As the Grammy Awards turn 50, here’s a look back at music’s biggest night—from the 1958 inaugural event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to last year’s Dixie Chicks triumph at Los Angeles’ Staples Center—as originally reported in the pages of Billboard.
The Beginning: 1959
With the “1st Annual NARAS Awards Section,” Billboard welcomed the Grammys in its May 11, 1959, issue. The big winners that first year, Billboard reported, were “Liberty’s Ross (David Seville) Bagdasarian for his ‘Chipmunk Song.’ He received three of the coveted grammies [sic]… Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance and Best Engineered Record.” Entertainment included Mort Sahl’s 30-minute monologue and “a two-act musical skit, ‘How South Was My Pacific,’ with parody rhymes written by Larry Orenstein and Ray Brenner to the Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies.”
In 1961, the Billboard headline read, “Fitzgerald, Charles, Newhart Take Winners’ Spotlight in NARAS Awards.” Billboard writer June Bundy reported, “The most interesting awards were those made to comedian Bob Newhart, who not only took the top spoken-word comedy album honors but also walked off with the ‘Album of the Year’ and ‘Best New Artist of 1960’ awards—heretofore reserved for musical performances. It was a striking illustration of the impact of comedy albums during 1960.”
Music was once again king in 1962. “Mancini Sets All-Time Record With 5 Awards,” read the headline. “Henry Mancini, who last week won more Grammy awards than any other individual since the inception of the… event, was one of the few winners not on hand to personally receive the honors,” the story read. “He was en route to Europe.”
By 1968, the Grammys were on Billboard’s front page. “Cap. Grammy Leader With 16,” read the headline, with a terse abbreviation for Capitol Records. “Riding the strength of two performers—Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry—Capitol Records was the dominant factor at the 10th annual Grammy Awards.”
Gentry’s wins included best female vocal performance and best new artist, while Campbell’s take included best male vocal and best country recording. “The Beatles were responsible, largely, for four awards; this includes Best Album Cover and Best Engineered Recording,” the story continued, but inexplicably failed to mention that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was named album of the year.
Sidebars focused on Grammy parties in Los Angeles, Chicago and Nashville, with the last featuring a particularly noteworthy tidbit. “After Johnny Cash and June Carter received their awards for ‘Jackson,’ it was revealed that they would wed very soon. Ferlin Husky, who made the presentation, called it ‘the perfect wedding gift.'”
Billboard’s 1971 headline, “Col 19 Awards Sweep Grammy,” referred to a strong night for Columbia Records. In his story that noted the 13th annual awards were “televised nationally… for the first time,” Elliott Tiegel reported “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, “won six Grammys.” Tiegel went on to opine, “The telecast, as produced by Pierre Cossette and Burt Sugarman, with Marty Pasetta’s direction, proved that show business award galas can be turned into valid entertainment.”
A year later, Billboard reported, “The 14th Annual Grammy Awards, televised live on March 14 by ABC for the first time, belonged to Carole King. The Ode Records composer-singer took down four Grammys… The artist’s producer, Lou Adler, accepted the Grammys for Miss King, who was unable to attend the ceremonies, having recently had a baby.”
By 1977, Stevie Wonder had become a virtual Grammy institution, which Billboard noted with the headline, “Wonder Continues Grammy Lead.” Agustin Gurza reported: “Extending his winning streak through three consecutive album releases, Stevie Wonder emerged once more as the Grammy’s most acclaimed artist of the year for 1976 with four awards honoring the artist’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ LP.”
A few years later, “the Bee Gees, film music and disco, the same phenomena which dominated the record charts in 1978, also swept the 21st annual Grammy Awards,” Paul Grein wrote. “But two of the evening’s biggest honors—record and song of the year—went to Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are,’ the first tune to win in both categories in five years.”
A Brand New Ballgame: The ’80s
The bar was raised in 1984. “Michael Jackson set a new record for most Grammys won in a single year when he took home eight key awards at the 26th annual Grammy ceremonies,” Grein wrote. “The previous record of six awards was set by Roger Miller in 1965.” The story continued, “Jackson’s eight Grammys were twice as many as the four received by his nearest runner-up—his producer Quincy Jones, Sting of the Police and Sir Georg Solti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony.”
Two years later, the Grammys belonged to the “World,” as Grein reported in 1986: “‘We Are the World,’ as expected, was the big winner in the 28th annual Grammy Awards,” Grein added, “‘We Are the World,’ which raised more than $40 million to combat famine in Ethiopia, is the second charity record to win a top Grammy Award. George Harrison & Friends’ ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ was named album of the year in 1972.'”
In 1988, the big loser was almost as newsworthy as the big winners. “U2, ‘Graceland’ Top Grammys; Jackson 0 For 4,” the headline read. “The biggest surprise of the night was that Michael Jackson—who won a record eight Grammys in 1984—was shut out in all four categories in which he had been nominated.”
Bobby McFerrin was the big winner in 1989, taking four awards, Grein reported, but the year may be best remembered for another surprise. “The biggest upset was Jethro Tull’s win in the new hard rock/heavy metal category,” Grein wrote. “The veteran English rock band had seemed out of place in the metal category when the nominations were announced last month, and few expected it to beat Metallica, which had a platinum album last year.”
The ’90s: More Than Modern
Women ruled the Grammy roost in 1990, as Grein reported that “Bonnie Raitt and Bette Midler, a pair of fortysomething pop veterans who made convincing comebacks last year, dominated the 32nd annual Grammy Awards. Raitt swept four awards, including album of the year for her Capitol debut release, ‘Nick of Time.’ Midler took the record-of-the-year Grammy for her chart-topping version of Larry Henley and Jeff Sibar’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ which was also named song of the year.”
A Grammy favorite dominated the night in 1991. “Quincy’s Night For Grammy Glory,” the headline read. Thom Duffy reported, “Jones’ eclectic ‘Back on the Block’ won in six categories, including album of the year and producer of the year (nonclassical). Jones, the most-nominated artist in Grammy history, reached a lifetime tally of 25 Grammy awards, second only to the 28 won by Sir Georg Solti.” In 1991, there were also some political overtones. “The 33rd annual Grammy Awards, the first in two decades staged with the nation at war, honored an anthem of peace. ‘From A Distance’ was named song of the year. Bette Midler’s performance of the Julie Gold composition opened the Grammy show, which was broadcast to 60 nations, including Saudi Arabia,” Duffy reported.
In 1992, “This was the first time the AIDS crisis was spotlighted in the Grammy broadcast, from the red ribbons worn by presenters and performers to signify AIDS awareness to stirring recitation by [host Whoopi] Goldberg, accompanied by vocalist Bobby McFerrin, of a poem equating the AIDS epidemic to the Holocaust.”
A year later, the Grammys paid homage to a rock icon. “‘Clapton is God,’ first scrawled on the walls in London in the late ’60s by avid rock fans, could have been written on this year’s Grammy ballots as well,” this reporter [Craig Rosen] wrote in 1993. “Eric Clapton dominated the 35th Grammy Awards Feb. 24 taking a total of six honors. Noting Clapton’s dominance less than halfway through the three-hour program, host Garry Shandling quipped, ‘I’m going to go out on a limb. If you’re up against Eric Clapton in any other categories, I’d go home now.'”
In 2000, another rock legend swept the night. “Carlos Santana’s eight-trophy sweep was welcome proof that pop music can still occasionally transcend industry trends and marketing demographics,” Larry Flick wrote. “The veteran guitarist tied Michael Jackson’s 1983 record for the most awards in one evening.”
It was a newcomer’s year in 2003. “Norah Jones was the big winner… taking home all five awards for which she was nominated. Jones won the coveted best new artist award, as well as the album of the year and best pop vocal album of the year for her debut Blue Note set ‘Come Away With Me,’ ” Barry A. Jeckell and Jonathan Cohen reported.
Beyoncé ruled in 2004, as Melinda Newman and Gail Mitchell reported, “Beyoncé’s career is moving in only one direction: straight up. Her five wins and her two electrifying performances during the Feb. 8 Grammy Awards at the Staples Center… were the latest blasts in her rise as a multimedia star.”
A year later, the night belonged to a legend. “Grammys Love Ray; For Concord, It’s Genius,” read the headline. “Indeed, Charles, who died June 10, 2004, was certainly smiling down on the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based label… as ‘Genius Loves Company’ snagged eight Grammys, including the coveted album and record of the year statuettes,” Newman and Mitchell wrote.
Up To Date
In 2007, the Dixie Chicks dominated, showing Grammy voters’ willingness to embrace artists who make a statement as well as the eclecticism represented by the evening’s other big winners. “The Dixie Chicks triumphed over their critics, Mary J. Blige played comeback queen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers reasserted their rock dominance at the 49th Grammy Awards,” Mitchell wrote. “The Chicks won five awards, including record and song of the year for ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and album of the year for ‘Taking the Long Way.’ Blige won best R&B song and best female R&B vocal performance for ‘Be Without You’ and best R&B album for ‘The Breakthrough.'”
Mitchell’s story continued: “‘Not Ready to Make Nice,’ which the Chicks performed live during the show, references the fallout the group endured after singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President Bush in 2003 during a concert in England. The song… was shunned by country radio but set the tone for the hit album ‘Taking the Long Way.'”
The Grammys’ future is still to be written and Billboard is poised to cover it.