The Grammy Special Merit Awards
By Karla Buhlman, President Gene Autry Entertainment
Updated May 22, 2009
On February 7, 2009 Gene Autry was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy's Special Merit Awards Ceremony.
I was privileged to attend this event and wanted to share my experience with Gene's fans.
This is how the evening's program describes the Special Merit Awards:
Grammy Awards before the
Special Merit Ceremony
Mrs. Gene Autry and Stan Schneider
During the two-hour ceremony at the beautiful Wilshire Ebell Theatre each award recipient was individually honored with an eloquently spoken introduction by a Recording Academy executive and a short yet detailed video presentation followed by the award winner or family member receiving the award. While the Grammy Awards show on Sunday, February 8th, only features five or six seconds on each of these musical folks, the Special Merit Awards Ceremony truly honored their talents and contributions to the music industry.
Mrs. Gene Autry and Gene Autry
Entertainment President Karla Buhlman
Gene Autry Biographer Holly
George-Warren and Karla Buhlman
Here is what I remember best about each award winner that evening:
Universal Audio – Founded by Bill Putnam Sr., Universal Audio's collective works have profoundly changed the way music is listened to and made. Bill Putnam Sr. is the past recipient of a Technical Grammy Award and the company he founded is now run by his sons James and Bill Jr. They strive to live up to their father's standards and continue to work in the world they love, maintaining the legacy of excellence and continuing to make beautiful music. Bill Jr. accepted the award for Universal Audio and was visibly thrilled and honored to do so. I loved that Universal Audio is still a "family business."
Clarence "Leo" Fender – As the inventor of what is regarded as "the best instruments ever made," the Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars, it is easy to understand why he would be honored by the GRAMMYs! The video clip showed a variety of rock 'n' roll gods like Eric Clapton playing Fender guitars and using Fender amplifiers which was evidence in itself to the power of Leo's creations. His widow accepted his award and shared that he grew up tinkering with tractor batteries and vintage radios. From that grew unprecedented innovations and groundbreaking technologies of electric guitars in the 1950s and 1960s. She said that Leo never kept one of his guitars because "the next one" was going to be even better.
Allen Toussaint – His video clip was full of sounds of New Orleans music and popular tunes that Allen was a producer, songwriter, arranger, session pianist or performer of such as Working in a Coalmine, Lady Marmalade and Southern Nights. His work is vibrant and catchy, full of fun and energy. Allen is a sharp dresser and a very handsome man who continues performing today. He was very grateful to be recognized for his work by the Academy and excited to perform the next evening on the Grammy Awards telecast.
Elliott Carter – Believe it or not, Elliott was composing orchestral, chamber, and solo instrumental music around the same time that Gene Autry was making music in the 1930s, '40s and '50s and he continues to do so today at the age of 100. Elliott sent a video clip to accept his award and he was happy to be recognized with the Trustees Award and full of smiles. It made me think that music must be the elixir to a long life!
George Avakian – The video clip for George showed him working with legendary artists Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis and stated he is a renowned jazz record producer, industry executive, and a founding member of the Recording Academy. He and his lovely wife were sitting in front of us with their guest, Johnny Mathis (who looked awesome and was incredibly charming!). I so enjoyed hearing George talk about his work in his acceptance speech – he recalled how he went into a record shop for a Duke Ellington recording and thought how much better it would be to get a whole collection, or album, of his work and soon George helped establish the long-playing record (LP), which many view as the most important single contribution to the record industry during the 20th century.
Gene Autry – The introduction for Gene was by President/CEO of The Recording Academy Neil Portnow who quoted from Gene Autry's Cowboy Code. The video clip for Gene was well done and sourced from material provided by Gene Autry Entertainment. Among the movie song clips used was the scene from Sioux City Sue when Gene sings the title song at the piano. The audience sang along with Gene! Mrs. Autry accepted the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which is the familiar gramophone trophy, and spoke fondly of her husband and his music. She graciously thanked the members of the Recording Academy and the Blue Ribbon Committee that selected America's Favorite Singing Cowboy for this prestigious honor. It was indeed such an honor and you just know that Gene was smiling proudly from above as his beloved "Squaw" represented him on stage. It was a wonderful moment!
Hank Jones – The piano stylings were evident in the video clips for Hank Jones, who is one of the most sought after jazz pianists in our time. His career as jazz pianist, bandleader and composer has encompassed more than 60 albums under his own name and countless others as a guest musician. He has recorded with or accompanied such jazz greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Hank, who is 90, was at the ceremony to receive his award and had a sparkle in his eyes as he spoke about the honor of this recognition.
Mrs. Gene Autry with Lifetime
Brenda Lee – Before the ceremony began I was visiting with Gene's biographer, Holly George-Warren, who came to LA for the Grammy events. As soon as she saw Brenda Lee she said, "You've got to meet Little Miss Dynamite." I was introduced to Brenda by Mrs. Autry and she lives up to her name! Brenda had misplaced her acceptance speech and was looking all over for it.
She eventually re-wrote it on the back of the seat card holder and it was a wonderful, wonderful acceptance speech. She began as a rockabilly singer and became one the biggest pop stars of the 1950s and 1960s with hits like I'm Sorry and Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. She continues to record and perform today and I sure hope I can see her in concert some time soon!
Dean Martin – The introduction and film clips for Dean Martin stated he was the personification of "cool" and I'd have to agree. While the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis clips had folks laughing they were also singing along to songs such as Everybody Loves Somebody, I Will, and You Belong to Me (the latter two are owned by Ridgeway Music Publishing – one of Gene Autry's music companies). Dean's family was on hand to accept the award and they were so excited and honored. One of his daughters told a story on how timeless Dean is because his great grandson recently got a new skateboard with a big photo of "Grandpa with two of his friends" on.
The Four Tops – I would have to say the most emotional point of the evening was the acceptance speech by Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the sole living member of the incredible singing group The Four Tops. The video clips for this group were overflowing with the music of the group who helped define the Motown Sound – Reach Out (I'll Be There), I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), and Baby I Need Your Loving. Then the family members of Renaldo "Obie" Benson, Lawrence Payton and Levi Stubbs along with Duke took the stage. The emotion of the moment was clearly visible on the family members and when Duke had his turn to speak he said, "I'm going to get emotional because that's the kind of man I am." That's when I started handing out tissues to my seatmates.
Tom Paxton – You may not be familiar with Tom Paxton, an influential singer/songwriter who emerged from the Greenwich Village folk revival scene of the early '60s, but his introduction and film clips presented a passionate musician with a 40 plus year career whose music has been recorded by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and many more. Tom was home with his ill wife so his daughter accepted the award are read a terrific letter from Tom.
The Blind Boys of Alabama – The final recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award was the Gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama (Clarence Fountain, George Scott, Johnny Fields, Jimmy Carter, Eric "Ricky" McKinney, and Joey Williams). They began in 1939 which made me wonder if Gene Autry ever had a chance to hear their music. They continue to record and tour today and are quite the snazzy dressers. They were obviously enjoying themselves and one of the members (I'm not sure who) pointed out that they were nominated for a Grammy award and if they didn't win it tomorrow that would be okay... because they already had four of them!
It was a moving evening that made me reflect on the collection of diverse American musicians and music industry talent who created so many musical treasures. Indeed, each and every one was worthy of recognition for their outstanding contributions to music!
I've recommended to the curator of the Grammy Museum that they use the video presentations as part of their Lifetime Achievement Awards display case so that visitors can better understand the importance of these honors. Gene Autry will soon be added to the museum's Lifetime Achievement case and we'll be sure to let you know about that when it happens.
If you like to read more about the past recipients of these awards, visit the Grammy website here.
Gene Autry's Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy and items from his recording career are now on display at the Autry National Center for everyone to see and enjoy. View a photo album of the case installation here.
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