A Brief History of the Grammys

As we approach the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards this weekend, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the history of the Grammys.

Who Started the Grammys?

The first Grammy Awards weren’t until 1959. Despite the influence and importance of music for centuries, the Grammys were the last of the “Big Four” awards to get started. The first Oscar Awards took place in 1929; the Tony Awards in 1947; and the Emmy Awards in 1949.

The history of the Grammy Awards starts with The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Famed pianist and Columbia Records executive Paul Weston was among five music industry hotshots tasked with choosing who to immortalize with stars. The quintet decided to set the bar at one million records sold, but soon realized that that standard would disqualify many incredibly influential artists. Though movie and TV stars could be recognized with Oscars and Emmys, no such award existed for those in the music industry. Weston decided that this just wasn’t right, and so the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was born.

The Grammy Awards weren’t always going to be called as such, either. One possible name was “The Eddies” after Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph. As we know from the name, the Recording Academy eventually decided on giving out “Grammy Awards,” thusly named because of the Gramophone on the awards themselves.

The Early Years

The first couple of Grammy Awards took place in two (or three, or four) locations each year – New York, Los Angeles, and sometimes Chicago and/or Nashville. These early Grammy Award ceremonies didn’t look much like the ones we have today. Many ceremonies took place in hotels. They weren’t televised live, nor did they have an official host.

In addition to Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year, the first Grammy Awards included recognitions for the “Best” in the genres of Pop, R&B, Jazz, Spoken Word, Country, Pop, and Children’s music. Additionally, there were the awards for Composition, Arrangement, Production/Engineering, and Best Album Cover. These first Grammys had 22 categories, a number which rapidly expanded as the Academy added additional genres and divisions. Best New Artist was added in the second year.

The most notable Grammy winners from these early years that won multiple awards include Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles.

The 70s – The Grammys Live (on TV) From Hollywood

The 13th Grammys were the first to be televised live! Previous award ceremonies had been covered on radio, or had been recorded to air on TV at a later time, but the ceremony in 1971 was the first to be ‘live from Hollywood.’ Since it was the first televised ceremony to be held in a single location, it was also the first to have a formal host, Andy Williams.

As far as performances, each of the five nominees for Song of the Year got their time in the spotlight. The Osmond Brothers performed Ray Stevens’ “Everything is Beautiful.” Dionne Warwick took on the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” Anne Murray sang James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” The Carpenters performed their own song “We’ve Only Just Begun.” And the winning song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel was performed by Aretha Franklin.

ABC broadcasted the 13th and 14th Grammy Awards, but for the 15th ceremony, the production moved to CBS where it remains today. Andy Williams, who hosted the Grammys in 1971, continued to host until John Denver took over for the 20th Grammy Awards in 1978.

Throughout the 70s, The Academy continued to add numerous genre categories including Latin and Gospel, as well as additional awards in other genre categories.

Big winners in the 70s include Stevie Wonder, Georg Solti, Paul Simon, and Vladimir Horowitz.

The 80s – The Rise of Rock

Though musicians had been rocking and rolling in one form or another for decades, The Academy didn’t have a rock category until the 22nd Grammy Awards in 1980. Winners in this new category included Donna Summer, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, and Paul McCartney.

As we learned in our Black History Month series, 1980 was the first and only year where the Academy had a Disco category. Gloria Gaynor took home the sole award for “Best Disco Recording” for her hit song “I Will Survive.”

In 1981, Christopher Cross became the first artist to take home “the big four” at the Grammys. His self-titled debut won him Song, Record, and Album of the Year, and Best New Artist.

The Grammys saw multiple hosts throughout the decade including Kenny Rogers and John Denver who both hosted multiple years, as well as numerous other hosts who only served one year. Interestingly, some artists such as Quincy Jones, won multiple Grammys in the same year they hosted!

In 1989, The Recording Academy introduced Rap awards. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince won Best Rap Recording for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Of course, neither winner was there, nor were many other rappers. Many of the top performers in the genre boycotted the event after learning that the category’s award wouldn’t be broadcast.

The Recording Academy introduced quite a few new categories in the 1980s, including New Age, Reggae, Polka, and Blues.

The 90s – Scandal and Milestones

The 1990s kicked off with a Grammy-related scandal. R&B duo Milli Vanilli won Best New Artist, but soon lost the award when it became apparent that they didn’t actually sing on their album, and had been lip-syncing at all their performances. After being found out, the duo had planned to give the award to the vocalists who actually performed on the record. However, the Academy decided to strip them of the award, the only time in history that has happened.

The most watched awards of the 90s was the 1993 awards. Performers included The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arrested Development, Travis Tritt, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Celine Dion. The Academy awarded Michael Jackson the Grammy Legend Award, and Eric Clapton won 6 Grammy Awards for his album Unplugged.

The 1999 Grammy Awards were a banner year for women. Every artist nominated for Album of the Year was a woman. Lauryn Hill ultimately brought home the award, marking the first time a hip hop artist won the award.

2000s and 2010s – Permanent Home and Category Restructuring

For the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards in 2000, the ceremony moved to its permanent home at The Staples Center. Santana won 8 awards that night, tying Michael Jackson’s record for most awards in one night.

The Academy continued to expand the number of awards throughout the 2000s. Additions included numerous Latin and American Roots subgenres, and two World Music awards. 2009 was the last year that Best Polka Album was awarded.

In the 2010s, the Grammys majorly restructured the Awards. The number of award categories had ballooned to over 100. As part of the restructuring, the Academy combined or discontinued numerous categories, reducing the number of categories down to 78.

2021 Grammy Awards

Though the Awards are usually held in January, this year’s awards will take place this Sunday, March 14 starting at 8 pm ET/ 5 PT. Trevor Noah will be hosting. Music fans can watch the show on CBS or on Paramount+.

For more information, visit the Grammy’s website.

View all the 2021 Grammy nominees.

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