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QUEEN TO GRAMMYS: WE WON’T ROCK YOU

The third installment of Grammy Salute to Music Legends demonstrated both the format’s deep strengths and its built-in vulnerabilities. When the honorees participate fully—when they are on hand to accept and perform—the show soars, beyond the prestigious but staid Kennedy Center Honors, where the honorees are confined to a balcony and aren’t even permitted to speak.

But when the honorees at the Grammy event don’t participate fully, their absence is felt keenly. Tina Turner sent a video of her acceptance speech from her home in Switzerland. Queen didn’t even bother to do that (at least not in time for the 7/14 taping at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood; perhaps the Recording Academy will prevail on them to submit something before the show airs this fall as part of PBSGreat Performances series.)

Let’s start with the spots that worked especially well and work our way down. A tribute to Neil Diamond opened the show. Yolanda Adams sang Diamond's gospel-infused hit “Holly Holy.” Micky Dolenz sang The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” a still-captivating blend of bubblegum and power pop. Diamond, who wrote the smash, joined Dolenz midway through the song. Diamond, who in January announced his retirement from concerts after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, kept his thanks brief, saying “What a great thrill and what a great a pleasure it’s been.” Then Diamond stepped into the audience to sing his singalong classic “Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good).” The segment’s only flaw: All three songs date from the ’60s, an odd choice for a performer who, far more than most, has endured through the decades.

A tribute to Emmylou Harris, which followed, was also excellent. Trisha Yearwood hosted the segment, noting “She has always been the standard… She’s never sold her soul.” Harris sang her 1975 classic “Boulder to Birmingham” (“This is a song I wrote when I was still a brunette,” she said dryly.) Yearwood sang harmony behind her hero on a second song. Harris thanked many people, including Joan Baez, an early inspiration (and a 2007 recipient of this award); Gram Parsons, who gave her her start; Mary Martin, who signed her to Warner Bros. Records; Brian Ahern, who produced her early albums; and Ken Levitan, who, she said “picked up the mantel when I was going downhill.” She also thanked Nonesuch Records, her label since 2000.

The tribute to John Williams focused on his softer, more sensitive material rather than his rousing movie anthems, such as Star Wars. Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers was featured on the haunting Schindler’s List theme. Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, presented the award with self-deprecating humor. Dudamel, a native of Venezuela, noted that when he was first approached to work with Williams in 2015 on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, he thought it might be “what you in America call an April Fool’s joke.”

The tribute to R&B pioneer Louis Jordan was also a winner, thanks to the vocal powerhouse Ledisi, who performed three of his songs, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t (Ma’ Baby)” and “Let the Good Times Roll.” A video package noted that Jordan influenced Little Richard, Chuck Berry and James Brown (all of whom received the award long before he did). Broadway veteran Chapman Roberts accepted the award for Jordan, who died in 1975.

The Meters performed the title track from their 1975 album Fire on the Bayou, though founding member Art Neville, 80, wasn’t able to make the trip from New Orleans. (His son Ian accepted in his stead.) Keith Richards, who, with The Rolling Stones, received this award 32 years ago, sent a video tribute to the band. The Meters first opened for The Stones in 1975.

A tribute to concert promoter Bill Graham, hailed as “our greatest showman,” was excellent. His sons, David and Alex, reminded us that he arrived in this country (in 1941) as a 10-year-old refugee. In their smart, funny speech, they speculated what Graham would be up to today, had he not perished in a 1991 helicopter crash. Sammy Hagar, one of countless acts that Graham promoted, performed Van Halen’s 1992 classic “Right Now” as a tribute, joined by that band’s former bassist, Michael Anthony.

The tribute to drummer Hal Blaine was also highly effective, though Blaine accepted the award via a video (in which he was seen wearing a Wrecking Crew cap). (Blaine is 89 and presumably didn’t feel up to the trip.) Herb Alpert played the Tijuana Brass’ sleek 1965 smash “A Taste of Honey,” which was the first of six consecutive Record of the Year winners that Blaine played on. As Alpert explained, Blaine’s bass drum set the tempo on that smash and was one of its chief hooks.

By contrast, no artists performed in tribute to Seymour Stein, who received a Trustees Award. There are literally dozens of acts who could have had the honor. (Perhaps that was the problem: choosing just one or two out of so many.) Henry Rollins presented the award with a colorful speech in which he called Stein “the ultimate music executive” and “a fanatic.” Stein thanked such mentors as Tom Noonan, Paul Ackerman, Syd Nathan, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, George Goldner and Richard Gottehrer. He dedicated the award “to the memory of my daughter Samantha and to my daughter Mandy. All my running around the world made me an absentee father.”

The tribute to Tina Turner was not effective, largely due to her decision not to appear in person. Sheléa sang three of her hits (“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Proud Mary” and “The Best”), but came across as impersonator rather than an interpreter. (Those are big high-heeled shoes to fill.) In her taped remarks, Turner thanked “everyone at EMI and all the promoters,” an apt comment for someone who made her reputation on the road.

So how could her segment have been better? Angela Bassett, who played Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It, was announced in June as a presenter, but didn’t appear. Ledisi wrote an appreciation of Turner that first appeared in the Grammy program book in January and also appeared in a booklet that was presented to all attendees here. Ledisi would have been a welcome addition to the Turner segment, even though she was also featured in the Jordan tribute. You can’t have too much Ledisi.

The show closed, anticlimactically, with a Queen tribute. Hagar returned to perform “We Will Rock You.” (“This is for my friends in Queen,” he said.) But without the three surviving members even acknowledging the award, the ending fell flat. Maybe a video acceptance speech will come through before the show airs. Maybe the program won’t air in the order it was taped. (The Diamond salute would have been a stronger capper to the show than this puzzling misfire.) Billy Corgan, who wrote the appreciation of Queen that appeared in the aforementioned program book, should have been featured in some capacity.

I understand why Queen might not care about the Grammys. They never won a Grammy and received just four nominations in their entire career. But they should rise above it. The Grammys have come a long way since 1976, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” lost out to a cornball hit by Starland Vocal Band.

Tony Agnello and Richard Factor, principals in the digital audio company Eventide, accepted the Technical Grammy Award. Agnello made one of the most pointed political comments of the night, noting, “My dad came to the U.S. from Sicily—undocumented.”

Melissa Salguero, a music teacher from The Bronx, was the fifth recipient of the Music Educator Award. (She was the first female recipient, though that fact was not pointed out. Gender politics are a very sensitive issue this year in Grammyland, as you may have heard.)

Greg Phillinganes did a very good job as musical director. (One example: when Salguero, the teacher from The Bronx, walked to the stage, his band played the old Donna Summer hit, “She Works Hard for the Money.”)

There were a few gaffes in the script. Diamond won his first Grammy for 1973, not 1972. Williams has amassed 24 Grammys, not 23. Turner was 44, not 45, when Private Dancer was released.

The Recording Academy produced the show in partnership with Thirteen Productions.

One final note: The Recording Academy used to dispense these awards at a small, intimate ceremony two nights before the Grammys. It was a great event, but it played to an audience of hundreds. Now, far more people than that can watch it on PBS. And music is now a central part of the event, which used to consist almost entirely of video packages and acceptance speeches. This is one of Neil Portnow’s legacy accomplishments as the Academy’s President/CEO. So take a bow, Neil.

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