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Today in 1959: First Grammy Awards handed out

May 4, 2009 |  6:21 pm

Fifty years ago today, the first Grammy Awards were bestowed in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. "Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu" (better known as "Volare") won both song and record of the year for composer Domenico Modugno. Another composer, Henry Mancini, took album of the year and arranging for "The Music From 'Peter Gunn'." Winner of best male vocalist was Perry Como ("Catch a Falling Star") while Ella Fitzgerald claimed the laurels as top female crooner ("The Irving Berlin Songbook").

Ella Fitzgerald also picked up the solo jazz performance prize for "The Duke Elllington Songbook." The first lady of jazz would go on to win another 11 Grammys over the years. Her great pal Count Basie took both dance band and jazz group for "Basie." Married music makers Keely Smith and Louis Prima won best vocal group for "That Old Black Magic" while The Kingston Trio lassoed the country and western award for "Tom Dooley" and The Champs downed the R&B award for "Tequila."

Only the Lonely Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra's music began the night with the most nominations (12), but the only prize Ole Blue Eyes ended up reaping for himself was one he didn't deserve. He won best album cover for "Only the Lonely," which he didn't design. The victory caused uproar and outrage, but Sinatra would return the next year to claim legit, overdue kudos. He'd collect the first of his three album of the year awards for "Come Dance With Me" (the others were "September of My Years," 1965; and "A Man and His Music," 1966).

Among the other winners were Oscar champ "Gigi" which danced off with best soundtrack, Tony winner "The Music Man," which took best cast album, and piano virtuoso Van Cliburn, who won the first of two consecutive classical Grammys.

The biggest winner of the evening in terms of numbers was "The Chipmunk Song" ("Christmas Don't Be Late") with three victories: best comedy performance, best children's recording, and best engineered record (non-classical). This little ditty was written by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. and performed by him under the stage name David Seville as  kid you not  three chipmunks named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. This trio of chipper chompers went on to star in a string of TV shows and movies over the years.

While the adorable Chipmunks are regarded with fondness today (2007 film "Alvin and the Chipmunks" grossed $360 million worldwide), their victories at the first Grammys triggered widespread fury among music critics. The reason: The recording academy was governed by vanguards of the old music industry who refused to recognize rock and roll and, instead, substituted the oh-so-cute tunes of the Chipmunks to represent music by young people.

Reporting on the first Grammy ceremony, Variety wrote, "Over the pomp and circumstance of the festivities hung a cloud. The record academy has sharply snubbed the rock. Not one R&R record was nominated in the 28 categories submitted to members." In subsequent years, as Grammy chiefs continued to conspire to exclude rock, that cloud would burst, resulting in a storm that would engulf two music generations at this awards show year after year.

Photo: Capitol Records

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