Grammy Hall of Fame, Special Merit Awards Are Taking a One-Year Hiatus: Exclusive

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The Recording Academy is pausing its two flagship honorary awards programs, the Grammy Hall of Fame and its special merit awards, for one year.

The Academy won’t announce a new class of Hall of Fame inductions this year because it is rethinking the entire process. It plans to relaunch it next year and to have a significant display for the Hall inductees at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles. The 2021 inductions, including a pair of Linda Ronstadt albums, were announced on Dec. 21.

The Academy won’t announce a new class of special merit award recipients this year because it has yet to properly acknowledge the recipients who were announced last year. The COVID-19 pandemic made an in-person celebration problematic.

The Academy plans to have an in-person Grammy week event to honor the 2021 Special Merit Award recipients, who were announced on Dec. 22, 2020. It will take place on the eve of the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, which are set for Jan. 30, 2022.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Lionel Hampton, Marilyn Horne, Salt-N-Pepa, Selena, and Talking Heads are the 2021 lifetime achievement award winners; Ed Cherney, Benny Golson and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds are trustees award honorees; Daniel Weiss is the technical Grammy award recipient.

These 2021 special merit honorees were acknowledged briefly on the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards telecast on March 14, but there was no Grammy Salute to Music Legends special on PBS to honor them, as there has been in recent years. And there was no in-person gathering — as there was for many years before the PBS deal materialized — at the venerable Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles.

Regarding the Grammy Hall of Fame inductions, Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. tells Billboard, “We are working with the Grammy Museum and making sure that these recordings are really getting the recognition and a home they deserve. [We] took a little bit of a break, which we had to do to really organize the process and make sure we had the structure around it. But now I think it’s a new, reinvented, reimagined Grammy Hall of Fame.”

This marks the first time since the Hall of Fame inducted its first recordings in 1974 that it has skipped a year, and is the first time since 1988 that the Academy will present no special merit awards.

The Grammy Hall of Fame was created in 1973 with the intent of honoring recordings that were released before the advent of the Grammy Awards in 1958. The Hall is now open to any recording that is at least 25 years old.

The Academy is known to be frustrated that the announcement of their Hall of Fame inductees command relatively little media attention. The Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, which launched in 2002 — 28 years after the Grammy Hall of Fame — gets more attention in the consumer media.

“That’s one of the reasons why we’re taking the time to make sure this process is the best it can be and [that we’re] really getting it right,” Mason says. “We want to make sure this Hall of Fame is special and is really shining a light on the great recordings. We want to get it right. We want to get it accurate and be successful with it. So it’s going to take a little time to figure it out.”

According to an Academy spokesperson, there are about 90 committee members on the Hall of Fame committee, compared to about 15 to 20 members on special merit awards committee. All must be voting members of the Recording Academy. The academy aims to replace 20% of the members of each committee with new members every year. (Since the Academy is retooling the process, some of these numbers may change.)

As for the special merit awards, Mason says, “We are going to honor last year’s class this year … I didn’t think it was fair to that class (to not have an in-person event or show), and so in lieu of a new class, we’re going to properly celebrate our last class this year and give them the respect and the showcase and the shine they deserve.”

Mason says he doesn’t know if there will be a TV component, as there has been in recent years. “We’re looking at that potential. We’re not exactly locked in as of yet, but the exciting part for me is that the event will be back in person.”

The special merit awards were presented for many years in a room at the Wilshire Ebell. Many Grammy insiders thought that event had an intimacy that was lost when it moved to the Dolby Theater in Hollywood for what became essentially a TV taping. But that TV taping made the event accessible to many more people across the country.

“I think there’s benefits to both (approaches),” Mason says. “I do love the intimacy of the original event, but I also love the idea of being able to share it with a wider audience. So I think it will be … trying to find the sweet spot and see how we can get the best of both worlds.”

Bing Crosby was the first artist to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Academy, in 1963. Classical conductor Sir Georg Solti and his producer John Culshaw were the first to receive trustees awards (1967). Dr. Thomas G. Stockham, Jr. was the first winner of the technical Grammy Award (1994).

A total of 1,142 recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame over the years, counting the 29 that were added in December.

The first five Grammy Hall of Fame honorees (with year of release) were Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (1946), Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” (1939), Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five’s “West End Blues” (1928), Crosby with Ken Darby Singers’ “White Christmas” (1942) and Paul Whiteman conducting “Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue” with Gershwin on piano (1927).

The most recent honorees included A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low-end Theory, Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Billie Holiday’s “Solitude,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Ronstadt’s Canciones De Mi Padre and Trio (a collab with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris), Patti Smith’s Horses, USA For Africa’s “We Are the World” and Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”

The Grammy Hall of Fame’s long-ago change in focus from pre-1958 recordings to any recording that is at least 25 years old means that the Hall is frequently reconsidering recordings that were eligible for Grammys when they were new releases. In many cases, the Hall of Fame selections had been Grammy nominees or winners. But in many other cases, the Hall of Fame selections had been passed over for Grammy nominations when they were eligible. The Grammy Hall of Fame offers the Academy a second chance to get it right and honor the most important recordings. But it can strike some people as revisionist history.

The Special Merit Awards are not the only major honors that have been paused because of COVID-19. The Songwriters Hall of Fame announced on Feb. 10 that it was postponing its 51st annual Induction & Awards gala, originally set for June 11, 2020 (and then rescheduled for June 10, 2021), to June 16, 2022.

Linda Moran, SHOF president and CEO, called the second delay “absolutely heartbreaking.”

As a result of this double postponement, the honorees and inductees that were first announced on Jan. 16, 2020, will have to wait nearly two and a half years to take their bows. Those honorees include Paul Williams, who will receive the organization’s top award, the Johnny Mercer Award, and Jody Gerson, chairman/CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group, who will receive the Abe Olman Publisher Award.

There is a cost to skipping a year of special merit honorees (and two years of Songwriters Hall of Fame honorees). Deserving people who would have otherwise been honored simply won’t be.

“We’ve had to definitely make adjustments based on COVID,” Mason says. “It’s unfortunate. There’s been a lot of downsides to what COVID has brought to the planet, but also to our music community.”

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