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HOW THE GRAMMYS
WON OVER TOP ARTISTS
(WHO INITIALLY WOULDN’T BE CAUGHT DEAD ON THAT SHOW)

As the Recording Academy rolls out the announcements of artists who will be performing on the 60th annual Grammy telecast, you may think that the show has always had its pick of top talent. Hardly. For many years, top rock artists, especially, avoided the show, worried that aligning themselves too closely with it would hurt their images.

Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles split the top awards at the 20th annual telecast in 1978, but neither act performed on the show. Fleetwood Mac was on hand to accept Album of the Year for Rumours, but the Eagles didn’t show up to receive Record of the Year for “Hotel California” (even though they were in town). Both acts eventually came around. Fleetwood Mac marked the 20th anniversary of Rumours by performing a medley of songs from that blockbuster on the 1998 show. And the Eagles performed “Take It Easy” on the 2016 show (along with the song’s co-writer, Jackson Browne) as a tribute to Glenn Frey, who had recently died.

What changed over the years? How did the Grammy telecast manage to overcome the resistance of most artists? Much of the credit goes to longtime Grammy producer (now executive producer) Ken Ehrlich, who is widely admired and trusted within the community of artists. Ehrlich first produced the Grammy telecast in 1980. The most memorable performance on that show was Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (which fellow artists should study as an example of how less is often more). But another performance on that show, Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” was more important in correcting the Grammys’ biggest image problem at the time—its seeming disregard for rock. (These were the first Grammy performances for all three of these artists.)

The Grammys also loosened the rules of who could perform. For many years, only that year’s nominees could perform—and they could only perform their nominated works. That kept a lot of acts off the show in the years that Grammy voters rightly recognized the brilliance of Frank Sinatra and Henry Mancini, but couldn’t see the greatness of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Incredibly, The Stones weren’t nominated for a Grammy (in any category) until 1978, when Some Girls was up for Album of the Year. Because of the rule about only current nominees performing, they couldn’t have performed on the show even if they’d wanted to! The Stones could have performed something from Some Girls (say, “Beast of Burden”) on the 1979 telecast. I have to assume they got an offer. I have to assume they passed. And frankly, by that point, who could blame them?

These days, the academy uses the nominations as a guide, but not as the last word (to put it mildly). That has allowed Grammy producers to make offers that are meaningful to certain artists—more meaningful, in some cases, than promoting their own records. Bruce Springsteen first did the show in 1994 as part of a tribute to Curtis Mayfield (who was receiving a Grammy Legend Award). Springsteen apparently felt comfortable, because he was back the next year opening the show with his own “Streets of Philadelphia.” Springsteen has since participated in posthumous tributes to Joe Strummer and Wilson Pickett, in addition to doing his own nominated works.

Some former Grammy holdouts agreed to perform on the show once they started getting their due in the nominations. Madonna performed for the first time in 1999, the year her Ray of Light was nominated for Album of the Year and its title track was nominated for Record of the Year. These were Madonna’s first noms in “Big Four” categories. (Sometimes an artist just wants to feel a little respect.)

Some performed on the show once the Grammys started taking their genres seriously. Metallica performed “One” on the 1989 show, the year the Grammys finally added a category for hard rock/heavy metal. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince performed “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” on the 1990 show, the year the Grammys first put a rap award on TV.

Some former Grammy holdouts have been enticed with special awards. Elton John made his first appearance in 2000, when he was given a Grammy Legend Award. With an assist from the red-hot Backstreet Boys, he performed his 1975 smash “Philadelphia Freedom.” Elton has since become a Grammy regular, even lending his star power to such then-developing artists as Eminem, Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga, all of whom he joined on stage for memorable joint performances.

The Grammys had problems booking talent from the first year the show went on the air as a live telecast in 1971. Some of those problems were beyond anyone’s control. Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, major nominees that year, had recently broken up and weren’t inclined to reunite for the sake of an unproven TV show. (Simon & Garfunkel and Paul McCartney were both on hand to receive awards.) Other “Big Four” category nominees—including James Taylor, Elton John and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—presumably passed. In the end, the only “Big Four” nominees who performed on the show were The Carpenters and Anne Murray—great acts, but well within the Grammys’ pop wheelhouse.

(The Grammys had long had a reputation for favoring middle-of-the-road music. Actor Peter Sellers had referred to them as the “Grandma Awards” in a taped 1965 presentation to The Beatles on The Best on Record, a precursor to the Grammy telecast.)

The Grammys had more bad luck in 1972. Carole King, who swept the awards, had recently given birth and declined to fly from her home in Los Angeles to New York for the ceremonies. (There may have been another reason behind her decision to stay home—mixed feelings about doing something so overtly commercial, which was a common concern among “cool” pop and rock acts at the time.)

The Grammys moved forward (and occasionally backward) by fits and starts in the 1970s. The 1973 show opened with a performance by the Mike Curb Congregation (I guess the Johnny Mann Singers were busy), but also included a performance by Mayfield of “Freddie’s Dead” from his chart-topping Superfly soundtrack. That is what you call a mixed bag.But things really started to come together following Ehrlich’s arrival in 1980. Paul Simon hosted the 1981 show and performed his hit “Late in the Evening.” Rick James performed his funk smash “Give It to Me Baby” in 1982. Prince and the Revolution performed “Baby, I’m a Star” on the 1985 show. Sting opened the 1986 show performing “Russians.” Michael Jackson performed “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Man in the Mirror” on the 1988 show.

Offers to The Mike Curb Congregation became much less frequent.

In 2006, Ehrlich got the ultimate “get” when McCartney performed on the show for the first time. He did “Fine Line” from his then-current album Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (an Album of the Year nominee) as well as a pair of Beatles classics, “Helter Skelter” and “Yesterday” (the latter in a segment with Jay-Z and Linkin Park).

In 2012, Mick Jagger finally hit the Grammy stage, performing “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” (along with Raphael Saadiq) as a tribute to Solomon Burke, who had recently died. He was, of course, terrific. It makes you wish Grammy history had been different and he’d been a regular on the telecast for all these years.

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