The slender street kid with the tattered denims and the gold earring took up the cry first. “It’s Stevie!” he exclaimed with a joyous shout that was immediately echoed by dozens more of the ragtag army pressed against the plate glass windows of the Uris Theatre, where the 17th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony was winding down and where Stevie Wonder had just copped four Grammys (to tie with Oscar award-winner Marvin Hamlisch).
“It’s Stevie Wonder!” Two hundred waiting members of the army began trampling each other, racing across the concrete to where Wonder’s big Cadillac limousine was trying to pull away down 51st Street. The limo was inundated with human flesh and the bigger kids were hurling themselves against the human wall like fullbacks hitting the line. They all wanted to touch the car and peer into the back seat, where the occupants’ fear was visible on their faces. Girls were screaming and the hysteria spread. The limo crept away, dripping bodies that slid slowly off and then turned to the next target: “David Bowie, it’s Bowie!” – and then another stampede to the next black limo that was trying to inch away from the curb.
It began to get ugly out on the street as the tinsel and glamour from inside had to deal – if only briefly – with the real world outside. Even venerable old Kate Smith narrowly escaped with her makeup intact and it’s doubtful that your average New York street kid identifies with her.
In this year of bread and circuses, pop music is becoming the circus and not only for the street people. A prime example of this is the proliferation of music-awards shows, which seem to be multiplying like coat hangers in a dark closet. When everyone in the country – from oil-filter companies sponsoring trucker music awards to stereo manufacturers holding their own presentations – starts putting on ceremonies, one suspects that a trend is underway.
The Grammy affair, however, is the granddaddy of them all and the one that commands the most respect within the music industry itself. Newer events like Dick Clark’s American Music Awards and the A.C. Nielsen pollsters’ People’s Choice prizegiver are ballyhooed as reflecting popular taste, but the Grammys are where those who create public taste make their choices. Sponsored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a non-profit organization whose primary function is to give awards, provide scholarships and hold lecture series, Grammy winners are chosen annually by some 4,000 NARAS voting members, each of whom must have been creatively associated with the release of six commercial sides of one-half of an album in order to register a valid ballot. According to The Grammy Awards Book, “Their criteria for judging is based on artistic and technical excellence.” Yet, while this year’s awards were not subject to charges of bloc voting by employees of various record companies, recent ceremonies have not always reflected the best or even the most popular music of the preceding year.
Nobody could argue with Wonder’s four awards (one less than last year). He won for best R&B song (“Living for the City”) and best R&B vocal performance (for “Boogie On Reggae Woman”), and his album, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, earned him best pop male vocal performance and album of the year citations. He was also nominated for best producer, but that honor went to Philadelphia Sound’s Thom Bell, who’d charted the most Top 100 singles (11) of 1974. Yet when Stevie sang “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” even Marvin Hamlisch (co-composer of “The Way We Were”) was seen to nod along with a rhythmic audience, which included Gladys Knight and her swaying Pips and a finger-popping Aretha Franklin.
Hamlisch was one recipient whose numerous awards seemed likely to spark dissension. Naming him best new artist of the year over such contenders as Phoebe Snow and Bad Company drew disapproving grumbles from those among the 2,000 people assembled in the Uris who felt that the industry old guard was trying to play it safe. Hamlisch also won for best song and best soundtrack (both for “The Way We Were”), as well as for best pop instrumental performance (“The Entertainer”). At least he had the courtesy to acknowledge Scott Joplin.
One performer who was not acknowledged at all, amazingly, was the late Duke Ellington. Finally, Stevie Wonder, in a gallant gesture, asked that his Grammy for vocal performance be given to the Duke’s son, “since Mr. Ellington contributed more music than I ever could in a thousand years.”
The only other note of dignity during the evening was not seen by television viewers. In the pre-telecast award ceremony, the late Charlie Parker was finally named the winner of a best jazz performance by a soloist Grammy for the album First Recordings. This was the first year he had even been nominated (an indication of the Academy’s attitude toward jazz) and his daughter Kim delivered a short but emotional acceptance speech that drew a few gasps. “This is very weird,” she said. “Bird’s still getting awards and somebody else is still getting his money.”
In recent years, the Academy has been criticized for excluding R&B performers, but that criticism has now shifted to other areas. The “new” jazz practitioners – the Keith Jarretts and Herbie Hancocks and Chick Coreas – are consistently passed over in favor of the traditionalists, with Woody Herman and Oscar Peterson winning this year. Country music awards, on the other hand, are criticized for ignoring the traditionalists. Current winners – Anne Murray, Ronnie Milsap and the Pointer Sisters – are still considered outsiders in Nashville.
There were also glaring omissions in the nominating lists themselves, the most obvious of which was the complete exclusion of Latin music, a very large part of the music industry. Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen continued to go unnoticed. Eric Clapton was not considered this year, nor was Billy Swann (“I Can Help”). Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys and Bob Dylan’s Planet Waves were also missing.
Other rock favorites had mixed luck. Aretha Franklin retained her hold on the best R&B female singer award (10 wins in 10 years) while Paul McCartney and Wings won the pop group vocal and best-engineered recording awards for Band on the Run. But last year’s two most prominent performers, Joni Mitchell and Elton John, won a total of one Grammy between them – and that was Mitchell’s, which she shared with Tom Scott for their arrangement of “Down to You.” Maria Muldaur was nominated in the best record category, but lost to Olivia Newton-John and “I Honestly Love You,” which also won her the best female pop vocalist Grammy. And, in a strange twist, Elvis Presley won in the “inspirational” category with a song (“How Great Thou Art”) for which he’d won a Grammy in 1967.
Few hard rockers made award presentations – the host was Andy Williams and presenters included Kate Smith, Burl Ives (who repeatedly referred to Ronnie Milsap as “Mislap”), Rudy Vallee, Andre Kostalanetz and Ann-Margret – and those pop stars who did participate only reinforced the circus-like atmosphere. David Bowie, stern looking in a tight tuxedo, affected a Noel Coward stance, presented the female R&B award – or, as he put it: “I salute cette premiere femme.” John Lennon and Paul Simon allowed themselves to self-destruct in a cue card exchange with Williams before pronouncing Olivia a winner; accepting for her was none other than Art Garfunkel, stylish in one of those T-shirts designed to look like a tuxedo. He delivered his thanks in a straightforward manner and ignored Lennon’s invitation to stick around the podium for more fun. Finally, Bette Midler skittered out in a hotsy-totsy dress, wearing a 45-rpm record as her hat. “It’s ‘Come Go with Me’ by the Dell-Vikings,” she laughed. “It was a great record but it’s a better hat.” Her dress, she said, was one of Cher’s. “I didn’t get a solo spot, but I got her dress.” Midler alluded to her relative inactivity this past year. “A year ago,” she reminisced, dreamy eyed, “Miss Karen Carpenter crowned me best new artist. And if that ain’t the kiss of death, I don’t know what is.” Finally, she presented her award – album of the year – to Stevie Wonder, who for the first time in two years of Grammys eschewed serio-religio-humble remarks. Instead, he hugged Midler and told her, “I’ve been listening to your records for some time, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to get to you.” Then he swept her off the stage.
Barnum & Bailey never had it so good.