Music Awards seemed like a bit of a bigger deal in years gone by. The Grammys, for instance, were not only a major music industry marker but a huge entertainment event back in the ’70s and ’80s. So what’s a poor TV network going to do when their competitor outbids them for that bonanza? Well, if you were ABC and it was the 1970s, you just start your own! Thus was born the American Music Awards. They were given out this night in both 1976 and ’77, the third and fourth AMAs.
ABC had shown the Grammys in 1971 and ’72. Although Nielsen didn’t publish exact ratings numbers for those years, a little later in the decade, the Grammys typically drew over 30 million viewers in the U.S., or about 40% of all those watching the telly on the particular night. So losing it was a bit of a blow to both the prestige and ad revenue for them. Thus they had the idea “if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em!” They had Dick Clark develop an alternate music awards show instead.
The first AMAs were in early 1974. Back then it was a two-hour broadcast with a relatively simple set of categories. They broke music down into “Pop/Rock”, “Soul/R&B” and “Country”, and gave out trophies for Best Male Artist, Best Female Artist, Best Group, Best Album and Best Song in each. As well, they rewarded one great with a “Merit Award”, essentially a lifetime achievement one. Although they don’t disclose the precise method used to pick winners through the first three decades (recently fans have been allowed to vote), it was picked by industry insiders largely influenced by sales totals. In recent years, they’ve expanded the awards greatly to include categories like “hip hop,” “inspirational” and “electronic/dance.”
By the third set of awards, this night 46 years back, they had the process down pat and were holding the awards in a glitzy affair in Santa Monica. Since it was TV-driven, they smartly had a popular musician who was comfortable in front of cameras host it – Glen Campbell both years. He actually would host for four-straight years, then again in 1982, making him the most-utilized host in the Awards history. In ’76 he was helped by Olivia Newton John and Aretha Franklin; in ’77 by Helen Reddy and Lou Rawls.
Now, it could easily be argued that by basing awards primarily on sales, artistic merit would be overlooked. That’s undoubtedly true, at least some of the time, but there is a sort of “give the people what they want” type of honesty to it also. That noted, the winners in the Bicentennial Year weren’t bad and were fairly representative of what people were listening to. It also showed the brief mid-’70s convergence between pop and country radio. To whit, John Denver was named both Country Male performer and Pop Male performer of the year, and Olivia Newton John snagged the Female trophy in both categories. Happily the winner of the Song of the Year award in both country and pop didn’t have to travel all that far to accept – it was the host, Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.” And co-host Olivia picked up a third award, for Pop Album of the Year with Have You Never Been Mellow? which beat out Elton John’s Greatest Hits and the Eagles’ One of These Nights. A little surprisingly, Tony Orlando & Dawn were the Group of the year. While Barry White and Aretha took the R&B male and female trophies, KC and the Sunshine Band took the song “”Get Down Tonight”) and band in that category. Perhaps the most interesting award of the night was classic songwriter Irving Berlin being given the lifetime Merit one.
The 1977 awards were of a similar nature, with Olivia Newton John taking the Best Female in pop once again. She was probably exceedingly happy she’d made the move across the Pacific from Australia to California by then! Elton John won the male in that category and Best Pop Song for “Don’t Go breaking My Heart” with Kiki Dee while the Eagles took the album award for their Greatest Hits. Curiously, Willie Nelson won best Country song for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. The song had been nominated the previous year but lost out to Glen. The Man in Black, Johnny Cash was given the Merit Award that year.
While it appears the AMAs never matched the Grammys in terms of TV ratings (last year’s drew four million viewers, but the Grammys themselves dropped to under nine million) they have done OK for ABC and become a reasonably respected part of the Music Biz and a flashy red carpet event for the paparazzi. By the way, if you’re counting, Taylor Swift has won the most of them – 34. As for the merit award, after giving them out to a variety of people including Berry Gordy (founder of Motown), promoter Bill Graham, and artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Billy Joel to Frank Sinatra, they seem to have run out of inspiration, last awarding one in 2016 to Sting.