The music world has experienced some big losses in recent weeks, including Kenny Rogers and Bill Withers. Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Withers was ushered into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. But neither artist received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy during their lifetimes. (Either or both could receive the honor posthumously.)
The Recording Academy is seriously backlogged on its lifetime achievement awards. Prince, one of the most groundbreaking artists of our time, still hasn’t gotten one; he died in 2016. Eagles, who were an influential group in pop, rock and country, likewise haven’t gotten one; Glenn Frey, a founding member of the group, also died in 2016.
Even Michael Jackson didn’t get one until 2010, the year after he died. Other deceased artists who still haven’t received the honor include Whitney Houston, Luciano Pavarotti, Tom Petty, George Michael, Luther Vandross, Tammy Wynette, John Denver, Buck Owens, Conway Twitty, Dusty Springfield and Waylon Jennings.
More A-list talents who have yet to receive the honor include Pink Floyd, James Taylor, Neil Young, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Santana, Paul Simon, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Richie, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Madonna, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Herb Alpert, The Byrds, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, John Fogerty, Bob Seger, Genesis, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, AC/DC, Alabama, Peter Gabriel, Steve Winwood, Elvis Costello, Reba McEntire, Nile Rodgers, Sting, George Strait, Janet Jackson, Metallica, Nirvana, Van Halen, Phil Collins, John Cougar Mellencamp, LL Cool J, Gloria Estefan and Mariah Carey.
How did the Academy get so far behind? It was slow to get started. The Recording Academy introduced its lifetime achievement award in 1963 (its fifth year), but it didn’t dispense more than two of these awards in any one year until 1986, when it gave three. In 15 years, including 11 consecutive years from 1973-83, it didn’t dispense any lifetime achievement awards.
By contrast, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted 10 artists in its first year (1986) and 15 in its second (1987). The Grammys didn’t reach 25 honorees (the number the Rock Hall had honored after just two years) until 1987. When you’re slow out of the gate, it’s awfully hard to catch up.
Also, it’s important (and only fair) to note that the Recording Academy has a much bigger job than any of the other music halls of fame. They have to cover the entire spectrum of music, from hip-hop to bluegrass; from children’s recordings to operas. The Roll and Roll Hall of Fame has broadened its concept of rock and roll in recent years to include even pop/R&B superstar Houston this year, but they still don’t have to deal with the full spectrum that the Academy does. In 2011, the Academy’s honorees ran the gamut from Julie Andrews to The Ramones — who no one would mistake for the von Trapp Family singers.
Because the Academy is so far behind, it tends to honor older artists for whom there is limited time to honor while they are still living. The problem with that is you don’t know when someone is going to die. No one expected Prince to die at 57, or Petty at 66, or Michael Jackson at 50. But it happens.
These lifetime achievement awards weren’t always something an artist would get at the end of their career. The first recipient, Bing Crosby, was 60 (a year younger than Madonna is now) when he got the award in 1963. The first female recipient, Ella Fitzgerald, was just 50 (the age Carey is now) when she got the award in 1967.
What should the Academy do? I suggest several “catch-up years” in which they honor far more than their usual seven artists. (The number of lifetime achievement award recipients has ranged from zero to 12 over the years. It has been steady at seven for the last 15 years.)
Seven is probably the optimum number for PBS’ Grammy Salute to Music Legends TV special, on which these awards are dispensed. But the Academy is so far behind, it needs to be aggressive about catching up. No one is calling for them to lower their standards, but just to finally get around to people who are inarguably deserving of the recognition.
Even with its much narrower focus, the Country Music Hall of Fame felt the need for a catch-up year in 2001, when it had 12 honorees.
Even coming out of the gate so strongly with 25 honorees in its first two years, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needed a catch-up year in 2012, when it honored 12 artists.
Closer to home, the Grammys had some catch-up years with its Grammy Hall of Fame awards. At the direction of Michael Greene, the Academy’s hard-charging former president/CEO, the Academy voted in hundreds of entries around the turn of the millennium (there were 140 additions in 1998, 186 in 1999) in a successful effort to get caught up and fill in some gaps. With that catch-up phase behind them, the Academy now honors 25 recordings a year.
The Academy needs to do something similar with its lifetime achievement awards. For one thing, new artists constantly break through. At some point, Garth Brooks, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Eminem, Adele, Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar, P!nk, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Kanye West, Lady Gaga and other contemporary stars will need to be honored.
Rather like someone who didn’t give much thought to their retirement plan until they were deep into middle age, the Recording Academy is going to have to work hard to make up for lost time.
If the Academy had recognized seven artists a year every year since 1963, when it introduced the award, it would have awarded 406 artists by now (counting this year’s inductees, which have been announced, though the awards have yet to be presented). Instead, the number of artists it has honored (or will soon have honored) stands at just 223.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted its first artists 23 years after the Academy gave its first lifetime achievement award, has inducted 233 performing artists — 10 more than the number of artists who have received lifetime achievement awards from the Academy. The Rock Hall has been consistent throughout, awarding between five and 15 artists every year.
The Country Music Hall of Fame has also been consistent, recognizing artists in every year but one since 1961. (Elections were held in 1963, but no candidate received enough votes.) There have been two or more honorees every year since 1995; three or more every year since 2005.
A few notes about the artists who have not yet received lifetime achievement awards from the Academy: Pavarotti, Elton John and Joel received Grammy Legend Awards, but those aren’t as prestigious or definitive as lifetime achievement awards. (Nine artists have won both awards, so it’s possible to win both.)
Cream and Simon & Garfunkel have both received lifetime achievement awards, but Clapton and Simon have accomplished a lot since those groups disbanded. Solo awards would recognize that work.
Alpert and his business partner Jerry Moss received trustees awards (the equivalent award for non-performers) in 1997 for co-founding A&M Records. A lifetime achievement award would recognize Alpert as an artist.