The best thing about the Recording Academy’s Special Merit Awards, where they dispense Lifetime Achievement Awards and other career-capping honors, is the warm way the recipients reach across genres and generations to acknowledge each other. And so it was when the 2024 honors were presented on Saturday (Feb. 3) at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles.
Hip-hop innovator DJ Kool Herc, who received a Trustees Award, spied fellow honoree Gladys Knight in the front row and said of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” her 1973 classic with the Pips – “now, that’s flow.”
“We knew when we started to do music in 1985/1986 that a Grammy was not in the cards for the type of music we were doing, and we were cool with that. We can’t sing like Gladys or hold a note like The Clark Sisters. We wanted to make sense of the world around us, Long Beach, Compton, Watts.”
He noted that when N.W.A started out they had their lane all to themselves. “We didn’t think the whole world would be doing it. We thought it was ours. What it showed was when you do your thing, the world will come to you and you don’t have to go to the world.”
N.W.A is the fifth rap group to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in the past eight years, following Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and Salt-N-Pepa. (In addition, Slick Rick, who rose to prominence in Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew, was honored on his own last year.)
In welcoming the audience to the Special Merit Awards, Ruby Marchand, the Academy’s chief awards and industry officer, said “This ceremony is a highlight of Grammy Week, so heartfelt.” That’s the right word for it. Especially since the Grammy Awards scaled up to arenas in 1997 when they were held at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the first time, the Special Merit Awards are seen as the warmer, more intimate show, with good feelings all around. Perhaps that’s because it’s not a competition and because these acknowledgements usually come late in the honorees’ careers, when they are in a reflective mood.
Four of the honors were presented posthumously – Lifetime Achievement Awards to Donna Summer, Tammy Wynette, Eazy-E of N.W.A and a Technical Grammy Award to sound engineer Tom Kobayashi. In addition, attorney Joel Katz, who received a Trustees Award, “[is] addressing his health concerns,” in the words of fellow attorney Jason M. Karlov, who accepted for him.
Dr. Dre, being honored as a member of N.W.A sent a text message, read by Harvey Mason, jr. CEO of the Recording Academy, in which he explained that the ceremony fell on his daughter’s birthday and he put family first, but nonetheless said “I’m honored to receive this award with my N.W.A brothers.”
Two well-chosen guest artists introduced segments. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who had a No. 1 smash on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1996 with “Tha Crossroads,” a tribute to Eazy-E, presented the award to N.W.A. The members said that N.W.A “changed music, culture and America forever.” And Shelby Lynne presented the award to one of her idols, Wynette. Lynne also sang a good bit of Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” which she correctly called “a country classic for the ages.”
Wynette’s award was accepted by Tamala Jones, her daughter by George Jones. The daughter credited the Showtime miniseries George & Tammy for being a factor that may have helped Wynette, who died in 1998, finally receive this award. George Jones received the honor in 2012.
Bruce Sudano, who was married to Summer for more than 30 years, accepted Summer’s Lifetime Achievement Award, along with their daughters Mimi, Brooklyn and Amanda. He said the phone call in which he was notified of the honor stirred “feelings I didn’t anticipate. My body filled with pure joy, connected to a tear in my eye. It’s gratifying for us that, more than 10 years after her passing, her voice and music are still omnipresent in the zeitgeist.”
He credited Universal Music Group and Warner Chappell, among others, for coming up with creative ways to keep her music alive. “I’m grateful that she continues to inspire young fans, [whether newcomers or] beautiful Beyoncé and her Summer Renaissance.”
The Summer segment ended when her daughter Mimi sang a few ethereal lines from Summer’s 1977 dance/electronica classic “I Feel Love.”
Summer was the first female artist to win Grammy Awards in four different genres: R&B (“Last Dance”), rock (“Hot Stuff”), inspirational (“He’s a Rebel” and “Forgive Me”) and dance (“Carry On”).
Knight spoke emotionally about family in accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award. She noted that her mother would never allow her to sing “easy.” It had to come from a deeper place. All credit, then, to Gladys Knight’s mother for encouraging her daughter to find the perfect blend of “pain and glory” that has always been her trademark.
In 1974, Gladys Knight & the Pips became the first group to win Grammys in both pop and R&B categories the same night.
Laurie Anderson accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award with an eloquent speech. “I make music that doesn’t have a snappy name,” she said. “‘Multi-media’ is the one I dislike the least. ‘Experimental’ sounds like I’m making things in a laboratory that might explode.”
She also related three rules to live by that she and her late husband, Lou Reed, came up with.
“1) Don’t be afraid of anyone. 2) Get a really good bullshit detector. 3) Be really tender.”
Anderson could win a competitive Grammy on Sunday, one day after accepting this honorary one. She is nominated for best historical album for Words & Music, May 1965 (Deluxe Edition). Anderson is one of two of this year’s Special Merit Awardees who are current Grammy nominees. Karen Clark-Sheard of The Clark Sisters is nominated for best gospel performance/song for “God Is Good.”
Peter Asher, who received a Trustees Award, had scanned the list of previous recipients of that award, and said he found it “intimidating.” Citing in particular The Beatles, Mo Ostin, Ahmet Ertegun, Sir George Martin, Lou Adler, Carole King and Clive Davis, he said “the phrase ‘We are not worthy’ comes to mind when I get this award.”
In a video setting up the presentation, the Grammys reached back to a clip from the 1990 telecast where Asher won producer of the year, non-classical for the second time. “I would like to thank the artists I worked with,” he said. “They could very easily have made the records without me, but I certainly couldn’t have made them without them.”
There were moments of humor in the proceedings. Sound engineer Tom Scott, who received a Technical Grammy Award in tandem with his late partner Tom Kobayashi, had to sheepishly admit that even he sometimes has technical issues. “I had this [acceptance speech] on my cell phone, but it’s on a little red zone that says it has 5% power, so I had to fall back on analog,” he said, as he pulled out a printed copy of his remarks to read.
Jason M. Karlov, an attorney at Katz’s law firm, Barnes + Thornburg, said this in accepting Katz’s Trustees Award, which are generally given to non-performers. “I’ve heard Trustees Awards are not for performances but if you’ve ever known Joel, it’s a performance.”
Karlov also said that Katz feels that “his most prideful work is his 41 years of service on behalf of the Academy.” As an outside general counsel for the Recording Academy, Katz is credited with leading the negotiations for the Grammys’ 10-year, $500 million deal with CBS in 2016. (The Academy has rewarded a handful of Grammy insiders with Trustees Awards over the years, including Christine Farnon, the Academy’s first full-time employee; Pierre Cossette, who was instrumental in turning the Grammys into a live telecast; Walter C. Miller, the show’s longtime director; and Ken Ehrlich, who produced or executive produced the telecast for 40 years.)
K’naan’s “Refugee” was the Best Song for Social Change Award Honoree.This award, now in its second year, honors songwriter(s) of message-driven music that speaks to the social issues of our time and has demonstrated and inspired positive global impact.
“Refugee,” which K’naan co-wrote with Steve McEwan and Gerald Eaton, serves as a tribute to refugees around the world. K’naan, 45, was nominated in a comparable category, best video with a message, at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards for “Is Anybody Out There?,” a collaboration with Nelly Furtado.
Annie Ray of Annandale High School in Annandale, Virginia, received the 2024 Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and Grammy Museum. Ray serves as both the orchestra director and performing arts department chair at Annandale High School in the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system. “Orchestra is much more than just a class – it’s a second family,” Ray said.
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