It was a night all about musicians making real music, about real bands with real instruments conjuring up that kind of magic musical spirit only real bands can create. Crystallized by a exultant tribute to an absent friend, The Band’s Levon Helm, led by Elton John, Zac Brown and Mavis Staples, it was also a tribute to Levon’s group, The Band, who were all about real musicians playing together. This live spirit linked performances by the banjo-fueled Mumford & Sons, who won Album of the Year, with that of the Black Keys, who won two Grammys, and Fun, who won two Grammys, and Bruno Mars, who teamed up with Sting and Rihanna to perform a wonderful tribute to Bob Marley.
When Mumford & Sons emerged from their native England a couple of years ago with their acoustic gumbo of bluegrass and folk played on acoustic instruments, it seemed like a nifty novelty. Now it’s mainstream, as years of music created by loops and samples has garnered a hunger for real bands playing real instruments. Their album Babel was awarded with the Grammy for Best Album of the Year.
Asked backstage how they captured the passionate live spirit of their music in the studio, lead singer Marcus Mumford said, “We cut a lot of this record live. It was something we learned since we went on the road. We have developed a lot on the road over these last six years , and that has changed how we record.”
He insisted what they do is nothing new, quite the opposite: “It’s always been around – this kind of music,” he said.
Ben Lovett admitted they were surprised to win anything this year, after having received so many nominations last year and losing over and over. “We resigned ourselves that last year was Adele’s year. Cause she won everything ! So this year our expectations weren’t high.”
So, asked the press, how does it feel now that you have won?
He answered loudly and immediately: “It’s fucking awesome!”
The Australian artist Gotye, featuring the New Zealand singer Kimbra, won three Grammys: Record of the Year for “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Best Pop/Duo Performance for the same record and Best Alternative Album for Making Mirrors. They were awarded their third trophy from Prince, who made a rare appearance in dark shades and hood, but with a sly smile that seemed to suggest he knew how excited everyone is just to see him in person. Backstage both Gotye and Kimbra admitted to being as excited about getting their award from Prince as they were about getting the award itself. “Prince said he really loved the song,” said Gotye. “That is just so great.”
Asked how he felt about winning this, one of the biggest awards of the evening, Gotye said, “I didn’t expect to win any of the awards we won. It is flabbergasting. There are so many other great artists this year.” The he added, “I have written better songs, I think,” he laughed, “but I am very glad it got this honor.”
Asked if he had any hit songs on his iPod, he lingered on the phrase “hit song,” before saying, “The song ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ by Bruno Mars, I think, is just a fantastic song, and it is incredibly produced. I think he is an incredible performer.”
Since much of the assembled press is there to represent newspapers and non-music magazines, they often ask very non-musical questions, such as this one tossed to Gotye: “What is the weirdest mispronunciation of your name?” He said they were in Milwaukee, where someone saw him and said “Hey are you that guy from The Goyotes [rhymed with coyotes]?”
Katy Perry introduced the Best New Artist category by saying it was her favorite. “But if you don’t win,” she said, “don’t worry. I was never even nominated in this category,” she said, “and I have my own eye-lash line.”
Then Fun won. It was their second Grammy, the first for the prestigious Song of the Year award for their anthemic hit, “We Are Young”
Asked how the song, which is credited to all three members of the band plus producer Jeff Bhasker, was written, Nate Ruess said: “I was alone, driving, and out of nowhere, the chorus popped into my head. And it sounded exactly as it sounds on the album.” Because the sun was shining, the word ‘sun’ became the obvious rhyme for ‘young,’ and the anthemic chorus was complete. With chord progressions from bandmate Andrew Dost, Nate completed a draft of the song, which he sang a capella for producer Jeff Bhasker, who was stunned: “His jaw dropped to the floor.” [More about the writing of this, and the other nominated songs for the Best Song of the Year, follows].
Adele, who swept the Grammys last year by winning all six for which she was nominated, won one early in the show this year, for Best Pop Solo Performance for the live “Set Fire To The Rain.” She came backstage this year clutching her single Grammy, and said she was shocked to win, that she’d expected “just to come and enjoy the show this year.”
Since she has given birth since last year, she was asked how her life has changed. She answered with her customary blend of funny candor and self-deprecation. “I’ve been up since 6 am,” she said. “So I’m a bit exhausted. But I have not been stressed out, because when you’re a mother, you have to prioritize, so stuff doesn’t stress you as much.” Asked how much progress she’d made on her new album, the follow-up to 21, she said, “Not far. I’m here in town so I’m having lots of meetings. But I’ve been out of the loop – most of my singing lately has been singing my baby nursery rhymes.”
Later she added that there were many ways to follow up winning Grammys, besides what she did, which was “getting knocked up.”
Although the official televised portion of the show is broadcast live at 5 pm PST for 8 pm starting time on TVs throughout the east (delayed here in the west),there is a pre-televised ceremony that starts here at 3 pm, in which all the Grammys not awarded during the live telecast are given out. And since there are 90 awards, and only ten are awarded during the main show, that’s a lot of Grammys.
The press is in place, backstage in a chain of rooms, prepared to ask questions and take photos and film of winners and presenters. For the press, there isn’t a huge difference between the pre-telecast and the live show, as winners are paraded backstage in both and it’s our job to cover their reactions.
Between the pre-telecast show and the official telecast, longtime producer Ken Ehrlich addressed the audience out front, and said how special it was to have so many “old friends, like Elton, Sting, and Justin Timberlake” together, as well as new friends like “Fun and the Black Keys.” With a minute to go before air-time and many in the audience still wandering despite entreaties from Ehrlich to sit down, he passed the mic to Justin Timberlake, who said, “Hey, it’s time for everyone to sit down for the 55th annual Grammys!” As soon as he spoke, people listened.
Seconds later Taylor Swift was onstage in full Alice in Wonderland regalia, replete with a giant white rabbit for a performance of her song, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” changing the lyric slightly to add “I’m busy opening the Grammys.” I couldn’t help but reflect on what a different persona she was now projecting – veteran superstar Hollywood glamor – compared to only three years ago, when she performed a timid acoustic duet with Miley Cyrus – and many asked the question, “Who is that blonde girl with Miley?”
The main distinction between the two portions of this event is that some big stars, like Rihanna, who won the very first award of the day, don’t show up till prime-time. But many do.
Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson came back quietly, surprising the press who didn’t know a legend was in our midst. He had just won a Grammy for Best Historical Album for the deluxe box set of Smile. Having recently recovered from back surgery, he sat down rather than stand. A man of few words (but vast amounts of music), he answered in short bursts. Asked if he could feel the love the world held for him, a question I asked him a few years ago and to which he said, “no,” he said on this night, “Absolutely.” And how does that make you feel, asked Rona Elliot, who runs the press room and has been a friend of Brian’s for years. “It means a hell of a lot to me, Rona,” he said.
I asked him to name his favorite song he wrote himself. “California Girls,” he said.
Not ‘God Only Knows’ I asked?
“That is second,” he said.
Jazz legend Chick Corea was on hand to pick up his award for Best Instrumental Composition for his album Mozart Goes Dancing. “The inspiration for this recording was Mozart,” he said upon acceptance. “Thank you Mozart.” (It was the first and last time Mozart has been thanked at the Grammys in decades.)
“But I also want to thank some of the composers who were inspiring me while making this, especially Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Art Tatum and Lennon & McCartney.”
When asked to name a recording that changed his life, Chick said “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis. “Miles Davis was a part of my life from 1947 on,” he said, “I was born in 1941 and I first heard him in 1947 on a 78 rpm. And then I followed his career, starting with his first solo album in 1951. He was an icon and inspiration and a mentor to me. Then I got to meet him in 1964 in New York City, and then in ’68 he invited me to join the band. It was memorable, an important period for me.”
Since Chick was set to perform a tribute to Dave Brubeck, who passed away in December, he was asked if he knew Brubeck. “I knew Brubeck very well. He and his wife were close friends to [my wife] Gayle and myself. I looked up to him. He was a mentor to me, a beautiful man, and a beautiful creator. His album Time Out was, I believe, the largest selling jazz record of all time. That recording was the beginning of a musical evolution, towards fusion.”
Asked if he felt jazz was still a viable form of music, he said, “Jazz has always been on the edge of stuff because it’s always changing, so you can never say, `This is jazz.’ There is a legacy to it – Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Art Tatum and John Coltrane and Miles Davis. It is basically black music mixed with Americana. And jazz has always influenced pop music. But you can’t pin jazz down.”
Another living jazz legend, Arturo Sandoval, was in the house, picking up the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You), a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie. Backstage Sandoval spoke lovingly of Dizzy, saying they met in Sandoval’s native Cuba when the jazz legend came on a jazz cruise with Stan Getz. “[Dizzy] was the creator of Bebop,” he said. “And Bebop is the most respected style of music there is, among musicians. A good Bebop player can play anything. Dizzy was a genius, a guy who made a brand new style of music.”
Singer-songwriter Billy Vera, who has previously been nominated three times, won his first Grammy, not for his own music, but for writing the liner notes to Singular Genius, The Complete ABC Singles, a boxed set by by Ray Charles. “Holy Shit!” was the first thing he said when accepting, to much laughter and then applause. “This is my fourth nomination. I thought I was getting too old to win.” He thanked those involved, ending with a tribute to the subject of this album: “Thank you to Ray Charles, the greatest musical performer of the second half of the 20th Century.”
When he came backstage, I asked how he felt to have won after all this time, but not for his own music. “Hey, I’ll take it any way I can get it,” he said, inspiring much laughter. He went on to say that Ray Charles was his hero. “He’s always been my hero,” he said, “since I was a kid. When I started [my band] The Beaters, I modeled it after his band in the ’50s.” He spoke about how he had the privilege of producing his hero, when Ray cut a duet with Lou Rawls. Asked the secret to producing him, he said, “Man, you don’t produce Ray Charles; you just get out of the way.”
Since he said three times that he considered Charles the greatest musician of the second half, I had to find out who he considered the greatest musician of the first half of the previous century. He answered without pause: “Duke Ellington.”
Like Billy Vera, Janis Ian is another great musical artist who won a Grammy today for a non-musical project; her Grammy awarded for Best Spoken Word album for the audio version of her book “Society’s Child: My Autobiography.” Since she famously created her first single, the race-conscious “Society’s Child” when she was still a kid, I asked her if after all these years of making meaningful music, if music still held as much meaning as ever for her. “Music means more to me now that when I was a kid,” she said, “because I didn’t know yet just how great music is. Music is the great equalizer; it levels us all out and makes us a greater community.
She said narrating the entire book was harder then writing it, because “when you’re writing you have that nice distance from the material.” Asked about her the philosophy by which she lives her life, she answered with a line so perfect it could have come from one of her songs: “I assume God knows what He is doing even though I rarely agree.”
Fritz Klaetke, who won for Best Boxed Package for Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection, mentioned the place of CD artwork created in the “age of downloadable music,” saying his artwork is a “frame to enhance and make the whole experience richer. I really want to thank Woody [Guthrie], whose lyrics today are more powerful today than ever.”
He said that although many music lovers download their music and so never encounter the artwork he does, he said it’s actually a great time for his work. “With CD Box sets, we have so much room and space, more than you ever had, even in the age of the 12-inch LP that everyone loved. This is a 150-page booklet, and it’s perfect to contain Woody’s spirit, because there’s so much – his artwork, drawings, lyrics, poems – we have all of that. We even have the first check he received for recording, from Moses Asch for $20.”
He said one of the ‘Aha’ moments of this project was finding the cover photo of Woody. “So many of his photos have been used to death,” he said, “you have seen them a million times. Nora, Woody’s daughter, found a passport photo that we had never seen, and we blew it up, so there was really a feeling of looking into Woody’s eyes. And that is our cover.”
Carrie Underwood, who won for Best Country Solo Performance for “Blown Away” said she loves the Grammys for “putting together great artists you’d ever see together otherwise. The tribute to Levon Helm – with everyone singing `Take a load off Annie,’ that was so great, so moving.”
The first applause from the press, watching the show on monitors backstage in between asking questions of winners, was for Frank Ocean, who opened his acceptance speech by saying people tell you to picture the audience naked so as not to be nervous, “but I prefer to picture you kids all dressed up….”
Kelly Rowland, who was a presenter, came back and spoke about her new album which is under way. “I just changed the name of it,” she said. “It’s R&B; which I love. I loved seeing Justin [Timberlake] doing his rhythm and blues. That was outstanding. That boy just got too much soul.”
Asked about performing with Beyonce in the Superbowl for a Destiny’s Child reunion, she said, “It was great. Doing ‘Bootylicious’ with my sisters, that was great. Miss that.” Does it mean there might be a more substantial reunion? “I can’t say. I’m working on a new album, and Michelle [Williams] in is Fela, we’re all doing our own things. But I can tell you [our reunion], that was a hard secret to keep.”
The late great Gil Evans won a posthumous award for Best Instrumental Arrangement for How About You. A protégé of Evans accepted the award, and spoke about the maestro backstage. Asked what made Evans’ arrangements unique, he said: “It was a combination of many kinds of music. He loved French Impressionistic music. He had a library card and would always go and check out recordings and scores. But he also had a unique ear; he could hear music no one else heard. He was always adding special colors to his music, which is what propelled his music forward, and made his music stand out.”
Mary Mary is a gospel duo consisting of two sisters, Erica and Tina Campbell. They won for Best Gospel Song, a songwriter’s award, for “Go Get It,” which they wrote with Erica’s husband Warryn Campbell. Because Tina was home with babies (“many babies,” said her sister), Erica accepted the award. Asked backstage about the derivation of their name Mary Mary, she answered, “There are two Marys in the bible: mother Mary, who is perfect, and Mary Magdalene, who was not perfect at all. Yet God loved them both equally, and that is the message. The power of love can change your life.”
Before the Lumineer’s tremendously tuneful performance, Ken Ehrlich ran the track for the audience during commercial break inviting everyone to sing along. “It’s not that we don’t trust you because you are in the music business,” he said, “and you already know this song. But I’m gonna run it for you so you can practice. “
Neil Portnow, president of NARAS, the Grammy organization announced that a new Grammy award was being established, The Music Educator Award, designed to recognize music educators for their contributions to the musical landscape and their positive influence on their students’ musical experiences. The award is open to any current American music teacher from kindergarten through college, and anyone can nominate a teacher. The winner, and nine finalists, will be flown to Los Angeles and each awarded a $1000 honorarium; the winner will receive a $10,000 honorarium.
Grammy for Best Album went to Mumford and Sons for Babel. “We didn’t get lucky last year cause [Adele] got nominated last year and won everything.”
Zac Brown, who won for Best Country Album for Uncaged, said, “Our whole organization runs on love so it’s hard not to be thankful to everyone. Doesn’t take me a lot to get into tears talking about my folks. This whole weekend has been like a dream. I have been hanging out with my whole CD collection. Then winning a Grammy. It has been an amazing time.”
Asked about the prevalence of real bands winning Grammys this year, he said, “Everything runs in cycles. There’s some not so great stuff that comes through, and then the real thing comes and it sounds very special. It is great to have people who write songs and play their own instruments, like Mumford and Sons. It is great to see this kind of music get the spotlight.”
Bonnie Raitt, who won a Grammy for Best Americana album for Slipstream, said the first record to really impact her life was “Times They Are A Changing” by Bob Dylan. “My family was very politically conscious,” she said, “and the way Dylan translated that spirit and put across that message across in a singer-songwriter way, it changed my life. There was just something about that record that spoke to me. His emergence came when I was 13, and it was a seminal time for me, setting me on my path to make folk music.”
Jazz guitarist extraordinaire Pat Metheny won for Best Instrumental Jazz for Unity Band, and in his reaction expressed a gratitude that linked all the artists throughout the day.
“For me, playing music is just an incredible honor,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be a musician. Every time I get near an instrument I feel extremely lucky. And I try to make each work the best I can. I don’t think about more than that. I just try to make the music I love.”