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Powerful & Emotional Tributes on 'GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends'
October 13, 2016  | By David Hinckley

Whatever the reason for a new awards/performance special called GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends, any program that reminds us of our rich popular music history will have some merit and some moments.  

GRAMMY Salute to Music Legends, which airs Friday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), feels like a mashup of conventional Lifetime Achievement Awards presentations and the Kennedy Center Honors, in which notable artists are recognized for their collective body of work.

In this case, the dozen or so honorees are the people who received the 2016 GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Awards back in February. It’s a satisfyingly eclectic group that includes Linda Ronstadt, producer Fred Foster, John Cage, Ruth Brown, Jefferson Airplane, Celia Cruz, Run-DMC, Chris Strachwitz, Herbie Hancock, and Earth, Wind & Fire (below).

As often happens, the most gratifying honorees include those whose enormous contributions have been largely overlooked, or too often forgotten.

The overlooked group includes Strachwitz, a German immigrant who fell in love with American folk music and began recording it for his Arhoolie label more than 45 years ago. He captured early blues singers, odd folksingers, Cajun bands, and all manner of other authentic musicians who rarely got any attention from major labels.

Without his work, thousands of irreplaceable recordings that document crucial areas of American popular music would have gone unmade. He notes in accepting the award that Arhoolie’s material will all go to the Smithsonian.

The sometimes-forgotten group includes Ruth Brown, the great R&B singer who was one of the major reasons Atlantic Records survived in its early years.

Before Patti Austin sings Brown’s biggest hit, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” her sons and her attorney Howell Begle note that Brown was also at the forefront of a long struggle to win fair royalty compensation for early R&B and popular artists.

Since she made dozens of fine records and later carved out a comeback career that included nightclubs and Broadway, the only shame is that she isn’t still here to appreciate the honor.  

While the special salutes “great performances” and is airing as part of PBS’s Great Performances series, few of the artists perform their own material. Most of the performances are tributes, which focuses more of the attention on the acceptances.

The most poignant moment has Ronstadt (right), who battles Parkinson’s disease, making a rare public appearance to accept her award and say brief thanks. She is introduced by J.D. Souther after he performs “Faithless Love,” which he wrote and Ronstadt popularized. Martina McBride then sings Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” another Ronstadt hit.

The Airplane wins the prize for weirdest acceptance moments. The group’s famous female lead, Grace Slick, comes on stage in a black jacket and blue hat sizeable enough that no one could possibly identify who is under it.

Neither she nor fellow original lead singer Marty Balin perform. In fact, Balin doesn’t show up. Two original Airplane members, Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, join more contemporary voices like Cathy Richardson on a couple of Airplane hits.

Part of the Celia Cruz tribute is performed by actor Andy Garcia and the CineSon All Stars.

The best acceptance remarks come from Darryl McDaniels, the “DMC” in Run-DMC. He reminds everyone that it took years for the music business to accept the hip-hop music that today provides its near-universal beat.

He also takes the history part a step further, recounting how Run-DMC may have taken hip-hop to the next popularity level, but that it started much earlier, with artists like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and the Treacherous Three.

DMC and Run (Joseph Simmons, now Rev. Run) devote much of their acceptance to the remembrance of their third member, the late Jason Mizell, known as Jam Master Jay. Mizell’s mother and son, among others, talk about his life.

Run-DMC doesn’t perform anymore, so a medley of their hits is performed by Naughty by Nature.

The whole show is described as a stand-alone expansion of what the Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences, which runs the GRAMMYs, had previously incorporated into GRAMMY Week in February.

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