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For The Record: How 'Blue' Made LeAnn Rimes A Global Pop Star

LeAnn Rimes

Photo: KMazur/WireImage

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For The Record: How 'Blue' Made LeAnn Rimes A Global Pop Star

Released in 1996, LeAnn Rimes' GRAMMY-winning breakthrough album 'Blue' introduced the artist as country music's next rising star and propelled her into global pop stardom

GRAMMYs/Jul 10, 2021 - 05:55 am

The biggest thing in country music in the spring of 1996 wasn't very "country" at all. Aside from a token fiddle flair here and a steel guitar slide there, the genre's most successful artists, including then-newcomers Shania Twain and Faith Hill, were essentially singing countrified pop songs.

Still, this wasn't the first time Nashville went all-in on pop: Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton both successfully crossed over from country to pop, and their 1983 soft rock duet "Islands in the Stream," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, is an enduring example of crossover potential. But after Garth Brooks set the template for massive crossover success with No Fences, his smash 1990 album that supplemented his Okie twang with rock and pop arrangements, Nashville retooled its machine to pump out singers who could appeal to mainstream audiences.

All of which makes the summer 1996 breakout success of "Blue," a throwback to 1950s country and western sung by a then-13-year-old LeAnn Rimes, either a calculated move to stand out from the pack or a complete fluke. Twenty-five years later, history has proven neither perspective entirely true nor false.

A Texan, by way of Mississippi, with a commanding voice, Rimes began performing at talent shows and in musical theater productions in Dallas at age 6 in the late '80s. She got her first taste of the big time in 1990 when she competed on the pre-"American Idol" national talent showcase, "Star Search," a move that elevated her profile on the Texas country music circuit. While Rimes caught the ears of many influential locals, Bill Mack, a Dallas radio disc jockey known as the "Midnight Cowboy" on WBAP-AM, heard something extra special in her voice.

Mack, a songwriter himself, still believed in an ill-fated song called "Blue," which he wrote way back in 1958. He recorded a version of the song that year in Wichita Falls, Texas, for the Starday label; Billboard described it as "a slow-tempo, relaxed item, with Mack's vocal backed by instrumentation featuring a honky tonk type piano" and called it "a flavorsome side."

Read: Carrie Underwood On Creating Her First Gospel Album, My Savior, Working With CeCe Winans, & Making "Legacy Music"

"Blue" earned local radio airplay, but it failed to find a wider audience. In an effort to amplify the song's reach, Mack hired a female singer to record a new version he could shop around. Then he hit on the notion that Patsy Cline might be the right singer for it and arranged to meet her backstage in San Antonio to pitch the song. He grabbed Roger Miller's guitar and played the song for her, Mack recalls in a GRAMMY Foundation Living History interview. "She said, 'Send that thing to me, I like it.'" Before she could record it, though, Cline died in a plane crash in 1963.

A few other singers took their shots with "Blue" over the years, but Mack knew he had a winner in Rimes. She subsequently recorded a version of the song at age 11 in 1993 for her 1994 independent release All That, which sold 15,000 copies locally and brought interest from Nashville's Curb Records. The label signed Rimes and released "Blue" as her first national single in May 1996, a little more than a month ahead of her album of the same name in July.

"Blue" was a breakout success, driven by Rimes' ability "to convey pain without betraying her tender age or inexperience," as critic Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post as the song was gaining popularity in August 1996.

Although "Blue" could have fallen into the novelty music trap, where songs that recall earlier musical styles often go, the song's classic country vibe wasn't a put-on; it was genuinely of the era, a forgotten tune rendered timeless by Rimes' soaring performance. But even Rimes herself, at 13, wasn't sure "Blue" was the right song to release from her 11-track debut album.

"I was very skeptical when 'Blue' was released as a single because it was very traditional, and I knew radio was gonna be hesitant to play it," Rimes told Texas Monthly in 1996. "They call it retro, but it's true country music and it's totally different from contemporary country, which has the pop feel."

In a way, Rimes' instincts were correct: "Blue" peaked at No. 10 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, a remarkable feat but not exactly a smash hit. That honor went to the follow-up single, the more contemporary "One Way Ticket (Because I Can)," which remains her only No. 1 hit on that chart. Still, "Blue" did kick open the doors for Rimes, who would chart five total singles from Blue, including the Top 10 hit "The Light in Your Eyes" and "Hurt Me," a ballad that marries classic and contemporary touches. (Blue ultimately peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart in August 1996.)

Blue, both the six-times platinum album and its breakthrough title track, marked Rimes' official arrival to the global pop stage. At the 39th GRAMMY Awards, held in 1997, Rimes, then 14, became the youngest person to win a GRAMMY, a title she still holds today; that night, she won two GRAMMYs: Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance for "Blue," the song that started it all.

Rimes then swept the 1997 Academy of Country Music Awards, winning Top New Female Vocalist, Song of the Year and Single Record of the Year. She also became the youngest person to ever be nominated and win the Country Music Association Awards' Horizon Award, the best New Artist equivalent.

Curb capitalized on their new star: As songs from Blue still worked their way up the charts, the label issued the compilation Unchained Melody: The Early Years, in February 1997, which comprised her pre-fame independent recordings; the album topped the Billboard 200 chart the following month. Her cover of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" hit No. 3 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in March 1997, while the Blue standout, "The Light in Your Eyes," peaked at No. 5 three months later.

In the wake of Blue, Rimes cashed in on her country music credibility for crossover success on the level of Twain and Hill, who both landed mega pop hits in 1998—Twain's "You're Still the One" and Hill's "This Kiss" were both Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—after flirting with the mainstream chart the previous year.

Rimes' big crossover came with the Diane-Warren-penned single "How Do I Live," a straightforward pop ballad that peaked at No. 2 during its 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, at the time the longest run in the chart's history, and placed at No. 1 on the Top 20 Billboard Hot 100 Hits of the 1990s.

To date, Rimes has sold more than 37 million records worldwide, with many of her albums and songs charting higher and crossing over more definitively into pop music. Still, "Blue" remains her signature song. And Rimes proved she still has the pipes to deliver the goods: On a 2011 rerecording of the song for the album of standards, Lady & Gentlemen, she croons with the depth of a thousand broken hearts.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Ant Clemons

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Will Smith Dedicate His 1999 Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY To His Son

Will Smith at the 1999 GRAMMYs

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Will Smith Dedicate His 1999 Best Rap Solo Performance GRAMMY To His Son

In his acceptance speech, he offers thanks to his family and "the jiggiest wife in the world, Jada Pinkett Smith"

GRAMMYs/Sep 25, 2020 - 11:17 pm

Today, Sept. 25, we celebrate the birthday of the coolest dad—who else? Will Smith! For the latest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, we revisit the Fresh Prince's 1999 GRAMMY win for Best Rap Solo Performance for "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It."

In the below video, watch rappers Missy Elliott—donning white leather—and Foxy Brown present the GRAMMY to a stoked Smith, who also opted for an all-leather look. In his acceptance speech, he offers thanks to his family and "the jiggiest wife in the world, Jada Pinkett Smith." He dedicates the award to his eldest son, Trey Smith, joking that Trey's teacher said he (then just six years old) could improve his rhyming skills.

Watch Another GRAMMY Rewind: Ludacris Dedicates Best Rap Album Win To His Dad At The 2007 GRAMMYs

The classic '90s track is from his 1997 debut studio album, Big Willie Style, which also features "Miami" and 1998 GRAMMY winner "Men In Black," from the film of the same name. The "Está Rico" rapper has won four GRAMMYs to date, earning his first back in 1989 GRAMMYs for "Parents Just Don't Understand," when he was 20 years old.

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record

What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets

GRAMMYs/Jul 26, 2018 - 11:05 pm

A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.

Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F*** Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.

Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F*** Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.

Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

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