Grammys pay ‘In Memoriam’ tribute to Little Richard, John Prine and Kenny Rogers
It will take years to fully appreciate the volume of loss that culture has experienced across the duration of the pandemic. On Sunday night, the Recording Academy underscored the depths of the creative loss, one that made this ceremony unlike any in the annual ritual’s 63-year history.
“This is going to be the rare award show where the white stuff going up people’s noses is cotton swabs,” said host Trevor Noah in his opening monologue before acknowledging that “this year’s Grammys does look a little different.” That was true for not just the remote performances, but also the most melancholy moment of this and every year’s ceremony.
With an in memoriam segment that extended nearly 15 minutes due to the coronavirus death toll, the ceremony paid tribute to those artists lost to COVID-19; and throughout the night, Noah and others acknowledged the thousands of backstage workers whose livelihoods have been affected by the cessation of touring and business interruptions.
In years past, when the Grammys paused to honor those musicians, producers and industry figures who have died, the show’s producers scheduled the segment late in the event, after most of the performances, giddy reception speeches and requisite Taylor Swift and Beyoncé audience cutaways had hooked viewers.
But the devastation has been so harrowing that despite Noah’s stated intention as he opened the show that “this evening we will celebrate music and hopefully forget all our problems,” it only made sense that the producers devoted extended airtime to the lives of so many musical spirits.
Slotted after Swift had performed a trio of songs and Rachelle Erratchu of West Hollywood’s Troubadour — who was there to represent nightclubs hit hard by the pandemic — had awarded the pop solo performance trophy to Harry Styles, a bunch of primo musicians honored a few of the fallen.
The late Bill Withers sang “Ain’t No Sunshine” as photos of artists lost in 2020 and 2021 — soul singer Betty Wright and bluegrass musician Tony Rice — began scrolling across the screen. When rock ‘n’ roll renegade Little Richard’s image arrived, cameras cut to Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. The two, who had performed earlier under their new moniker Silk Sonic, celebrated one of rock’s founding fathers with gigantic takes on “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
“We love you, Little Richard,” Mars said to close as the sound of piano gave way to an electric guitar and the late Eddie Van Halen shredding. As he soloed, the names of more departed appeared on the screen: singers Mary Wilson, Bonnie Pointer, Mac Davis and Helen Reddy. Jazz pianist McCoy Tyner and country-rock fiddler Charlie Daniels. As piano overtook the guitar, Lionel Richie arrived to honor the late Kenny Rogers. In front of a blue background, Richie sang “Lady,” his song that Rogers made a hit in 1980. “I miss you Kenny. I miss you man,” Richie said as a coda.
As part of the segment, producers also focused on the human toll the pandemic has taken on nightclub workers, roadies, sound mixers — all the backline grunts who allow your favorite acts to do that thing they do while you dance and drink.
Erratchu wasn’t the only music venue employee who grabbed a moment in the spotlight. JT Gray of the Nashville venue Station Inn awarded Miranda Lambert’s “Wildcard” the Grammy for country album. Billy Mitchell of the legendary Harlem theater the Apollo presented the Award for Best Rap Song.
Erratchu, who was present at the Troubadour’s last show before the shutdown, Glass Animals on March 11, 2020, also appeared in a video to help give voice to the workers at independent venues that are at the heart of the touring economy — and which serve as crucial cultural anchors for the communities they serve.
Speaking before the telecast, Erratchu said that producers approached the Troubadour to appear in the ceremony as a show of solidarity. “Hopefully this establishes how difficult this year has been for so many people and how important it is, once we are able to open up, to hit the ground running and get our employees back working.”
Throughout the extended in memoriam, the names kept coming. Not all of them were killed by COVID-19, but how they died didn’t soften the blow: Chick Corea, John “Bucky” Pizzarelli, Ellis Marsalis, Jan Howard, Johnny Nash, Johnny Pacheco, Toots Hibbert, Sophie, Charley Pride, Ennio Morricone, Whodini’s John “Ecstasy” Fletcher, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, Armando Manzanero, Jimmie Rogers, Trini Lopez, MF Doom, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, Mountain’s Leslie West, singer-songwriter Emmit Rhodes and rapper Pop Smoke.
Spencer Davis, Bunny Wailer, Hal Willner, Quinn Coleman, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, country singers Billy Joe Shaver and Joe Diffie, record executive Andre Harrell and so many more.
In remembrance of John Prine, who last year earned the Recording Academy’s annual Lifetime Achievement Award, Grammy-winning country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile performed Prine’s bittersweet farewell song, “I Remember Everything.” Two-time Grammy winner Prine, best known for classic Americana songs including “Angel from Montgomery,” “I Spite of Ourselves” and “Clay Pigeons,” died on April 7 after being infected with the coronavirus. He was 73.
To close the heart-wrenching in memoriam segment, Coldplay’s Chris Martin sat at an upright piano to accompany the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard for a version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard made popular in the 1960s by the late Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers. Marsden died in early 2021.
Combined, the segment offered a glimpse at the volume of music-makers who lost their lives in the past year. A full accounting, sadly, would have required its own prime time telecast, and then some.
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