Just shy of its 40th anniversary, the 39th Annual GRAMMY Awards proved to be a show for young and old — onstage and off. Fourteen-year-old country music sensation LeAnn Rimes became the youngest GRAMMY winner ever when Sheryl Crow, Steve Winwood and Jakob Dylan presented her with the Best New Artist award. Later in the evening, Clint Black appeared to present an award with Rimes and confessed his own feelings of inadequacy. “When I was 14, I had a paper route,” Black explained with a grin. On the other hand, this was the same night that living folk legend Pete Seeger took home the Best Traditional Folk Album at the age of 77 for Pete.
Marking considerable growth for the GRAMMYs, the 39th awards also achieved another big first — playing New York’s famed Madison Square Garden for the first time, also the first time the show moved from an auditorium to a major arena. In addition to a wide range of professional performances, this big Garden party featured a few notable appearances from non-professional musicians. Ellen DeGeneres — returning as GRAMMY host for the second year in a row — kicked things off with a song that could only be called “This Is Ellen’s GRAMMY Song,” and was backed by an all-star, all-female band that featured Bonnie Raitt, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Shawn Colvin, Chaka Khan and Shelia E. Even earlier in the evening — during the pre-telecast awards — First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton won a GRAMMY for Best Spoken Word Or Non-Musical Album for the audio version of her book It Takes A Village. “I’m amazed,” the future New York senator told the crowd. “I didn’t even know that GRAMMYs were given to tone-deaf singers like me, but I’m very grateful for this.”
Fellow guitar heroes and recent collaborators Eric Clapton and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds teamed up for a stunning version of “Change The World” from the Phenomenon film soundtrack just before Bonnie Raitt and Seal presented Clapton with the GRAMMY Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. In his acceptance speech, Clapton took time out to praise his own favorite record of the year, Curtis Mayfield’s New World Order. The man they call Slowhand would get more chances to speak his mind, as “Change The World” won Record Of The Year as well as Song Of The Year for writers Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Tommy Sims. Edmonds — who produced “Change The World” — was honored as Producer Of The Year.
Pete Seeger — who won his award during the pre-telecast — reappeared during the telecast to introduce Bruce Springsteen who then performed “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” the timely and powerful title track of the album that earned the Boss the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Folk Album. For country music too, this was also a big night in the Big Apple. Vince Gill (a two-time winner for the evening with Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “Worlds Apart” and Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for “High Lonesome Sound”) led a lovely, down-home yet high-tech multiple-stage tribute to bluegrass great Bill Monroe that featured Alison Krauss And Union Station (who shared the Best Country Collaboration GRAMMY with Gill) and Patty Loveless.
The Fugees, meanwhile, won two awards and offered a winning take on Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” with the help of Ziggy Marley, the Wailers and the I-Threes. A tribute to jazz vocal giant Ella Fitzgerald — who died on June 15, 1996 — found jazz giants Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette and Bunny Brunel backing up Natalie Cole for a rendition of “You’ll Have To Swing It (Mr. Paganini).” Before she sang, Cole — the daughter of the late great Nat “King” Cole — recalled meeting Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong as a child. Of Lady Ella, Cole said, “She wasn’t just the greatest jazz singer ever, she was the best singer I ever knew.”
Beck, Toni Braxton and Sheryl Crow were among those picking up multiple awards for the year. And this was also a fabulous GRAMMY night for the Beatles, who won Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for their special “reunion” track “Free As A Bird” from Anthology 1. Director Joe Pytka’s video for “Free As A Bird” also won for Best Music Video, Short Form, while the Anthology itself won the honors for Best Music Video, Long Form. Not bad for a band that won their last GRAMMY not yesterday, but nearly 30 years prior.