No sense griping about the Grammys
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 5, 2004) – With no clear favorite going into Sunday night’s Grammy Award ceremony – which will be broadcast on CBS-TV at 8 – and no single nominee dominating the major categories in the way Norah Jones did so memorably just a year ago, this year’s biggest awards are up for grabs. Nods for record, album and song of the year will probably be split among a crowded field of contenders, including pop, rap, rock and R&B artists such as Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Eminem, Outkast, Missy Elliott, Christina Aguilera, Luther Vandross, Avril Lavigne, Evanescence and Coldplay.

With a few exceptions, it’s not a particularly distinguished group, and if any theme emerges from this year’s ceremony it may be that mediocrity reigns. But just below the surface, there are some interesting artists who have received recognition in the nominating process, some of whom might even walk away with trophies. There are also some intriguing performances lined up for the ceremony, and Sunday night’s broadcast might in the end prove more alluring than any of the major award winners themselves.

Among those expected to perform are rap artist 50 Cent, Aguilera, Beyonce, the Black Eyed Peas, Martina McBride, Prince, and Timberlake. With five nominations between them, best new artist nominee Sean Paul will team with 15-time Grammy winner Sting for a duet. Rap/r&b group Outkast, tied for the lead with six nominations along with Beyonce, Jay-Z, and the Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, will join with an all-star cast including George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic, Earth Wind and Fire, and Robert Randolph and the Family Band, in what is being billed as a tribute to “old school” soul and funk music. An all-star quartet consisting of Sting, Dave Matthews, Williams and Vince Gill will also pay tribute to the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Also set to perform is the rock duo White Stripes. With four nominations, including best album, the group is a critical favorite in a year when rock music is all but overlooked in all of the major award categories. One of the only other rock groups slated to appear are three-time Grammy winners the Foo Fighters, who will perform in an unprecedented collaboration with jazz pianist Chick Corea, who has three nominations in this year’s contest.

The Grammys are voted on by members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), and as such are considered the most prestigious of the many music award shows. Bestowed by artists, songwriters, producers and engineers upon their peers, the Grammys also can periodically succumb to sentimentality, and this year’s awards have no surfeit of sentiment.

Last April, soul singer Luther Vandross suffered what has been described as a “severe” and “debilitating” stroke. So even if he deserves them, perhaps it’s no surprise that Vandross goes into Sunday night’s awards with five nominations, including best song for the title track to his recent album, “Dance With My Father,” which he co-wrote with Richard Marx. Vandross will be the subject of a special tribute when Marx, Celine Dion and Alicia Keys perform a medley of his greatest hits. Look for Vandross, who is reportedly still too ill to attend the awards ceremony, to garner a handful of awards.

Vandross isn’t the only beneficiary of sentimentality this year. It took death to get Warren Zevon and George Harrison significantly recognized by Grammy voters. The arch, ironical Zevon, who died of lung cancer days after the release of his final album, “The Wind” -- which garnered him five nominations -- will undoubtedly be smiling from the great beyond when he sees himself get the star treatment in a tribute from Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles and longtime collaborator Jorge Calderon. But don’t look for him to win any awards, except perhaps for best contemporary folk album, even though. “The Wind” hardly qualifies as folk.

Harrison will probably lose his awards for best pop vocal performance and album to teen-pop sensation Justin Timberlake. Johnny and June Carter Cash certainly left behind a closet full of Grammys when they passed away last year, but that didn’t stop voters from rummaging through their latest CDs to find some way of commemorating them posthumously. They are honored for best country vocal collaboration for “Temptation,” and June Cash also is up for best female country vocal.

The late Rosemary Clooney never won a Grammy, but her “Last Concert” album is nominated for best traditional pop vocal album. Ironically, Clooney is up against Bette Midler for her tribute to Clooney, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” To her credit, Midler has said publicly she wants her nomination withdrawn.

There are also a few nominations of local note. In fine Grammy fashion, the pop-rock group Fountains of Wayne – comprised of Williams College alumni Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger -- vie for the best new artist award after performing together for eight years and releasing three major-label albums. Another Williams alumnus, writer Tom Piazza, is up for best album notes for “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey.”

Piazza also wrote the notes for “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” an album featuring versions of Dylan’s gospel songs performed by today’s leading gospel artists. With two nominations, including best traditional soul gospel album and best pop vocal collaboration for Dylan’s duet with Mavis Staples on “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” the album was the brainchild of Williamstown-born and –bred producer Jeffrey Gaskill, best-known locally as the promoter of the Burning Rose Concert Series at the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington in the mid- to late-1980s.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 6, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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