It’s time for the Grammys, the music industry’s annual celebration of the artists whose work moves us, motivates us, and provides the soundtrack for our lives! As with the Oscars, half the fun is tracking the mistakes and missteps made by the Recording Academy’s voters, from giving album of the year to Toto IV in 1983 to snubbing Beyoncé for Beck in 2015. But it’s worth noting that sometimes they choose exactly the right performance to honor, whether they’re giving a struggling artist a boost at the beginning of their career, saluting decades of brilliant, vital work, or just taking a precise reading of the political and cultural moment. So before we start complaining about what went wrong in 2017, let’s take a moment to salute the members of the Recording Academy for the best decisions they ever made:
Best Comedy Performance, 1958
The very first Grammy ceremony honored the best performances of 1958, a time before the social and political explosions of the 1960s changed the musical landscape forever. Naturally, most of the other winners that year reflect the preferences of an industry that was still stuck in the past—but there was one notable exception. The first Grammy for Best Comedy Performance went to Ross Bagdasarian Sr., better known by his stage name David Seville, for his timeless classic “The Chipmunk Song.” Ostensibly a Christmas single, “The Chipmunk Song” quickly became an anthem—maybe the anthem—for the generation that was about to turn the nation upside down. It’s hard to think of a more prescient award.
Best Recording for Children, 1958
The “Best Recording for Children” category is widely ignored in the press—but not by the academy, which wisely chose to honor Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (you probably know him better as David Seville) for kids’ favorite “The Chipmunk Song.” The music that inspires us as children stays with us our whole lives, and, as stodgy, establishment adults were about to discover, the new generation had an even lower opinion of authority figures than Alvin. Who knows how many of the great social movements of the 1960s were launched by this record?
Best Engineered Record, Non-Classical, 1958
Technical categories can be difficult for nonengineers to judge, but for 1958 there was no question: The best-engineered record (non-classical) was “The Chipmunk Song.” Ted Keep got the award, but most of the acclaim went to a man named Ross Bagdasarian Sr. Not ringing any bells? What if I told you he went by the stage name of David Seville—and performed with Simon, Alvin, and Theodore? Not many people paid attention to the engineering details of this seminal record—no one’s really sure how Bagdasarian taught chipmunks to sing—but everyone who did started a recording studio. Without Keep’s groundbreaking innovations and painstaking attention to detail, audible in every note of “The Chipmunk Song,” there’d be no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, no The Wall, and certainly no Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind. And it all began with this clarion call from the Recording Academy.
Best Engineering Contribution – Novelty Recording, 1959
Ted Keep’s work as an engineer was so influential that the very next year, conservative members of the Recording Academy made a new category just to keep him from dominating the entire awards ceremony. Even so, they couldn’t help but honor “Alvin’s Harmonica,” Keep’s seminal collaboration that year with Armenian American singer Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (stage name David Seville—yes, that David Seville). Critics who claim the Grammys were out of touch in the 1960s conveniently leave out this award, a signal that some voters in the Recording Academy were eager for the social and political upheaval of the decade to begin. Young activists across the nation picked up the signal—to paraphrase Buffalo Springfield, something was happening here—and, led by Academy voters, the country began the painful process of change that continued throughout the 1960s. It might be an exaggeration to say that this Grammy ended the war in Vietnam and brought down a presidency, but it’s not much of an exaggeration.
It’s easy to point fingers at the bad decisions the academy has made over the years, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that when they got things right, they got them really right, honoring the songs that not only changed the course of music, but the course of history.