Grammy winning artists reflect on what makes a song a hit
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — What makes a song THE song of the eyes of The Recording Academy? In the history of the 59 record of the year winners at the Grammy Awards, sometimes those songs captured the mood or sentiment of a universal emotion, or showcased a singer’s supreme talent. Sometimes the Grammy-winning song benefited from being featured in a hit film, or became a cultural touchstone for a year. And often these songs are just insatiably catchy and fun.
Many of these records of the year become pop music standards, still widely beloved and influential today, from Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Still other songs quickly lose their popularity as trends change or the artists who made them popular grow tired of repeating them.
Just ask Art Garfunkel why “Mrs. Robinson,” the hit song that was the first of two record of the year wins for Simon & Garfunkel, is still a great song today.
“It really swung,” Garfunkel said of the tune, which won in 1969. “It was infectious. It made you get up out of your seat and get on the dance floor. You can’t ignore that the rhythm cooked. That’s why it was a hit. Paul Simon plays great acoustic Martin guitar.”
The song wasn’t fully complete when it appeared in the hit film “The Graduate,” so the film version just has the two singers vocalizing a missing verse with “do-do-do-do-do.” And it’s widely considered the first rock ‘n’ roll song to be named record of the year.
“I give the credit to Mike Nichols,” Garfunkel said of the film’s director, who had the folk rockers help him with the soundtrack. “It was Mike as a film director who was open to rock ‘n’ roll and started looking at what we rockers were doing in our world and how it might sync into the film world.”
For singer Roberta Flack, she benefited from the right timing. Flack, one of only two artists who have won the category two years in a row, had released her song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” years before it won in 1973.
“Clint Eastwood called, wanting to have it as a part of his film, ‘Play Misty for Me,'” said Flack in an email interview. “The record label wanted to have it re-recorded with a faster tempo, but he said he wanted it exactly as it was. With the song as a theme song for his movie, it gained a lot of popularity and then took off.”
Flack won again the next year for the song “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which also became a hit when it was re-imagined as a hip-hop song by the Fugees in 1996.
Country vocal trio Lady Antebellum were just as surprised as anyone else when their name was called on that Grammy stage for record of the year for their hit “Need You Now” in 2011. Going up against artists like Jay-Z and Eminem, they figured they were the underdogs.
“We were shocked,” said singer Charles Kelley. “I think we were just the little engine that could and it sounded like nothing else that had come out that year.”
“We still felt new. We felt like the Nashville band that was out of place at the big party,” said singer Dave Haywood.
Ann Powers, music critic and correspondent for NPR Music, said that Grammy voters, who have to be directly involved with recording to be eligible to vote, love artists like songwriter Carole King who are considered “insiders” within the musical community. But that doesn’t mean voters aren’t swayed by other factors.
“The Grammys are not a popularity contest,” said Powers. “They are not just about numbers, but they are heavily influenced by commercial success.”
Jackson had a record-breaking Grammy sweep in 1984 with eight wins thanks to his ground-breaking album “Thriller,” which remains the best-selling album of all time. It cemented him as a cultural phenomenon who still influences artists today.
“He had incredible, unrivaled commercial success,” Powers said. “He was a great dancer. He was an amazing singer. He had the best producers. And he was innovative in this new art form, the music video.”
Sometimes a win for record of the year is a cultural statement. Take the first country song to win in the category, the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice,” in 2007.
It was a direct rebuke of Nashville’s country music community, which turned its back on the group in the wake of comments lead singer Natalie Maines made about then-President George W. Bush about the second Iraq War.
“Them winning record of the year, winning these major Grammys, was the Los Angeles-based music industry saying country is behind the times and they are regressive and they are not supporting artists that deserve to be supported,” Powers said.
But the popularity of a song after winning a Grammy can sometimes become a burden. Bobby McFerrin’s hit a capella song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” introduced the acclaimed jazz vocalist to a much wider audience and even George H.W. Bush started using it as a presidential campaign theme.
But it also suffered a backlash, and McFerrin told The Associated Press in 2013 that he hasn’t played the song in its entirety since 1988. It won in 1989.
Eric Clapton wrote his Grammy-winning song “Tears in Heaven” after the death of his 4-year-old son in 1991, but the guitar legend told the AP in 2004 that he had decided to stop playing the song.
Even the artists can’t always predict a hit. Garfunkel was initially unsure about their second record of the year win, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” when they were in the studio recording it. He thought the song started too slow, but their label head Clive Davis loved the unconventional style.
“I thought it was a dark horse with an outside chance,” Garfunkel said of the song, which won in 1971.
It has since been covered by dozens of artists, including Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Fiona Apple.
The song just last year topped Billboard’s U.K. singles chart when it was recorded by an all-star cast as a charity for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Garfunkel still loves performing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” during his shows.
“I look at it as a terrific song with a great melody that I want to execute better tonight than I have ever done in my life,” Garfunkel said.
The 60th annual Grammy Awards will be held tonight in New York City and aired on CBS.