Some predictions for 2008, and a look at how Chicago's fared at the Grammys in their first half-century.
Since the Grammys are in a historical frame of mind as the awards celebrate their 50th anniversary, it seems time re-examine how they’ve treated Chicago artists.
I last did this story in 1994. “The Grammys are very political,” Styx singer Dennis DeYoung told me at that time. “The largest memberships of [the recording academy] are in New York and Los Angeles, and it’s easier for bands to get voted for when the members know who you are.”
Added Survivor and Ides of March bandleader Jim Peterik: “This town’s been overlooked a lot,” though Survivor did claim one Grammy for “Eye of the Tiger” (Best Rock Performance by a Group with Vocal, 1982).
Have things gotten any better in the last 14 years? Not much.
Yes, the Windy City can lay partial claim to the artist who’s won more Grammys than any other. Sir George Solti was a Hungarian-born naturalized British citizen who conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 22 years, winning an impressive 38 Grammys out of a total of 112 nominations.
But none of Chicago’s phenomenal blues, jazz, gospel, rock, hip-hop or dance musicians have ever claimed one of the coveted “Big Four” awards for Best New Artist or Album, Song or Record of the Year.
Notice I said “musicians.” The only local who can claim victory in any of those categories is the lovable wry comedian born in Oak Park who won Album of the Year and Best New Artist in 1960 for “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.”
After Sir George, who died in 1997, Chicago’s biggest Grammy winners have been Kanye West, who claimed six prizes in the rap categories in 2005 and 2006; guitar god Buddy Guy, who won five in the blues or instrumental rock categories between 1991 and 2003, and the legendary Muddy Waters, who took five in the now-retired Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording category between 1971 and 1979.
How have some of Chicago’s other greats fared?
The Smashing Pumpkins have two Grammys in the Best Hard Rock Performance category, for “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” in 1996 and “The End is the Beginning is the End” in 1997.
And all of the following have one measly Grammy each:
* Pops Staples, Best Contemporary Blues Album, 1994 (“Father Father”).
* Chicago, the band, Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Group, 1976 (“If You Leave Me Now”).
* Otis Rush, Best Traditional Blues Album, 1998 (“Any Place I’m Going”).
* Frankie Knuckles, Remixer of the Year, 1997.
* Wilco, Best Alternative Music Album, 2004 (“A Ghost is Born”).
* Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones, Best Polka Recording, 1986 ("Another Polka Celebration").
It’s a sad showing, and things get even more pathetic when you consider some of the Chicago names who’ve been entirely overlooked: Curtis Mayfield, Mavis Staples, Sun Ra, Thomas Dorsey, Cheap Trick, Liz Phair, the Buckinghams, Lupe Fiasco, Common, Ministry, Kurt Elling, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Lenny Gomulka, Poi Dog Pondering, Jerry Butler and the Impressions, Urge Overkill, Veruca Salt, Twista, Jennifer Hudson…
I could go on, and on, and on. But doesn’t this indicate that maybe Kanye had a point right when he threw those post-Grammy tantrums? All in all, I’d say Chicago’s been robbed.
HANDICAPPING THE “BIG FOUR” AWARDS FOR 2008
As I note every year when settling down to the onerous task of handicapping the Grammys, the Recording Academy is a large and diverse group -- there are 6,000 recording engineers alone, in addition to tens of thousands more musicians, educators and industry professionals -- with the majority of the members based in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville.
Many of these alleged judges of sheer “artistry, and artistry alone” have conflicting agendas, alliances based on genre, politics or geography, and plain old bad taste that all combine to skew the vote in unpredictable directions.
Nevertheless, as always, I’ll take a shot at giving my predictions for the “Big Four” awards.
Record of the Year (awarded to the artist)
The Nominees: “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce, “The Pretender” by the Foo Fighters, “Umbrella” by Rihanna featuring Jay-Z, “What Goes Around... Comes Around” by Justin Timberlake and “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse.
The Predicted Winner: Rihanna -- that’s a mighty fine umbrella she’s got there. But the fact that the Foo Fighters are performing with the winners of the second annual “Grammy Moment” contest -- a cheap attempt to bring a bit of “American Idol” to the Grammys -- indicates that the Academy loves Dave Grohl’s lamer-than-ever post-Nirvana cash-in.
The Most Deserving: If you ask me, JT is bringing sexy back. Still.
Sadly Overlooked: Kanye West’s “Stronger” and LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends.”
Album of the Year
The Nominees: “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace” by the Foo Fighters, “These Days” by Vince Gill, “River: The Joni Letters” by Herbie Hancock, “Graduation” by Kanye West and “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse.
The Predicted Winner: I’ll go out on the limb and say Kanye. The Academy has slighted him in the past, and he’s turned off voters with his tantrums. But his mom died this year, so he may win the sympathy vote, in addition to the belated acknowledgments of his talents. Plus, the other nominees will divide the genre loyalists, with the Foo Fighters claiming the rockers, Gill the country crowd, Hancock the jazzbos and sentimental geezers (the disc is a tribute to Joni Mitchell) and Winehouse the, um, lovers of beehive hairdos and way too much eyeliner.
The Most Deserving: Kanye, no doubt about it.
Sadly Overlooked: Grinderman’s self-titled debut, “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” by Modest Mouse, “Sound of Silver” by LCD Soundsystem and “In Rainbows” by Radiohead (though its initial pay-what-you-want Internet release was anathema to the old-school music biz).
Song of the Year (awarded to the songwriter)
The Nominees: “Before He Cheats” written by Josh Kear & Chris Tompkins (Carrie Underwood, performer), “Hey There Delilah” by Tom Higgenson (performed by the Plain White T’s), “Like A Star” written and performed by Corinne Bailey Rae, “Rehab” written and performed by Amy Winehouse and “Umbrella” written by Shawn Carter, Kuk Harrell, Terius “Dream” Nash & Christopher Stewart (performed by Rihanna featuring Jay-Z).
The Predicted Winner: “Umbrella.” Come on, now, everybody sing: “Know that we’ll still have each other/You can stand under my umbrella…”
The Most Deserving: Of these nominees, “Umbrella.” One more time:
Sadly Overlooked: In addition to the tunes already listed under Record of the Year, how about “Young Folks” by Peter Bjorn & John, “Icky Thump” by the White Stripes, “Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire and “No [Sex] Blues” by Grinderman, to name a few.
Best New Artist
The Nominees: Feist, Ledisi, Paramore, Taylor Swift and Amy Winehouse.
The Predicted Winner: If it hadn’t been for her complete meltdown in the last few weeks, I’d have said that Winehouse’s retro-soul stylings and fashion made her a shoe-in. Now, I’d have to go with the cloyingly contrived TV commercial chanteuse Feist.
The Most Deserving: This is truly one of the weakest slates of nominees I’ve ever seen the Grammys produce. Paramore and Swift both prompt questions of “Who?” (The former is a production-line modern rock band even less deserving than Evanescence a few years back, while the latter is a tarted-up Nashville-manufactured country-pop diva.) The only artist with any credibility here is Ledisi Anibade, a New Orleans-born singer who abandoned a career in musicals and cabaret in favor of a slightly more original amalgam of quiet storm jazz, soul and R&B.
Sadly Overlooked: The New York art-funk band Battles, English indie-rockers Field Music, the Brooklyn afro-beat band Antibalas, underground dance music giants Dan Deacon and Girl Talk, those whistling fools Peter Bjorn & John and globe-trotting rapper M.I.A. Yes, I know that some of these artists have releases that predate 2007. But so do all of the current nominees, so “new” is certainly relative.