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The Grammy Awards

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Sir Georg Solti, who holds the record for the most career Grammy Awards.

The Grammy Awards are generally held to be the most prestigious awards in music. They were established in 1958 and are held annually in February in the United States. The winners are decided by the 20,000 members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS, sometimes also called the Recording Academy), which includes artists, producers, engineers and other industry professionals.


Unlike many music awards, the Grammy Awards have categories for a vast variety of music, from popular genres such as pop and rock to less mainstream styles like gospel and polka. They even have categories for comedy albums, spoken word albums1 and music for children. There are categories recognising soundtracks and scores to tv and musicals, classical, opera and choral music. Some of the genres covered must appeal to very small fanbases only – Best Hawaiian Music Album, anyone? How about Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album? No?

Awards are not limited to the actual contents of the cds. There are awards for best music videos and there are categories celebrating the design of the album sleeve and - this is not a joke - an award for Best Album Notes. The awards cover pretty much every conceivable angle, even those you would never imagine needed covering. The 2009 awards had a total of 110 different categories.

Many genres - or 'fields' - have multiple categories. For example, the pop awards are currently split into seven individual categories:

  • Best Female Pop Vocal Performance
  • Best Male Pop Vocal Performance
  • Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals2
  • Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals3
  • Best Pop Instrumental Performance
  • Best Pop Instrumental Album
  • Best Pop Vocal Album.

Most other genres, thankfully, do not have that many divisions. As a rule, there are five nominees in each category. Sometimes there are one or two greater or fewer than five; this is down to ties in the nominations.

The most prestigious categories are Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. These categories can include nominations from any genre, though in practice it is rare for something that is not mainstream (such as pop or rock) to win. Herbie Hancock's Album of the Year win in 2008 with his jazz album of Joni Mitchell covers, River: The Joni Letters is an exception to the rule.

You might think that Record of the Year and Song of the Year sound like they recognise the same thing – both refer to individual songs. However, Record of the Year is an award for the artist, producer and engineer, while Song of the Year goes to the songwriters.

A further pan-genre category is the Best New Artist award. This can, ironically, go to an artist who is not really 'new' at all. It is not especially uncommon for the winner of this award to have already released several albums, because the criteria is that they have released 'the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist'. Amy Winehouse, for example, had some success in the UK with her first album Frank but won this category after the enormous worldwide success of her second album Back to Black.

History of the Grammy Awards

The Awards are handed out by an American group4 called the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). This was formed by a group of record label executives who met in 1957 at a restaurant in Hollywood. Early members in the Los Angeles area included Doris Day, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney. In 1959, a New York City chapter was added to the Los Angeles group and the Recording Academy held a nationwide competition to name the new awards they planned to give out. The name 'Grammy' was suggested by quite a few people, but the winner was a Jay Danna from New Orleans, whose suggestion was the first to be received. It originates from the word 'gramophone'.

The first awards ceremonies were held the same year, simultaneously in the Beverly Hilton hotel in LA and the Park Sheraton hotel in New York. Recordings were eligible if they had been released the previous year. This first ceremony had only 28 categories, compared to more than a hundred today.

Later in 1959 a second ceremony was held, again in LA and New York, for recordings from the beginning of January to the end of August that year. The number of categories increased to 34, including the addition of Best New Artist, won by Bobby Darin.

The following year NARAS added a group of Chicago members and in 1964 a Nashville chapter was added. The Academy was growing and continued to do so.

In 1971 the Grammys were broadcast live for the first time. 1988 saw the arrival of the rap categories, with Best Rap Performance won by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince5 for 'Parents Just Don't Understand'.

1997 saw the launch of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, an off-shoot of NARAS. The Latin group now holds the Latin Grammys, with their first awards show taking place in 2000.

The Nomination And Voting Process

Before a Grammy can be awarded there is a long procedure to go through:

  • Record companies and members of the Academy nominate entries released during the eligibility year.
  • Experts meet to check that the entries have been nominated to the correct category and that they are, in fact, eligible.
  • Ballots are sent out to Academy members. After these are counted, the five nominees are known and announced.
  • Members vote again, this time to pick a winner rather than whittling down the field to the nominees.
  • The names of winners are announced during the live show.

What Does A Grammy Award Look Like?

As you might guess, the Grammy statuettes are based on the design of a gramophone. Each award is a black plinth topped with a golden gramophone. The design was by Marvin Schwartz, the art director of Capitol Records and was finished in 1958. The design itself was based on a mixture of three different brands of gramophones.

Interesting Facts and Memorable Moments

  • Only non-English song to win Record of the Year –  Domenico Modugno for 'Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)' was at the very first Grammy awards in 1959.

  • Best Disco Song became a category in 1980 –  Gloria Gaynor won for 'I Will Survive'. However, the falling popularity of the genre meant the category was axed and thus, Gaynor is the only artist to have won a Disco Grammy.

  • The only time all four general categories have been won by the same band or artist in the same year was also in 1980, when Christopher Cross6 swept the board.

  • The record for the most career Grammy awards to one person or group is held by the conductor Sir Georg Solti, who won an incredible 31. Second is producer Quincy Jones with 27. That takes a lot of shelf-space. In 1984, Michael Jackson won a record 8 Grammys in one night for his Thriller album.

  • A moment of immense embarrassment to NARAS was when in 1989 they awarded the Best New Artist Grammy to Milli Vanilli7 only to discover that they were complete frauds. The men 'performed' the songs live - they did mime the words the whole time but that is not all that unusual for pop acts - but the recordings of the songs weren't actually their voices. Their Grammy was revoked and the episode is frequently invoked by those who claim that the Grammy voters often get things wrong.

  • Those people have plenty of ammunition for their claims, as there have been some truly head-scratching winners. In 1966, now-classic songs 'Eleanor Rigby' by The Beatles, 'Monday Monday' by the Mamas and the Papas, and 'Good Vibrations' by The Beach Boys all lost to The New Vaudeville Band's 'Winchester Cathedral'. Prog-rock band Jethro Tull won Best Hard Rock / Metal Perfomance over Metallica in 1988, despite the obstacle of being neither hard rock nor metal. Their lead singer played a flute. The only way it could have been less hard rock would be if he played a piccolo. Their record label tried to make a joke out of it by putting an advert in Billboard magazine that read 'The flute is a heavy, metal instrument.' When Metallica finally did win a Grammy two years later, they thanked Jethro Tull for not releasing an album that year.

1Such as audiobooks – Barack Obama won Best Spoken Word Album for the recording of his book The Audacity of Hope.2The category names, you will notice, are not especially pithy.3This is different from the former category in that the Duo or Group category refers to people who usually perform together, while the latter refers to people who do not.4Though awards can go to anyone, regardless of nationality.5Better known as Oscar-winning actor Will Smith.6Who?7Over such acts as the Indigo Girls and Neneh Cherry.

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