If the Grammys are planning a big blowout to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their first live telecast, they have exactly one year to get it together. The first live Grammy telecast aired 49 years ago: on March 16, 1971.
The Grammys were the last of the four EGOT-level awards to have a live awards telecast. The Oscars were the first, in March 1953, followed by the Emmys in March 1955 and the Tonys in March 1967. Even the Country Music Association Awards got on the air before the Grammys. (The CMA Awards first aired in November 1968.)
The Grammys previously presented a pre-taped TV variety show dubbed The Best on Record, but it aired a month or two after the awards were presented. As a result, it didn’t have much impact. Pierre Cossette, the veteran TV producer who was determined to get a live Grammy telecast on TV, understood that going live would make all the difference.
Simon & Garfunkel‘s Bridge Over Troubled Water was the big winner that night. Simon won seven Grammys for his work on the album and its classic title track. (S&G won two awards each for both record and album of the year — one as artist and one as co-producer.) Simon’s seven-Grammy sweep established a new Grammy record, which stood for 12 years. Michael Jackson (who received his first nomination 49 years ago for The Jackson 5‘s “ABC”) broke Simon’s record by winning eight awards in February 1984.
Simon was also the first person in Grammy history to win Grammys for album, record and song of the year in one night. Carole King equaled the feat the following year. The sweep has since been accomplished by six more artists: Christopher Cross (in 1981), Eric Clapton (1993), Dixie Chicks (2007), Adele (2012 and 2017), Bruno Mars (2018) and Billie Eilish (in January).
S&G didn’t perform on that first show, which was held at the Hollywood Palladium. Instead, Aretha Franklin introduced her gospel-edged cover version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which was released as a single that month and which went on to win a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance, female the following year.
All five song of the year nominees were performed on the show, but only one by the artist who made it famous. That was Carpenters, who performed their recent smash “We’ve Only Just Begun” (written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols). Anne Murray performed James Taylor‘s “Fire and Rain.” Dionne Warwick performed The Beatles‘ “Let It Be” (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney). The Osmonds (who had just wrapped a five-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “One Bad Apple”) performed Ray Stevens‘ “Everything Is Beautiful.”
Carpenters, who won for best new artist and were nominated for both record and song of the year, and Murray, who was a finalist for best new artist, were the only nominees in “Big Four” categories to perform on the show. Other nominees in marquee categories, not already mentioned, include Elton John, Chicago and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Andy Williams hosted that year, and for the next six years as well. His seven-show hosting stint remains a Grammy record. John Denver and LL Cool J are runners-up, with six and five Grammy hosting gigs, respectively.
Today, Williams may seem a safe, even dull, choice to be the host of the first live Grammy telecast, but he was a huge music and TV star at the time. His version of “Love Story” became a top 10 single on the Hot 100 a few weeks after the telecast. His album of the same name reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200. His long-running The Andy Williams Show had been a three-time Emmy winner for outstanding variety series. In a very real sense, Williams’ star power helped Cossette get the Grammys on the air.
The night’s big surprise was McCartney’s appearance to accept The Beatles’ award for Let It Be, which was voted best original score written for a motion picture or a television special. John Wayne, who had won his only Oscar a year earlier for True Grit, presented the award. McCartney presumably would have also accepted if the album’s title track had won in any of the other four categories in which it had been nominated, including record and song of the year.
The first Grammy telecast was just 90 minutes long. The show soon went to two hours. It went to three hours for the first time for its 25th anniversary outing in February 1983. It has since busted through to three and a half and even four hours. (Three hours is ideal. Anything beyond that feels bloated — though the Grammys are unlikely to admit that.)
The first two live Grammy telecasts aired on ABC. The show moved to CBS in 1973, where it has remained ever since.
The show was broadcast from the Hollywood Palladium in four of the seven years that Williams hosted. In 1978, it moved across town to the Shrine Auditorium. It has been telecast from Los Angeles 38 times, from New York 10 times and from Nashville once.
You may be surprised to learn that the first live Grammy telecast was held as late as March. Actually, the first five were held in March. And the first 33 — from 1971 all the way through 2003 — were held either in March or the last two weeks of February. That changed in 2004, when the show moved up to Feb. 8. It has been held in January or the first two weeks of February ever since. Next year’s show is set for Jan. 31.
As I argued last spring, I think the Grammys should return to March, to get out of film awards season. This year’s Grammys were held on Jan. 26: three weeks after the Golden Globes, one week after the SAG Awards and two weeks before the Oscars. That’s a lot of must-see awards shows in a short space of time. Why the Grammys insist on playing in the very large shadow of the Oscars is a mystery when, at practically any other time of the year, they would be the 800-pound gorilla.
Post-script: Cossette received a trustees award (the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award for non-performers) in 1995, the year of the 25th live telecast. He remained the Grammys’ executive producer through the February 2005 show. He died in 2009. Williams died in 2012. Simon went on to host the Grammys in February 1981. Simon & Garfunkel received a lifetime achievement award in 2003.