The cheated and the overlooked compete

February 05, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

There are certain artists, pop music legends, whose shelves, you assume, must be crammed with Grammys. They've had brilliant careers, and their landmark albums forever changed pop. Remember Elvis Presley's self-titled debut from '56, James Brown's Live at the Apollo from '63, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On from '71, Prince's Sign O' the Times from '87? Surely, during their revolutionary years, the King of Rock 'n Roll and the Godfather of Soul had to haul home Grammys in pick-up trucks. Right?

Not exactly.

Years after he shook up pop, Elvis had won only three awards - in 1967, 1972 and 1974 - for reverent gospel recordings. And Brown, Soul Brother No. 1, has also picked up just three Grammys: one in 1965, 1986 and 1991.

This year, Paul McCartney, one of the richest, most celebrated singer-songwriters in pop, will compete in the album of the year category. His latest CD, the critically well regarded Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, is up against more relevant, vibrant albums by Mariah Carey, U2, Gwen Stefani and Kanye West.

If McCartney wins, it will prove something long suspected about Grammy voters: They occasionally ignore artistically challenging work by young artists in favor of works by aging pop vets who previously have been overlooked. If the former Beatle walks away with the album of the year Grammy, the upset would be reminiscent of the 2000 telecast when Steely Dan won over Eminem, or the 1998 show when Bob Dylan beat Radiohead.

An interesting effort

The precedent exists. McCartney, who is a 13-time Grammy winner for his work with The Beatles and Wings, is long past his peak as a solo artist. Though pleasant and brimming with nice melodies, Chaos and Creation isn't in a class with his best LPs, namely 1970's McCartney and 1971's Ram.

His latest album, a gold seller, isn't exactly a return to form, either. It just happens to be his most interesting effort in 15 years.

"You never know if they will look at Paul McCartney and think, `Hey, his tours are still successful. He's still putting out albums. Let's recognize him,'" says Melinda Newman, West Coast bureau editor for Billboard magazine. "Although the new album got good reviews, it wasn't the commercial success some expected it to be."

In 1999, controversial rapper Eminem released the critically and commercially successful album, The Marshall Mathers LP. But at the 2000 Grammys, he lost to veteran rockers Steely Dan, whose best work was 20 years earlier. Two Against Nature, the duo's "comeback" album, was lyrically smart and musically alluring. But the CD pales next to Aja, Steely Dan's classic 1977 jazz-rock hybrid. (That album, by the way, wasn't totally overlooked upon its release. Its mixers picked up a Grammy for best-engineered recording.)

Some veteran industry insiders have been so turned off by the Grammys' history of ignoring important artists, especially black ones, that they don't pay much attention to the show. Bob Slade, a music documentary producer and news director at one of New York's best-known adult urban stations 98.7 WRKS FM, had just started working in radio the year Marvin Gaye released What's Going On.

"You're talking about one of the biggest albums in pop in 1971," Slade says. "Carole King's Tapestry won (album of the year) the next year. She got hers as she should have. But Marvin didn't even get one. Can you believe that? For an album that changed not only pop music but black music, he wasn't recognized? I didn't come back to the Grammy for, like, another 10 years."

Rawls beat Gaye

In 1972, the recently departed Lou Rawls beat Gaye in the best R&B male vocal performance category. Ever-suave and artistically safe, Rawls won for one of his less memorable soul hits: "A Natural Man."

Gaye won his first Grammy in 1982 for "Sexual Healing," the Motown legend's last major hit.

The nominations in recent years have been more reflective of what the general public actually listens to. There even have been a few surprising major wins.

OutKast, the organic, highly experimental Atlanta-based hip-hop duo, won album of the year two years ago for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Granted, it was one of the collective's most pop-slanted CDs. But still the win was an important one for hip-hop, whose more hardcore artists Grammy voters generally ignore.

"I think the era when Jay Leno knew that the Grammys were a joke has passed," says Rob Tannenbaum, music editor of Blender magazine. "But Grammy voters sometimes seem to vote for the kind of person they'd want to live next door to, like Stevie Wonder, like Paul McCartney."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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