If you’re going to have somebody explain to the watching world exactly what your organization does, who better than the Chairman of the Board himself?
Starting with the 5th Annual GRAMMY Awards, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences followed its non-televised presentation ceremonies with the first of what would eventually be six NBC specials called “The Best on Record.” The inaugural “The Best on Record” show—sponsored by Timex—began in high style with Frank Sinatra welcoming the viewer and promising that “for the next 60 minutes you’re going to see the finest the record business has to offer.” Sinatra’s claim was backed up by the show’s cast list that, in addition to himself, included everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Richard Rodgers, Dean Martin to comedian Bob Newhart, and Bing Crosby to the New Christy Minstrels.
Sinatra then went on to muse rather poetically about music and the mission of the GRAMMYs. “You know, a record is a kind of a weird thing,” said the man they called The Voice. “It’s just a slab with a little hole in it, and yet it can do almost anything for you. It can bring a symphony into your living room ... You can make bums out of the artists and artists out of the bums.” Then showing off a shiny GRAMMY award, Sinatra added, “Now this is the payoff—it’s called a GRAMMY. They’re voted once a year by the members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, not for selling a million records mind you—you get bread for that—this is for contributions to the art of recording.”
Setting the template for future “Best on Record” shows, a variety of the year’s GRAMMY-winning musical acts and other performers were introduced by high-profile members of the music community, as well as other top stars, in a studio-based setting.
For instance, Bob Newhart—the GRAMMY winner as Best New Artist of 1960—performed a musically themed standup before introducing pianist Peter Nero who won Best Performance By An Orchestra Or Instrumentalist With Orchestra—Primarily Not Jazz Or For Dancing (perhaps obviously the longest named category in the history of the GRAMMYs) for his album The Colorful Peter Nero. Andy Williams — who was soon to become a fixture at GRAMMY shows—introduced an excellent segment that found Henry Mancini, already an 11-time GRAMMY winner by now, performing an instrumental medley of three of his greatest compositions: “Moon River,” “Baby Elephant Walk” and the Peter Gunn television show theme.
Comedian Bill Dana revealed that he had once been head writer for Tony Bennett’s short-lived 1956 TV show before introducing the singer’s characteristically subtle performance of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”—which won Record of the Year and Best Solo Vocal Performance, Male, as well as a Best Background Arrangement GRAMMY for Marty Manning. The distinguished Broadway composer Richard Rodgers—whose No Strings won Best Original Cast Show Album—introduced that show’s star Diahann Carroll singing two songs from the musical. Bandleader Les Brown introduced a rousing performance of “If I Had a Hammer” by Peter, Paul & Mary, who took home GRAMMYs for both Best Performance By A Vocal Group and Best Folk Recording. And after slyly joking about having drunk “a glass of milk,” Dean Martin charmingly introduced Connie Francis to sing a startlingly fine rendition of the winning Song of the Year, “What Kind of Fool Am I,” written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.
Toward the end of the show, Sinatra returned to make a historic presentation to Bing Crosby, first confessing, “We all stole from him.” Sinatra explained that The Academy had voted unanimously to honor Crosby, a groundbreaking vocalist and recording artist, with a Lifetime Achievement Award to be named after him. “Congratulations there, Bing, here’s a little gold to add to your mint.” Crosby accepted graciously, adding, “This is going to look very good on a mantle that has been conspicuously barren of late.” After thanking The Academy and Thomas Edison for inventing the phonograph, Crosby reserved his greatest thanks “most of all to you who listen to records.” Sinatra noted Crosby was clearly a difficult act for anyone to follow, but Mahalia Jackson pulled off the trick quite exquisitely by performing “The House I Live In.” This was a fittingly uplifting ending considering the show aired in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
According to Ted Bergmann, the executive producer of “The Best on Record” specials, the airing of the first show was preempted in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death. “NBC came to me and said, ‘We’ll schedule you for two weeks from now...but you’ll have to get Vaughn Meader off your show.” Comedian and impersonator Meader had won Album of the Year (Other Than Classical) and Best Comedy Performance for his record of Kennedy-themed comedy, The First Family. In the wake of recent events, Meader’s segment was quickly removed, and Tony Bennett added to the “The Best on Record” bill in his place.