Silencing Frank Sinatra: the biggest cringe moment in the history of the Grammys

This Sunday is the latest edition of the year’s biggest music awards. In 1994, the Legend Award was presented to The Voice whose speech was cut off, a mistake whose consequences are still reverberating today

Bono and Frank Sinatra at the 1994 Grammy Awards.
Bono and Frank Sinatra at the 1994 Grammy Awards.KMazur (WireImage)
Guillermo Alonso

The 36th Grammy Awards, held 30 years ago at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and watched by 24 million people in the U.S. alone, was a perfect reflection of its time. Whitney Houston won Record of the Year for The Bodyguard theme tune I Will Always Love You and performed three songs in a row so flawlessly that when she didn’t subsequently do it quite as perfectly, she was criticized for doing it wrong.

Also, that year, Gloria Estefan became the first Latina woman to sing in Spanish at the gala — Linda Rondstadt had already done it but she was not Latina. The band U2 won the award for Best Alternative Album because the term alternative could still be given then to an album that had sold seven million copies. But the gala is remembered above all for being the night Frank Sinatra, aka The Voice, was cut off mid-speech.

Sinatra was the evening’s main guest of honor. At 78, the singer was moving away from the stage, though he had just released two of his best-selling albums, Duets and Duets II, sparking a trend among older artists to remix past hits with the help of younger singers. U2′s Bono, with whom Sinatra sang a version of Under My Skin, was in charge of presenting the Grammy Legend Award, which was established in 1990 and had previously been given to Liza Minnelli, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin.

Cigarette in hand, Bono made what Rolling Stone magazine termed “a worshipful tribute” to Sinatra. He began by saying, “Frank never did like rock and roll and he’s not crazy about guys wearing earrings either.” But went on to describe him as “the boss of bosses… a man heavier than the Empire State, more connected than the Twin Towers, as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty and living proof that God is a Catholic.”

Sinatra came out on cue in a tuxedo, with a red handkerchief in his jacket pocket, visibly moved. Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin and Sting were among those in the audience giving him an enthusiastic welcome. With his voice weak with emotion, Sinatra said that the applause is “the best welcome I ever had” and, referring to the gong in his hands, added, “I can use it when the wind blows, it won’t blow me away anymore.” When the audience applauded again, he quipped, “This is more applause than Dean [Martin] heard in his whole career.” He then went on to make a few Sinatra-style jokes, including, “It’s very dry back there! [referring to the lack of alcohol backstage]. Not one guy said, ‘Would you like a little nip?’” And he told his wife, Barbara, who stood up in the crowd, “I love you. Do you love me? Then I love you twice.”

He did express some light-hearted regret that no one had mentioned him performing and joked that he was hurt; but said that he was happy to be in New York, “the best city in the whole world.” Without more ado, the camera panned to the audience, the 1994 Grammy Awards banner appeared on screen, and the broadcast cut to a commercial. After the break, Frank Sinatra was gone.

Of course, in those days, there was no social media where people might ask what happened or complain. The cut was so abrupt, the snub so devastating that the gala itself responded, becoming both a conversation generator and a conversation in itself. The gala’s host, the now deceased Garry Shandling, said, “Mr Sinatra should have been allowed to finish his speech. It was a slight mistake. This is live television and I’m sure Mr. Sinatra will get back at us by cutting this program another time. So let’s give another round of applause to Mr. Sinatra and move on.”

But moving on proved more difficult than the organizers might have hoped. Following this hasty apology from the organization, Shandling introduced Billy Joel, who was to perform River of Dreams, a Record of the Year nominee. In the original song, the music pauses for about two seconds before repeating the chorus. This pause was repeated in the live performance at the Grammys, but instead of two seconds, Joel made it last 23, an eternity for an awards gala with a millimetric timing scale. During those 23 seconds, Joel looked at his watch and told the audience: “Valuable advertising time going by! Valuable advertising time going by! Dollars, dollars, dollars!” The entire auditorium and the musicians sharing the stage with him broke into applause. They got the joke. The Grammy’s snub to Sinatra was the trending topic of the night inside and outside New York’s Radio City Music Hall before the term ‘trending topic’ was even invented.

Bono recibe a Frank Sinatra en el escenario del Radio City Music Hall en la gala número 36 de los premios Grammy, en 1994, cuando Sinatra recibió un homenaje por su carrera.
Bono recibe a Frank Sinatra en el escenario del Radio City Music Hall en la gala número 36 de los premios Grammy, en 1994, cuando Sinatra recibió un homenaje por su carrera.Ron FREHM (AFP via Getty Images)

The idea that Joel talked to his musicians backstage to change that part of the song and include a protest in a matter of minutes seemed like impossibly quick work. As it turned out, the singer acknowledged in an interview with journalist Marc Allan that same year, that “the thought was there before the thing happened with Frank Sinatra. You know, at the rehearsals the day prior to the Grammys, we were asked to cut down the length of the song for TV time. I mean, they said, you know, ‘We’d like you to get rid of 30 seconds.’ I said, ‘Didn’t you guys just give me like a Grammy nomination for the greatest song in the world ever written this year, and now you’re telling me it’s 30 seconds too long?’ Said okay, now it’s TV. So, anything you do on TV, you have to understand the TV mentality.”

During the Marc Allan interview, Joel, who will release his first rock song since 1994′s River of Dreams this month, also criticizes the Grammys for their choice of artists: “Why don’t the lesser-known, more-deserving musicians get recognized? Why aren’t they given a Grammy? Why? Because the advertisers don’t know their names. They want all those mainstream artists so they can sell their advertising, and that’s what the Grammys are all about. It’s essentially what it is.”

Regarding the protest pause in River of Dreams that night, Joel explained, “Now, they got all nervous about that when I did it at rehearsal. They said, ‘Oh, it’s adding more time to it.’ We already chopped time off the front, chopped time off the ending. So I thought it was very important that I hold on to that little hole in the middle of the song, just that breath, because it’s a statement just to take a breath on TV. And I stretched it out after they did that to Sinatra as kind of a dare. Like, okay, now cut me off in the middle of my Grammy-nominated, song of the year, record of the year, album of the year, top vocal of the year… if they cut the song off, I think they would have been kind of shooting themselves in the foot, because they already did it to Sinatra.”

Billy Joel’s protest worked, somehow: he ended up having 4:14 minutes to sing his song, an eternity in this day and age. But 4:14 minutes was the average length of a pop song in the 1990s. Now, it’s more like 3:15. Joel had more time to sing River of Dreams than Sinatra did to express his appreciation for his Legend Award, which amounted to just four minutes, barely 20 seconds longer than Bono was given to present it! The following day, the Grammys offered up something that seemed more like an excuse than an apology. Mike Greene, then president of the organization, told Associated Press that the cut to commercial was not the decision of the producers, but of a Sinatra assistant. “They realized he was enjoying himself and were afraid he would go on talking for an hour.”

The scales are millimetric, but the artists and their teams are unpredictable. Basically, after 70 years of broadcasting live awards shows — the 1953 Oscars were the first to be televised — no one knows how to make it perfect. Whether it’s the Grammys or the Oscars, the people in charge know that the next day they will be showered with criticism. The good news and the bad news is that it probably doesn’t matter much: according to audience data, awards shows are becoming increasingly less popular. This year, for the first time, the Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG Awards) will be available to watch on Netflix. Perhaps, without advertisers, the award winners will be able to say what they want.

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