If the 23rd Annual Grammy Awards follow the pattern of years past, the winners announced on Wednesday night will be familiar names from the middle of the platinum road.
The national Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences conducted two secret polls to narrow the field to five entries in 60 categories. Again this year, the nominees reflect a conservative bias that has diminished the weight the awards carry within the very industry they serve. As one major-label publicist says, "You like to win, but nobody beats their brains out about it."
The ceremony will be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and the program to be broadcast live on CBS will include only the 12 major awards, those most likely to being out the big guns for acceptance speeches and credit-sharing. This year's nominees in the top three categories -- Record of the Year (best single), Album of the Year and Song of the Year (songwriters' award) -- are guaranteed audience pleasers.
Among the best bets are Frank Sinantra, Kenny Rogers and Barbra Streisand. Sinatra's best chance lies in Record of the Year, where his "Theme from New York" represents one of the few bright moments on his three-record album "Trilogy." The other competitors for best record are Rogers for his single "Lady," Bette Midler for "The Rose," newcomer Christopher Cross for the single "Sailing" and Striesand for the hit tune "Woman in Love" from her current album, "Guilty." Rogers is making award-winning a tired sport; since he'll probably take the Best Pop Vocal Performance (male) category, he's an unlikely winner in this one. Midler is a great entertainer, but a long shot here.
Streisand's best shot is at Album of the Year. Cross' chances here are slim; a debut hasn't won this award since Streisand herself did it in 1963. Pink Floyd's "The Wall" is simply too rock 'n' roll, and Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" doesn't match last year's award-winning effort "52nd Street." Streisand's "Guilty" has sold close to 8 million copes worldwide and she remains one of music's true superstars. And the fifth nominee, Sinatra's "Trilogy: Past, Present and Future," seems out of place here because the last two records don't serve him as well as the first.
Song of the Year is a little trickier. Streisand's "Woman in Love," written by Bee Gees Robin and Barry Gibb, is a great pop single. But by choosing Rogers' "Lady," the academy will honor a popular black songwriter and performer -- Lionel Richie Jr. of the Commodores. Irene Cara's "Fame" is catchy but not much else. "The Rose" is a dark horse; and Cross' "Sailing" even darker. "Woman in Love" should also garner Streisand the Best Pop Vocal Performer (female).
The fourth general category -- Best New Artist -- should go to Christopher Cross, though the Pretenders have an outside chance. The other contestants here are marginal: Cara rode "Fame" to a hit single, but has proven extremely limited in her subsequent appearnaces; Robbie Dupree's Doobie Brothers-clone hit "Steal Away" is weak; and the album by Amy Holland -- though benefiting from production by Mike McDonald and the backing of his fellow Doobies -- did not sell well and received limited airplay.
The music industry likes to tout the Grammy as the musical equivalent of the Oscar, but it doesn't have anywhere near the same clout. Because of its celebrity presenters (Paul Simon will host this year, with such high-profile helpers as Herb Albert, Andy Gibb, Rodney Dangerfield, Midler, Streisand, Harry Belafonte and others), the show has the second-highest ratings of any awards show on television.
Yet it does little to promote sales. Studies have shown a limited across-the-board increse in record-store activity for three or four days after the awards. But one company executive says "the promotional value is so small that it's not worth the expense of affixing a 'Grammy Winner' sticker to any of the albums."
Washington's Starland Vocal Band won two Grammy's in 1876 for their hit single "Afternoon Delight." "There was no noticeable result for us," Bill Danoff says. "It was a nice party, but it didn't translate into anything else."
In 1976, Linda Ronstadt was quoted backstage as saying "Competition is for race horses, not artists. It doesn't mean I'm the best, it just means I won." It's a sentiment shared by many artists, particularly those who are left out. Among the notable non-winners in the rock field: Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, The Band, The Who, Steely Dan, Elton John and Chuck Berry -- none of whom has won an award. Elvis Presley, who changed the face of the music industry, won three Grammys late in his carreer, but only for his "inspirational" and "gospel" performances.Same for Bob Dylan, who got his only Grammy after being born again.
"The awards are only as good as the nominees and winners," says publicist Paul Wasserman (Linda Ronstadt, Rolling Stones, James Taylor). "Every institution has its glorious choices . . . or glaring errors. I don't feel they're as prestigious as the Oscars in this business. As Mick Jagger said once, 'Wouldn't it be a bit superfluous at this stage in our career?'"
The Grammy's are chosen each year by the 5,000 members of NARAS -- producers, songwriters, technicians, recording artists -- for "outstanding artistic and technical achievements." In 1959, there were 28 categories; that number has gradually expanded. "First we increased the major classifications and now we've given them greater definition," says Christine Farnum of NARAS. There are changes with time: Disco, which finally made it as an official category last year, was unceremoniously dumped this year.
But no matter how the system is changed, critics complain about the Grammy's traditional middle-of-the-road emphasis. If the National Book Awards operated this way, Rosemary Rogers, Irving Wallace and Robert Ludlum would be contestant winners.
According to NARAS officials, Grammys are not awards for popularity or sales. They explain that although all academy members can vote in the four general categories (record, album and song of the year, as well as best new artist), they are limited to eight of the 13 specialized fields that award the other 56 prizes. Nominations for half of those awards come from the craft side of the business (arranging, engineering, producing, album packages and notes) which joins jazz and classical committees at special nominating meetings; their recommendations are added to the overall ballot on which all members vote.
The nominating process is fraught with a number of difficulties. One is confusion: Singles compete against albums, and solo artists are placed in the group category when their backup bands sing on the chorus.
Then there's the sheer bulk of the material. Chuck Suber, editor of the jazz magazine Downbeat, and a member of the jazzpanel, says that after having listened to over 100 albums in the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance (soloist) category, "Your ear starts to tune out after a while. And we tend to be of a certain age. We're prejudiced to a certain kind of mainstream jazz, which is why the Ella Fitzgeralds and Dizzy Gillespies rise to the top."
Through Billboard magazine, members of NARAS can purchase single copies of new releaases throughout the year at $2 per disc, but with more than 4,000 albums released in 1980, the task is enormous. Albums are available in a number of NARAS regional offices, but one NARAS official concedes that some members vote for records they may never have heard.
So perhaps it's not surprising that NARAS has a long tradition of conservative choices. Henry Mancini is the all-time award winner with 20 followed by Vladimir Horowitz with 16, Stevie Wonder (15), Sir George Solti (12), Roger Miller (11), and a tie among Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Leontyne Price, Arthur Rubinstein, Paul Simon and Leonard Bernstein with 10 each. The first big winner in 1959 was "Volare," which won Domenico Modugno bestg song and record of the year honors. Other winners that year included The Chipmunks and Perry Como.
Complaints encompass all categories. One classical critic complains that awards are given year after year to "the same artists playing the same repertoire by the same composers." Richard Freed, president of the Music Critics Association Inc. and a NASAS committee member since 1969, says, "The awards seem to be based more on what is commercial and will sell, rather than what is artistically important."
The artists' desire to reach a crossover audience presents big problems for NARAS voters. "It's very difficult," says Farnum. "We have extensive screening meetings to help us decide which categories artists should be in." Since artists cannot be nominated in more than one field (beyond the four general prizes), the end result is that deserving acts are sometimes left out in the cold. That's apparently what happened this year to Michael Jackson, whose "Off the Wall" album yielded five hit singles and multi-platinum sales as well as rave reviews. Jackson didn't get a single nomination, which shocked his record company.
When it comes down to the awards ceremony, however, complaints are often forgotten. Steven Stills didn't show up when he, Crosby and Nash won Best New Artists in 1969 -- but nine years later he had mellowed enough to be a presenter. And for every negative story (the Eagles didn't show up to receive their best record award in 1977), there is a positive one. Liz Rosenburg, chief publicist for Warner Bros. Records, remembers that the members of Fleetwood Mac, were "thrilled" by their award, "overwhelmed at the tangible recognition from their peers."