Neil Portnow thinks Bono summed it up best. Speaking with Billboard shortly before the Special Merit Awards on Saturday, the Recording Academy President/CEO recalled the time U2’s humanitarian frontman was on-hand as a presenter and described the annual day-before-the-Grammys event. “He said, ‘I love Sunday night, the glitz and the glamor, but really the heart and the soul of what this organization does is right here today.’ I think there’s a lot of truth to that.”
This year’s Special Merit Awards gave out Lifetime Achievement awards to The Temptations, Carole King, jazz bassist Charlie Haden, pop singer Patti Page, classical pianist Glenn Gould, blues guitarist Lightin’ Hopkins and the late Ravi Shankar, among others, as well as the Trustees Award and the Technical GRAMMY Award. Shankar’s daughter Anoushka was one of the family members who accepted on behalf of the sitar-slinging musician, who passed away in December at 91.
“I obviously wish he was here to do it himself,” she told Billboard. “But since he’s not, I’m glad my family and I can be here to do it together and take a moment to celebrate him in this way.” Her father learned about the award before his passing.
“I think I’d feel a lot sadder if he hadn’t had a chance to know about it,” she noted. “He was a true musician in the sense that he would certainly be pleased and honored by things like this, but they weren’t the marker for him. He always took them in the right way: he’d be pleased and then the day would go on as normal.”
A Grammy nominated musician herself, Anoushka was enthusiastic about being surrounded by so much talent at Los Angeles’ Wilshire Ebert Theatre. “Even more than the normal Grammys, the Special Merit Awards are so full of legends being honored for their lifetime of work. That’s very inspiring to be around.”
Portnow detailed the carefully rigorous methodology through which winners emerge. “There are submissions that come in all year round every year from members, from people in the industry that bring up suggestions of people that might be appropriate. Technical Grammys come through our producers and engineers; [about] 6000 of our members are producers and engineers and part of that wing. A number of years ago we established a Blue Ribbon Committee of experts: musicologists, journalists, producers, engineers, A&R people… That group is appointed by the Board of Trustees. They go through all of these names and there are meetings for months to vet it. A final slate is determined and submitted to the board for ratification, which it does at the November meeting, and here we are.”
The Temptations’ Otis Williams, who had collected four Grammys already, said it’s still a big deal. “It’s the Oscar of the music business! It’s a great honor. When we started out in Detroit back in ’61 we had no inclination that we’d be having fun 53 years later. I’m a blessed person. I give it all to God. Because all we ever wanted to do was just sing. It’s great to be part of something that will outlive us all.”
Roland founder Ikutaro Kakehashi, Sequential Circuits Dave Smith (the fathers of MIDI) and Royer Labs picked up the Technical Award. Trustees Awards for non-performers went to Phillip and Leonard Chess of Chess Records fame, ex-Capitol Records executive Alan Livingston and husband-and-wife songwriting team Alan and Marilyn Bergmam, who celebrated their 55th anniversary the same day.
It was a doubly special day for King, too. She was elsewhere celebrating her birthday, but her kids had the crowd wish her a very loud “Happy Birthday!”
The Special Merit Awards were immediately followed by the Grammy Nominees reception, where nominees were invited to pick up their nominee medals. All of the guests were treated to free food, an open bar and gift bags containing memoirs from Carole King and Patti Smith and a Charlie Haden DVD.
“This is my first time here.” said Jeff Ellis, who was nominated for his engineering and mixing work on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. “It’s amazing. That’s the only word for it. The awards were great. The Temptations stole the show.”
Charlie Haden was a highlight for Modern Mandolin Quartet’s Adam Roszkiewicz, another nominee, though he admitted it was hard to pick just one. “It’s all great. And afterward you come in, pickup your medal, and then you eat crab legs!”
Kaylin Frank, who coproduced Grammy nominated Muppets soundtrack and just came back from working on the sequel in London, is a nominees reception veteran. “My husband [Ed Mitchel] has been nominated 16 times and won twice,” she said. “We’ve been here a lot. This is our favorite party of the entire Grammy season, because it’s the artists and nominees. Walking in, we meet Vance Powell, who engineered Blunderbuss for Jack White. I’m like, bowing to him, his work is so great.”
“We get to see a lot of friends,” Mitchell added.
“It’s not a business party, it’s an artist party,” Frank said. “It’s fun.”
Shawn Camp and Tamara Saviano, who both worked on the Guy Clark tribute album nominated in the Folk Album of the Year category, have been enjoying the entire week. Many attendees, like music attorney David Lessoff, headed to the Clive Davis party afterward. But 2005 winner Saviano said her and her friends were going to the Troubadour. “Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are playing!”