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Count Basie Wins Two of the First-Ever Grammy Awards

By John R. Barrows

On May 4, 1959, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), commonly called the Recording Academy, staged simultaneous award ceremonies in New York City and Beverly Hills, Calif., where 28 prizes were awarded to leading musicians in what is now remembered as the very first Grammy Awards.

Caption: Left to right, William “Count” Basie; the cover art for “Basie,” the award-winning album; and an early Grammy award similar to those given out at the first awards.

Among the big winners that night was William “Count” Basie of Red Bank, who took home two of the statuettes that resembled original Gramophone record players, hence the nickname “Grammy.”  Basie’s acclaimed 1958 album “Basie,” which became known as “Atomic Basie” for its cover art, won for best dance band performance and best group jazz performance. 

The Recording Academy represents the voices of performers, songwriters, producers, engineers, and all music professionals, and celebrates artistic excellence through the Grammy Awards, the music industry’s highest achievement.

The program from the first Grammy Awards.

Following is a summary of the first Grammy Awards courtesy of NARAS:

In the beginning, there was heaven and earth and the 1st Annual GRAMMY Awards—more or less in that order.

On May 4, 1959, many of music’s elite—including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Gene Autry, Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini and André Previn—gathered for a black-tie dinner and awards presentation inside the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. At the same time, other new Academy members were gathering at a function held simultaneously in New York City. “The GRAMMY Awards were a formal event from the beginning and very much in keeping with the times,” says Christine Farnon, who was instrumental in organizing the first show and would go on to become The Academy’s Executive Vice President. “As I recall, no one objected to dressing black-tie back then, though like so much else, that would change eventually.”

But this GRAMMY night, and several to follow, was held in hotel ballrooms on both coasts.

The Los Angeles event was emceed by popular political comedian Mort Sahl and featured a musical sketch titled “How South Was My Pacific.” The night was by numerous accounts a significant success. Billboard—then actually still called The Billboard—ran its account of the first night of Music’s Biggest Night with a headline declaring that “Academy Smoothly Moves Into Orbit: First Awards Well-Organized Affair As Top Stars Go On Parade.” The trade magazine even favorably compared the GRAMMY’s debut to the far more established Oscars and Emmys: “It sharply contrasted similar affairs staged by the two older entertainment academies in its precision-like pace in handling the presentations.”

As well organized as the night may have been, from the very start at the GRAMMYs, there would be surprises on GRAMMY night. While Sinatra led all nominees with a grand total of six nominations, he would not turn out to be the night’s biggest winner. Rather the very first Record of the Year and Song of the Year awards both went to “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” by Domenico Modugno, while Album of the Year went to The Music from Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini.

As for Sinatra, he fortunately didn’t go home empty-handed. He won his first GRAMMY not for singing, but rather as art director for his Only the Lonely album that won Best Album Cover. And though only 28 categories were presented on this first GRAMMY night—the least ever—the first winners suggested the diversity that would come to mark the GRAMMY Awards, with winners that ranged from Ella Fitzgerald (Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Jazz Performance, Individual) to David Seville and the Chipmunks (Best Comedy Performance and Best Recording For Children, while Best Engineered Record—Non Classical went to Ted Keep for “The Chipmunk Song”), from the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” (Best County & Western Performance) to the Champ’s “Tequila” (Best Rhythm & Blues Performance).

Much more—in every conceivable way, and some ways still inconceivable—was still to come.

Sources:

Beck, Roger. (1959). Platter Honors Go to Chipmunk Song. Mirror News, Los Angeles, Calif., May 5, 1959, P. 17.

1st Annual GRAMMY Awards: 1958 GRAMMY WINNERS. National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Available: https://www.grammy.com/awards/1st-annual-grammy-awards.

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