The first thing you should know about the 2nd Annual GRAMMY Awards is that they weren’t actually “annual” at all. In fact, this awards presentation marked the only time in GRAMMY history that two awards presentations were ever made in one year, with both the 1st and 2nd GRAMMYs falling in 1959. Call it a slightly embarrassing case of premature validation.
The 2nd GRAMMYs did, however, mark another first: the first GRAMMYs to be presented on television as a taped “NBC Sunday Showcase,” which aired on November 29, 1959. Hosted by Meredith Willson—who wrote the Broadway show “The Music Man”—the television program offered performances by classical pianist Van Cliburn, comedian Shelley Berman, Nat “King” Cole, Bobby Darin, folk singer Jimmy Driftwood, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, trumpeter Jonah Jones, the Kingston Trio and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Say this for the GRAMMYs—it always had range.
The award winners themselves were announced at private dinner ceremonies held in Los Angeles and New York. Following the awards presentations, the audience watched the broadcast of the first GRAMMY special. With the ’60s about to get underway and the times about to start a-changing, Darin and Frank Sinatra emerged as the big winners. Darin was named Best New Artist of 1959—the first winner in that category—and he also won Record of the Year with his timeless version of “Mack the Knife.” Sinatra took Album of the Year for Come Dance with Me and Best Vocal Performance, Male, for its title track (which also won Billy May a GRAMMY for Best Arrangement).
Other winners included Jonah Jones’ Best Jazz Performance, Group, award for his very ’50s album I Dig Chicks, poet Carl Sandburg for narrating A Lincoln Portrait, and the iconic Ethel Merman for Best Broadway Show Album for Gypsy, which tied with Gwen Verdon for Redhead.
For all that, even in its earliest TV incarnation, there was never a shortage of critics both willing and able to take their shots at the young if not innocent GRAMMY show. Writing in the New York World Telegram, Harriet Von Horne noted, “But…the pandering to the primitive, uninformed taste that mars so much of TV fare, was on view here…Here was a costly show, brilliantly produced…and it had the whole range of music to choose from. So we had a reading by Shelley Berman instead of Carl Sandburg. We had the clanging, twanging Kingston Trio when we might have had Ethel Merman…”
Others were more understanding, even supportive. Variety said, “GRAMMY Makes Good In TV Bow” in a front page banner headline, and The Hollywood Reporter announced “GRAMMY Telecast Cut Above Average Award Programs.”
Through the good, the bad and the ugly, there would be many more cuts and many more kudos in the years to come.