For its 2017 Special Merit Awards recipients, the Recording Academy (which bestows the GRAMMY awards) has chosen to bestow Lifetime Achievement Awards to an eclectic group of artists in the genres of rock and roll, country, jazz and gospel: The Velvet Underground, Sly Stone, Nina Simone, Charley Pride, Shirley Caesar, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, and Jimmie Rodgers.
James Corden will host the 59th GRAMMY Awards, which will be broadcast live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles this Sunday. Read on for more details about these legendary performers, whose creative visions continue to inspire new generations of musicians.
The Velvet Underground
Widely recognized as one of the most influential rock bands of all time, the Velvet Underground, managed by pop artist Andy Warhol, included the late Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison as well as its two surviving members, John Cale and Maureen "Moe" Tucker. Indeed, Brian Eno famously commented that only 30,000 people bought the band’s seminal first album in 1967, but that “everyone who bought one of those copies started a band.” The album itself, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2008, as its classic tracks, "I'm Waiting for the Man,” "Femme Fatale," "Heroin," "I’ll Be Your Mirror" "Sunday Morning," "Venus in Furs” and "All Tomorrow's Parties" are all equally distinctive on their own. Often dubbed the quintessential proto-punk band, the Velvets’ groundbreaking visual and sonic style has inspired countless modern-rock movements—from glam and punk to new wave, goth, noise—over the past 50 years.
Though she became known as “The High Priestess of Soul,” musical prodigy Nina Simone began playing piano by ear at age three and set her sights on becoming a classical musician, studying works by Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Schubert and Beethoven. But when her dream school, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, denied her admission, which she attributed to racism, she applied her velvety vocals to jazz, folk, blues and pop songs and crafted a unique musical style that spanned five decades. Her version of "I Loves You, Porgy" became a Top 20 single in 1959 and she went on to record several passionate anthems of the civil rights movement, including, "Four Women," "Strange Fruit," and her original "Mississippi Goddam," inspired by the assassination of Medgar Evers and the tragic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. She labeled her versatile style “black classical,” and achieved international success with her interpretations of such classics as "Feeling Good," “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” "Sinnerman" and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”
Another piano prodigy who began playing at age 3, Ahmad Jamal started performing professionally at 14 and was signed to Okeh Records at age 21. Jamal trained in both traditional jazz and European classical piano styles and is regarded as an innovator who helped usher in the "cool jazz," movement, which had a significant influence on Miles Davis, among others. In the late 1940s, he and his band, the Four Strings, were credited with creating the “chamber jazz” sound. Though his distinctively lean style has made a significant impact on the jazz genre, he prefers to call himself an "American classical" musician. With a catalogue spanning seven decades, he is known for his renditions of "Poinciana," original compositions such as "Ahmad's Blues," and the fantastic compilation Complete Live At The Spotlight Club 1958. His most well-known album remains 1958's At The Pershing: But Not For Me, and younger jazz pianists cite him as a influence. The 86-year-old continues to perform and ranks among the most successful small-group leaders in jazz.
One of the few black country musicians to have had success in the largely white country music industry, Charley Pride has the distinction of being the first black musician to perform at the Grand Ole Opry in 1967. (In 1993, Pride became the Grande Ole Opry's first African-American member and he received the Pioneer Award by the Academy of Country Music the following year.) He taught himself to play guitar while in his teens, but his first career was playing baseball in the Negro American League. While traveling from game to game, he would often sing and play guitar on the team bus and eventually, he went to Nashville where he was signed by RCA Victor. "Just Between You And Me" launched Pride to stardom, earning him his first Grammy nomination in 1966. In 1969, Pride scored his first No. 1 country hit with "All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)." Pride recorded 36 No. 1 hits over the next 30 years, and four of his albums went platinum. He has also been listed among the Top 20 best-selling country artists of all time and is second in sales only to Elvis Presley.
Shirley Caesar may be the only pastor (she has a thriving congregation in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina) who has released more than 30 solo albums during her career. Discovered in a church choir when she was just 10 years old, Caesar’s powerful voice and personality have driven a decades-long career that has earned her international acclaim and the title “First Lady of Gospel Music.” Caesar is perhaps best known for her eight years with the Chicago-based gospel group the Caravans. In 1966, she left to pursue a solo career with her own choir, the Caesar Singers. Her many accolades include 11 Grammy Awards, an NAACP Image Award, a Soul Train Music Award and two current Grammy nominations. She continues to record and tour, bringing her signature “take-you-to-church” style to a new generation.
Although he is best known as the frontman of Sly & The Family Stone, Sylvester "Sly Stone" Stewart is an iconic American musician, songwriter and producer, who has written the exuberant hits "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," "Everyday People," and "Dance To The Music." The band’s blend of soul, funk, rock, and psychedelia in the 1960s and 1970s earned Sly & The Family Stone its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and the group has four recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
He only lived to age 35 but Jimmie Rodgers is widely regarded as “The Father of Country Music” and his credits include 110 songs about hard work, hard drinking and heartbreak that set an emotional tone for country music. A self-taught guitar player, Rodgers learned to sing in church. In November 1927, he recorded "Blue Yodel (T is for Texas),” which made him a national star. Over the next five years, Rodgers recorded such classics and forerunners of rock and roll as "Waiting for a Train," "Daddy and Home," "In the Jailhouse Now," "My Little Lady" and "Miss the Mississippi and You." He also recorded with the legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Due to his untimely death from tuberculosis, his recording career spanned only six years, but his work, which heavily relied on African-American blues and jazz, had a profound impact on the development of both country music and rock and roll.
In January 2017, The Recording Academy and Hal Leonard Books published a hardcover book, A Grammy Salute to Music Legends: All-Star Artists Pay Tribute to Their Musical Heroes, that collects two decades of artist-written tributes to The Academy's annual Special Merit Awards honorees.