The 2nd Grammys Graded (Nov. 1959)

Meredith Wilson and Bobby Darin

Welcome to “Grammys Graded,” a series that looks at the nominations and wins in the music industry’s foremost awards ceremony and performs some revisionist history to retroactively pick the winners from the categories and nominees the The Recording Academy selected.

The 2nd Annual Grammys Awards were held a mere six months after the first; the latter acknowledged the best in music from 1958, while the November ceremony took a look, a bit prematurely, at the best releases of 1959. There was no awards show in 1960, but would get on track with a true annual schedule beginning in 1961. I won’t provide too much detail on the origin of this series or what I think about awards shows and such, because I wrote about it at length in the first installment of “Grammys Graded.” But suffice to say, I like the framework and historical context they can bring, so using the template set forth at the 2nd Annual Grammys Awards, I’ll rank and pick my own favorites. I should also point out, however, that I’ve omitted opinions on some of the 34 categories for the second show (ten of them to be exact), since I can’t profess to be too discerning on classical music or engineering. While the official Grammys site provides some decent background, it doesn’t provide any nominees, just the winners, for each category; so I turned to this weird site that I hope is accurate.

The 2nd Grammys Awards were the first to be broadcast on television, although I don’t think the taping is out in circulation anymore. Meredith Wilson, best known as the author of the musical THE MUSIC MAN (1957), hosted the ceremony. Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington tied for biggest winner(s) with three awards each. And as might be expected for all awards shows, and especially the Grammys in 1959, a year on the precipice of monumental shifts in music, some notable classics were left out of the loop. Records like MINGUS AH UM and MOANIN’ IN THE MOONLIGHT were both released in 1959, just to name a couple.

Anyways, I’ll mark with an * the actual winner, bold my pick at the top of the list, and rank in order of my enjoyment from there. I should also mention that for some of the, well, more specific categories, I may have “skimmed” to get an overall feel of the record or artist rather than comprehensively consume. Finally, I’ve denoted records that I couldn’t really track down online with a ~. Now let’s get started!

  • “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” — Elvis Presley
  • “The Three Bells” — The Browns
  • “Mack the Knife” — Bobby Darin*
  • “High Hopes” — Frank Sinatra
  • “Like Young” — Andre Previn

Late ’60s comeback Elvis is my favorite Elvis, but, ya know, he did aight stuff before that too. “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” has a great guitar riff that improves listenability over all the other nominees for Record of the Year, including winner “Mack the Knife.” Ella Fitzgerald’s version is better.

  • BELAFONTE AT CARNEGIE HALL — Harry Belafonte
  • COME DANCE WITH ME — Frank Sinatra*
  • MORE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN — Henry Mancini
  • VICTORY AT SEA VOL. 1 — Robert Russell Bennett
  • RACHMANINOFF PIANO CONCERTO NO. 3 — Van Cliburn

Harry Belafonte’s incredible live double album …AT CARNEGIE HALL is an awesome exploration of folk and blues music through the black experience. The diverse moods and sounds of the record feel super modern while retaining the mysticism and darkness and beauty of Americana, whatever that word means. COME DANCE WITH ME is a fun upbeat Sinatra record, but I’m always more partial to the IN THE WEE SMALL HOURSes (1955) and ONLY THE LONELYs (1958) of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ discography.

  • “I Know” — Carl Stutz, Edith Linderm
  • “The Battle of New Orleans” — Jimmy Driftwood*
  • “High Hopes” — Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen
  • “Like Young” — Paul Francis Webster, Andre Previn
  • “Small World” — Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim

As I finally learned with the first installment of this series, Record of the Year refers to the final, recorded, performed product of a song, while Song of the Year recognizes the pure songwriting of a track. It’s still quite hard for me to make the distinction, but “I Know,” performed by (what I consider a) pretty lukewarm singer Perry Como, has full, lush instrumentation and background vocals. “The Battle of New Orleans” is a humorous honky-tonk country song, most notably performed here by Johnny Horton; it’s goofy, but it’s way catchier than it has any right to be.

  • PORGY AND BESS — Lena Horne
  • “La Strada del Amore” — Caterina Valenta
  • “But Not for Me” — Ella Fitzgerald*
  • “Alright, Okay, You Win” — Peggy Lee
  • “PAT SUZUKI’S BROADWAY ‘59” — Pat Suzuki

The Belafonte-Horne collaboration album PORGY AND BESS essentially alternates between the two performers, excepting two duets, but that’s fine, because it gives both a lot of space to shine. Horne’s sumptuous voice, however, dominates the record, and even beats out Fitzgerald’s on “But Not for Me,” a track from an installment in her incredible “Song Book” series of albums, this one ironically dedicated to George and Ira Gershwin (the 1935 opera PORGY AND BESS was written by George).

  • BELAFONTE AT CARNEGIE HALL — Harry Belafonte
  • “Guess Who” — Jesse Belvin
  • “Come Dance with Me” — Frank Sinatra*
  • “Mack the Knife” — Bobby Darin
  • AN EVENING WITH LERNER AND LOEWE — Robert Merrill~

The Belafonte-Sinatra comparisons have already been made, but suffice to say, Belafonte’s soulfulness on AT CARNEGIE HALL beats out Sinatra’s light “Come Dance with Me.”

  • ANATOMY OF A MURDER — Duke Ellington*
  • BREAKFAST DANCE AND BARBECUE — Count Basie
  • POPS AND PRADO — Perez Prado
  • FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME — Glenn Miller~
  • NEW SOUNDS AT THE ROOSEVELT — Larry Elgart~

Duke Ellington’s masterful score of Otto Preminger’s acclaimed film ANATOMY OF A MURDER perfectly pairs lively jazz seduction with tense legal drama, while also standing on its own as an incredible, complete composition. It deserved its win, although Count Basie’s return to the spotlight in the late ’50s is also warranted.

  • STRINGS AFLAME — Esquivel
  • MORE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN — Henry Mancini
  • TWO SIDES OF WINTERHALTER — Hugo Winterhalter
  • “Like Young” — David Rose & His Orchestra with Andre Previn*
  • JUST FOR KICKS — Bob Thompson & Orchestra

I don’t think I particularly have something against Andre Previn’s “Like Young,” but why it is so highly represented in the nominations for the 2nd Grammys is beyond me. It’s a pleasing easy listening track, sure, but Esquivel’s STRINGS AFLAME record is typical 1950s world/Latin-infused jazz played to entertaining perfection. Great writing music, great loitering music…STRINGS AFLAME just sets a fun atmosphere.

  • “Three Bells” — The Browns
  • THE KINGSTON TRIO AT LARGE — The Kingston Trio
  • THE AMES BROTHERS SING FAMOUS HITS OF FAMOUS QUARTETS — The Ames Brothers
  • “Battle Hymn of the Republic” — Mormon Tabernacle Choir*

I’m sorry, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is boring as hell. Sure, I guess the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is impressive. Kinda weird, though. “Three Bells,” on the other hand, starts with some incredible harmonizing by The Browns and continues into laid back crooning and background “boms.” It’s a perfect nostalgia track.

  • ELLA SWINGS LIGHTLY — Ella Fitzgerald*
  • “Like Young” — Andre Previn
  • RED NORVO IN HI-FI — Red Norvo
  • BEST OF NEW BROADWAY SHOW HITS — Urbie Green~
  • EASY NOW — Ruby Braff~

I love how Fitzgerald ends up on jazz soloist nominations full of instrumentalists. Her voice and scatting ability is nearly unmatched, rivaling the beauty that can be yielded from brass or reed. So, yeah, she takes home the gold with ELLA SWINGS LIGHTLY. “Like Young,” for as much as I badmouthed it earlier, does feature some impressive tickling of the ivories, especially up against the underwhelming Red Norvo record and two AWOL albums.

  • JAZZ PARTY — Duke Ellington
  • CHANCES ARE IT SWINGS — Shorty Rogers
  • MORE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN — Henry Mancini
  • RED NORVO IN HI-FI — Red Norvo
  • I DIG CHICKS — Jonah Jones*

Ah, the years when a musical artist would release multiple phenomenal records within the same calendar year. Ellington’s JAZZ PARTY is varied and exciting and percussion-centric, and features guest spots from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Shorty Baker. Blowers abound on the 21-minute “Toot Suite.” Jonah Jones’ I DIG CHICKS, on the other hand, feels low-energy and underwhelming.

  • SHOSTAKOVITCH: CONCERTO NO. 2 FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA, OP. 101 — Dmitri Shostakovitch
  • ANATOMY OF A MURDER — Duke Ellington*
  • PROKOFIEV: THE OVERTURE RUSSE, OP. 72 — Serge Prokofiev
  • MORE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN — Henry Mancini
  • SAINT LAWRENCE SUITE — Morton Gould

OK, I said I’m not too discerning about classical music, but since this long-winded category crossed genres, I thought I’d weigh in. And Shostakovitch’s Concerto No. 2 is too rich in the sonics department. ANATOMY OF A MURDER comes real close though; Ellington essentially composed classical music in the new style.

  • ANATOMY OF A MURDER — Duke Ellington*
  • MORE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN — Henry Mancini
  • THE MUSIC FROM M SQUAD — Stanley Wilson
  • PETE KELLY’S BLUES — Dick Catchart
  • THE NUN’S STORY — Franz Waxman

Yeah, we’re at ANATOMY OF A MURDER again. Blows everything here out of the water, and although I enjoyed them, I have to wonder why two PETER GUNN (1958–1961) soundtrack albums ended up nominated in such high categories beyond soundtrack albums two years in a row.

  • FOR THE FIRST TIME — Mario Lanza
  • PORGY AND BESS — Andre Previn, Ken Darby*

Andre Previn and Ken Darby’s PORGY AND BESS soundtrack, it should be pointed out, is a totally separate work than the aforementioned Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte record. It accompanies the aforementioned Preminger’s other 1959 film, you guessed it, called PORGY AND BESS. Although being nowhere near as notable, FOR THE FIRST TIME, starring singer Mario Lanza, features his singing talents. Bit more of an engaging listen, if also a bit goofy.

  • ONCE UPON A MATTRESS — Hal Hastings
  • GYPSY — Ethel Merman*
  • A PARTY WITH BETTY COMDEN AND ADOLPH GREEN — Betty Comden, Adolph Green
  • REDHEAD — Gwen Verdon*
  • AGES OF MAN — John Gielgud

The Best Broadway Show Album category inexplicably had a tie in 1959, between Ethel Merman’s GYPSY and Gwen Verdon’s REDHEAD. Both are incredible talents, but ONCE UPON A MATTRESS has Carol Burnett. I don’t know what to tell you.

  • INSIDE SHELLEY BERMAN — Shelley Berman*
  • LOOK FORWARD IN ANGER — Mort Sahl
  • SICK HUMOR — Lenny Bruce
  • STAN FREBERG WITH ORIGINAL CAST — Stan Freberg
  • “Hamlet” — Andy Griffith

INSIDE SHELLEY BERMAN may be 1959’s greatest comedy record period, not just what was nominated for a Grammy. Mort Sahl’s LOOK FORWARD IN ANGER is a bit of a disappointing follow up to THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD, but between the two of ’em, you have some incredibly forward thinking, ground breaking comedy. And yeah, there’s Lenny Bruce too.

  • MONSTER RALLY — Hans Conreid, Alice Pearce
  • A PARTY WITH BETTY COMDEN AND ADOLPH GREEN — Betty Comden, Adolph Green
  • MUSICALLY MAD — Bernie Green
  • THE BATTLE OF KOOKAMONGA — Homer & Jethro*
  • CHARLIE WEAVER SINGS FOR HIS PEOPLE — Cliff Arquette

I love goofy “spooky” stuff, and I love Hans Conreid, so MONSTER RALLY, a weird novelty record that I didn’t find a ton of information on, spoke to my sensibilities. And I don’t love goofy “redneck” stuff, which is why Homer & Jethro have never been a pairing that holds my attention for very long.

  • AGES OF MAN — John Gielgud
  • MARK TWAIN TONIGHT — Hal Holbrook
  • BASIL RATHBONE READS SHERLOCK HOLMES — Basil Rathbone
  • A LINCOLN PORTRAIT — Carl Sandburg*
  • NEW YORK TAXI DRIVER — Tony Schwartz~

The spoken word category can usually get a little boring, and this one did as well, but John Gielgud is too good a Shakespearean actor to totally write off as a modern listener. Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is quite difficult to listen to.

  • “Midnight Flyer” — Nat King Cole*
  • “A Big Hunk o’ Love” — Elvis Presley
  • ROCK WITH SEDAKA — Neil Sedaka
  • “Charlie Brown” — The Coasters
  • “Makin’ Love” — Floyd Robinson

And people were annoyed by a Best Popular Picture category at the Oscars. But no, this category thankfully acknowledges some great “miscellaneous” (yet hit) tracks that don’t necessarily pop up in the other categories. Nat King Cole is obviously one of the best, and “Midnight Flyer” is a husky, smooth track. “A Big Hunk o’ Love” is a good Elvis song before the fall into Hollywood formulas.

  • “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles” — Don Gibson
  • “Home” — Jim Reeves
  • “The Battle of New Orleans” — Johnny Horton*
  • “Set Him Free” — Skeeter Davis
  • “Tennessee Stud” — Eddy Arnold

Don Gibson’s “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles” falls a bit too neatly into the square “country & western” peg, until it enters into harmonious crooning territory. It’s definitely more affecting than the aforementioned and relatively “shallow” or more simple “The Battle of New Orleans.”

  • “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” — Dinah Washington*
  • “Midnight Flyer” — Nat King Cole
  • “Guess Who” — Jesse Belvin
  • “A Big Hunk o’ Love” — Elvis Presley
  • “Charlie Brown” — The Coasters

There’s a bit of an overlap with the Top 40 category here beyond the Dinah Washington track “What a Diff’rence a Day Made,” and so it’s a testament to Washington’s sensuous appeal on the song that she tops this chart against her male competitors, at the very least.

  • BELAFONTE AT CARNEGIE HALL — Harry Belafonte
  • THE KINGSTON TRIO AT LARGE — The Kingston Trio*
  • THE WILDERNESS ROAD — Jimmy Driftwood
  • “Tennessee Stud” — Eddy Arnold
  • THE WILD WILD WEST — Ralph Hunter Choir~

I’ve praised Belafonte up and down, but The Kingston Trio need to be acknowledged for their very modern folk sound, likely foreshadowing and precipitating the popularization of the genre that Bob Dylan and Co. were to conjure soon.

  • COME DANCE WITH ME — Frank Sinatra*
  • STRINGS AFLAME — Esquivel
  • MORE MUSIC FROM PETER GUNN — Henry Mancini
  • “Mack the Knife” — Bobby Darin
  • AN EVENING WITH LERNER AND LOEWE — Johnny Green

Sinatra didn’t arrange his own record (Billy May did), but you get the point. COME THE DANCE WITH ME is a yellow record, by which I mean its music conjures up the color, if it conjures up any at all. It’s bright. It’s light. It’s airy. And it consistently stays so, which is a credit to the arrangement of disparate songs.

  • ANATOMY OF A MURDER — Duke Ellington
  • SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY NO. 5 — Howard Mitchell*
  • PORGY AND BESS — Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte
  • FOR LP FANS ONLY — Elvis Presley
  • THE SOUTH SHALL RISE AGAIN — Phil Harris

The ANATOMY OF A MURDER album cover just transplants the poster artwork by the inimitable Saul Bass, but it also transplants the poster artwork by the inimitable Saul Bass. I didn’t even know Saul Bass did the artwork before I looked it up, but then, I also definitely knew he did the artwork before I looked it up. The painting of Shostakovich on his record, however, is some damn fine artwork too.

  • Bobby Darin*
  • Mavis Rivers
  • Johnny Restivo
  • Mark Murphy
  • Edd Byrnes

Based on their hit singles of the year, this group of new artists has to give way to Bobby Darin’s breakthrough with “Mack the Knife.”

So there you have it, a whole lotta writing about some old music. By my estimation, the Recording Academy and I aligned on only eight of the 24 above categories, and Duke Ellington took home the most wins with four. Well, Duke Ellington projects took home the most wins with four; he pulled ahead of Belafonte’s three wins with the Best Album Cover victory. For a playlist of the Record of the Year nominees, click here.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store