Running With the Big Dogs – The Grammys

February 14, 2011 by billharley

Re-printed from Bill Harleys’ Song, Story And Culture

As some of you who read this blog know, I was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Recording for Children category.

And if you know that, you may know that Julie Andrews won in that category for her reading of a book of poems she wrote with her daughter. Spoken word is an odd category – it’s mostly people reading books – as before, I was the only storyteller in the category, who works by and large without written text – so it’s a little apples and oranges. We need to work to get more spoken word artists into the category. I’ll think about that.

And then, well, the winner of a category often wins not because of a particular recording, but often because of their body of work. This is a little unfair for someone who has a truly great recording, but it’s the way it is. This year, for instance, I think Justin Roberts richly deserved the Grammy award in children’s music – Jungle Gym is a wonderful recording. But Pete Seeger (one of my biggest influences) was in his category. If you didn’t know the recordings and looked at the lineup, who would you vote for?

But, like they say, getting nominated is already being a winner, and there are a lot of other things that go into determining who wins other than artistic merit of the recording. That said, winning is more fun – I love Julie Andrews, but I would have liked the award.

I digress. I went this year, knowing my chances were pretty slim. I was disappointed when they didn’t call my name. But getting to go, I met some pretty interesting people. The night before, I got to sit and watch Julie Andrews get a lifetime achievement award. She was gracious and eloquent, and I felt a nail in the coffin as far as winning goes. The Ramones that were left and their various family members were still rebellious, and that was heartening. I had a nice talk with Roger Linn, another honoree, who revolutionized the music industry with his drum machines of the late seventies and early eighties, and is still creating stuff. He explained some of the projects to me, and I really wasn’t sure what he was saying, but it sounded cool.

At the nominees’ reception the night before the awards, I ended up in line with a Nashville writer (you can tell by the hat) there for the first time. I gave him the rundown of what would happen in the various lines, having been there before, and we had a great time. Halfway through the line, I learned he was Allen Shamblin, up for best song of the year for “The House That Built Me”, and also writer of “Don’t Laugh at Me” – a great song on bullying that I have sung, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – sung by Bonnie Raitt – which I think is just about a perfect song. We were pals before I realized who he was, or otherwise I would have been a little tongue-tied.
Later that night, I ended up in a conversation with someone else in a line. I had voted for Gregory Porter in best jazz vocals because I loved his music – didn’t know anything about him or what he looked like. There he was. We took pictures and traded e-mails. He’ll be more famous than he is now – he can really sing.

And finally, after I lost to Julie (no, didn’t meet her) I sat in the Staples Center to watch the show next to a very elegant couple, and shortly found out I was sitting next to Albert Bell, the head of Stax records during the sixties. Present at the creation with Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs. Then, I was tongue-tied. I finally said, “You were the soundtrack for my growing up.”

He said, “Glad to hear you have a little bit of soul in you.”

I responded, “Some folks are even whiter than me.”

So – tell me who the winner is here.

A lot about the Grammys is ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. It’s inevitable that there is a grasping for attention in the entertainment business. The posturing and preening is stunning, as is the sycophant aspect. If you’re famous, people want to be around you for very weird reasons. (Not that such a thing happened to me for Spoken Word for Children – kids just shake hands with me and give me their cold viruses)

But watching Mavis Staples break down into tears when she learned she had won her first Grammy, you knew that there was something else going on other than fame, fortune and glitz.

Just lucky to be there. And glad to head home.

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