Buddy Holly score card -- Hollywood star: 1; Grammy awards: 0
Phil Everly’s comment about the star Buddy Holly received last week on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame kept rolling through my head after the festive ceremony Wednesday outside Capitol Records on what would have been the Texas rocker's 75th birthday, and it continued to resonate at the all-star tribute concert that followed several hours later around the corner at the Music Box Theatre.
“I think it’s about time we got to this,” said Everly, who wasn’t the only one on hand to note how long overdue the recognition for Holly felt.
A star on the Walk of Fame represents a certain degree of honor for the recipient; in this case, it was the culmination of a dream long held by Holly’s wife, Maria Elena, who was there, along with the man who primarily pushed the right buttons to make it happen, longtime Buddy Holly fan Kevin Magowen.
But there’s at least one other arena of recognition in which Holly’s name is nowhere to be found: the Grammy Awards.
Despite Holly being included by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of its original inductees, an acknowledgement of his role as one of the fathers of the genre, he never received a Grammy during his brief lifetime -- not a big surprise -- nor posthumously, which is fairly surprising.
No Lifetime Achievement Grammy. No latter-day win for any of the numerous compilations that have been issued in the 50-plus years since he died Feb. 3, 1959, not even for the imposing six-CD box set “Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More” that came out two years ago.
If one thing might give consolation to Holly's family -- or his fans -- it’s the good company he’s in.
Consider the rest of that first batch of Rock Hall of Fame honorees in terms of their Grammy Award count.
Chuck Berry: 0. Little Richard: 0. The Everly Brothers: 0. Sam Cooke: 0. Fats Domino: 0. A big goose egg, Grammy-wise, for 60% of the figures who arguably are the 10 most important in the birth of rock 'n’ roll.
The remaining 40%? Jerry Lee Lewis has one: a spoken word Grammy for an interview disc on which he talked with fellow Sun Records label mates Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins about their “Class of ’55 (Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming)” reunion album in 1986.
Elvis Presley, the king of rock 'n’ roll, has three: all for gospel records. James Brown has another three, and at least two of which were awarded for a couple of his key R&B records: “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag (Part 1)” in 1965 and the politically charged “Living in America” in 1986. The third? A Grammy in 1992 for the album notes with Brown's “Star Time” retrospective box set.
That’s a total of seven Grammys for 90% of rock 'n’ roll’s founding figures. Were it not for Ray Charles, the combined Grammy total for the entire class might still have been countable on the fingers of two hands.
Charles, however, scored 19 during his career, and continued to rack up trophies big time after his death in 2004. The final album released during his lifetime, “Genius Loves Company,” on which he collaborated with a boatload of high-profile duet partners, netted him five posthumous awards, including overall album of the year.
The Grammys' overlooking of Holly and so many of his incalculably influential contemporaries was a function of the outsider role rock 'n’ roll had in the beginning. The industry awards were instituted in 1959 by a cadre of record industry executives who had little interest in the new music that teenagers were flipping out over, but wanted a counterpart to the flashy Academy Awards their peers in the film industry handed out every year.
That first year, which covered records released during the calendar year of 1958, Holly would have been eligible for three songs now considered cornerstones in the rock canon: “Oh, Boy!” “Maybe Baby” and “Rave On.” Grammy Awards? Nada. The first Grammy for record of the year went to Italian crooner Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare).” Henry Mancini collected the first album of the year honor for his album “The Music From Peter Gunn.”
The following year, Grammy voters nominally acknowledged the changing tide of music by giving record of the year to Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” But voters quickly retreated to the soft, safe sounds of Percy Faith, Mancini, Tony Bennett, Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and Frank Sinatra.
It was 1969 before the record of the year award went to a song with any currency among rock audiences, and even then it was one that was safe to play in hotels and grocery stores: Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
A parallel story played out in album of the year honors at the end of the '50s and well into the '60s, until 1968, when voters could no longer avoid recognizing the culture-rattling impact of the Beatles and they named “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as the best album of 1967. It was just the third for the group that “changed the face of pop music as we knew it”: in 1965, the Grammys saluted the Fab Four with the new artist and group vocal performance for “A Hard Day’s Night.”
What the Grammys have done instead over time is to play catch up: Eric Clapton, who was mostly ignored in the 1960s and 1970s when he was the man who launched a million -- or more -- would-be guitar heroes in garages across the world, didn't receive his first individual Grammy until 1991, for "Bad Love" (although he did share a Grammy in 1973 for his participation in "The Concert for Bangla Desh").
Ditto Jimi Hendrix, who didn’t collect his first Grammy until… Oh, wait. He’s still never gotten one.
Carlos Santana and his band created innovative music in the '60s and ’70s that brought strains of Latin and African music into the pop mainstream, and Grammy voters responded -- a quarter-century later with eight Grammys for his star-studded 1999 “Supernatural” comeback album.
Stevie Wonder’s impressive run of three album-of-the-year awards in the mid-1970s buoyed rock loving fans’ hopes for a while that the music industry establishment was finally coming around. But then they went back to works by Billy Joel, Christopher Cross, Toto and Lionel Richie for top album honors.
In the 53 years since Grammys first had the chance to salute artists such as Holly, Presley, Berry and Sam Cooke -- artists now universally recognized as defining forces in contemporary American culture -- voters have occasionally made the nod to their successors who are shaping the direction of music for future generations.
They did it in 1988, awarding album of the year to U2’s “The Joshua Tree”; in 1998 with Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” (another entry that benefitted from the better-late-than-never syndrome); in 1999 with “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”; in 2003 with OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”; and this year with Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.”
And the awards for this year's music? As Grammy voters go about their work on the 54th round of awards, perhaps they’ll think of Holly, review the freshest, most vital music released in the last year and keep one man’s words in mind: “It’s about time we got to this.” That might even do Holly's legacy more justice than a Grammy to the man himself.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Buddy Holly's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Credit: Phil McCarten / Reuters.