Andy Williams, the first host of the live annual GRAMMY Awards telecast, died Sept. 25 following a battle with bladder cancer. He was 84. Before launching his solo career in 1952, Williams performed as part of the Williams Brothers Quartet, with whom he appeared on Bing Crosby's 1944 hit "Swinging On A Star." During his solo career, Williams scored 14 Top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, including the 1963 Album Of The Year GRAMMY-nominated Days Of Wine And Roses; nine Top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, including "Can't Get Used To Losing You" and "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story"; and six GRAMMY nominations, his last coming in 1966 for Best Vocal Performance, Male for The Shadow Of Your Smile. As host of "The Andy Williams Show," which aired from 1962–1967, Williams earned three Emmys for Outstanding Variety Series. Williams served as the host of the first seven live telecasts of the annual GRAMMY Awards, beginning with the 13th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 1971.
When LL Cool J takes the stage to open the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards, nobody's going to question his hosting credentials. The two-time GRAMMY-winning rapper, also star of "NCIS: Los Angeles," is a multiplatform dynamo. Plus he's experienced — he led last year's GRAMMY extravaganza at Staples Center.
The producers of Music's Biggest Night haven't always relied on the kind of superstar who can swing deftly from a concert stage to a TV set to shepherd millions of viewers through the telecast, though. Before LL Cool J got the nod in 2012, the GRAMMYs went hostless for several years. And before that — from the first nontelevised ceremony in 1959, with political comedian Mort Sahl, to 2005, when GRAMMY winner Queen Latifah was at the helm — an assortment of talents have played the role of GRAMMY host.
If they have anything in common, it may be along the lines of what a combined 50-plus years of Record and Song Of The Year awards share: they're all hugely recognizable. And more than a little influential.
Hosts, like the winning recordings, have been notable for the way they engaged (Paul Simon, host at the 23rd GRAMMY Awards in 1981, performed his relentlessly catchy "Late In The Evening"), or for the doses of poignancy they brought to the proceedings (just last year at the 54th GRAMMY Awards, LL Cool J led a prayer for the late Whitney Houston). Some captured the zeitgeist and, like certain songs, will go down in GRAMMY history for catching people off guard.
Take Jon Stewart.
Stewart, along with Garry Shandling and Paul Reiser before him, fits the category of GRAMMY comedian hosts, an era that spans from 1987, when Billy Crystal began his three-year run, to 2002, when Stewart hosted for a second year. Stewart's entrance onto the 44th Annual GRAMMY stage on Feb. 27, 2002, was less than grand: At the end of an opening skit in which he tussled with a pretend airportlike security team – a riff on the pumped-up security measures that swept the country soon after Sept. 11 — he was stripped, forcibly, down to his boxers.
Because the GRAMMYs are well-versed in the ways of rock stars, their fashion sense included, the show is only nominally a black-tie event (at least since the mid-'60s, when, pre-televised, it was held in hotel ballrooms on both coasts). Boxers only, though, was a bolder-than-usual fashion statement.
At times, GRAMMY hosts such as Kelsey Grammer have been caught off guard. The TV actor, who hosted the 40th annual show in 1998, had to figure out what to make of the shirtless stage crasher who forever will be known as "Soy Bomb" because of those same two words, inexplicably painted across his bare chest. Soy Bomb, neé Michael Portnoy, memorably interrupted Bob Dylan's performance of "Love Sick," from his Album Of The Year-winning Time Out Of Mind, that night. Grammer — though he played a psychologist on TV at the time — was as confused by the stunt as everyone else.
Before comedy became a staple at GRAMMY telecasts, hosts were tapped for their own musical accomplishments. Andy Williams, a '60s superstar for indelible hits such as "Moon River" as well as his two TV variety series, hosted the first seven live shows, starting in 1971 with the 13th Annual GRAMMY Awards.
In 1978, for the 20th Annual GRAMMY Awards, Williams gave way to John Denver, then in his recording prime. Like Williams, Denver went on to become a regular — he hosted five more times, winding up his tenure in 1985. But his run was not without interruptions. Country star Kenny Rogers hosted in 1980, at the 22nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, and went on to host again six years later. Denver also put his hosting duties on hiatus in 1981, at the 23rd Annual GRAMMYs, when Simon signed on.
Williams is the only one of those early musical chart-toppers not to have won a GRAMMY himself, though he was nominated several times. In all, since the first broadcast, seven hosts have won GRAMMYs. Besides Denver, Rogers and Simon, Stewart won Best Comedy Album for 2004's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents … America: A Citizens Guide To Democracy Inaction and Best Spoken Word Album for his 2010 release The Daily With Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The Audiobook); Whoopi Goldberg, who hosted the 34th Annual GRAMMYs in 1992, during the comedian-as-host phase and won for Best Comedy Recording for her 1985 album Whoopi Goldberg — Original Broadway Show Recording; Queen Latifah, who hosted in 2005 and won Best Rap Solo Performance in 1994 for "U.N.I.T.Y."; and current host LL Cool J, who won Best Rap Solo Performance in 1991 for "Mama Said Knock You Out" and in 1996 for "Hey Lover." DeGeneres is vying to become the eighth with a current 55th GRAMMY nomination for Best Spoken Word Album. Simon has given the most acceptance speeches — he's won 16 GRAMMYs.
While GRAMMY hosts have a knack for scoring GRAMMYs themselves, that isn't the only thing connecting them, achievement-wise. Several have gone on to host other awards broadcasts, too — most notably Crystal, who has hosted the Academy Awards a whopping nine times. Goldberg and Stewart have also been Oscar hosts, though, and so has DeGeneres, who hosted the 38th and 39th Annual GRAMMYs in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Rosie O'Donnell — another veteran of the era of comedic GRAMMY hosts for her 1999–2000 stint — has been a regular host of the Tony Awards. And Queen Latifah has helmed the People's Choice Awards and the BET Awards.
No matter what they went on to do, or how many stages they won awards on themselves, each has proved an essential, memorable part of Music's Biggest Night.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, and on All Music Guide and Amazon.com.)
(Editor's note: In 2008, during the 50th celebration of the GRAMMY Awards, Andy Williams, the show's first live host and the face of the GRAMMY telecast for nearly a decade, participated in this lighthearted look back at his career and GRAMMY experience. Williams died Sept. 25 at the age of 84.)
Along with original GRAMMY Awards producer Pierre Cossette, Andy Williams could be considered one of the fathers of the live GRAMMY telecast. Starting in 1971, Williams hosted the first seven live shows before giving way to John Denver in the late '70s. Never mind that Williams also hosted the Golden Globes and People's Choice Awards (or his own successful variety show in the '60s): His name is forever GRAMMY linked.
The singer of the definitive versions of such Henry Mancini-penned classics as "Moon River" and "Days Of Wine And Roses," as well as "Love Story," Williams never won a GRAMMY himself, though he earned an Album Of The Year nomination for Days Of Wine And Roses in 1963.
Williams, who passed away Sept. 25, performed until very recently at his own theater in Branson, Mo., where he varied his song list to keep life interesting for the audience, and "for my own sanity."
You had a running gag when you were hosting about never winning a GRAMMY. Was it really enough just to be nominated?
Oh yeah, you take what you can get. I couldn't imagine why Moon River, for instance, wasn't an Album Of The Year. I thought it was a terrific album. When I was nominated I hoped we'd win it, but being nominated was enough.
You lost Album Of The Year to Barbra Streisand in 1963.
Well, she's good too.
Would it have been easier to take if you'd lost to someone with some staying power?
I'd like to have those kind of legs.
You won several Emmy Awards for "The Andy Williams Show" in the '60s. Did you ever think, "Hey, maybe I should be hosting the Emmys"?
Well, I probably should have been. It was one of the few shows I didn't host.
"The Andy Williams Show," which was on NBC, was cancelled in 1971 …
You could put it that way, or you could say it ran out of steam in 1971.
And that was the year of the first live GRAMMY show. Did running out of steam free you from any NBC/CBS conflict?
I don't think so. In fact, the only way the show got on the air is because I would do it. The network said to Pierre Cossette, if you can get Andy Williams or Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra to host it, you can do it. Pierre said, "I can't get Dean or Frank to do it." I don't know why they didn't want to do it. Maybe because it was new, maybe because they didn't think it would be a success, maybe because they were busy. But I said, "Yes, I'd like to do it." I thought it would be great. The GRAMMYs were important before they went on [live] television. It had a reason to be on, and I thought it was a good idea to have it on.
When Pierre came to you for the GRAMMYs, did you think, "This is my chance to meet Moms Mabley?"
No. I'd already met Moms Mabley.
Do you have a most memorable GRAMMY moment from those years you were hosting?
I have a wonderful memory of doing a bit with John Lennon and Paul Simon that was really very funny [the three deliberately mocked awards show banter at the 17th GRAMMYs in 1975]. That whole evening stands out in my mind, the time I spent after the GRAMMYs sitting with John and David Bowie and David Essex. I talked with them quite a bit. I got a letter from John Lennon the next day saying how nice it was to meet me and he said he didn't want to sound like a song plugger, but I should really do one of his songs. That meant a lot to me. I'd admired John a lot for his writing and the success the group had had and for his stand against all kinds of issues.
Do you recall the song?
I think it was "Bless You" [from Lennon's Walls And Bridges album]. I listened to it and I didn't think it was for me. It certainly wasn't "Love Story."
On your show you had a very distinct, relaxed style: cardigans and pullovers. Do you think Kanye West stole your look?
Is he doing that? Sitting on a stool and singing? Perry Como once said, "Well, you stole my sweater, you stole my stool and now you stole my sponsor," when Kraft took over my show for a couple years.
The GRAMMYs have come a long way since you first hosted them. Does that give you a sort of proud father feeling, or maybe a proud grandfather feeling?
It makes me feel proud to be a part of the beginning of it, and to see what it's become worldwide. It is now comparable to the Oscars. I'm really very proud to have been able to host it for seven years.
Do you think you'll ever retire?
To what? No. I spend three months in La Quinta and that's enough. I can't play any more golf. I'll continue [singing] as long as I have fun.
What can we learn from an artist's first album? In the case of singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, as it turns out, quite a bit.
He recorded his debut album, My Aim Is True, for a cost of £2,000 in only 24 hours, leveraging his sick days and holidays from his job as a computer operator. On paper, it was not an auspicious start.
My Aim Is True arrived in 1977 while music was in the midst of a punk-rock revolution courtesy of the Clash, Sex Pistols, and Ramones, but Costello borrowed from a different wellspring.
The son of a musician, the Englishman poured more material into his debut than his pigeonholed "new wave" label could hold, and he's spent the next 40 years revealing the seemingly endless depth of influence his music has conjured.
By 2007, My Aim Is True was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in recognition of its standing as one of rock and roll's greatest recordings.
With that in mind, and in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the classic album's original U.K. release, here are five moments on My Aim Is True — and select tracks left from its cutting-room floor — that set the tone for Costello's prolific career.
The first 14 seconds of pleasure in "Welcome To The Working Week"
In the first line of the first song of his first album, Costello came out swinging with a crafty musical and irreverent lyrical phrase that landed a stiff punch: "Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired/And you can have anyone that you have ever desired."
The dreamlike reverie album opening paints a crude picture of fame and privilege before jolting it all back into the blue-collar worker's harsh reality.
Just 14 seconds into "Welcome To The Working Week," Costello demonstrates the genius and snarl he's capable of: a gorgeous key-borrowing modulation (tossing in a "II major" chord for those theory types keeping score at home) under a sly, taboo lyrical reference turned into a snarl of "why, why, why, why."
Costello would incorporate these devices in many of his greatest songs throughout his career, from the delicately intricate "Almost Blue" to the venomous "20% Amnesia" and everywhere in between.
A dark take on tenderness in "Alison"
The lone ballad on an album known for its wound-up velocity, "Alison" has somewhat ironically become My Aim Is True's most enduring song.
In both construction and execution, "Alison" is as unsettling as it is graceful. The song provided a glimpse of Costello's harmonic touch, lucid vocal delivery and artistic range that teased a bevy of beautiful ballads to come, including "Shipbuilding, "Favourite Hour" and "I Want To Vanish," each with its own searing streak of darkness.
While "Alison" never charted for Costello, it did for Linda Ronstadt, who recorded a trifecta of Costello songs for her 1980 album, Mad Love, including "Girls Talk," "Party Girl" and "Talking In The Dark." Over the years, he's would also be covered by Aimee Mann, Johnny Cash, Fiona Apple, and his wife, Diana Krall, to name a few.
Calling Mr. Oswald on "Less Than Zero"
At 22 years old, Costello demonstrated a sharp social consciousness. "Less Than Zero" took on a former British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, who had re-emerged in British media to try and clear his name. According to Costello, "The song was more of a slandering fantasy than a reasoned argument."
But the track's passion and anger were very real. "Less Than Zero" itself became a pawn in a different sort of protest match when Costello lashed out against the imposed constraints of corporate controlled broadcasting, stopping a performance of the song mid-verse on live TV in favor of a blistering version of another statement song, "Radio Radio." The stunt resulted in a ban from "Saturday Night Live," the show where the whole fiasco went down.
Sinister imagery and the genius of Steve Nieve on "Watching The Detectives"
Although not included in the original album release in the U.K., "Watching The Detectives" was added to the U.S. release of My Aim Is True. Producer Nick Lowe, an influential artist/songwriter in his own right, went with a different rhythm section for "… Detectives," calling upon the aptly named young classical keyboardist, Steve Nieve.
The signature organ parts and eerie sounds Nieve added to the song were tip of the iceberg to the dressing he lavished on subsequent Costello numbers such as "Shot With His Own Gun" and the mad and moody masterpiece, "I Want You."
In his GRAMMY-nominated 2015 autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Costello attributed the inspiration for "… Detectives" to a cinematic influence: the noir films based on Raymond Chandler stories, especially 1944's Double Indemnity.
"The shorthand of cinematic directions in 'Watching The Detectives' lyrics came pretty easily after memorizing all those films," Costello explains.
The country song that didn't make the album, but surfaced later
One of only three outtakes from the My Aim Is True sessions, "Stranger In the House" never had a chance at making the cut. According to the Costello-penned liner notes for the album's 1993 Rykodisc re-release, "The inclusion of a 'country song' was thought to be commercial suicide in 1977."
But the echoes of "Stranger …" refused to fade. Costello's country hero, George Jones, recorded a cover in 1979, on which Costello guested. Costello's version of the song appeared later on a 1980 B-sides collection, Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How's Your Fathers.
Costello's knack for collaboration and genre dexterity have served him well throughout his career, as he recorded full albums with a variety of musicians and styles, including classically trained mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, R&B legend Allen Toussaint and songwriting mastermind Burt Bacharach. (Not to mention the fabled co-writing he did with Paul McCartney).