The microphone knoked out about halfway through the speech by Mrs. Peter Greenough, but being an opera singer by trade (better known as Beverly Sills), she managed to project to the back of the Washington Hilton's ballroom.
Sills was the guest of honor last night at the 11th annual Cultural Awards Dinner of the Recording Industry Association of America, sharing the spotlight with the recently formed Black Music Association and, by extension, with all the black artists who have given American music its special life and flavor.
Honored not only for her voice but for her efforts to advance the careers of young singers, Sills received a standing ovation before her talk and (despite mike failure) another one afterward. "Next year, if we have a cosponsor. I'm going to try to get the Microphone Manufacturers Association," quipped RIAA President Stanley Gortikov.
Expressing her gratitude to the recording industry, Sills said that, "An artist or a sculptor gets to leave his painting or sculpture behind him, an author gets to leave his book behind him, but when a singer sings a beautiful high note it fades away in the air of the opera house and that is the end of it. Thanks to the recording industry, I am able to leave my voice behind me."
She also was happy about the changing climate for opera in America. "It used to be that if you wanted to hear opera, you'd go to Italy; if you wanted to hear Mozart, you'd go to Vienna, and if the name was unpronounceable, it meant that the singer was probably good. That's all changing now, and a lot of us with very pronounceable names are giving the Europeans a run for their money."
A bit over 1,000 guests attended the dinner -- many bringing their children to pass the time at a special disco for teen-agers which was set up by the RIAA across the lobby from the ballroom and which presented the only recorded music actually heard during the evening.
Expenses for the evening (including a dinner, buffet and open bar which must have cost approximately $25 per guest) were paid by the RIAA, but the entertainers, guitarist-singer George Benson and soul duet Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., gave their services free for this discerning and influential audience.
Besides including virtually every important recording executive in America, the audience had a fair turn-out of White House staff, members of Congress and officials of federal agencies particularly the Postal Rates Commission and the Copyright Office, with which the record industry deals regularly.
Notable among the White House personalities was Chip Carter, looking a bit more relaxed than he usually does at White House functions and mining freely with the guests. He said it was his third RIAA dinner and that he had "many friends in the industry." Asked if he had a date (he is separated from his wife, Caron), he replied "No, ma'am. I usually don't do that.
"The Washington Post would give me hell about it," he added, laughing. "It would just end up being an unpleasant experience."
One of the performing artists at the dinner (who were outnumbered by executives but still numerous) was Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, wearing a striking white-sequined jacket and long skirt slit up the side. She spoke passionately about the music industry: "There are a lot of things we have to make Washington aware of -- for example, record piracy; that's an enormous problem. The concept of ripping off this nameless thing called 'the company' is immoral. That's gotta be changed. And to steal from the artist -- it is stealing -- is so wrong. And usually it's because someone admires the artist."
She said the RIAA dinner was "basically a political function, to have some contact with Congress -- show that we're a respectable industry and that we need protection."
Asked if she would like to testify on this subject, she said, "Oh, I would," laughing and peeking out under the long, straight blonde bangs that hang down to her eyes. "I just volunteered to someone today to do that."
She said that she had left her "beau," as she called Richard Ben-Veniste, the Washington lawyer who worked for the Watergate prosecution, at his home. "I'll see him later," she said.
Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), who received the Cultural Award in 1974, was seated at a table with Sills. "For members of Congress," he said, "this is one of the two or three most popular dinners of the year. They like to meet the performers and the people in the industry -- and there's always great entertainment.And they have a buffet for youngsters -- that's a gas. I know that Congressman (Jack) Brooks and Pat Schroeder are both here and they have kids at the buffet."
Offspring (specifically his two tennaged daughters) were also on the mind of Charles Farris, head of the Federal Communications Commission: "My two daughters determine whether or not I go to this. They look at the entertainment list and if it's beyond Perry Como they decide I should come and take them along."
But mostly, the theme of the evening was having a good time, an attitude summed up by Jerry Wexler, formerly an owner of Atlantic Records. "The government people get really knocked out with this," he said. "It's an up night for them."
Earlier, at a White House reception for RIAA members, President Jimmy Carter welcomed them as "people with whom I spend 10 hours every day," referring to the recorded music that is piped into the Oval Office while he is working there.
In a brief welcoming address, Carter described the work of the American recording industry as "dynamic, stimulating, pleasant -- and profitable." He paused after the final word to allow time for a long laugh from the audience.
Then he added: "I just wanted to see which of those adjectives would appeal to you the most."
"Profitable is the word," Ken Fritz, George Benson's manager, said later. "The industry made $3.5 billion last year. Did you know that the sound-track recording of 'Saturday Night Fever' grossed four times as much as the film?" Some industry insiders at the dinner were predicting a gross of 4.5 billion to $5 billion by next year.
At the White House and later at the RIAA dinner, President Kenneth Gamble of the Black Music Association said that the welcome being given his organization is a sign of "long overdue" recognition for black American musicians.
He added that there is a need for continuing "cohesiveness, so that black music and black musicians will receive what they need."