance (!) and there’s the dismal “Best Rock Vocal Performance” lineup: Bowie, Springsteen, Mellencamp, Idol, and Elton John. Boring! (Sounds great today!-MF 2008).

Well, the party’s over, so I leave, thinking the editor has sent the wrong guy to cover this one. As I’m getting in my car, Jeffrey Osborne, like a politician looking for a vote, unctuously waves goodbye to me. He’s got the wrong guy, too—I’m not a NARAS member.


So what’s with this collection? It’s an attempt by NARAS to put its best musical foot forward, though the awards’ history includes enough bunions and calluses to keep a team of musical podiatrists busy for another 50 years.

The seven categories are “Classic Pop,” “Contemporary Rock,” “Contemporary Country,” “Classic Country,” “Contemporary R&B,” “Classic R&B,” and “Contemporary Pop.”

Within each category are sub-categories, which give the compilers some breathing space. The tracks are not arranged chronologically, nor is there any attempt to provide historical or any other kind of perspective on the chosen tunes. The idea is simply to provide a collection of hits. With no value added, why would anyone buy 16 tunes instead of just the ones they wanted?

That said, the compilers have done a pretty good job of mixing it up. For instance, “Contemporary Pop” includes k.d. Lang (“Constant Craving” Best Solo Vocal Performance 1992), Eric Clapton (“Change the World” Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Male Pop Vocal 1996), Madonna, Macy Gray, Shawn Colvin Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake, John Mayer, Kelly Clarkson Nelly Furtado, Los Lonely Boys and Justin Timberlake, among others.

That’s “mixing it up” in my book. So the first thing you know is wrong here is Clapton getting all of those awards for “Change the World.” And as you look through the choices and check the dates, a fun thing to do is consider what your favorite tunes were that given year, and what you thought of the awarded ones included.

Actually, the fewer tunes you have or even know the more useful some of these compilations are, especially if you wish to know what was popular when your musical mind had drifted elsewhere.

There are so many categories within categories there are bound to be good tunes in every one of them, even if they probably caught short shrift during the televised ceremony. For instance, I’m not a big fan of “Contemporary Country,” most of which is big hats, a lot of mugging and Eagles imitations, yet the compilers threw in Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dwight Yoakam, Asleep and the Wheel and Lyle Lovett, The Mavericks, Alison Krauss and Union Station, George Jones, June Carter Cash and Emmylou Harris and managed to produce a disc that was illuminating and entertaining.

More entertaining, overall, than the “Classic Country” disc that included anything but the best of “Classic Country,” and instead highlighted (understandably) the most commercial tunes of the genre like “Harper Valley PTA,” (prescient and a tune about moral hypocrisy the GOP should be whistling), “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Gambler,” “9 To 5” and you get the picture.

The “Classic Pop” disc is positively schizophrenic with Pet Clark’s “Downtown,” “Monday, Monday,” “Rosanna,” “Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now),” ‘Higher Love,” (Nilsson’s) “Everybody’s Talkin” and the Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” among others, all vying for your contempt while you find yourself enjoying the rest. How about segueing this trio: “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “At Seventeen,” and “How Deep Is Your Love?” Someone had a sense of humor.

The “Contemporary Rock” collection is equally askew, with a dark assemblage including “Cult of Personality,” Black Hole Sun,” “Runaway Train,” “Give Me One Reason,” “Fly Away,” Dave Matthews’ somber “Gravedigger” meshed with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Seven Nation Army,” Coldplay’s “In My Place,” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal!” The only thing missing is a razor blade taped to the jewel box, though of all of the compilations, this is the one that most appeals to me and is among the most astutely sequenced.

“Classic R&B” proves trying to please everyone pleases no one, with a mix that includes Aretha’s “Respect,” Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” and Marvin’s “Sexual Healing,” along with Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be,” Earth Wind and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone,” Donna Summers’ “Last Dance,” and some others that make clear the “race based” not “tune based” nature of the compilation.

As for the sound, I could be imagining things, but it sounds as if differences in EQ, dynamics and other sonic signatures of the individual recordings have been sacrificed at the alter of uniformity and perhaps a bit of dynamic compression in order to make it flow instead of jar.

There is something to be said for commerciality and for giving the people what they want and there’s something to be said for listening to disc after disc of songs that have proven to be what people want, if just to keep a finger on the pulse of pop musical history.

In the end though, given the current distribution model, unless these discs are priced cheaply, who’s going to want them when you can easily pick and choose and buy individual tracks you might want online? I just looked and these discs of previously released, money-making tunes, list for $15.98.

What are these people thinking? No annotation, no backgrounder, no perspective, no added value and $15.98? No sale!