The Recording Academy’s Special Merit Award ceremony arrived the Saturday afternoon ahead of the 65th annual Grammy Awards. Members of Nirvana, the Supremes, and Heart, along with “Woodstock” photographer Henry Diltz, Auto-Tune inventor Dr. Andy Hildebrand and more, received honors at the intimate gathering inside Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles.
The Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to artists who “have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording,” according to the Academy.
As the two-hour event rolled into the evening, with tear-shedding speeches and surprise a capella numbers, the theme throughout the ceremony was clear: To honor artists both on and off the stage who have laid the groundwork for generations to follow.
Lifetime Achievement Awards were given to several artists later in the evening. Bobby McFerrin, who now totes 11 Grammy Awards, brought his three children on stage to help him usher in the occasion with an a cappella riff. The theater was flushed with sound as they coaxed the audience to join—for a brief moment, the experimental vocalist and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” originator, had the room clapping and crooning in sync.
Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” was finally honored, more than 80 years after her death. Her defiant spirit and unapologetic bisexuality made Rainey an early feminist icon and figurehead for the LGBTQ community. Frank Nix, her great nephew, accepted the award on her behalf. “I cannot imagine the sacrifices she made for her career and lifestyle,” he said. “She opened the doors for generations to follow.”
Nile Rodgers, who once called himself a “runaway train” during a Rolling Stone interview, took off his sunglasses and wiped his eyes as he accepted his Lifetime Award. Rodgers, who made monumental records with Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, and on and on—and whose tendrils in the industry would be like charting the Milky Way—reflected on his body of work. “I just do what I call chronicling life as I see it,” he said. “I just I write songs that sometimes may sound trite to the average listener, and I’m always touched by those those sort of super intellectual people who can cut through and understand the deepest meaning of every song I’ve ever written, every production I’ve ever touched.”
Bassist Krist Novoselic thanked Courtney Love, when accepting the award for Nirvana, while Dave Grohl, an 18-time Grammy veteran, didn’t speak but shared the stage. “There’s a new generation of Nirvana fans and I’m just very grateful for that,” said Novoselic. “Thank you all, so just keep on rockin’.”
Draped in a purple coat, Slick Rick—one of hip-hop’s original storytellers—was also honored. Rick sampled Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By” and the Supremes’ “Baby Love” while also giving a nod to the Beatles and Jamaican dance hall as early influences to his work. “Destination victory,” he declared before peacing out.
The daughters of Mary Wilson, who died in 2021, and Florence Ballard, who died in 1976, accepted the lifetime achievement for their legendary mothers. Diana Ross, the only surviving member of the Supremes, was not present to receive her award. The Supremes were one of Motown’s colossal and most consistent hitmakers, swooping 12 Number One hits from 1964 to 1969.
“Tonight, I know that she along with Flo are celebrating with us spiritually, sipping on the finest champagne,” said Wilson’s daughter. “Due to their success, there we’re able to change racial perceptions of how the world would view black people and open the doors to those who came after them.” She also praised her mother’s advocacy of the Music Modernization Act, which updated music copyright for the digital age in 2018, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Wearing a full black suit embroidered with flowers, Heart’s Nancy Wilson stepped onto the stage with small curtsey. “Just me tonight,” said Nancy, noting her sister Ann’s absence while accepting the achievement—right after, Merck Mercuriadis, the CEO of Hipgnosis, accepted the award for the lead singer.
“In 1974, I found my calling which pulled me out of my college dorm room to capture this dream I had with my sister, since we were little kids,” she continued. “And the dream was to be the Beatles. Not to be married to them or the girlfriend of one of the Beatles—but to be the Beatles.”
While her sister wasn’t in the theater that evening, Nancy made it a point to make her presence felt. “Thank you, Ann fucking Wilson. You know, what an honor to stand next to this powerhouse force of nature. You know, fucking damn fucking Wilson,” she smiled. “All those big stages, those big, you know, stormy summer stages all those years, and just rock our butts off together. And we pulled each other through all of these lifetimes and universes that we built together.”
“We were two stubborn military brats, who could not have cared less about the gender politics at the time, and we still do not,” added Nancy. “Our style and Nirvana’s style were made to rage against the machine, and use our passion and our creativity as a powerful weapon against the status quo,” said Wilson, giving a shout out to their fellow Seattle comrades. “We followed our muse through the decades. We blazed a few trails and broke a few glass ceilings along the way for both men and women.”
Pamela “Mama” Dawson, the Director of Choral Activities at DeSoto High School in Texas, was among the evening’s first recipients, and was honored with a Music Educator Award. In one of the most memorable speeches, Dawson, who has been the choir teacher at DeSoto since 2007, set the tone for the night, and spoke of the “gift of music.”
“As a music educator, it’s a blessing to not only love music, but to live it, to feel it, to instill it, and to share that changing power that life changing power with everyone who has an ear to hear and a heart to beat,” said Dawson.
Dr. Andy Hildebrand, who created the Auto-Tune software program, was one of two Technical Grammy Award Honorees; the Audio Engineering Society was also recognized for their contribution to the recording industry. Hildebrand acknowledged the often controversial impact his software has had on music, quipping that he didn’t realize his technology “would corrupt music for the rest of my life,” while also optimistically mulling that it has forever changed the “economics of the studios.”
Henry Diltz, the congenial photographer behind over 200 album covers (including the Morrison Hotel cover for the Doors), spoke candidly on his career and even managed to sneak in an anecdote about Ringo Starr booting him off stage. After thanking a string of musicians, Diltz left with two words of advice: “Behave properly and be happy.”
The late Jim Stewart of Stax Records, who died last year, and the great New Orleans jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who died at the age of 85 from covid complications in 2020, were also honored as Trustees.