In a thread over on Facebook, one of my friends was lamenting that alt-rock darlings Mumford and Sons (who I think are awesome) didn’t win the Best New Artist Grammy, and complaining she’d never even heard of the winner, Esperanza Spalding. I commented that while I’d have been happy to see Mumford take the prize, it’s no crime for Spalding to win, because she’s utterly amazing, and encouraged her to check Spalding out before dismissing her.
Someone else in the thread replied, “It’s probably just as well. The Best New Artist Grammy is the Kiss of Death™ for your career.”
Now, that’s received wisdom. Everyone knows its true. Win Best New Artist, and collect your free ticket to Obscurityville. And it struck me to wonder, is it true? I mean, everyone KNOWS that it’s true, but is it, you know, factually true?
So, in one of those flashes of inspiration that always seem like a good idea at the time, I decided to find out.
Below the cut, you will find my exhaustively researched (read: I just spent the last three and a half hours on Wikipedia) report on every winner of the Best New Artist Grammy since the establishment of the award in 1959, with an eye towards determining if, in fact, the myth of career-destroying doom was justified.
1959 – Bobby Darin
Darin is most remembered for “Dream Lover”, as well as perhaps the definitive rendition of Wiell’s “Mack The Knife”. He had successful career as a musician, actor, and producer over the following decade, before dying of heart troubles in 1972. He was eventually inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1961 – Bob Newhart
Newhart, a stand-up comedian from a time when comedy albums would routinely show up on the charts. (Newhart had two #1 albums on the Billboard chart in 1960 and 1961; the first of these spent 14 weeks at the top of the chart.) His eponymously named sitcom, Newhart, ran for eight years from 1982-1990, and in 1993 he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.
1962 – Peter Nero
A classically trained pianist, he made numerous TV appearances throughout the 1960s, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He is widely regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of Gershwin. He is still working today, at the age of 76, most recently appearing on Rod Stewart’s 2003 album “As Time Goes By: the Great American Songbook 2”.
1963 – Robert Goulet
Most famous for musical theatre, Goulet was a huge stage star in the 1960s, appearing in shows like Camelot, Man of La Mancha, and Carousel. In 2005, he starred in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 73.
1964 – The Swingle Singers
A French a capella group, they were nominated for 5 more Grammy awards between 1965-1970, winning three times. The original group disbanded in 1973, whereupon Ward Swingle moved to London and formed a new version of the group, which continues to perform to this day. They are the curators of the London A Cappella Festival.
1965 – The Beatles
Skiffle band from Liverpool. Not sure they ever amounted to anything after this. Seriously, this is quite possibly the most influential band of the rock-and-roll era. I’d need the thesaurus from each of six different languages to come up with enough superlatives. You may or may not like the Beatles, but you cannot deny their influence on nearly every facet of pop music.
1966 – Tom Jones
That’s Sir Tom Jones to you. Welsh-born singer Jones has sold over 100 million records since 1965, and continues to record to this day. He had a top-40 hit in the US as recently as 1988, when he teamed up with Art of Noise to record a cover of Prince’s “Kiss”. He sang the theme song to the James Bond film “Thunderball”
1967 – No Award
The Best New Artist award was not presented at the 9th Grammy awards. I have no citation as to why.
1968 – Bobbie Gentry
One of the first “crossover” country singers to find success on the pop charts, Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” was an enormous hit. While she never did quite match it, she did have nearly a dozen singles appear on the Billboard charts, and made numerous appearances on TV variety shows between 1968 and 1981, after which she married and dropped out of public life.
1969 – José Feliciano
Perhaps best known today for the holiday song “Feliz Navidad”, Feliciano was an enduring star in two languages, being one of the few artists to achieve notable success in both Spanish lanuage music and English-language pop. He had a top-40 song on the US Latin charts as recently as 2004, and he released three albums in 2009. He has won eight Grammy awards in total.
1970 – Crosby Stills & Nash
One of the most successful folk-rock bands of all time, CS&N was considered a supergroup when they formed. The three singers had already had previous success with The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Hollies, respectively, and together, with or without occasional fourth member Neil Young, they had 13 singles hit the US charts, scoring a top-40 hit as recently as 1982. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
1971 – The Carpenters
Richard Carpenter’s lush, multi-layered sound supporting sister Karen’s angelic alto voice, The Carpenters were a pop powerhouse in the 1970s. They were nominated for an astounding 18 Grammys between 1971 and 1978, and they won three, including Best New Artist. During that time, they scored 19 Top 40 hits, including 12 Top-10 and 3 #1s. They had their last top-20 single in 1981. Karen Carpenter died in 1983 at the age of 32.
1972 – Carly Simon
Simon was a huge star throughout the 1970s and 80s, winning three Grammys, along with an Acadamy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Song. She scored 10 Top 40 albums, and in 1994 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. She released a new album, “Never Been Gone”, in 2009.
1973 – America
Three American students living in London, America was one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, scoring 11 top-40 hits, including two #1 singles. Most famous for the cryptic “A Horse With No Name”, the band continues to tour and record to this day, although they haven’t had a hit record since 1982.
1974 – Bette Midler
The Divine Miss M has won four Grammy Awards, four Golden Globes, three Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award. She had a #1 single in 1989 with “Wind Beneath My Wings”, and a #2 hit the following year with “From A Distance”. She continues to tour and appear in movies and television.
1975 – Marvin Hamlisch
American composer Marvin Hamlisch is one of the most decorated men in modern entertainment. He is one of only two men in history to have won awards at the Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars, the Tonys, and the Pulitzer Prize. (The Other was Richard Rodgers of Rogers & Hammerstein fame). Hamlisch also was awarded two Golden Globes. He has composed music for over three dozen films and eight musicals, including the multi-award winning “A Chorus Line”. He is currently the Principle Pops Conductor for several symphony orchestras. In 2007, he was inducted into the Long Island Hall of Fame.
1976 – Natalie Cole
The daughter of jazz legend Nat “King” Cole, Natalie Cole has won nine Grammy awards, most recently in 2009. In 1991, she had a top-20 single with her cover of her father’s hit “Unforgettable”, which she performed as a duet with her late father. Her most recent album, “Still Unforgettable”, was released in 2008.
1977 – The Starland Vocal Band
Here we come to the first group that you can legitimately call a “one hit wonder”. The Starland Vocal Band’s infectious hit “Afternoon Delight”, a delightful tribute to mid-day nookie, was one of the biggest records of 1976, ending up at #1, and that single and the top-20 album that contained it was enough to net them the award. They never had another top-40 single, and the band broke up in 1982.
1978 – Debbie Boone
Pat Boone’s daughter had a huge hit with the ubiquitous “You Light Up My Life” in 1977, and that got her this award. She never again hit the summit of the pop charts, but did quite well for several years as a country singer (with eight top-40 singles) and as a gospel artist. She has said that now that her children are grown, she expects to spend more time recording, and is currently working on a big-band/swing album scheduled to be released in 2011.
1979 – A Taste of Honey
It was the monster disco hit “Boogie Oogie Oogie” that gave Los Angeles-based A Taste of Honey” the Grammy win. The decline of disco swept them into obscurity almost immediately after. Unlike Starland Vocal Band, Taste of Honey actually won out over a relatively strong field which included 80s hit machines The Cars and Toto, British bluesman Chris Rea, and the legendary Elvis Costello.
1980 – Rickie Lee Jones
While she had a very brief moment of chart success, the eclectic Rickie Lee Jones was never really interested in commercial success anyway. For the last 30 years, she’s done everything from rock to R&B to blues to jazz. Her most recent album, “Balm in Gilead”, was released in 2009.
1981 – Christopher Cross
in 1980 and 81, Christopher Cross was everywhere. He won five Grammys in 1981, including Album of the year and Song of the year. He followed it up with the theme to Dudley Moore’s hit movie Arthur, nabbing a Golden Globe and and Oscar for best song. But in 1983, his popularity vanished as suddenly as it had ppeared. I’ve often speculated that his downfall wasn’t the Best New Artist curse, but the meteoric rise of MTV; Cross really did have the archetypal “face for radio”.
1982 – Sheena Easton
Pop sensation Easton had 15 Top-40 hits between 1982-1991, including duets with Kenny Rodgers and Prince. (There’s a couple of names you rarely see in the same sentence.) She is the only artist in the history of the Billboard charts to have a Top 10 hit on each of Billboard’s key charts: Adult Contemporary, Dance, Pop, Country and R&B. Although she continues to perform to this day, she has not released an album since 2000.
1983 – Men at Work
Australian rock band Men At Work were huge, but only for a brief period of time. They had five top-40 hits between 1981 and 1983, but turmoil within the group led to it breaking up in early 1986. They released just three albums.
1984 – Culture Club
Fronted by enigmatically gendered singer Boy George, this British band was an early darling of MTV. They had ten top-40 hits in the US, but George’s drug use derailed them and the band broke up in 1986. They reunited in 1998, and there are plans for another reunion tour in 2011.
1985 – Cyndi Lauper
Another MTV darling, Cyndi Lauper was cute, perky, and weird, and everyone just loved her. After releasing three albums and ten top-40 singles, Lauper tried to focus on an acting career, releasing only two albums of original material (and a Christmas album) in the 1990s. In 2003, she began recording again in earnest, and has been gaining critical acclaim and even some chart success, though she hasn’t had a hit single since her heyday in the 1980s.
1986 – Sade
British R&B band Sade nabbed this Grammy on the strength of two massive hit singles, “Smooth Operator” and “The Sweetest Taboo”. While they never again matched that success on the pop charts, they have continued to be successful on the R&B charts, scoring a top-20 R&B hit in 2000, and a #1 single on the US Jazz chart in 2010 with the title track to their most album, “Soldier of Love”. They have sold over 57 million albums worldwide.
1987 – Bruce Hornsby And The Range
Another benefactor of a couple of massive hit singles, Bruce Hornsby walked off with the Best New Artist Grammy in 1987. He recorded just four albums with the range, and has since pursued a varied solo career, playing over a hundred shows with The Grateful Dead between 1988 and 1995, and more recently a bluegrass album with Ricky Scaggs. Hornsby is another musician who may have had a brief stay on the charts, but has had a very successful career since. (And he’s even had continued success on the Adult Contemporary charts, where he had a #23 hit as recently as 2005.)
1988 – Jody Watley
Jody Watley had been appearing as a dancer on Soul Train since she was 14, and was a member of the R&B trio Shalamar, which had a hit in 1979 with “The Second Time Around”. Citing disagreements with management and frustration and being unable to get her own compositions recorded by the group, Watley left the band and moved to England in 1984. She returned in 1987 to launch a solo career, and immediately scored the #2 smash “Looking For A New Love”, and reeled off five more top-10 singles over the next two years. Since, she has continued to be a huge star on the US Dance charts, scoring seven top-10 dance hits over the last twelve years.
1989 – Tracy Chapman
Chapman had a surprise top-10 hit with her heartbreaking folk-blues song “Fast Car”, off her sextuple-platinum debut album. She scored another big hit in 1995 with another bluesy record, “Gimme One Reason”. Chapman has continued to record, releasing a four albums since 2005.
1990 – No Award (Milli Vanilli)
Perhaps the most famous name in the history fo the Grammy Awards, Milli Vanilli will live forever as the most iconic hoax in pop music history. The band, allegedly comprised of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, had a string of top-5 hits, including “Girl You Know It’s True”, “Blame It On The Rain”, and “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You”. They were hotter than a two-dollar-pistol, and easily snatched the Best New Artist award. It was shortly after winning the award that the band’s big secret was revealed, when a skipping record exposed the fact that they were lip syncing on stage. Morvan and Pilatus were models hired for their looks, and the actual voices on the record belonged to Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and twin sisters Jodie and Linda Rocco. “Fab & Rob” didn’t sing a note. A huge media firestorm ensued, over 26 lawsuits were filed, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences took the unprecedented step of revoking the groups Best New Artist award.
1991 – Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey was nothing less than a sensation in 1990. She became the first recording artist in the history of the Billboard charts to hit the #1 spot with her first five singles. In her two decade recording career, Carey is the third-best-selling female artist of all time, and has scored an astounding 18 #1 hits, the most of any solo artist. She has earned five Grammy awards, one for each octave in her stunning vocal range.
1992 – Marc Cohn
Another singer-songwriter who only made a short splash on the charts, Cohn is best known for his 1991 hit “Walking In Memphis”, which reached #13 on the Billboard chart. Despite the lack of chart success, Cohn has continued to tour and record, most recently releasing an album in 2010. He was recently in the news after being shot in the head by a carjacker in Denver, Colorado, which he miraculously survived.
1993 – Arrested Development
The first rap group to win a Best New Artist Grammy, Arrested Development was one of the most literate and spiritual bands of their day in any genre of pop music. They scored a trio of top-10 hits in 1992, and their debut album, “3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of…” was the top album in the Village Voice’s 1992 Critic’s poll. After a second album was released to mixed critical review and little commercial success, the band broke up, citing creative differences. The group reunited in 2000, and continues to tour and record.
1994 – Toni Braxton
R&B superstar Toni Braxton has never released an album that failed to reach the Top 20 on the charts; only one of them failed to crack the top 10. She has won six Grammy awards and sold over 40 million records. Her most recent album, Pulse, was released in 2010.
1995 – Sheryl Crow
After working as a backup singer for the likes of Michael Jackson, Don Henley, and Stevie Wonder, Crow released her debut solo album, “Tuesday Night Music Club”, to massive acclaim. It featured the hit singles “All I Wanna Do” and “Strong Enough”, and peaked at #3 on the album charts. Like Braxton, Crow has never had a studio album fail to score in the top 10. Her most recent album, “100 Miles From Memphis”, was released in 2010.
1996 – Hootie And The Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1995 album “Cracked Rear View” is currently the 15th best selling record of all time, and the band scored six top-40 hits in the mid-90s. They continued to tour and record until 2008, when the band went on hiatus while lead singer Darius Rucker pursued a solo career as a country artist. They still regularly perform benefit shows for charity, and Rucker says that the band is not split, and they do play to record together again in the future.
1997 – LeAnn Rimes
Country singer LeAnn Rimes was all of fourteen years old when she won her first Grammy for her debut album, “Blue”, which sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Since, she has released 12 studio albums and had 32 singles hit the Billboard Country chart. Her next album, “Ladies and Gentleman”, will be released in 2011. With an estimated net worth of just under $40 million, she is one of the wealthiest female country singers in the US.
1998 – Paula Cole
Singer/songwriter Paula Cole had a top 10 single in 1997 with “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone”, which earned her the Best New Artist Grammy. Shortly thereafter, she took a hiatus from recording to have and raise her daughter, Sky. Since returning to recording in 2006, she has had limited chart success, but she continues to release new material. Her most recent album was released in 2010.
1999 – Lauryn Hill
Former Fugees member Lauryn Hill had a smash hit with her debut solo effort, “The Miseducation of Miss Lauryn Hill”. The album sold over 400,000 copies in its first week of release, and eventually would sell over 18 million copies worldwide. Including Best New Artist, she won five Grammy awards in 1999, the most ever won in a single night by a solo female artist. In 2000, overwhelmed by the fame and highly dissatisfied with the music industry, Hill dropped out of the public eye, refusing to do interviews, watch TV or listen to music. She sporadically performed over the next few years, including a brief reunion with the Fugees, and has allegedly been working on a new album on and off for five years, but to date, her only studio release is the one which won her so much acclaim.
2000 – Christina Aguilera
Former Mousketeer Christinia Aguilera was part of a new wave of teen-pop-dance music that all started right around the millennium. Since her debut, she has charted 11 top-20 singles, and is one of the best selling artists of the last decade, having sold over 46 million albums worldwide. Her most recent album, “Bionic”, was released in 2010.
2001 – Shelby Lynne
Singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne had been quietly releasing albums since 1989, but it was the critical success of her 1999 album “I Am Shelby Lynne” that won her the Grammy. In her acceptance speech, she quipped “Thirteen albums and six years to get here.” Unlike most of the other performers on this list, Lynne has never had anything that really resembles a “hit record”, but she’s highly regarded as one of the best country songwriters around. She’s well worth seeking out.
2002 – Alicia Keys
Keys’s debut album, “Songs in A Minor” was a commericial and critical success, earning five Grammys and selling over 12 million copies. She has released a total of four albums, three of which were #1 on the Billboard charts, and the fourth stalled at #2. She has charted 11 Top-40 singles on her own, and was featured on Jay-Z’s recent #1 hit, “Empire State Of Mind”.
2003 – Norah Jones
Norah Jones, the daughter of Indian music legend Ravi Shankar, won five Grammys in 2003 for her jazz/pop album, “Come Away With Me”. She has had little single success, but her first three albums hit the top of the Billboard chart. (The fourth peaked at #3).
2004 – Evanescence
Evanescence is a rock band from Arkansas which has a sort of moody/goth metal sound. David Brown of Blender magazine described them as “goth Christian nü-metal with a twist of melancholic Enya”, which is about right. The band has scored three top-10 hits, and, despite of some lineup shake-ups, is working on their third album.
2005 – Maroon 5
Los Angeles based Maroon 5 had a top-20 hit in 2002 with “Harder to Breathe”, and hs since scored five more top-20 singles, including a #1 with “Makes Me Wonder” in 2007. Their most recent album was released in 2010.
2006 – John Legend
John Legend had already made a name for himself working with other artists before his 2004 debut album, “Get Lifted” came out. Featuring the R&B hit “Ordinary People”, Legend has relesed two more albums to similar acclaim.
2007 – Carrie Underwood
Famous for being one of the few American Idol winners to actually do well after the show, Underwood has become a country superstar, becoming the first female artist to ever win back to back “Entertainer of the Year” awards from the Academy of Country Music. She has to date charted ten #1 Country singles, and her most recent album, released in 2010, has sold nearly two million copies as of this writing.
2008 – Amy Winehouse
Winehouse is an enormously talented performer, but her biggest talent seems to be making tabloid headlines. Of course, it was her on-again, off-again stints with drug abuse that inspired her 2007 breakout hit, Rehab. The brightness of her future likely depends on her ability to get her life together.
2009 – Adele
English singer/songwriter Adele has released two albums, to date, titled “19” and “21” respectively, corresponding to her age when she recorded them. Both hit #1 on the album chart, and has had 3 top-5 singles to date. She’s well worth discovering.
2010 – The Zac Brown Band
This country band from Atlanta has topped the Billboard Country charts five times.
And there you have it. The list stops being terribly interesting around 2003 or so, not because the winners aren’t interesting, but because it’s really not been enough time to determine what their career arcs will be. But looking over the list as a whole, the flash-in-the-pans are greatly outnumbered by artists who had moderately successful to enormous careers.