The Grammy Awards look a lot different today than they did in their early days. What started as a small black-tie dinner event in 1959 is now the most prestigious awards ceremony in music, a televised red carpet extravaganza that excites music fans and industry insiders alike. As the awards have evolved and the categories have expanded, the Grammys have grown into what many consider the most coveted prize in the music industry.

Here’s a look back at the early days of the biggest night in music and how it has evolved over the last 65 years—plus a look at how you can explore the instruments and memorabilia of many Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated musicians (including several actual gold-plated gramophone awards) at MIM!


Setting the Stage for the Grammys

Despite music’s influence and importance, the Grammys were the last of the big four entertainment awards ceremonies to be established. The first Oscar Awards were handed out in 1929; the first Tony Awards, in 1947; and the first Emmy Awards, in 1949. It would be another decade before a handful of music executives with a vision gave the language of the soul a night of its own.

In the late 1950s, five music industry professionals were tasked with choosing musicians to immortalize with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The group set the bar at 1 million records sold but soon realized that standard would disqualify many influential artists. After all, record sales are not the only metric for success and musical greatness.

Determined to rectify this, the executives established the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences—commonly called the Recording Academy—in 1957. Two years later, they held the first ceremony; they called their awards the Grammys, an abbreviated reference to Emile Berliner’s gramophone.

Ravi Shankar’s 1972 Album of the Year Grammy for The Concert for Bangladesh, on display in MIM’s Artist Gallery.
Loan courtesy of Sukanya Shankar and the Ravi Shankar Foundation


The 1950s: The First Grammys

On May 4, 1959, many of music’s biggest stars gathered inside the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles for a black-tie dinner and awards presentation honoring the best musical releases from the previous year. Comedian and satirist Mort Sahl emceed the first Grammys ceremony; in the audience were the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Gene Autry, Johnny Mercer, Peggy Lee, and Sammy Davis Jr., to name just a few. Unlike today, the event was held on both coasts: at the same time as the ceremony in Los Angeles, academy members were also gathering in the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City.

Frank Sinatra led all nominees with six nominations. However, the crooner wasn’t the night’s biggest winner, even though 1958 was one of his most successful years. (He placed two albums atop the Billboard 200 that year). Domenico Modugno won the inaugural Record of the Year and Song of the Year awards for the popular lounge song “Nel Blu, Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” and Henry Mancini’s The Music from Peter Gunn won Album of the Year. Sinatra would win his first Grammy—but for Best Album Cover (for Only the Lonely), and it was his only win of the night. Sinatra’s Come Dance with Me! would win Album of the Year next year, marking the second of his nine career Grammy wins.

Other notable winners from the debut event included Ella Fitzgerald (Best Vocal Performance, Female; and Best Jazz Performance, Individual), David Seville and the Chipmunks (Best Comedy Performance and Best Recording for Children), the Kingston Trio (Best Country & Western Performance, for “Tom Dooley”), and the Champs (Best Rhythm & Blues Performance, for “Tequila”).

Only 28 categories were presented during the first ceremony—about one-third as many categories as there are today.


The 1960s: The Early Years

The second Grammy Awards took place only six months later, in November 1959. As in the inaugural year, the event was bicoastal, featuring simultaneous dinner ceremonies in Los Angeles and New York. (In fact, the Grammys would be held in multiple locations—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Nashville—almost every year through 1970.) But the second Grammys were the first to be televised: NBC aired a pretaped Grammy special on November 29, 1959.

The Grammys made the first on-air announcement at the other end of the decade. In 1968, the winner for Record of the Year was not announced during the dinner but during the televised Best on Record special, which aired on NBC nearly two months later.

To keep the winner a secret, all five nominees prerecorded acceptance speeches; NBC slotted in the appropriate tape an hour before the show aired. The moment paved the way for a live telecast of the full event—an element that remains an essential part of Grammys today.


The 1970s: The Grammys Go Live

On March 16, 1971, the Grammys aired live on television for the first time. The 90-minute special was broadcast from the Hollywood Palladium and hosted by Andy Williams. The event marked two major changes for the Grammys: the end of the prerecorded Best on Record specials and the end to multiple simultaneous ceremonies. Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was the big winner; Paul Simon took home seven Grammys for his work on the album and its hit title track.

ABC broadcast the 13th and 14th ceremonies but the Grammys moved to CBS—where it remains today—for the 15th ceremony. Throughout the ’70s, the Recording Academy added numerous categories, including awards for Latin and gospel records, as the industry grew and trends were established. Notable Album of the Year winners during the 1970s included Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Fleetwood Mac, and Billy Joel.


The 1980s: From Rock to Rap

The 22nd Grammys in 1980 were the first to have a designated category for rock musicians. Inaugural winners included Donna Summer (Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female), Bob Dylan (Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male), the Eagles (Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group), and Paul McCartney (Best Rock Instrumental Performance).

In 1981, Christopher Cross became the first artist to sweep the Grammys’ four major general field categories. His self-titled debut won Album of the Year, hit single “Sailing” won Song of the Year and Record of the Year, and Cross won the Best New Artist award.

In 1984, Michael Jackson won eight Grammys, setting a record for the most wins in a single year.

The Grammys continued to introduce new categories throughout the decade—awards for the best new age, reggae, polka, and blues records were first handed out the ’80s. As the number of awards categories grew, only the biggest and most popular categories would be shown during the broadcast, with others announced during a smaller ceremony before the televised event.

But those omissions have not always come without controversy. In 1989, the Recording Academy introduced its rap field during the 31st annual Grammy Awards—but it was not among categories included in the live telecast. Many of the top nominees in the rap category were insulted and boycotted the event, including DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, whose “Parents Just Don’t Understand” won Best Rap Performance.

Today, the featured televised categories change with trends and popular demand. The smaller event, known as the Grammy Premiere Ceremony, is streamed online.


The 1990s: Major Moments

Grammy history is packed with notable moments, and one of the most infamous involves pop duo Milli Vanilli, the Best New Artist Award winners in the 32nd annual Grammy Awards in 1990. Critics had long suspected that Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan lip-synched their live performances, but roughly nine months after Milli Vanilli won its Grammy, producer Frank Farian revealed that Pilatus and Morvan did not just lip-synch—they had not sung a note on their chart-topping, Grammy-winning album, Girl You Know It’s True. Following the admission, the Recording Academy revoked Milli Vanilli’s Grammy. The duo never recovered from their tarnished reputation.

But the decade was not overshadowed by the scandal. In 1997, the Recording Academy founded the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences as its first international membership organization, representing Spanish-speaking artists, and held the first Latin Grammy Awards in September 2000. And women reigned at the 1999 Grammy Awards. Every Album of the Year nominee was a woman or was a band fronted by a woman. Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won the award, marking the first time a hip hop artist won the award. Hill also took home that year’s award for Best New Artist.


The Grammys in the 21st Century

For the 42nd annual Grammy Awards in 2000, the ceremony moved to its mostly permanent home in Los Angeles. (The 2003 and 2018 Grammys were held in Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the 2022 ceremony was held in Las Vegas). The big winner of the first Grammys of the new millennium was guitarist Carlos Santana, who took home eight awards, tying Michael Jackson’s record for most awards won in one night.

As the music industry boomed, the Recording Academy expanded the number of awards throughout the 2000s. The 51st annual Grammy Awards in 2009 featured a whopping 110 awards—the most ever. The number of awards categories dropped to 109 for the following two years before dipping back into the double digits in 2012.

The number of awards fluctuates from year to year. At the the 65th Grammys in 2023, there were 91 official awards, including a few in some new categories: Songwriter of the Year, Non-Classical; Best Alternative Music Performance; Best Americana Performance; Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media; and Best Spoken Word Poetry Album.


The Grammys at MIM

Though winning a Grammy Award is a rare feat, you can get an up-close look at the coveted hardware at the Musical Instrument Museum! MIM’s galleries have several Grammy Awards on loan from notable musicians, many of them in our Artist Gallery. See if you can notice the subtle changes in the statuette over the years!

Artist Gallery

  • Ravi Shankar: Album of the Year (The Concert for Bangladesh, 1972)
    Loan courtesy of Sukanya Shankar and the Ravi Shankar Foundation
  • George Benson: Record of the Year (“This Masquerade,” 1976)
    Loan courtesy of George Benson
  • Johnny Cash: Best Male Country Vocal Performance (“Give My Love to Rose,” 2002)
    Loan courtesy of John Carter Cash
  • Roy Orbison: Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male (“Oh, Pretty Woman,” 1990)
    Loan courtesy of Orbison Enterprises
  • Béla Fleck: Best Instrumental Composition (“Life in Eleven,” 2011)
    Loan courtesy of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
  • Tito Puente: Best Latin Recording (Homenaje a Benny Moré, 1978)
    Loan courtesy of Margaret Puente in memory of Tito Puente

United States / Canada Gallery

  • Robert Doyle: Best Native American Music Album (Bless the People—Harmonized Peyote Songs, 2001)
    Loan courtesy of Canyon Records
    On display at the Canyon Records exhibit

Robert Doyle’s Grammy for Best Native American Music Album, on display in the Canyon Records exhibit in MIM’s United States / Canada Gallery.
Loan courtesy of Canyon Records

Many Grammy Award winners and nominees have performed at MIM’s Music Theater, and many more will perform during our Winter/Spring Concert Series, including:

Top banner image:
George Benson’s 1976 Grammy Award, on display in MIM’s Artist Gallery
Loan courtesy of George Benson