Sometimes, smaller is better. The Recording Academy’s Special Merit Awards returned to the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday (Feb. 4) after several years at the larger Dolby Theater in Hollywood (home of the Oscars) where the show was taped for airing as a PBS special that ran its course.
Maybe the Special Merit Awards ceremony was always meant to be a small, intimate affair, where the Academy dispenses its lifetime achievement awards, trustees awards, technical Grammy Awards and the music educator award. As in years past—before the pandemic shut the event down entirely the past few years—you get personal glimpses of artists that are revealing.
Nancy Wilson, who received a lifetime achievement award along with her absent sister Ann Wilson, recalled that when they formed Heart in 1974, they wanted to be The Beatles. “Not to be married to them, or to be the girlfriend of one of them, but to be The Beatles.”
Wilson added “What an honor to stand next to this force of nature (referring to Ann) and rock our butts off.” She thanked such industry boosters as Don Passman, Rob Light and John Sykes and thanked the audience “for helping us survive the sheer insanity of this rock and roll circus. We couldn’t care less about the gender politics of the time and we still don’t.”
Merck Mercuriadis, founder of Hipgnosis Songs, accepted the award on Ann Wilson’s behalf. He recalled being a 12-year-old in Canada and hearing Heart’s first hit “Magic Man” on the radio and said he has been a fan ever since. He noted that Ann is still going strong – featured on a track on Disturbed’s new album and on Dolly Parton’s upcoming rock album.
Several artists and executives were honored for challenging gender or racial norms. Jim Stewart of Stax Records received a trustees award in part for Stax’s progressive stance for the time and place (Memphis) of having an interracial band, Booker T. & the MG’s.
Stewart died on Dec. 5, 2022 at age 92. A niece said that he advocated equal rights for all. She said “We should all try for a little more tenderness,” borrowing from the title of a 1966 hit by Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness,” released on Stax’s Volt label.
The Supremes received a lifetime achievement award, in part for the way they broke down barriers that had kept white and Black fans separated – literally, in segregated theaters, and also culturally.
Diana Ross, who was present when she received a solo lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 2012, wasn’t on hand to receive the trio’s honor, even though she is its only surviving member. Instead, the award was accepted by daughters of Mary Wilson, who died in 2021, and Florence Ballard, who died in 1976.
It was a touching moment when Wilson’s daughter Jurkessa and Ballard’s daughter Lisa Sabrina – both middle-aged women now – hugged.
Jurkessa Wilson said that “The Supremes changed perceptions of how the world viewed Black people.” She also thanked Ross, who she noted was her godmother.
“I really don’t have many memories of my mom,” Lisa Sabrina Ballard shared. “I was just three years old she passed. But she was very well loved all over the world.”
Krist Novoselic spoke for Nirvana, which received a lifetime achievement award. Dave Grohl, an 18-time Grammy winner, also went up to accept the award, but let his former colleague take the lead. Novoselic said that he reads fan mail from around the world and detects that there’s a new generation of fans discovering Nirvana’s music.
Novoselic quoted the line “Teenage angst has paid off,” adding, “Well, and so it has.”
Slick Rick was honored, even though he has yet to receive a Grammy nomination or a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nod. The rapper’s lifetime achievement award was presented by veteran industry executive Lyor Cohen, currently YouTube’s global head of music. Cohen noted that Slick Rick was the first act he signed to Def Jam Records.
Slick Rick appeared wearing a purple coat. “Do you like the coat?” he asked the audience, and then announced where he bought it: “Macys. Women’s section.”
He said that growing up in England, he knew he wanted to be a singer, singing snatches of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and The Supremes’ “Baby Love” before identifying other favorites – The Beatles, Jamaican dance hall and hip-hop.
Nile Rodgers has received so many awards, you might think his trustees award would be just another one to put on the shelf, but he was emotional throughout his acceptance speech, in which he named many of the artists he’s worked with. “I don’t want to cry so I’m going to try to be strong,” he said, concluding “We are part of the great and wondrous musical family.”
Bobby McFerrin received a lifetime achievement award and demonstrated his talent by doing a seemingly impromptu acapella voicebox bit. He came across a bit like a Robin Williams of music – someone so inspired and gifted that they seem to just ping from one thing to the next.
McFerrin noted that his father was the first African American to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera of New York – so Bobby grew up listening, in his words, to Beethoven, Brahms and Basie.
Blues legend Ma Rainey, who died in 1939, was finally honored, her award presumably given fresh impetus by the 2020 film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which Viola Davis received an Oscar nomination for playing Rainey.
Henry Diltz, who became just the second photographer (following the late Jim Marshall) to receive a trustees award, recalled that he almost stumbled into his career. “I was happy being a hippie folk singer,” he said. “I saw a little second-hand store that had a table full of little used cameras. I got one and put film in it and decided to take photos of all my friends. Well, they all became famous.” And as Diltz rattled off just their first names – including Graham, Stephen, Joni, Jimi, James and Jackson – you realize he truly was in the right place at the right time.
Diltz ended his acceptance remarks with two bits of sound advice: “Behave properly. Be happy.”
Dr. Andy Hildebrand, who created the groundbreaking Auto-Tune software program for pitch correction, admitted that he didn’t realize the effect it would have on recording studio economics. Where singers would once have to do take after take of a song to get it right, now they could sing it once and a producer could Auto-Tune it. “It’s been an amazing trip and I’m still writing software,” Hildebrand said.
As in years past, the selections can sometimes seem random. The best way to look at each year’s class is as a representative sample of greatness across a broad range of genres, rather than, necessarily, the seven most deserving artists of those yet to honored.
The Academy had said that the song for social change award would be presented at this event. It was not even mentioned. It will presumably be presented on the Grammy Awards telecast on Sunday.
Here’s a complete list of 2023 Special Merit Award recipients.
Lifetime Achievement Awards
Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson
Technical Grammy Award Honorees
Dr. Andy Hildebrand
Music Educator Award
Pamela Dawson, director of choral activities, DeSoto High School, DeSoto, Tex.