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.