Recording Academy Presents Special Merit Awards To Legends
If the typical awards luncheon may sometimes be a rather dry and perfunctory affair, then the GRAMMYs' annual Special Merit Awards - staged for the first time as its own unique event - was in no way typical. The event, held Saturday afternoon in the Crystal Ballroom of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, was an afternoon of heartfelt celebration, powerful musical memories and overwhelming emotion.
The roster of talent being honored, many of whom were in attendance, just about guaranteed that the gathering would be something special. GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented to Eddy Arnold, Art Blakey, the Carter Family, Morton Gould, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton, Pinetop Perkins and the Staple Singers. Trustees Awards, for individuals who have made significant contributions to music in fields other than performance, were bestowed upon Hoagy Carmichael, Don Cornelius, Alfred Lion and Dr. Billy Taylor. And Technical GRAMMY Awards, for contributions of excellence in recording, were given to JBL Professional and record producer (and longtime GRAMMY telecast sound consultant) Phil Ramone.
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow and Chairman of the Board Dan Carlin took turns introducing video tribute pieces that concisely and engagingly recapped each honorees' career. For the Trustees Awards, Hoagy Carmichael was honored for his remarkable work as a songwriter (his tunes have been covered by artists ranging from Ray Charles to Ringo Starr to Louis Armstrong). The award was accepted graciously by his son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael. Ruth Lion, widow of Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion, accepted an award on her late husband's behalf, and Dr. Billy Taylor accepted his award for his passionate dedication to music education, and his unofficial role as 'ambassador of jazz.'
The emotions of the day became evident when "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius took to the stage for his award. The man famous for his smooth basso voice and unflappable demeanor became so choked with emotion that for a long moment he could not speak. The audience took the opportunity to fill that silence with a warm, standing ovation.
"I'm known as an award-dodger," Cornelius finally continued. "And now you can see why. But when I hinted to my family that I might dodge this ceremony, my wife, who speaks three languages, told me very clearly in one of them, 'Don't be stupid.'"
From then on, dry eyes were hard to come by. Nine-time GRAMMY winner Phil Ramone was clearly moved as he spoke of the career encouragement he received from his mother and father. Carter Family descendant Janette Carter delivered a teary thank you on behalf of her family, before offering all in attendance an open invitation to visit the Carter stronghold of Maces Springs, Va. Abbie Burton delivered a funny and touching remembrance of her father, composer Morton Gould, that included reading a satirical 'work diary' Gould had written ("Day 12: moderately suicidal; Day 15: tentatively optimistic").
Janis Joplin's award was accepted by her brother and sister, while cosmopolitan cowboy Eddy Arnold made his presence felt through a videotaped thank you. The 91-year-old, remarkably sprightly piano man Pinetop Perkins was on hand to accept his award in person, having come to the event with a friend and fellow legend, Ike Turner. "I ain't much of a talker - I'm more of a squawker," said Perkins. "And I don't want to talk much now so - I love you all, and thank you." A clearly delighted Jerry Lee Lewis followed Perkins to the stage, and was equally direct: "May God bless each and every one of you, and thank you."
Up until Mavis Staples got up to accept the Staple family's award, the only musical performances in the room had come by way of videos. But Staples was moved enough as she talked about the early days of her family group that she broke out into song, treating the roaring crowd to some impromptu gospel swoops.
The final award of the day went to Led Zeppelin. The rock group's imprint and influence on popular music is indisputable, and it says something about the value of the Lifetime Achievement awards that two members of the band, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, were there to receive it (Robert Plant sent his thanks by way of a video that caught him mid-rehearsal, preparing for an upcoming solo tour and new album).
Bassist and keyboardist Jones spoke first and graciously thanked Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, Atlantic Records' esteemed founder Ahmet Ertegun and "...the other half of our rhythm section, John Bonham." The late Bonham's son Jason and daughter Zoe spoke of deeply missing their father, but of being proud of his thriving legacy. As Jason put it, "Fans still speak of Led Zeppelin in the present - never in the past."
Jimmy Page, looking exceptionally dapper in jacket and tie, was last up at the podium, and his thanks summed up the feelings of all who were present for this day's extraordinary proceedings, "It's a feeling beyond words just to be among this illustrious company."