May 4 – And The Winner Is…

Every tradition has to begin somewhere, sometime. In the case of music, one of the biggest got going in both New York & L.A. 64 years ago. That was the first Grammy Awards, held in 1959 for the 1958 year in music. Over six decades later, despite the jokes and criticisms they are still the industry standard. Sure, there are American Music Awards, Junos, Brits, CMAs… but a Grammy is the one that has the prestige and carries weight (and the weight is about five pounds per trophy in case you’re wondering.)

The awards were thought up by the people behind the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They noticed that the movies and even the relatively new-fangled television had awards to honor their best, but music didn’t. So they coupled with the Recording Academy to change that and give out trophies for musical excellence and have a fancy ceremony/party to do so. They had a contest to pick a name, and Jay Danna from New Orleans won with the suggestion, a shortened version of “gramophone”, which they decided to use as the main theme for the trophy itself.

The first awards, split between fancy hotels in Manhattan and Hollywood, handed out 28 awards. By the early-’00s, it had grown to over 100 a year; after a little scaling back and reconfiguring of categories, there are 91 currently. NBC filmed the awards and aired them, although not live. It wasn’t until ABC took over the broadcasts that they were shown coast-to-coast in real time on TV.

Actor-comedian Mort Sahl hosted the first ones (although it’s not stated if he was the West coast or East coast one) and since then they’ve used a line of famous actors, comedians and only infrequently, musicians, as hosts. Andy Williams holds the record, hosting seven straight (1971-77), followed by John Denver with six. Denver has the distinction of being the host to the most-watched ones, the 1984 edition which over 50 million people tuned into… although more probably were waiting for Michael Jackson’s moonwalking appearance than hoping to see the bespectacled country singer. This year’s Awards drew about 12 million viewers by comparison.

Among the big awards were the first winners for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn won the Album, beating out two Frank Sinatra ones among others. Song of the Year (basically for the actual song lyrically and melody-wise) and Record of the Year (for best-sounding song, with the producers and engineers also being credited) both went to “Nel Blu Dipinto de Blu” by Domenico Modugno. Not familiar? The hit was better known as “Volare”, and to this day it’s still the only foreign-language song (Italian) to win best song. Among the competitors it beat out was … “The Chipmunk Song”. By The Chipmunks. Don’t feel sorry for the singing rodents though, they won three awards that night, for Best children’s Recording, Best Comedy Album and Best Engineered, non-classical recording. Interestingly, comedy records were a much bigger deal back then; a Bob Newhart stand-up routine won the Best Album in 1961. Other winners in the first show were Ella Fitzgerald and Perry Como in their “pop” category and The Champs rockin’ “Tequila” which was classified as the Best R&B record!

Obviously there’s always debate and arguments aplenty over the winners and losers, and there’ve been some obvious missteps, perhaps none more glaringly than Milli Vanilli who had to give back their 1990 Best New Artist one after it was found that the supposed winning duo didn’t perform on it. Certainly some greats like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Elton John seem to have been overlooked relative to their importance and enduring records, and at times the Awards seem to play catch-up, like naming Ray Charles the winner of Album of the Year posthumously in 2005 and Steely Dan winning their first in that category in 2001. But in general, one would probably agree that the list of winners, at least for the 20th Century have been a pretty good, if perhaps conservative, list of records and artists who mattered. Since then… well, debate amongst yourself if you think Beyonce really should have more wins than any other act , ever?

And if you were wondering, the actual trophies are gold-plated and hand-made in Colorado by Billings Artworks. The owner John, and his small staff make the awards each year, personally drive them to the Awards pre-ceremony and then engrave nameplates for them when winners are announced.


February 24 – A Song About A King, An Honor From The Queen

A red-letter day on Elton John‘s calendar. Or, make that “Sir” Elton John, because as of this day in 1998, that’s what he officially is. And it also marks the anniversary of one of his biggest, and best, hits coming out. “Philadelphia Freedom” was released this day in 1975.

We’ve looked at that song here before, but to recap, it was a standalone single he released between the Caribou and Captain Fantastic… albums and was a tribute to his friend Billie Jean King. As well as to the sounds of Philadelphia, which Elton loved – bands like the O’Jays and Spinners were very hot at the time. Billie Jean was a tennis star who’d become one of the premier names in a new team tennis league, and her team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. Elton wanted something to celebrate her, but Bernie Taupin had difficulty putting together lyrics about tennis, so he made it a bit more wide-ranging, a sort of love song to her as well as to the city and the American concept of freedom and liberty in general. The song went on to be one of his biggest, and most enduring, topping North American charts and being one of a remarkable 10 platinum-selling singles he’d release in the States during that decade alone (the Bee Gees, the kings of disco, had four for comparison’s sake.)

Jumping forward a little over two decades, we come to his being knighted by the Queen. Being made a knight is an honorary thing in Britain, although Famous Daily note “knighthood does not mandate royal duties or responsibilities.” So, despite what Monty Python skits might suggest, if attacked, being a knight doesn’t mean you have to don armor, pick up a sword and say “ni” repeatedly. Rather, it’s just a show of respect from the nation which allows you to be referred to officially as “Sir”, or “Dame” if you happen to be female.

Elton received the honor for “outstanding service to music and charitable services.” Elton had long been very involved in various AIDS charities, among the most prominent and earliest celebrities to do so. He wasn’t the lone rock star to be given the honor, in fact it’s not all that rare. Paul McCartney had been dubbed “Sir Paul” the year before, and Cliff Richard before that. Even Mick Jagger would make the grade, in 2003.

Being knighted requires kneeling down in front of the monarch, who typically touches a sword to your shoulder and gives you a medal. Perhaps disappointing some of his fans, he wore a conservative dark jacket and tie rather than a chicken suit or flamboyant head dress. It wasn’t the first time he’d met Queen Elizabeth mind you; his being friends with Lady Di – her death the previous year and his charity single “Candle in the Wind ’97” in her memory might have dictated the timing of his award – had him moving in similar circles to her at times. In fact, he met her as far back as 1981, at a royal birthday party where Princess Anne asked him to dance despite the fact “the (music) was turned down about as low as you could get without switching it off”. He said he “ended up just shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot, trying to make as little noise as I could so I didn’t drown out the music.” Was that what was going through his mind as he took his place in front of Her Majesty?

Turns out no. He says he was thinking of Groucho Marx! That was because he was erroneously introduced to the queen as “Sir John Elton”…and he’d had a signed Marx Brothers poster which had also been dedicated to “John Elton”.

February 22 – Bowie’s Black Star Shone On Brightly

Gone but not forgotten is one apt way to summarize David Bowie. There was plenty of evidence of that this day in 2017 when Britain’s main music awards, the Brits recognized him posthumously. Bowie won the “Best British Male Solo” performer and “Best Album” award, the latter for Blackstar, the grim album released only days before his death.

For Bowie, it was his third trophy for Best Male, with past wins in 1984 and 2014; the album award was his first. It was the first time either had been awarded posthumously in the awards 40 years. the three Best Male awards ties him with Phil Collins and Paul Weller, trailing (strangely to us North Americans) Robbie Williams who’s taken it four times. The award for Album of the Year was picked up by his son Duncan, who said if there was one thing he’d want his own son to know about David, it was that he “was always there for people who were a bit different” and said in closing, “this award is for the kooks!”

It came only days after Bowie had cleaned up, again posthumously, at the Grammys, winning four including Best Rock Song and Best Alternative Rock Album. Prior to that, he’d only won one “regular” Grammy (for the “Blue Jean” video) plus a Lifetime Achievement recognition there.

January 12 – It Was A Day To Circle On Your ’90s Calendars

If you were a mover or shaker in the rock world, this was a day to mark on your calendars back in the 1990s. That’s because January 12 was a day the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame enjoyed using for its induction ceremonies.

The ceremonies are of course, lavish shows designed to showcase the Best of Rock, with the annual inductees being officially inducted in, usually three months or so after they had been announced. Typically, a star who has followed in their footsteps makes a speech, followed by the artists themselves, and fitting for a Rock hall, they all perform two or three of their hits in concert at the end. It’s quite an event.

Though the actual physical building only opened in Cleveland in 1995, the idea for it was begun back in 1983, and they started inducting people into it in 1986. And during the ’90s, they picked this day for the 1993, 1995 and 1998 ceremonies. The 1993 was held in Los Angeles, but the other two were at its “usual” site, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The ’95 was the first to be televised (on MTV as it were, back when they still remembered the “M” in their name was “music”); it’s surprising they missed out on the golden opportunity to showcase the museum/Hall and a great show for the first seven years.

In recent years, there’ve been a number of complaints about the choices as the Rock Hall both runs out of its catalog of old rock greats to honor – most already have been – and tries to diversify to satisfy younger, more mulit-racial or multi-national audiences. However, in the ’90s it was quite still new and the roster was a powerhouse each year.

In ’93, the list of honorees included Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doors and Van Morrison, not to mention the great voice of Etta James. And that was only part of the fun; the list of presenters was impressive too, with ZZ Top honoring Cream, Bruce Springsteen talking about CCR and Eddie Vedder welcoming in the Doors. Mind you, the ’93 show was perhaps remembered for its controversy and one man’s pettiness more than anything else. When it came time for CCR to play, John Fogerty – the voice of and songwriter for them – refused to play with the two living members, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford (Fogerty’s brother Tom, the fourth member, had passed away three years prior) and got them barred, choosing to play with Springsteen and Robbie Robertson instead.

The ’95 show was equally talent-laden with the Allman Brothers, Al Green, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin and Neil Young being welcomed in, by the likes of Melissa Etheridge (Joplin), Eddie Vedder again (Neil Young) and Willie Nelson (the Allmans). And in ’98, the quintessential soCal stars of the late-’70s made it in together, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Sharing the bill with them were Santana, the Mamas and Papas, and rock pioneer Gene Vincent; Jimmy Buffett brought in the Eagles and Sheryl Crow, Fleetwood Mac. Interestingly, the Hall included all seven members of the Eagles throughout their years and founding members Peter Green and Danny Kirwan, long gone by the Rumours era, with Fleetwood Mac. At times it’s been known to only include a “classic lineup” of some bands, excluding a number of members.

The 2023 induction ceremony won’t be for quite a few months; the ’22 edition only took place last November 5. Tears For Fears, Alanis Morissette, Kate Bush and – I only report it, not pick it – Mariah Carey are predicted as the most likely recipients.

October 25 – Cliffs Notes On Sir Cliff

It’s often been mentioned, while some (Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran etc) British acts translate very well across the ocean, others just don’t seem more a local taste there and don’t hit it very big in North America despite being huge at home (T Rex, Slade etc). Perhaps there’s no better example of that than Cliff Richard…who had a big day in 1995. In fact, it was a significant day in British history, as Cliff became “Sir Cliff”, becoming the first pop or rock musician to be honored with official knighthood in the UK.

Richard was sometimes referred to as the “British Elvis”, and with good reason. His career started around the same time as Presley’s and like “The King”, his early persona was something of a rebel. Like Presley, he had a bit of a career in film as well during the early-’60s. And like Presley, he was massively popular in his homeland. By 1970, he’d racked up three dozen top 10 hits in the UK, seven of them #1s (some with his early bands the Drifters and the Shadows); he’d go on to add 29 more to that including five #1s and a total of 30 gold or platinum albums. His first big hit, “Move It” was in 1958; his last “Thank You For a Lifetime”, a #3 hit in 2008. Over here however, he only scored occasionally in the ’70s and beginning of the ’80s, with just three top 10 hits, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, “Dreamin’” and his first and biggest, “Devil Woman”, his only gold single on this side of the Atlantic.

However, for all his popularity on the radio, his knighthood was based on his charitable work, not his music. The crown cited his “contributions to charity” for the reason they bestowed the honor on him. Early on in his career, Richard had decided to “tithe” or give away at least a tenth of his income to charity. He says he’s guided by the principle “to be a good and responsible steward of what has been entrusted to us.” He set up his own charitable foundation, has been a big supporter of Alzheimer’s research and of an organization called Tearfund, which helps alleviate poverty in the Third World. And, as a tennis buff, he also set up a charity to build courts and teach British kids the sport.

So with his three sisters there to witness it, Queen Elizabeth made Cliff “Sir Cliff.” It started a trend. While he was the first rocker to get the official title (earlier she had given an honorary title to Bob Geldof for his Live Aid work, but as an Irish person, he wasn’t eligible for official knighthood) since then she’s similarly decorated a number of other rock stars for their charitable work. They include Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Tom Jones and Elton John. In 2011 she made Annie Lennox a member of the order as well, which makes her “Dame Annie.” George Martin was awarded knighthood, but unlike the others, his was for his musical work and “contribution to popular culture.”

Of course, there always has to be a renegade. She wanted to award David Bowie with knighthood in 2000, but he turned her down. “I seriously don’t know what it’s for,” he told the press. “It’s not what I spent my life working for.”

October 13 – Literature For Folk?

Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Rushdie…Dylan? It was a big surprise six years ago today when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Bob Dylan! Dylan won the prize for literature in 2016.

Needless to say, Dylan is one of the most respected singer/songwriters in music history and had won a slew of awards before, including winning 10 Grammy Awards and being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as “one of the greatest songwriters of all time, a gifted wordsmith with political conscience …and a poet-like acumen for meter and language.” He even got a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture.” But the Nobel Prize… well, that was something altogether different.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded annually to the writer “who produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” It had in the past been awarded to a number of great fiction writers including Rudyard Kipling and John Steinbeck as well as some notable poets, like Yeats and Pablo Neruda. Dylan though, was the first person ever awarded it who’d worked mainly in music. The committee noted they picked him “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He became the first American to win it since novelist Toni Morrison in 1993; before that Steinbeck was the previous U.S. recipient way back in 1962. Winners since Dylan include one more American, poet Louise Gluck, plus writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Peter Handke, suggesting that an American musician being chosen really was something of a unicorn.

Dylan didn’t rush to get the prize and the approximately $900 000 that goes with it. It took him until early 2017 to go to Sweden and deliver an acceptance speech, in private and pick up the honor. Ironically, part of the reason was that he said he was dumbfounded to be picked for it and the honor left him “truly beyond words!”

July 28 – Linda Win A National Award…That Was The Day

We wonder if she ever thought to herself, “maybe the president will call me and give me an award. Yeah, ‘That’ll Be the Day!’”. Because on this day in 2014, Linda Ronstadt joined some prestigious company – and hosts. That’s when she was awarded the National Arts Medal by President Obama. As such, she was arguably only the third female musician from the Pop Music field to be so honored, after Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand.

The National Arts Medal was created by the U.S. Congress in 1984, “honoring artists and patrons of the arts.” Winners are picked by the sitting president, based on the recommendations of the National Endowment for the Arts committee. The government says the award, including a bronze medal, is given for “outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts.”

The first ones were given out by President Reagan in 1985, and included a number of artists like Georgia O’Keefe, arts patrons Paul Mellon and Hallmark (the card company) and two musical types – composer Elliott Carter Jr., and opera singer Leontyne Price. This set the tone to some degree for the awards through much of the time since, with it favoring classical or opera musicians, with a few exceptions such as Ella Fitzgerald in ’88, B.B. King in ’90, Ray Charles in ’93, Dave Brubeck in ’94 and Aretha in ’99. The 2000s saw a little bit of a turn towards more mainstream music with recipients including Dolly Parton in 2005, James Taylor in ’10, Bob Dylan in ’09 and guitarist/inventor Les Paul in 2007.

Ronstadt, picked in 2013, was among the recipients invited to the White House for the ceremony eight years ago. Barack Obama noted of the winners “the moments you help create, moments of understanding, or awe, or joy, or sorrow – they add textures to our lives. They are not incidental to the American experience, they are central to it.” Ronstadt was lauded for her “one of a kind voice, decades of artful music drawing from a broad range of influences …(and) defied expectations.” A valid description of her career which spanned over 20+ years and resulted in a dozen platinum albums, including a Spanish-language one of traditional Mexican music as well as ones which created pop, rock and country music hits.

After the ceremony, Ronstadt and the other winners were invited to stick around the White House for a reception with the President and his family.

The awards were not given out for 2016-18 but after a deluge of complaints about it, Donald Trump reinstated them in 2019, with Alison Krauss being one of four recipients.

May 25 – Were They MTV Faves? A-ha!

A-ha! It was a good night in 1986 for Norway’s most popular band. A-ha cleaned up at the MTV Video Awards, winning eight of the astronaut-shaped trophies in the third edition of the awards. Only Peter Gabriel the following year would win more in a year. While “The Sun Always Shines on TV” took a couple (for editing and cinematography) it was their creative and unique (for the time) “Take on Me” that drew the most attention and hardware, winning six including “Viewer’s Choice,” “Best Special Effects” and “Best Concept Video.” It did lose out to Dire Straits and their “Money For Nothing” however for the then-coveted “Video of the Year” as well as the “Best Group Video.” Curiously, neither group performed at the Awards show, unlike a list that included Van Halen, INXS, Genesis and Robert Palmer. All of them had probably noticed how much a performance on them could boost a career, as Madonna showed two years earlier. The show was a big deal at that time. 

The video with its mix of drawn comics and live action certainly helped the band gain notice over here – the song was the only #1 hit ever in the U.S. by a Norwegian act and helped the Hunting High and Low album sell upwards of 10 million copies worldwide. Most of us in North America heard little more from the photogenic Scandinavians, but they’ve remained immensely popular at home and some other lands. They’ve had eight #1 singles in Norway and earned a reputed $50 million in 2010 from sales of a greatest hits album and a tour in Europe. Meanwhile, they played a concert for almost 200 000 in Brazil in 2015 and even in Britain they’ve scored three gold or platinum albums and 14 top 20 singles, most recently in 2006 with “Analogue.

February 23 – Monster Albums Made For Ratings Hit Show

Last week we took a look at the Brit Awards and noted that it’s getting to be “awards season.” The time of the year when it seems every field of entertainment is giving out the hardware for the previous year’s accomplishments. It also seems like every year there are more shows, and of late, less interest in them. But that wasn’t always the case, and today we look back to this day in 1978 when the Grammys were given out for the 1977 year in music.

Back then, a Grammy was a major statement in music, and the show, a major event for the public. So much so that the awards show from L.A., broadcast on CBS, was on over 26% of all TVs in the U.S. (and approximately 45% of all the ones which were actually being watched), the third-best ratings ever for it. Only the 1974 show (in which Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack were big winners) and the 1984 (at the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity) were more watched. And why not? Consider that in the previous year, between December, 1976 and November ’77, three of what would turn out to be the biggest records ever came out – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which sold ten million in its first month and currently sits at 40 million-plus worldwide; the Eagles Hotel California, which has moved over 26 million in the States alone, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which like Rumours has sold over 40 million and was the biggest-selling soundtrack ever for over a decade. Not to mention multi-platinum classics from the likes of Meat Loaf and Jackson Browne. And of course, on the big screen, a little sci-fi flick called Star Wars had shown, and it’s theme was pretty popular. Grease was a few months away, but Olivia Newton John gave a sneak preview by performing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” live.

The show was hosted by John Denver, looking uncharacteristically formal in a sparkly-lapeled tuxedo. Like we said, back then, it was an event. And fans weren’t disappointed. Even the comparatively minor categories seemed to be given to records that would live on to seem significant. For instance, Kenny Rogers “Lucille” took one for Best Country Male performance; Crystal Gayle won the female equivalent with the crossover hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”…and gave one of the most admirably short acceptance speeches ever! Even the comedy award went to a star for the ages, Steve Martin. Star Wars, and its musical creator John Williams, won trophies for Best Original Score and Best Pop Instrumental. Although the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack came out a few days too late to be included (it was eligible in 1979 and won Album of the Year), the Bee Gees still got a Grammy for Best Pop Group Performance for “How Deep Is Your Love”, the lead-off single from the soundtrack. The Eagles won awards for the two big singles off Hotel California; the title track winning the prestigious Record of the Year and “New Kid In Town” winning one for Best Vocal Arrangements. Rumours took home the Best Album.

Among the other notable awards were Steely Dan taking the Best Engineered Record for Aja, Thelma Houston and Lou Rawls winning ones for R&B and Barbra Streisand, who had already won five before this night, getting ones for Best Pop Female Performance and Best Song for “Evergreen.” Actually, the Best Song was a tie, an unusual occurrence, with it being shared by Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” Curiously, Streisand had also tied for an Oscar before, sharing Best Actress with Katherine Hepburn a decade earlier…just in case you’re ever in need of a trivia question sure to win you a drink at the bar! Speaking of Debby Boone, the Grammys proved once again that they didn’t have a crystal ball for the future. They awarded her the Best New Artist, beating out Foreigner and Andy Gibb among others (not to mention acts like The Clash and Tom Petty who appeared on the scene but didn’t get nominated. And while Gibson undeniably had a massive hit record that put her on the map, she’d turn out to be a one hit wonder…which was not unusual for winners of that award! The previous year they’d given the nod to the Starland Vocal Band, (ahead of Boston and the Brothers Johnson), and the following year, it would be a Taste of Honey winning, not the Cars, Elvis Costello or Toto.

This year’s Grammys will take place April 3.

February 18 – Queen’s Last Speech From The Throne

We looked at the Brit Awards earlier this week. The 1990 ones, held on this day in London, were not especially noteworthy in most respects. Fine Young Cannibals took home the Best Album for their The Raw and the Cooked, Phil Collins won the Best Single for “Just Another Day in Paradise.” But the ’90 awards have since gone on to gain historical poignancy. Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records and producer of several bands such as Jethro Tull hosted the night. The highlight, as it often is, was the presentation of the award for lifetime achievement, known as Outstanding Contribution To Music. On this night, the fitting recipient was Queen.

Of course, in retrospect, Queen seem like one of the best, biggest and most important Brit acts of all-time. It was coming up to the 20th anniversary of their first show. However, although popular, at the time they weren’t universally revered nor were they on a winning streak so to speak. They’d only won one Brit Award before, for single of the year with “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And although they’d put out their sixth album of the ’80s a few months earlier (The Miracle), their triumphant set at Live Aid seemed almost a lifetime back. Although The Miracle did become their sixth #1 album at home, it was close to a flop in North America, where it peaked at #24 in the U.S. and their last really big hit had been a decade earlier with songs from The Game. Even in Britain, their sales were going downhill and, surprisingly to most, the band known for their exuberant and excellent live shows hadn’t toured at all for the album. Rumors abounded.

All that should have been put aside for the night as their excellence was honored. A short video mixed clips of the band at Live Aid with messages of congratulations from the likes of Phil Collins, Elton John, Bob Geldof and Roger Daltrey (who said if he had any advice at all for them, it’d be “don’t break up!”). But the actual acceptance was rather a denouement.

The band, dressed neatly, came up to the podium. Brian May spoke on behalf of the band, thanking the awards and especially those “outside the industry” for letting them do what they do and “go out on a bit of a musical limb.” A decidedly somber-looking and thinner than expected Freddie Mercury, in a tasteful light-colored suit but lacking his trademark moustache, stood to the side, just quietly saying “Good night, thank you” as they sped off the stage barely three minutes in.

As we now know, it was the last time we’d see Mercury in public. He’d been diagnosed with AIDS some three years earlier and was in poor health, which the band knew but the public was kept in the dark about despite ongoing tabloid stories based on innuendo and second-hand reports. Freddie passed away in 1991.

Good night, and thank you, Freddie.