Last night they were making new legends in the record business by conferring Grammy Awards on the music industry's artists of choice. Winners of the miniature gramophone award will join the ranks of such ``old'' record-industry legends as Domenico Modugno, Vaughn Meader, Christopher Cross, and Toto. These names may not be bronzed in your own personal hall of fame. Yet they have outpointed the likes of the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Buddy Holly in getting Grammys for their current work.
In a business known for focusing on the vanishing point and honoring the instant, the record industry has established a track record of consigning even its own fleeting stars to the dark background and thrusting forth ``safe'' choices that left music lovers of all breeds scratching their heads.
Enduring jazz giant John Coltrane never got recognition from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which gives the Grammys, during his lifetime. Benny Goodman was to be given a lifetime achievement award last night, but Benny Carter never got any. Dizzy Gillespie didn't get one until 1975, which looked to many jazz observers like granting Franklin D. Roosevelt the presidency late in his second term.
For such reasons, among others, drummer Frank Capp and TV producer Jim Washburn have started the National Academy of Jazz, which will honor ``the artist, not the record,'' in Mr. Capp's words. The specific incident that precipitated the founding came during last year's Grammy Awards, which, Mr. Capp complains, ``omitted jazz completely in three hours of television.'' This year, the Grammys had planned (at press time) a tribute to jazz. But it strikes many jazz lovers as too little, too late.
The Grammy track record in classical music has been rated predictable, generally conferring honors on popular performers, ignoring more serious music.
No one can fault a popularity contest (awards are given on the basis of votes from 6,000 music-industry professionals) for picking popular performers over more serious ones. But just how popular does a fellow have to get?
No Elvis Presley rock-and-roll record ever won a Grammy, for instance.
Let me repeat that:
Elvis's regular rock-and-roll records never won a Grammy.
What Elvis did get was a trio of Grammys for inspirational and sacred music. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award, like those that were conferred this year on Benny Goodman and the Rolling Stones (an honor that has generally been thought to devolve on those who have been passed up in years when they loomed large over the musical world.) In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find enough Grammy holders in the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to start a small garage band.
During the years that British rock seized the hearts and minds of American music lovers, NARAS was handing out gilded record players to Stan Getz, Herb Alpert, Henry Mancini. Respected musicians, but not generally thought of as candidates for a time capsule to tell future generations how the '60s sounded.
While they were at it, the Grammys managed to leave out Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Chuck Berry, and Diana Ross (with or without the Supremes).
The Beatles won a best-group Grammy for their ``A Hard Day's Night'' album and a Best New Group award in 1964; also two awards for ``Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.'' But albums like ``Abbey Road'' failed to move the Grammy voters, although they pretty much shaped the course of the music business. Buddy Holly was ignored by the Grammys during his brief, tragically shortened career -- an understandable omission, since his significance to popular music wasn't generally grasped until after his death, and the academy only had a year or so to recognize him.
And, anyway, the Grammys just weren't acknowledging the existence of rock-and-roll at the time.
Generally, NARAS has tried to address that problem. ``Prior to 1981,'' NARAS president Michael Greene told the New York Times, ``I wouldn't say the Grammys were a good reflection of American music. . . . The academy was for many years light in rock, new music, Latin, and the more ethnic-based styles. By their very nature, those groups are anti-organizational, anti-structural; it's pretty logical that they would be the last to come in. But we now represent a pure cross section of the music industry.''
In fact, the trend for the last several years in Grammys has been toward more rock-and-roll, more video chic, and more categories.
Take a sample of 1986 awards, for instance: Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Female Gospel Vocal Solo Performance. Topical Latin Performance. Polka Recording. Music Video Long Form. Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals.
This profusion of categories (71 this year) makes the Grammys more inclusive, as does the obvious effort to cast a net into rock's mainstream. Video rock, which has become the steering current of the art form, has been given an exalted place in the proceedings.
But the question remains: Will future record lovers look back on this year's crop of winners the way we remember Domenico Medugno (Best Record, 1958, ``Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu'') and Vaughn Meader (Best Album, 1962, ``The First Family'')?
Which is to say, hardly at all.