Throughout the 20th Annual GRAMMY Awards, a suitably far-flung galaxy of stars — quite literally from Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to stoner comedy stars Cheech & Chong — appeared via videotape to wish the GRAMMYs a happy 20th birthday. This wasn’t the only significant nod to the show’s illustrious past. In fact, the entire evening — hosted for the first time by John Denver, in an appropriately ruffled ’70s tux — kicked off with an extended overture that found a troupe of interpretive dancers doing their thing to the soundtrack of all 19 past winners for Record Of The Year.
Yet the first live musical performance of the night was very much of the moment as teen idol and Best New Artist nominee Shaun Cassidy, dressed in an all-white pantsuit, kicked things into gear with a surprisingly convincing rendition of “That’s Rock & Roll.” Yet when Steve Martin — already a winner for Best Comedy Recording for Let’s Get Small — and Chicago came together to present the Best New Artist, the award went instead to Debby Boone, Pat Boone’s daughter, who was riding the crest of her success with the smash ballad “You Light Up My Life.”
“You Light Up My Life” also won Song Of The Year in a rare GRAMMY tie with “Love Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen)” by Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams. For his part, the witty Williams made one of the more memorable GRAMMY acceptance speeches by thanking by name a physician for providing him with “some incredible Valium that got me through the entire experience.” Joe Brooks, who wrote “You Light Up My Life,” then delivered one of the other memorable lines of the night when he pointed out that many of the music professionals in attendance had actually turned down his song, some of them multiple times, before adding, “This tastes so sweet.”
In accepting the GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, earlier in the evening, Streisand seemed genuinely taken aback to have triumphed over Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Carly Simon and Debby Boone. “Gee, I’m really surprised,” she told the crowd. “I know I won four GRAMMYs, but I didn’t remember for what because it was such a long time ago.” Indeed, Streisand had last won at the 8th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 1966.
This was a night full of varied presenters, including legends Minnie Pearl (who charmingly contended that staring into John Denver’s eyes had given her a “Rocky Mountain High”) and Cab Calloway (who seemed genuinely taken aback by a big reaction from the crowd, telling them, “Thank you — and I’m so glad you remembered.”). The only genre conspicuously absent was punk rock, which had just hit Mother England during the previous year. There were also notable performances from the sublime — Count Basie and his band performing “Sweet Georgia Brown” — to the sublimely ridiculous — soul great Joe Tex performing “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” with the help of an unusually voluptuous bumping and grinding dancer.
The always amiable John Denver, who had recently starred along with comedy great George Burns in the smash film Oh, God!, kept his own quips to a minimum on this GRAMMY night. Early on, however, he did gamely report that because space backstage was at a premium, artists had to share dressing rooms by genre. “I am personally sharing my dressing room with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris,” he explained with an unusually lusty grin. “Thank God I’m a country boy.” Denver would ultimately host the show five more times, becoming, like Andy Williams before him, a sort of GRAMMY regular. Remarkably, Denver would not actually win a GRAMMY himself until shortly after his death in 1997.
In the end, this 20th anniversary show was a GRAMMY night that found The Academy recognizing many of the finest and most popular recording artists on the West Coast rock scene, with the Eagles winning Record Of The Year for “Hotel California,” Fleetwood Mac taking Album Of The Year for Rumours and Steely Dan’s Aja taking home the award for Best Engineered Recording — Non-Classical. The force was also with John Williams, who won the GRAMMY for Best Original Score Written For A Motion Picture Or A Television Special and Best Instrumental Composition for his music for Star Wars.
While presenting the Album Of The Year award to Fleetwood Mac, Graham Nash looked at his co-presenters David Crosby and Stephen Stills and posed perhaps one of the most thoughtful questions in GRAMMY history — one that subtly spoke to the wonderful culture clash that was the GRAMMY Awards at age 20: “Does anybody have any idea what it took to get Crosby into a tuxedo?”