“I look out here at all the members of The Recording Academy and I see a lot of silks and satins and jewelry and new hair styles — and gee, the ladies look fantastic too,” host John Denver (wearing a tux with bell-bottomed pants) said with a smile at the start of the 21st Annual GRAMMY Awards show, the last ceremony held in the ’70s. Indeed, the music industry really was growing up in a number of fascinating ways. “Twenty-One is a very special age,” Denver noted. “Twenty-One is when you come of age.” Among those coming along for the ride on this GRAMMY night were winners from A Taste Of Honey of “Boogie Oogie Oogie” fame — who won Best New Artist beating out the likes of Elvis Costello, the Cars, Chris Rea and Toto too — to legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz who received two classical awards. Where else in the world besides on the GRAMMYs would Johnny “Take This Job And Shove It” Paycheck and the great tenor Jan Peerce be found next to each other on the bill?
Disco had very much come of age as GRAMMY 21 intermittently turned into Studio 54. The entrenchment of disco by 1978 had become a cultural phenomenon. Manhattan’s Studio 54 was the most high-profile nightspot in the country; Saturday Night Fever took the nation’s theaters by storm; and artists of all stripes — including such venerable rock acts as the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart — were recording disco and releasing 12" club mixes. Disco colored the fashions (all those satins and silks Denver referred to in his opening remarks) and sense of the times, and led to Denver awkwardly (though endearingly) appropriating John Travolta’s Fever dance moves for his performance of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” during a tribute to the year’s Song Of The Year nominees. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Album Of The Year GRAMMY was bestowed upon the smash hit Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
The first performance of the night was the glitzy ode to the disco lifestyle “I Love The Nightlife” by Alicia Bridges. Dionne Warwick and Quincy Jones presented the GRAMMY award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female, to Donna Summer — who faced considerable competition from nominees such as Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan and Bridges herself — for “Last Dance.”
In the midst of the discothon, the GRAMMYs managed to do what it always does best — highlight all kinds of music, including Chuck Mangione’s flugelhorn hit “Feels So Good,” and a rousing number by Oscar Peterson, winner of Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist (Montreaux ’77 — Oscar Peterson Jam).
In addition to Johnny Paycheck’s biting state of the working man performance, country music was well represented by presenters who spoke their minds. Before announcing that his future fellow Highwayman Willie Nelson had won the GRAMMY for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male (“Georgia On My Mind”) Kris Kristofferson, with wife Rita Coolidge at his side, told the crowd, “I think there ought to be a special award given every year to George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis just for being who they are.” Glen Campbell and then flame Tanya Tucker did a very special picking and singing presentation of the award for Best Country Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group that became a little more special when it turned out that neither of the beloved country outlaws Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson were there to pick up the award for the now-iconic “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” “Well, as most of you know, Waylon and Willie wouldn’t walk a mile to see a pissant eat a bale of hay, but we congratulate them anyway and accept it on their behalf.”
And perhaps in a moment of nostalgia for some old-fashioned rock, The Academy recognized Steely Dan’s “FM (No Static At All)” — from the movie celebrating the age of free-form radio — with a Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical, for Roger Nichols and Al Schmitt.
Another of the evening’s big winners was also not in attendance — Billy Joel, who won both Record Of The Year for “Just The Way You Are” along with his producer Phil Ramone, and Song Of The Year for the same classic romantic ballad. Barry Manilow definitely was there to pick up his only GRAMMY to date for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male, for “Copacabana (At The Copa).” And if the experience wasn’t memorable enough, Manilow received his award from Steve Martin — winner of the Best Comedy Recording for A Wild And Crazy Guy — who took the stage in a tux with no pants, which were later handed to him in dry-cleaner wrapping. Martin went on to offer his own memorable thanks, including a shout out to his own manager “who has believed in me ever since the first album started selling.”
The most inspiring performer of the night, however, may have been 96-year-old Eubie Blake, who would arguably have been named Best New Artist of 1921 had there been a GRAMMY Awards then. Blake performed his classic “I’m Just Wild About Harry” with dancing girls several generations his junior, and then presented the Best New Artist award with Denver. “Boy,” Blake said with a youthful smile on his face, “I’m having the time of my life up here.”