Since 1958, the organization now known as the Recording Academy has presented the annual Grammy Awards in recognition of excellence in musical genres from country to classical, from traditional pop to hip-hop. In 1990, the Academy’s Board of Trustees added an award of merit, presenting the first-ever Grammy Living Legend honors to Willie Nelson, Liza Minnelli, Smokey Robinson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in recognition of their ongoing influence and contributions to entertainment.
A CBS television special featuring the honorees and a host of performers paying tribute to them was taped at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on November 21st, 1989, and aired three days later, ahead of the 32nd Grammy awards in February. The special featured hosts Kris Kristofferson, Angela Lansbury, Herbie Hancock and Whoopi Goldberg. Among the performers were New Kids on the Block, Kenny G., Buster Poindexter, Michael Bolton and Heavy D & the Boyz (this was the late Eighties, after all).
In the segment paying tribute to Willie Nelson, there were performances of his songs by Emmylou Harris, Roger Miller, Dwight Yoakam and k.d. lang. Miller joked that he was one of “the two best songwriters I’ve ever known,” and performed the 1980 hit, “On the Road Again,” noting that it was “another song that I wish I’d have written.” A relatively new artist at the time, lang performed “Three Days,” the 1961 Willie tune she had recorded for her Absolute Torch and Twang LP, which was climbing the charts at the time and would go on to earn her a Grammy. Yoakam performed Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning,” which the songwriter first cut in 1970 and later for his Phases and Stages LP, a concept album that chronicled a couple’s divorce from both his and her perspective.
Before her tender performance of “Always on My Mind” (a Number One for Nelson in 1982, among hundreds of versions from other artists) on the Grammy Legend special, Emmylou Harris told the audience she first met Nelson in the Seventies when she was opening shows for him. “Even though my job was done after he came on, Willie always assumed that I would stay through the evening to sing duets with him at the end of his show,” she says in the above clip. “Of course, I did stay, and night after night I witnessed that miraculous bond Willie established with his audience.” Harris also appeared with Nelson in a concert segment from his 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose. “On the Road Again,” which had been featured in the film, earned Nelson an Oscar nomination.
In 1991, another country music giant, Johnny Cash, was among the recipients of a Grammy Legend award, along with Billy Joel, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin. Since that time the award has only been bestowed on seven other acts. In 2003, the Bee Gees became the most recent honorees.