By Bruce Britt
Leave it to Leonard Cohen, perhaps contemporary music's greatest living musical poet, to sum up the spirit of the Special Merit Awards Ceremony during his Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech Saturday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles. Dressed in a black suit and speaking in his trademark vampire baritone, the stubbly singer/songwriter thanked The Recording Academy for allowing him to be a part of "this distinguished company…as we make our way to the finish line that some of us have already crossed."
Sobering words. If we are to take away anything from Michael Jackson's senseless, unexpected death last year at age 50, it's that we must appreciate our heroes and loved ones before, and after, they cross over into the unknowable beyond. Appreciation is exactly what the annual Special Merit Awards are all about, and The Academy honored 12 legendary artists, innovators, companies, and behind-the-scenes technicians whose timeless works have helped improve the quality of lives worldwide.
Though Cohen's poetic, fateful words resounded throughout the event, other recipients delivered insightful stories and jokes that appealed more to the funny bone. A frail Clark Terry had to be helped to the stage, but not even illness could dampen the trumpeter's indomitable comic spirit. Hobbling down the stage in his wheelchair, the iconic jazz trumpeter joked that he was going to "keep doing it" until he got it right. Summing up his career, Delta blues singer/guitarist David "Honeyboy" Edwards stated that he "played a lot of blues out there…and I’m still 'knocking 'em dead." The son of late Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg, who was there to accept a Trustees Award on her behalf, reminisced that "if you called her 'mother' at the office, our pay got docked."
Accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award for the late Bobby Darin, Dodd Darin struggled to compose himself as he remembered his dad. Flanked by his two school-aged daughters, Dodd shared how his multi-talented father was outraged that blacks were not allowed to perform at New York's legendary Copacabana, and recounted how he insisted black comic George Kirby open his show at the nightspot. The club's owner balked at the request, but Darin stood his ground and prevailed.
When the ancestors of phonograph inventor Thomas Alva Edison and country singer Loretta Lynn took the stage to accept awards for their famous elders, you couldn't help but think of their distinguished heredity. A Technical GRAMMY Award was given to pro audio company AKG Acoustics, the award-winning subsidiary of Harman International. Classical conductor/pianist André Previn (accepting his award via video presentation), country producer/guitarist Harold Bradley, and longtime GRAMMY telecast producer Walter C. Miller jammed the hilarity meter with their wry speeches.
Finally, former Michael Jackson manager Frank DiLeo took the stage to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award for his late client. Accepting the award for Jackson's three children, DiLeo told the hushed crowd the King of Pop had a tremendous sense of humor, which the singer would reveal when he watched the GRAMMYs. As DiLeo recalled, Jackson would phone him after a particularly weird acceptance speech and say, "Do you believe what that guy just said?"
"Then he would laugh and hang up," DiLeo said.
While Jackson has crossed Cohen's proverbial finish line, his work — along with that of the rest of this year's Special Merit Awards class — will be appreciated and celebrated for many years to come.
(To view photos from the Special Merit Awards and other GRAMMY Week events, click here.)