Paul Simon’s performance of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” with Ladysmith Black Mambazo from the Graceland album opened the 29th Annual GRAMMY Awards on a boldly beautiful and global note, offering a soulful reaffirmation of the reach and relevance of truly great music. It also provided first time host Billy Crystal with a devilishly funny opening line. “Is it just me,” the comedian wondered aloud, “or did Art Garfunkel look different?”
Simon — still sans Garfunkel — would ultimately return to the stage when Whoopi Goldberg and Don Johnson — in matching Miami Vice suits — presented him with the final award of the evening, Album Of The Year. In his gracious acceptance speech, Simon ended by expressing “my deep admiration and love for the singers and musicians from South Africa who worked with me on Graceland… They live — along with other South African artists and their countryman — under one of the most repressive regimes on the planet today and still they are able to produce music of great power and nuance and joy. And I find that just extraordinary, and they have my great respect and love.”
Simon wasn’t the only rock veteran winning on this GRAMMY night. Steve Winwood, in the midst of a major comeback, also felt some “higher love” from The Academy. The Bangles and Live Aid leader Bob Geldof presented the former Traffic leader with the first GRAMMY of the night for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Winwood also won Record Of The Year for “Higher Love,” the soulful single on which he was joined by Chaka Khan. Meanwhile, the GRAMMY for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, went to Barbra Streisand for The Broadway Album. For Streisand, this validation represented “a reaffirmation of the stature and quality of this timeless material.” She also pointed out that she had a hunch she might win since the show was on Feb. 24 and 24 was her lucky number — that she had been born on the 24th, had her son at 24 and won her first GRAMMY 24 years earlier. “So with your continued support and a little bit of luck, I might just see you again 24 years from tonight.”
Even by the eclectic standards of the GRAMMY Awards telecast, this show offered some wild stylistic shifts. Billy Idol beat out his Stax remake “To Be A Lover” in a boxing ring that could barely contain his post-punk energy. The fast-rising Beastie Boys behavior in presenting the GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance, Male, to Robert Palmer was such that the New York Times’ John J. O’Connor wrote, “Among the sprinkling of younger faces, a group called the Beastie Boys did its best to be outrageous while presenting an award, but ended up looking like the Three Stooges.”
But it wasn’t all Beastie. One of the biggest ovations of the evening came for legendary lyric soprano Kathleen Battle and classical guitarist Christopher Parkening for a stunning rendition of “Ave Maria.” The audience also gave a well-earned standing ovation for an inspired and inspiring group of R&B greats — B.B. King, Albert King, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Big Jay McNealy, Dr. John and recent sensation Robert Cray — who managed to let the good times roll during a salute to the blues that featured the backing of guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Jim Keltner. Also impressive were three of country’s bright new male stars — Steve Earle, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam — who all gave strong performances before the Best Country Vocal Solo Performance, Male, award for which they were nominated went to veteran Ronnie Milsap.
The award for Song Of The Year went to Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager for “That’s What Friends Are For” — which became a heartening, conscious and inescapable fundraising response to the AIDS crisis as recorded by the fabulous foursome of Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder (according to Sager this night, the song had raised $750,000). That recording was also recognized with the GRAMMY for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. And on this night, Warwick, Knight and Wonder performed it with the accompaniment of Bacharach himself on piano.
Accepting the Song Of The Year award, Bacharach seemed genuinely moved. “Of all the songs that I’ve written, [this is] the one song when I still hear on the radio or hear in performance, I get a little teary in my eyes and a little touched — goose bumps,” Bacharach confessed. “I think it goes way beyond the song — it’s a good song, I’m proud of the song. I think it goes to the outer fringe of what that song has meant to so many people — in joy, sadness, heartbreak and hope and friendship and love.”