As Grammy Day gets off to a start, we are going to kick things off with this greatest hits package from our Grammys coverage from years past. As we cover the event from the press room, where winners and presenters come back to answer questions during the show itself and after, it’s always an unique place to ask questions to musical artists. It can get giddy back there sometimes, and other times oddly quiet. As many of the press there are not music press, but covering the Grammys for newspapers around the world, there’s always an interesting mélange of questions asked. There’s also a lot of obvious disinterest in any winners who aren’t stars, or famous names.
This is understandable, as the agenda of People or other publications is not musical, it is celebrity driven. Still it is hard to endure sometimes, such as the year the great violinist Ihtzak Perlman won a Grammy, and came backstage to meet us. Struck with polio as a kid, he is on crutches always, but with a friend holding his award, he came forward to talk. Hardly anyone looked up. With the exception of us, and the great San Diego journalist George Varga, who always knows who matters and asks good questions, nobody cared that a living legend stood before us.
The next winner to come back was Weird Al Yancovic. The place went wild. And nothing against Weird Al – we love him too. But that balance is always funny for a music magazine, as we’re there to talk to musicians about music.
Because of this dynamic, American Songwriter, along with Mr. Varga, have become the Helen Thomases of the press room, relied on always to have a question. So from these we bring you some highlights from years past.
There are also other risks, such as the time I almost stepped on Gaga’s dress. She and Tony Bennett had been awarded for their great 2014 album Cheek to Cheek. Coming down the corridor backstage, I took the opportunity to meet Tony Bennett really quickly and thank him for all he’s done for songs. After all, he’s Tony Bennett. He’s a song champion.
What I didn’t know was that Lady Gaga, who was walking beside him, was wearing a dress which had a long white train, maybe a full yard long which trailed behind her on the floor, guarded by her minions, some four intense Gaga guards.
After saying hi to Tony, who graciously smiled and shook my hand, I almost stepped directly on the train. But those guards were ready, and instantly whisked me off it to the carpet in a split-second, so I never stepped on it. It happened so fast I barely realized what was going on at first. But then laughed a lot, as did nearby witnesses. Back in the press room, I proudly told those near me – “I almost stepped on Gaga’s dress!”
Here are some highlights:
At rehearsals for the 2009 Grammys, B.B. King and John Mayer were playing along with Buddy Guy. After Mayer took a particularly incendiary solo, B.B. said, “You’re kicking my butt here!” Mayer laughed it off but B.B. insisted, “Yeah, I’m getting my butt kicked.”
“Sir,” Mayer said, “there’s no way my shoe could reach high enough to reach the butt of the great B.B. King.”
The next day, when King came back to face the press after being awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album for One Kind Favor, he spoke about this butt-kicking exchange, laughing.
“You weren’t supposed to hear that!” he said. Then he went on to humbly praise Mayer’s talents: “He seems to know what he’s doing. Everyone I hear is playing something I wish I could.”
Asked if, after all these years since he started performing, he was surprised that the blues still matters so much, he said, “Yes. I’m surprised that more people are interested in blues than ever before. And people now understand that the blues is an international thing, not just something from Mississippi like me.”
Asked about the new president then, he said, “Obama is doing well. We got to give him time. Other presidents, we gave them time.” He then added, “With Obama, America is growing up – America is becoming America.”
A few years later Buddy Guy won the Grammy for Best Blues Album for Born To Play Guitar. Asked by this writer if this award might cause the world to wake up to the fact that he’s the best guitarist ever, he said, “Nawww… B.B. King is the greatest guitarist ever, not me! He taught us how to squeeze those strings.”
In his autobiography, When I Left Home: My Story, Guy surprised those of us who have long revered the legendary Willie Dixon by saying that Willie often took his songs “to register,” and would then register them in his own name, effectively stealing Buddy’s credit.
Asked if this was accurate, Buddy said, “Oh Willie was just one of the ones who did that. They all did that. They would put the name ‘TBA’ on it. I kept asking ‘Who is this TBA?’ I wrote a lot of songs they stole.”
That same year 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, he said, “Absolutely.” How does that make you feel, asked Rona Elliot, who ran 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’ ?”
“That is second,” he said.
There was no more excitement stirred up in 2009 than when Paul McCartney came back to meet the press. Though he didn’t win a Grammy on this night, he lit the place on fire with a burning rendition of one of his first songs written with John Lennon, “I Saw Her Standing There,” with Dave Grohl on drums.
I asked Sir Paul about the evolution of songwriting itself. With The Beatles and onto his solo work, he changed the art of songwriting, expanding it in many directions. Did he feel songs would continue to change and evolve?
“I do think so, yes,” he said. “Songs will always change. There will be new writers, new rhythms and melodies, new things to say. As for myself, my own songs, I can’t say. I like what I’m doing. I’m having fun.”
Asked if there was much music he liked today, he said there was, and that he “even fancies hip-hop and some rap.”
Because Neil Diamond was honored, McCartney was asked if he was a Neil Diamond fan. “Yes, of course I am. To be quite honest, back in the day I wasn’t a big fan. But you have to look at his work in its entirety. You have to look at everything he’s done, such as “I’m A Believer” for The Monkees. There are a lot of great songs.”
2012 was Adele’s night, which came on the tragic day after the death of Whitney Houston. It cast a darkness over the proceedings. Despite this tragedy, so close in both time and distance to the event, Adele still stole the night, winning six Grammys [Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Short Form Music Video, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Pop Solo Performance].
She was positively glowing with joy onstage and backstage, and with more than a triumph of awards; this album also represents a woman who triumphed over what she refers to as “a rubbish relationship,” and triumphed over throat surgery to perform a stunning rendition of “Rolling in the Deep.”
Backstage she graciously consented to balancing all six Grammys in her arms for photos, and didn’t drop a single one (as did Taylor Swift two years ago), and told the press she’s happier than she’s ever been. Given that this success was generated from heartbreak, I asked her if she needs sorrow to write good songs, or if she is writing new ones now that’s she happy. “No, I’m too busy happy,” she said with a laugh.
She also said, as did her co-writer and producer Paul Epworth, that they don’t consider “Rolling In The Deep,” despite its mammoth cross-over appeal, a pop song. Adele said she didn’t even think Epworth would like it, when she brought in the idea for their first work session. “I’m surprised she said that, and I have heard her say that a few times. I felt it was perfect. It was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to do with her. But I agree it’s unusual, that this is not a pop record.”
Asked how a producer sonically frames that famous voice for maximum effect, he said, “Anything you do will work. She is a phenomenal singer, the kind of voice that only comes along once in a generation if that. You could have her voice with just piano, or with a huge orchestra, or a big rock track. It’s the kind of voice – and the kind of spirit – that will work with anything.”
When the great Herbie Hancock came backstage in 2009, he spoke about his Grammy for his extraordinary Joni Mitchell tribute album, The River, which won for Best Album of the Year.
Asked if he felt there were other songwriters at Joni’s level whose work he would consider taking on, he said. “No, there are no other songwriters like Joni. There are others that are at that level, which is the top. I never think of trying to compare. When it gets to that level, those who are there are incomparable. I was on Joni’s album Mingus, and I knew of her interest in jazz and her ability; it’s natural for her. I didn’t really know as much about the core of her own music, the way her tried and true fans do. I didn’t know the lyrics that well, because I don’t really hear words, I focus on music. But there is so much –heart and beauty and truth in her lyrics. She is extremely passionate about what she does. It takes that kind of tenacity to become an artist that she is. I knew I had to make her lyrics the engine of the album. I made copies of the lyrics for all the musicians. Miles Davis taught me the importance of being nonjudgmental about music, the importance of not being afraid to try new things. Joni understands that.”
Gospel artist Kirk Franklin won the Grammy for Best Gospel Song for “Hello Fear” from the album of the same name. I asked him that, considering most songwriters say songwriting is often a spiritual process, how much spirit goes into writing spiritual music, and how music is craft?”
“That’s a dope question,” he said. “Nobody ever asked me that before. I am not the most humble or saintly person on earth. Sometimes I stumble on some music and it becomes a melody. It comes from the almighty. I humbly feel you give God your talent and He gives it back to you and He gives it back to you what his creation needs. When you realize it’s not about you, that is the key. He’s the writer, I’m the pen and my job is not to run out of ink.”
In 2016, Jason Isbell was the winner of Best American Roots Song, a songwriter’s award, for “24 Frames” from his album Something More Than Free.
About that song, Isbell said, “‘24 Frames’ is a different song than I usually write, not a straight narrative. So I spent a lot of time keeping it from being too vague, but without forming it into a narrative, which is the usual thing we folk songwriters do. The inspiration was the passage of time – which you might say is always the inspiration for every song. But further from that, I started wondering about once your life and environment has coalesced, how do you challenge yourself? How do you maintain a relationship without someone being in your shadow? The song is mostly about that and taking a lot of photographs with your mind and trying to remember as much as you can.”
2013 belonged to Mumford &Sons, who won Album of the Year for Babel.
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.”
Asked how it felt to win this Grammy, he answered loudly and immediately: “It’s fucking awesome!”