Whether it’s Kanye West, Norah Jones or Christopher Cross, major Grammy Awards typically go to the year’s fastest horses in pop music. But slow and steady wins plenty of races, too. In recent years the Recording Academy has rectified some oversights by expanding the scope of its Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Lifetime Achievement Award winners are often significant performers who have managed to slip through the Grammy cracks during their careers. The Beach Boys’ only Grammy recognition to date, for instance, is for Lifetime Achievement.
This year’s class, announced earlier this week, is no exception. Rock stylist David Bowie has won a grand total of one Grammy in his four-decade career, and that was for a video. Country maverick Merle Haggard owns two Grammys, and he shared one of them, for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, with more than a dozen other singers.
The Grammys, established in 1958, began recognizing lifetime achievement seven years later, when the Academy honored Frank Sinatra. For years, the award was presented only sporadically, to such titans of music as Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong.
By the 1990s, however, Grammy was growing more generous with the special award, often honoring multiple Lifetime recipients simultaneously. As with any honor roll or Hall of Fame, the inductees list has grown more eclectic and debatable over time. Perry Como won a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002; the late Janis Joplin won one last year.
Besides Bowie and Haggard, this year’s group includes the award’s first-ever spoken word recipient (the late comedian Richard Pryor), a blues master who died at the age of 27 (Robert Johnson) and a psychedelic-era power trio that lasted little more than two years (Cream). Other honorees include the radical folk group the Weavers and opera singer Jessye Norman.
Non-performers in the recording industry are honored with the Trustees Award, which goes this year to Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, the late country music producer Owen Bradley and engineer Al Schmitt. The work of another engineer, the late Tom Dowd, will be recognized with a Technical Grammy Award.
Lifetime Achievement honorees
David Bowie helped make theatricality a major component of rock with his carefully crafted persona, futuristic costumes and stylistic experimentation. Classic recording: the character-driven song cycle “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust” (1972).
Merle Haggard paved the way for hardcore country renegades who operate outside the Nashville system. Classic recording: “Songs I’ll Always Sing” (1976).
Richard Pryor, who died in December, changed the course of standup comedy with his blunt social and personal commentary. Classic recording: “That Nigger’s Crazy” (1974).
Robert Johnson was belatedly recognized as a blues pioneer when rock musicians began discovering the supernaturally charged recordings he made in 1936 and ’37, not long before his mysterious death. Classic recording: the two-disc boxed set “The Complete Recordings” (1990).
Cream was one of rock’s first “supergroups,” led by the guitar hero and future solo star Eric Clapton. The group, featuring singer-bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, recently reunited for a high-profile series of concerts. Classic recording: “Disraeli Gears” (1967), which featured the mind-altering hits “Strange Brew” and “Sunshine of Your Love.”
The Weavers were the politically active traditional folk group that helped inspire the folk revival of the 1950s and ‘60s; founding member Pete Seeger was a Lifetime Achievement recipient in 1993. Classic recording: “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall” (1957).
Opera and recital singer Jessye Norman, a noted humanitarian who was appointed an honorary U.N. ambassador in 1990, is the youngest person to receive the Kennedy Center Honor.
Trustees Award honoreesChris Blackwell: The Island music executive was instrumental in bringing ska and reggae music to international audiences in the 1960s and ‘70s. His Island Records label established the careers of Bob Marley, Irish rockers U2 and many others.
Owen Bradley: He helped shape the “countrypolitan” sound of Nashville with his meticulous production of such superstars as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
Al Schmitt: The recipient of 15 Grammy awards, Schmitt has worked on more than 150 gold and platinum albums, among them releases by Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall and Steely Dan.
Tom Dowd: A nuclear physicist who took part in the Manhattan Project, later turned his mind to innovations in sound recording. His work with a who’s who of popular musical talent, from Thelonious Monk and Ray Charles to Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd, was captured in the 2003 documentary “Tom Dowd & the Language of Music.”
The 48th annual Grammy Awards will be presented at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on February 8.
James Sullivan lives in Massachusetts and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.