First of all, I just wanted to say that my last post on possible Hillary running mates was my 200th post on the Countdown.
For all that I blog about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there is still one more institution in popular music that is regarded with still greater cynicism, whose decision-makers operate in still greater secrecy, and whose choices are even more marked by shades of elitism and contempt for the average listener.
I am speaking, of course, of the Grammys. Although watching the Grammys makes for fun television, there’s a reason why the awards ceremony is taken far less seriously than its counterparts among the Emmys and the Oscars. Awards given are almost correlated to which artists perform or turn up for the ceremony, which questions the authenticity. During breakout years in rock and roll, they’ve given the best record to “The Girl from Ipanema.” They gave the first Heavy Metal Grammy to Jethro Tull. In ’67 they gave the Best Record award to “Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band over “Eleanor Rigby” and “Good Vibrations.” And they never gave a non-lifetime achievement award to Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, or Bob Marley.
But maybe their most egregious category, the one that most demonstrates their inability to gauge success or merit, is the Best New Artist award. It’s fraught with difficulties in that the boundaries of what is “new” are somewhat arbitrary. Green Day, for example, won the Best New Artist award on their third record, and six or seven years after they had started out. So, I thought I might revisit the Best New Artist award with the benefit of hindsight, to see which years the Grammys correctly predicted the future of popular music milieu, and which years they gave away the game to one-hit wonders who were never seen or heard from again. In each case, I’ll stick with the Grammys slate of nominees, and work from there. This first segment will go from the first such award in 1960 to 1978.
1960: Winner: Bobby Darin. Nominees: Edd Byrnes, Johnny Restivo, Mark Murphy, Mavis Walters
Alex’s take: Good call. Darin ended up with a career that was sadly cut short by congenital health problems, but in the time he had made some fun rock record and matured into a classy, somewhat retro style in the vein of “Beyond the Sea.” Murphy and Walters, I might add, might be obscure today, but were first-rate jazz vocalists in their time.
1961: Winner: Bob Newhart. Nominees: Joanie Summers, Leontyne Price, Miriam Makeba, The Brothers Four.
Alex’s take: I like the idea that a good comedian can be nominated for- and win- the Best New Artist award. But Leontyne Price was one of the first great African-American opera singers. Miriam Makeba became a proud anti-Apartheid activist, and I think one of the most important African entertainers of the 20th century. Newhart revolutionized comedy in the 1960s with his button-down observations, but Makeba edges him out.
1962: Winner: Peter Nero. Nominees: Ann-Margaret, Dick Gregory, The Lettermen, Timi Yuro.
Alex’s take: Hmmm..1962 might not have been the most inspiring year. Dick Gregory was one of the first black comedians to break out of the minstrel stereotype with acute social observations. The Lettermen were exactly the kind of group that would be extinct by 1964, Ann-Margaret was hot but of limited musical talent, and Yuri was a cool contralto. By the way, I love the social conscience the early Grammys showed in their choices. For all that, Peter Nero was still the right choice; a phenomenal piano player with a long career.
1963: Winner: Robert Goulet. Nominees: Peter, Paul & Mary, Allan Sherman, The Four Seasons, New Christy Minstrels, Vaughn Meader.
Alex’s take: It’s a shame Dylan isn’t here, but given what we have, I can see why Goulet was such a compelling choice as a Broadway legend. Allan Sherman was probably America’s most important comic of the early 60s, and The Four Seasons had a boatload of falsetto-driven hits. (Vaughn Meader was an unfortunate choice as a Kennedy impressionist whose career lost its single gimmick after the president’s assassination.) Peter Paul & Mary win hands down, though. They revitalized folk music, brought it back from the brink of agreeable and apolitical Kingston Trio nonentities, infused it once again with social conscience, and brought Dylan to the masses.
1964: Winner: The Swingles. Nominees: John Gary, Trini Lopez, The J’s with Jamie, Vikki Carr.
Alex’s take: What a terrible group of nominees- the J’s with Jamie don’t even have a wikipedia page! Carr enjoyed an interesting career in jazz, and Trini Lopez was expected to be the future of folk before his career imploded. The Swingles, the actual winner, did some cool vocal renditions on classical music, but nothing remotely worthy of a major industry award. Verdict? A pox on all of your houses.
1965: Winner: The Beatles. Nominees: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Morgana King, Petula Clark.
Alex’s take: The Beatles. No comment necessary.
1966: Winner: Tom Jones. Nominees: Sonny & Cher, Glenn Yarborough, Herman’s Hermits, The Byrds, Marilyn Maye, Horst Jankowski.
Alex’s take: This is roughly the moment where the Grammys stop being revolutionary and started getting twee. Yarborough was the musician on The Hobbit animated film, incidentally. Jones is much too Vegas, and not innovative enough. Sonny & Cher and Herman’s Hermits had negligible levels of musicianship, so that leaves the twangy, trippy Byrds as the best choice.
1967: Winner: No Award (??)
1968: Winner: Bobby Gentry. Nominees: Harpers Bizarre, Jefferson Airplane, Lana Cantrell, the 5th Dimension.
Alex’s take: What the hell? Harpers Bizarre- the guys who did a bad cover of “Feelin’ Groovy”? (Speaking of which, why weren’t Simon and Garfunkel ever nominated for this award? Socially conscious folk-rock is clearly in the Grammys’ wheelhouse!) This is a bad lot of candidates, but Jefferson Airplane ended up being the most impactful of them in the long run.
1969: Winner: Jose Feliciano. Nominees: Jeannie C. Riley, O. C. Smith, Cream, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap.
Alex’s take: Hmm. Riley lit up the charts with “Harper Valley PTA,” Puckett had three hits that all sounded exactly the same, and Smith’s career wasn’t very substantial. Here’s the thing- this award isn’t for rock and roll, it is for popular music. On that ground, I agree that Feliciano matters more, in the end, than short-lived but very talented Cream.
1970: Winner: Crosby, Stills & Nash. Nominees: Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Oliver, Neon Philharmonic.
Alex’s take: Chicago is my third favorite music artist of all time. CSN is my fourth favorite music artist of all time. Led Zeppelin still deserved to win.
1971: Winner: The Carpenters. Nominees: Anne Murray, Melba Moore, The Patridge Family, Elton John.
Alex’s take: The Carpenters are a quintessential Grammy-oriented group, but it is hard to deny my second-favorite artist, Elton John. 40 top 40 hits, and dozens of songs to the Western canon? One of the easiest choices on this list.
1972: Winner: Carly Simon. Nominees: Bill Withers; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Chase; Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds.
Alex’s take: Wait…seriously? Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds– don’t pull your love– was nominated for a Grammy? I love the MST3K sketch where the crew can’t figure out how many people are actually in the group. Geez. EL&P is a surprising choice; the Grammys are most definitely not prog friendly. Simon wasn’t a bad choice, but I’d go with Bill Withers. He was a late bloomer, but as his recent Rock Hall induction shows, “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” ultimately mattered more than “You’re so Vain.”
1973: Winner: America. Nominees: Eagles, Harry Chapin, John Prine, Loggins and Messina.
Alex’s take: I love the soft rock group America. One of my favorite guilty pleasures. Chapin and Prine are intriguing choices, but it is hard to deny The Eagles.
1974: Winner: Bette Midler. Nominees: Barry White, Maureen McGovern, Eumir Deodato, Marie Osmond.
Alex’s take: This is one instance where I’ll definitely not be voting for McGovern. It’s a strange group of nominees from a really good year in popular music. White was one of the sexiest singers who ever lived. Bette Midler, though, was the rightful winner– for longevity in popular music and versatility; she was still scoring monster hits in 1991 that I’ve been hearing performed at talent shows ever since.
1975: Winner: Marvin Hamlisch. Nominees: Phoebe Snow, Johnny Bristol, Graham Central Station, David Essex, Bad Company.
Alex’s take: Geez. Bristol, Graham Central Station, and Essex were all flashes in the pan. Bad Company? I refuse to reward mediocrity in any form. I considered Snow, but ultimately I thought back to seeing Hamlisch perform in Saratoga several years before his death and being bowled over by his personality. He reinvented, in many ways, the role of the conductor and composer into a jovial and more interactive light. Out of a suspect group of candidates, he’s probably the best.
1976: Winner: Natalie Cole. Nominees: Amazing Rhythm Aces, Brecker Brothers, Morris Albert, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
Alex’s take: For the third year in a row, the Grammys picked a terrible slate of candidates, but nevertheless picked the best artist out of this group. Cole, like her father, was a vocalist whose expression and articulation was of the very first rate.
1977: Winner: Starland Vocal Band. Nominees: Boston, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, The Brothers Johnson, Wild Cherry.
Alex’s take: Good God! Seriously, Grammys, you’re killing me. Starland Vocal Band is one of the worst choices made by any major award in any year. Dr. Buzzard’s group is actually a very interesting interpretation on Latin music, but Boston‘s stellar, near-flawless debut album makes them the winner for me.
1978: Winner: Debby Boone. Nominees: Andy Gibb, Stephen Bishop, Shaun Cassidy, Foreigner.
Alex’s take: Debby Boone is automatically disqualified for being Debby Boone. Gibbs had lots of hits, but a career cut short tragically. As a loyal Rochesterian, I need to give props to Lou Gramm and Foreigner.
So, what do you think? It looks like the Grammys were right only 7 out of 18 time so far. Stay tuned when we will take this project into the mid-to-late 90s.