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'Woodstock 50th Anniversary' Author Mike Greenblatt Talks New Book & How Woodstock Was A "Cosmic Accident"

Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur's Farm

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'Woodstock 50th Anniversary' Author Mike Greenblatt Talks New Book & How Woodstock Was A "Cosmic Accident"

"500,000 people pressed together, wet and cold, hungry and thirsty…There was no security and there was not one reported instance of violence...It's almost impossible to contemplate," Greenblatt tells the Recording Academy about the historic fest

GRAMMYs/Aug 21, 2019 - 11:31 pm

On Aug. 14, 1969, hundreds of thousands of people took over the small town of Bethel, N.Y. to hear the sounds and inspirational words from their favorite artists, including Jimi HendrixSly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater RevivalJanis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. Longtime music journalist, then an 18-year-old music fan, Mike Greenblatt was there. 

In his brand-new book, Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur's Farm, out in honor of the fest's 50th anniversary, Greenblatt features his own firsthand account, as well as a collection of submitted stories from both artists and attendees to recreate the experience that transpired a half-century ago—one that original promoter Michael Lang hasn't been able to truly replicate since.

We caught up with Greenblatt over the phone to learn more about what it was really like to be at Woodstock, how we can apply the fest's activist mindset today, which acts blew him away and more.

Photo: Warner Bros/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

How was it for you to revisit Woodstock 50 years later? 

I got a lump in my throat a little bit after I revisited that time of me being 18 and being at that particular festival, especially when I started talking to the artists. I did 32 interviews and I read nine books, because a lot of the artists are dead but they have books. And some of the artists would not talk to me. For instance, the guys in Credence Clearwater Revival didn't have very nice things to say about John Fogerty, who refused the band's participation in the movie and the soundtrack. And when I went to go call John Fogerty's people, they said, "He's not talking about that anymore, read his book." So I did.

But it was really a trip back to a much more innocent time and a time that I cherish.

I mean, it was a turning point in your life as a young man, but then also for this country and for so many of the artists that performed. So it's a lot of things coming together.

No doubt about it. It was a turning point for me because it was where I first embarked on the concept of music as salvation. In other words, as long as the music was playing, I was okay. No matter what was going on around me. And we were pretty damn uncomfortable on Sunday. If Thursday, Friday and Saturday were idyllic, Sunday was a disaster. A monsoon whipped through us and all my stuff was back at the car. Tents, clothing, food, pot and water, and we didn't even know where the car was. There was no getting back to the car and we were in T-shirts and shorts and were drenched.

After the rain, it got really cold, even though it was August. Plus, the LSD that I took on Sunday started coming on right when my friend Neil said, "I'm gonna go find a phone booth and call our moms to tell them we're right." Woodstock would have been a lot easier with cell phones and bottled water, let me tell you. He had left and I was alone now and the music stopped. They said, "We're gonna stop the music. There's a storm coming through. Hold on to each other, we'll be right back." So I'm alone, there's no music and it wasn't fun anymore. I started panicking and getting paranoid. And then they made an announcement from the stage, which is in the [1970 Woodstock] movie. They said, "Don't take the brown acid." And I said, "Oh no. I just took it."

"But [Woodstock] was like a cosmic accident." 

I would love to hear, in a nutshell, what was it really like to be an attendee, to be part of Woodstock?

I loved Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Saturday night was folk night and there was a light drizzle. People were very friendly and shared their food, water, wine and pot. It was really nice and there was a sense of "we're all in it together," that the long-hair sitting next to you on the grass on the ground was your brother. You knew he was against the war in Vietnam. And you knew he was for civil rights and women's liberation.

And, when Arlo Guthrie held up the newspaper on stage and says that famous line, "The New York State freeway is closed, man," we knew that the whole world was watching. There was a palpable sense of we better not screw it up because we were the peace and love generation. So we couldn't have any problems at this big festival or else it would all go up in flames. And we didn't, that's the whole point about Woodstock. 500,000 people pressed together, wet and cold, hungry and thirsty with not enough food, water and bathrooms and no police. There was no security and there was not one reported instance of violence. How could that be? It's almost impossible to contemplate.

How did the conversations go with the surviving artists whom you interviewed for the book? Does that collective cultural moment still feel like a connective point for you and others who were there?

There is a generational situation going on between the Baby Boomers that we were special, that we were the generation, the dividing point. The artists' backstage revelations were fascinating, and the hard times that they had getting in and out of the festival and the equipment problems that they had. But I think that the interviews that I did with the people that actually ran the show were profoundly revelatory. I did not know, for instance, that governor Rockefeller wanted to send in the National Guard to disperse everybody at the butt of a gun, like Nixon tried to do at Kent State just months later.

Could you imagine? At Woodstock? I mean, the possibility of a disaster was always right there on the surface. But we did it. John Morris is a hero in my eyes. He ran the Fillmore for Bill Graham. Graham lent out his entire staff to Michael Lang for the Woodstock festival because no one had ever heard of Lang and the artists didn't want to commit. Graham vouched for him and the artists rolling in one after another.

But it was like a cosmic accident. Because there wasn't enough facilities. No one, in a million years, expected the people to keep pouring in from all sides and never stop coming. That 500,000 figure is the estimate, of course; there are those who think it was more like 800,000. And professor Chris Langhart from NYU, who is, again, one of the heroes of this festival, says that there's police aerial photos of the area that would almost prove that it was more like 800,000. He said to me, "You going to do a book about Woodstock? You want to get it newsworthy? Call the state police, get them to unleash those records." Well, I tried and it's impossible.

Photo: John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image

The police didn't go into the festival at all, right? It's surprising they decided to stand back.

They let the kids do their thing. The police kept saying how unbelievably well-behaved we were. Max Yasgur, the farmer who let us groove on his property, had to go to bat for us with the townspeople. He's another hero out of this thing. Because we were kicked out of Wallkill and the people that put this thing together, maybe a crew of about 125 people who built the stage and the water system and everything else, they had only 18 days to do the whole thing. And it rained like 15 of those days. It's still the record in Sullivan County, N.Y. for the most amount of rain in a three-week period.

Do you think a Woodstock festival, a.k.a. "three days of peace and music," could authentically be recreated in this day and age?

No. They tried in '94 and '99 and there were arsons, rapes, burglaries and violence. It can't be replicated. It was a one-of-a-kind event, it had never happened before where so many people got together with no violence. It certainly hasn't happened since and I don't think it could ever happen [again] because of human nature. I mean, it was the second-biggest city in New York for those four days. People were born, people died, one guy got run over by a tractor while sleeping in his sleeping bag, one guy had a burst appendix and someone else O.D.ed. That's it, three deaths and a couple of babies were born.

"They tried in '94 and '99 and there were arsons, rapes, burglaries and violence. It can't be replicated. It was a one of a kind event, it had never happened before where so many people got together with no violence."

It's crazy, like you said, to wrap your head around.

Well, we knew it at the time and we were in it. It was like everything that we had read about, heard about on the radio, watched on TV and the bands that we tried to see at [Madison Square] Garden and at clubs in New York. We would get so excited to see one band we loved. This was all our bands at the same place, at the same time. And watching this taboo of humanity, especially after the rains came on Sunday, where people that I would be scared to meet on a dark corner in Newark, N.J., where I was raised, were making fires and feeding people and handing out blankets, and the townspeople showed up in flatbed trucks handing out bread. To be in it and look at it and be heavily tripping at the time just made it phantasmagoric, surrealistic.

I knew it was so special, but I could only just stand there and look at it. I wasn't one of the people that would take charge in helping other people, I admit. I stood there and I looked all around me, fascinated.

How did being an attendee at Woodstock affect your path in life? I know you ended up going into music writing. How do you see that now, looking back?

My mother cried and cried when I came home, she had seen the news. I end the book with her tears as a metaphor for the older generation trying to understand us. But I think that was the moment I realized that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to listen to more music and tell people about it. The fastest way to do that was to go to shows and write about it, and that's all I've ever done, listen to music and tell people about it, be it as a journalist, an editor or a publicist. Ever since Woodstock, that was my mission in life. And it persists to this day.

Woodstock feels like a great early example of how gathering a large group people around music can really make waves in society. What are your beliefs or your thoughts on the power of music to create change?

Music is spiritual. People to listen to music and get from it what they will, but it's all about that connection between the human and the sounds. And there's something about lyrics and chords, melodies and harmonies and instrumentation, that when put together in the proper way, have a profoundly—it's religious to me. I consider myself agnostic, but music is my religion and my church. When I go to a show and the show is absolutely perfect, I'm in church, man.

I can relate to that. And for religious ceremonies, music is the part that moves people.

At the very beginning of time, all music was religious music.

What do you think performing Woodstock meant to each of these artists?

There's 32 different answers to that question, 32 different artists. Quill, for instance, was supposed to be the band that broke big after Woodstock. To me, they sounded like a bunch of guys banging on pots. Santana that became superstars after. The Santana album wasn't even out yet, nobody knew who they were.

Santana came out, people were enjoying themselves on a sunny day at the time, and their performance was so incendiary and so righteous, fusing unbelievably great hard rock with salsa music, no one had ever heard anything like that. They practically invented world beat music right on that very stage. And Michael Shreve's drum solo during "Soul Sacrifice" that day [pauses]—he was barely 20. It galvanized the entire Woodstock nation and they became superstars.

Now, that's just 1 of 32. And for my favorite, there's a few. There were bands that carried me away; The Band, for instance. Back then, we thought a band was great by how close to the record they sounded. The Band sounded exactly like their records, the vocals, the harmonies. And they kept switching instruments. They all played every instrument, Switching after every song, I have never seen that. So they stand out.

Sly and the Family Stone also stand out. Because it was so late, I was falling asleep and their set was so rabble-rousing. We were up on our feet and chanting, "Higher, higher!" during the song "I Want To Take You Higher." Sly Stone was at the top of his game and the band was unbelievable. And Mountain—Leslie West's lead guitar—was the loudest band I ever heard in my life. They practically invented heavy metal at Woodstock. There's so many others I can think of.

I think that's part of what's interesting with "hard questions" like this, of how we summarize these major things. And to see, 50 years later, what still stands in the front of your mind.

One thing that stands in front of my mind was Friday night, the very last performer was Joan Baez. She was very pregnant, and she came out and had a political agenda. Politics was a subtext of Woodstock, with Vietnam and Nixon. She sang "Joe Hill," the story of this union martyr who said, when they executed him for a murder he didn't commit, "Don't mourn, organize." That still sends chills through my rather leftwing, liberal body. Joan Baez was so affecting to us, when she sang "We Will Overcome." It wasn't corny back then, it was real. And she sang [the Byrds'] "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" with a friend that she brought out, and they referenced Ronald Reagan, who everybody already hated as the governor of California.

"Get behind the people that you like politically and go out and volunteer. Do something. Work with the homeless, work with the disenfranchised. And don't just complain about things, get involved. You can change the world."

Santana said in a recent interview about Woodstock, "The people wanted the same things we want today." That really stuck with me because it's true; women and people of color are still not treated equally and we're still fighting wars abroad. So, what message do you have for young people today who are unhappy with the current state of affairs? What are your takeaways from the Summer of '69 and how do you think they apply today?

Well, just like Joe Hill said, "Don't mourn, organize." All politics is local, it all starts on a local level. If you're outraged at what's going on today, get involved, go door to door, take names. It's what I did this past year, in 2018, for a local woman who had never run for anything. I mean, she lost, but she made a point. Get behind the people that you like politically and go out and volunteer. Do something. Work with the homeless, work with the disenfranchised. And don't just complain about things, get involved. You can change the world.

That was the whole thing about the '60s. We really thought we were going to change the world. Well, guess what? We didn't, but that feeling, it's a feeling of camaraderie with your fellow hippie back at the time. Find like-minded people and get together and organize and fight to change what's going on today. It's almost worse now than it was in '69. I hate to say that.

I think, like you said, everyone at Woodstock knew the world was looking and that it was important to show what peace and love really meant.

Exactly. We proved it at Woodstock.

It speaks to the power of people speaking up and using the platforms of music, of festivals, of peaceful organized groups to show that love is indeed stronger.

Well, I thought when I was 16, when The Beatles sang "All You Need Is Love," I actually believed that. Of course it was naïve, you need a hell of a lot more than love. But it's a good starting point.

What do you believe, in the couple of months and years following Woodstock, were the biggest after-effects? What happened when you all came home?

The iconic nature of the festival really didn't manifest itself until much later. The movie came out in 1970, which was a year later, and all of the sudden people started getting interested in Woodstock again. It was a wonderful movie, it revolutionized cinema with the split screen effects and so forth. It hadn't been done at that time. After the movie came out, there was a rush of Woodstock appreciation. But then, in the mid- to late-'70s, when punk rock took hold and rock stars became passé, Woodstock became almost trivialized. It almost wasn't appreciated for what it was. I don't know when the tide turned again, but now it is really looked upon as something special. There's the great Woodstock museum up at Bethel Woods, which is on the site of the actual festival, where I'll be for three days, starting August 15.

This is the last gasp of Woodstock, man. It's not going to have this much attention for the 51st, the 52nd; the 50th, this is it. This is our Woodstock swan song. But people should remember that for four days, the peace and love generation proved its point with no police and a half a million people in horrible conditions. No violence, that's the important thing.

I didn't know that before I read your book. I feel like it's not something that always gets highlighted about the event.

Well, there was a lot of things in the book that people are telling me that they read for the first time. I was edited a little bit, I was censored a little bit, probably rightfully so. That said, this is not a book for the whole family. The drugs were prevalent, sure, but my editor took out so many references and I said, "Why are you taking out drugs? This is sex, drugs and rock and roll." He goes, "Yeah, but on every page?" It was just a different time, be it sex, be it drugs.

There's a lot of written material about Woodstock out there. Why should people read your book?

Because I was there. I don't know how many books are coming out about Woodstock this summer, there's going to be a ton of them. But how many authors did the brown acid and can give you a firsthand [account]? I did, as I say, 32 interviews, read nine books, plus my own experiences. It's a tapestry, it's a mosaic of all those different perspectives. 

Why Can't Anyone Get Woodstock Right? 15 Of The Original Fest's Performers Weigh In

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards